For outdoor adventurers, the list of places to go is usually long. New discoveries, experiences, and challenges. Mountains to climb, rivers to paddle, sights to see. Or secret spots to come across and relax.
I count myself as one of those adventurers. I love to go new places, but also appreciate coming home. But there is one place, that when I find myself there, feels like home even though I am adventuring. It is an Eastern Hemlock forest.
I connect more with this habitat than any other. Regardless if I seek it out or stumble upon it, I feel a tangible sense of belonging, comfort, and peace. Walking among these trees is a homecoming.
It was the woods of my first outdoor adventures. I fondly recall family visits to Ricketts Glen State Park. It was a short drive from our house in eastern Pennsylvania. We’d picnic then hike along the rushing stream, under the shade of hemlocks, which dominated the forest. I still love to return. Hiking the same trail has not grown old.
In the woods behind our house, we played among oak, ash, and hemlock. The hemlock clung to the edge of the cliff, its wide trunks curving out over the openness then back in and up, up, up toward the sun. Other hemlocks, branches hanging low to the ground, created a dark, shady space that felt both sheltered and foreboding; a secret hideout I hope my nieces and nephews also discover.
Is it because of these early experiences that I feel so drawn to hemlock forests now? Probably. Early childhood forms the foundation of our lives. Experiences we have as children shape our attitudes, beliefs, and values we hold as adults.
But could it be more than that? Lounging under the cool shade of the hemlock trees one day — a summer day when the air conditioning couldn’t keep up with the high temperatures — I slipped into a daydream. Perhaps I was here before. This feeling of homecoming, maybe it is more than just memories. Maybe, in another time, another life, I was part of this forest.
I wondered, could the same molecules that make up my body have belonged to a Black-capped Chickadee who once flitted around the lower branches of hemlocks in search of insects? Or perhaps a goldfinch (how fitting) picking at a hemlock cone for seeds in winter?
What if I am part Brook Trout who swam in the stream, shaded and cooled by the always-green giants? Or the caddisfly, the snail, or the mayfly who was eaten by the trout?
Perhaps I share matter with the Black-throated Green Warbler singing out its buzzy zee zee song, setting up its territory among the trees in spring; one who first built a nest in the hemlock branches and then searched for caterpillars among them for their young.
Or maybe part of me was once part of the hemlock’s cohort in this rocky, moist environment — the Yellow Birch; the one who grows on rocks and old stumps just as well as bare soil.
Dare I dream that I am part of a hemlock, the keystone species of the glorious forest? One that once grew in the shade of its ancestors, perhaps for a human lifetime before a spot opened for it to reach above the others. And then lived for ages longer, adding height and width. Turning water, air, and sun into leaves, wood, and roots. What if?
Eastern Hemlocks of which I write, are a native tree that grow from Nova Scotia to Georgia and as far west as Minnesota. They can be a part of a mixed forest or make up almost a pure stand. The saplings can survive and grow in the understory with as little as 5% of full sunlight. And they may grow to be up to 175 feet tall, 6 feet in diameter and 800 years old. The forest they create is home to 120 vertebrate species and countless other invertebrate species.
Sometimes we need the facts, like the ones above, to understand the natural world. We want to know in our intellect that something is important, has a place and a purpose. This knowledge is science — the quest for truth about our world. Through the lens of practical matters, my daydream may appear ridiculous. But it is based in facts.
Laws of physics state that matter cannot be created or destroyed. In a closed system, the total amount of matter stays the same. Scientists seem to agree, at least for now, that our universe is a closed system. The matter does, however change form. In a forest, the rotting log becomes new tree. New growth on the tree becomes muscle, bone, fur of a deer who eats it. Some of that matter is returned to the soil through waste and eventually death.
This system has evolved so the pieces depend on one at another. It is all connected. It doesn’t take much imagination to think that we humans are connected too. We depend on other pieces of the earthly system. All we use, all we are, comes from the natural world.
But sometimes we come to know with our emotions. We need to sit among giants and dream big things. It is all a balance. We need both ways of understanding the world. We need to know the facts, yes. We also need “scope for the imagination”, as my favorite children’s book character is fond of saying. Can we, occasionally, pause from seeing with our eyes and use our heart?
Katie Finch is a Senior Nature Educator at Audubon.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.