First and foremost, they don’t say much, which is, in my mind, a great part of their appeal. Dogs are similar (more on that in a sec). Leaves flutter and shake. In fall sometimes the dry leaves that haven’t fallen yet will clatter in the wind. Branches groan against each other as they shift, a soughing sound as the breeze slips past. Birds sing. Frogs. Occasionally deer crash through the brush. None of these are words spoken, but the woods do communicate with you, if you listen.
I like to pull up short, especially at night, maybe kill my headlight and stand there in darkness, listening.
Today, we label the practice and effect. Forest bathing. Nature therapy. We named it in opposition to the everyday lives we live, which can only be dirtying and traumatic. If the woods were willing to speak, if they are whispering even now, is this what they’re saying?
Since I was a kid I’ve been attracted to abandoned places, the strip of woods behind our house, or a vacant lot, a new road cut but not developed, the loading dock behind the mall. Even in still concrete I hear what the woods are saying, my thoughts echoing off rusting dumpsters. When I was young I could smoke there, or roll joints, or jump my bike off the loading dock. The woods don’t judge.
Sometimes now, when I head for our local trails, I pull into the dirt lot and find the animal control officer, there to enforce leash laws. I guess someone decided we make the rules for the woods, that they belong to people not animals. Seems like hubris to me, insult to injury. My dog hardly barks there, and seldom keeps to the trails. He knows how it all works better than I do, I’m sure.
I hunt for treasure. There is one trail, a rough ribbon off the main branch, that dips into lower ground, collects water and makes the most amazing mushrooms, the chicken of the woods. I’ve asked riding companions to give me five while I circle back to touch its rippled surface. When I’m alone I look for the greenest mosses, sniff at red cedar bark, watch the birds along the edge of the pond. It all tells me I’m not special, not critical to the process. It’s comforting.
During this pandemic lockdown, I’ve taken my boys there some mornings to explain how trees spread their seeds, to show them where to find the birds, to ask them to consider the mycorrhizal network of fungi undergirding and connecting the whole thing. They look at me blankly, mostly, a little curious, a little bored, like I’m speaking a language they haven’t heard before. And maybe they haven’t.
I see a lot more people heading to the woods these days. They think it’s the last safe place to go. You can see they don’t know their way around. They’re uncomfortable. Part of me hopes they can see and hear what I hear. The other (larger, more selfish) part wishes they’d go back home and leave the trees to their business. It’s hypocritical of me.
For their own part, the woods say nothing.