Ina book destined to become a classic, biologist and acclaimed nature writer Bernd Heinrich takes readers on an eye-opening journey through the hidden life of a forest.
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October 01, 1998
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Excerpt from The Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich
A Forest Ramble
I have lately been surveying the Walden woods so extensively and minutety that I now see it mapped in my mind's eye--as indeed, on paper-as so many men's wood-lots . . . I fear this particular dry knowledge may affect my imagination and fancy, that it will not be easy to see so much wildness and native vigor there as formerly. No thicket will seem unexplored now that I know that a stake and stones may be found in it.
-- Henry David Thoreau
I'm not much of a hiker of paths, either in a park or elsewhere. Being encumbered like a beast of burden by carrying a pack of goods and tools, and being confined along a trail that leads to some predetermined destination, makes me dig in my heels. I like exploring. I like not knowing when and where I'll end up. That way I get easily diverted and find the new, the unexpected. To learn to know something is less to gaze upon it from known paths and vistas than to walk around it and see it obliquely.
I ramble in my home woods at different times and circumstances. I've struck out in the middle of a blizzard. Once in July I waited until midnight to head out. I've wandered out on spring dawns just when the warblers were returning, on sweltering summer afternoons when the blackflies were biting, in thunderstorms and also under blue sunny skies in Indian summer when the woods were a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors. In my memory, I savor the images that were collected on these rambles and that bind me to this place. Some might consider these images trifles. But I am hard-pressed to come up with greater riches than those memories.
I remember when a blizzard was howling through the great maple trees. A pileated woodpecker, deep black and with its white wing bars flashing, sliced with muscular wingbeats through the forest of thick maples and ash. The back of its head sported a crimson crest. The bird landed abruptly on the trunk of a maple, eyeing me warily. Then it slipped into a cavity in the tree to seek shelter from the driving snow. I remember finding the nests of warblers artfully built and hidden, those of each species in their own special places. I found the nest-cup of a grouse at the foot of a beech. The image of a flock of red crossbills under silent gray skies with great flakes falling on already snow-laden balsam fir trees is imprinted in my mind. I remember a late-summer night under the thick-leaved maples in our woods. The trees let through only points of starlight. It was still. I heard only the faint patter of caterpillar fecal pellets dropping on leaves, and the occasional faint "tseet" of a sleeping bird hidden in the deep layer of leaves. There are moments, other trifles: the crash of a deer through the swale grass; the flushing of a hermit thrush from her nest leaving four startlingly blue eggs at my feet; the black shape of a fisher cat (a weasel relative) disappearing into the brush abandoning a just-killed porcupine with blood on its throat. I do not remember the specifics of innumerable other walks. These walks were perhaps overall very important. They generated the backdrop of familiarity and knowledge that was necessary to make the treasures stand out and to give them substance.