Words by Eunice Brownlee
As the oldest daughter of an arborist, I joke that I practically grew up in the woods. From the time I was very little, my dad would take me on hikes through the woods, often with me up on his shoulders because I was too small to keep up. Sometimes he had me up there because he’d spotted a coyote and wanted to keep me safe.
As a family, we often went camping on weekends and school breaks. I looked forward to our annual summer trip to Colorado. It was my opportunity to spend time among the mountains I was falling in love with. I was always excited to fish alongside my dad, even though I never caught anything––except one Father’s Day, when I caught my first trout and my brother was about five seconds too slow with the net and it got away. My sister caught six that day and had them all cleaned before I paddled our kayak back to camp.
In the fall, woodcutting was a regular tradition. We would spend the weekend in our flannels and boots scouring for dead wood. My dad always explained that the government sold us the permits to help with forest management–bringing the wood home for heat helped prevent forest fires. Our dog would spend the day off chasing deer and I would be convinced he was never coming back. As we would load up the truck to head out, he would come racing out of nowhere and jump right in as if it was no big deal.
When I was twelve, my dad won a reforestation contract. We had to go out into the woods and plant hundreds of seedlings in an area that had just been harvested for timber. He fashioned this pogo-stick like device to bore the two-inch holes we needed to drop the seedlings in. He kept about 30 of those seedlings and planted them in our back yard to build a visual fence and windbreak. It’s fun to see, almost thirty years later, that those trees that were no more than six inches high when we planted them are now twice as tall as I am.
When I was thirteen, my dad was awarded a contract to run a stand exam, which is essentially a census of all the trees in the national forest. Every weekend for months, I went out into the woods with my dad and we walked around acres upon acres counting trees. I learned to bore holes in them to gather their age. I learned how to identify the difference between a spruce and a fir: “you can’t shake hands with a spruce.” I learned all of the Latin names (and the US Forest Service nickname) for every species we counted. Pseudotsuga menzeisii–Douglas Fir–is still my favorite to say.
In that time, we hiked through forest that was overgrown by locust trees, forest that had been ravaged by fire, forest that desperately needed to be thinned out and cleaned up before nature took over, forest that was a few hundred years old, and forest that was just getting started.
I’m not sure just how many acres we covered that summer, but when I think back on the time my dad and I spent in the woods, I think less about the scratches on my limbs from the locusts, or the weight of the backpack, or the taste of the horrible protein bars we brought with us for energy, or how tired I was from hiking around for eight or ten hours. I think about all of the beauty that surrounded us each day.
I remember the little seedlings that were popping up from the forest floor and how it killed me that we always had to cut the smallest one. It never seemed fair that one of them had to be sacrificed in the name of science while all of the others continued to grow. It reminded me of all the children that never make it to see their first or fifth or tenth birthday, and how it doesn’t feel like part of the natural order of things for a parent to lose a child. I was able to see the beauty in the thought that although the little ones had a short life, their time was necessary and their death was important.
It was typically in the charred parts of the forest that these little guys grew. They were born because of the devastation that had ripped through the trees, wiping out their elders in places. Without the fire, they never would have been able to grow. It amazed me that even after such devastation, the forest could regenerate and it would be even stronger than it had been before. The crumbling rot eventually became rich soil that these small seedlings thrived in. Although the forest bore the scars of its past, it was still beautiful in its present.
Among the trees young and old, another seedling was being nurtured. A thirteen-year-old girl was bonding with her dad. It was a bond that would be tested and worn as the years passed. It would be weak and frayed at times and would be stronger than ever at others. For him, not much had changed since I was little. He was still out hiking in the woods with his little girl. The only difference to him was that now I was too big to rest atop his shoulders, something I wished for on days that my legs were particularly tired.
I can’t remember what we talked about during those days in the woods. We didn’t have any profound conversations. There isn’t a moment that sticks in my mind as being relatively life changing. Like the growth of the forest, the shift was gradual over time.
This was the period in my life that my roots began growing in that fertile soil. It was where I really started connecting with the beauty of nature. After that point, whenever something was weighing on me, I would return to the woods to clear my head and think it through. I’m sure it is no coincidence that my dad still does the same.
There is something about sitting among the trees and just watching and listening that is so beautiful and cleansing. It causes you to pause and think about what it took for the forest to grow. The trees that have managed to survive the longest have undoubtedly been through so much. But the trees that had short lives and ended up on the forest floor, only to become kindling later, still served a purpose.
It is the same with us as humans. We often stop to compare ourselves to others, wondering what we are lacking, wondering why someone else is growing stronger or faster or living longer. We don’t stop to look at the beauty that we hold within and recognize our purpose.
We choose to look at the collection of friends that are being thinned out and mourn the loss of the ones that are gone more than we appreciate that the ones that are left will allow us to grow more fully.
We let the devastation of the fires that rip through our lives destroy us. Whether it’s death or divorce or the loss of a career, we lean on that as an excuse for not regenerating. Surviving the blaze only means we have an opportunity for regrowth.
As it turns out, growing up among the trees is what gave me the resilience I have today. This is why I return to them often, to show my gratitude and to be reminded of why our roots are tangled together.
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About the Author:
Eunice is a marketing ninja by day and blogger by night. She is a lifelong bookworm and collects passport stamps. She's a single mother dedicated to raising a daughter that will spread love to all she meets. She is a passionate advocate for mental health and loves to help women raise their self esteem. When not doing any of the above, she's probably singing loudly (and off key) in the car. Learn more here.