Home is where the forest is

On happiness, trees and the comfort found within a forest community

Afternoon sun on a path in Maine, U.S. Jim Lukach, Flickr
20 March 2019

By Julia A. Ramsey, a student at Hampshire College. Read a related story from her professor here.

As I think of the many natural landscapes in this world and the happiness they have encouraged, I cannot stray far from the memories of simple moments shared between me and the forest. I like to hide, I like to run away, I like to pretend, and the forest allows me to do these things.

When I left the wilderness I thought of as home in the U.S. state of Maine to go to the other side of the world – to New Zealand – I subconsciously sought out the places many people overlook in their travels: the forests. I slept in a van nestled into the roadside on hidden, dead-end paths at the base of the country’s Southern Alps. I worked for farmers in the town of Thames who purposefully bought 87 hectares of overworked land so they could let all but 8 regenerate into native bush. I spent long days alone on a steep hillside in the village of Paengaroa pruning 5-year-old pine trees for about USD 0.68 a tree. This turned out to be a very generous wage by the end of the day, and an amount I felt privileged to receive for observing a new landscape full of interesting species.

Entering the forest in Paengaroa on my first day was much like landing in new city with no knowledge of the public transportation system. There were so many faces around me I did not recognize – plants with unknown value, animals with unknown dangers. However, I did not feel lost, frightened or unsure. I knew from the topography and the spacing of the trees which way to travel. I didn’t feel the anxiety, isolation, or exhaustion that comes with a day surrounded by buildings. I felt comfortable. I was far away from Maine, but very much at home.

I must admit, I wasn’t the most efficient worker. I felt the many miles between me and Maine go to my head as I pushed through brambles and spiderwebs, brushing past tree ferns and the stale scent of some unknown animal. The subtropical forest composition transported me to another planet. And while my eye was supposed to be set on the next young pine, it often drifted to other wonders of the young plantation: goat paths, vines, kiwi burrows, moss.

Over the next month the landscape became just as familiar to me as the forest in which I grew up. Each day I created a different path but recognized more and more species and could name several thanks to local knowledge, identification books and internet forums. I started to observe species in certain areas instead of others and notice differences in soil composition. On rainy days I stood under the pines and watched how the water flowed; I noticed what happened when the rain passed. I began to hypothesize using my observations and ask questions of my friends and coworkers to find the answers to my ideas. Over 27 days spent in that forest, I became invested in the land. I can’t deny the small sadness I felt upon leaving, just as I felt when I left the Maine woods, but the lessons I learned and the relationships I built in those weeks didn’t disappear. They continue to grow and evolve with each moment I spend within any forest, anywhere.

When my time in New Zealand came to a close and I then ventured into choosing a college or university, I toured campuses with spacious dorm rooms and sprawling, roam-able streets of every type: cul-de-sacs, one-ways, dead ends, bike paths. But it was in these campuses with horizons of only concrete that I felt most disconnected, distant and uncertain.

I write this now from Hampshire College, a small liberal arts college in the same corner of the country as Maine. The campus is 34 hectares, plus 32 hectares of farm and 240 hectares of the type of forest native to this region: ex-farmland, second-growth, maturing mixed conifer and broadleaf temperate. I didn’t know exactly what made Hampshire so appealing to me as I listened to my friends talk about their big schools with every activity imaginable. But upon arrival, I realized that a big reason why I’m content here is the forest. I don’t feel like myself – or happy – without it.

Each morning as I walk to class, I deal with what others might consider an obstacle: a small forest, only about 1.5 acres in size, standing between me and where I need to be. One wouldn’t think to find much in such a small area, but each morning I find something new: a segmented pine cone neatly piled by a hungry squirrel, a perfect fairy ring of mushrooms, a medicinal plant I just learned about in class. It brings me joy to know a place well enough to notice even the smallest changes that occur.

I wouldn’t say personal happiness is defined by one thing, but rather is borne of several components that together warrant a person as happy. Mine relies on my physical and mental health, which allow me to pursue the activities I love; on my surroundings, and that they provide room for curiosity and discovery; and on community, including relationships between woodland inhabitants and human friends.

Echinacea has been used throughout history as a medicinal plant. Virginia Ginny Sanderson, Flickr

Forest is essential to all of these.

An adventure in the woods requires physical movement, something I am fortunate to be able to do. It requires me to leave my waterproof, almost airtight dwelling and walk, ski, run or dance my way to the trees. This motion acts like meditation, providing a rhythm and breath to which my whole body corresponds. A day without motion comes with fatigue and fog. It can be hard to remain happy when the body hurts, and the forest, which entices me to move, can be critical in maintaining physical comfort.

A forest provides a welcome escape. Upon observing a group of trees, the initial apparent simplicity of their inner workings slips into a complex web of relationships between organisms, incorporating competition and collaboration both. The more time I spend within a forest ecosystem, the harder I find it to think about anything beyond its bounds. It encourages a focus on the present.

The forest lets my creativity run free. When I was young, two sticks became a bow and arrow; a flexible branch, a trampoline. Now that I’m older, the forest allows space and quiet for my mind to roam and wonder. The trees, in their quiet presence, surface ideas I didn’t know I had; help me solve problems; and invite me to dream, reflect and marvel. The forest forces me to come to terms with my emotions and problems, and often, how small mine really are. It welcomes tears, screams and breath. As I walk, it supports me. As I lay, it cradles me.

And the forest is full of personality – personality of each unique species and of the ecosystem altogether. I find that getting acquainted with this character is one of the most rewarding parts of my life. Some herbalists believe that an important step in using plants for healing an ailment is spending time with the species being used in treatment in their living, growing form, preferably in the wild. This time includes observing, smelling, feeling, talking to and tasting the plant. This commune with the medicine is viewed as immensely valuable in physical and mental healing. It’s a therapy the requires movement, conversation, thought, appreciation and empathy, all in the quiet air of the landscape, filled with the healing volatile organic compounds released by the organisms therein. Plants teach life lessons and give life energy at once.

It’s difficult to perfectly define my happiness as it relates to the forest. But I do know that I seek the forest and return to it frequently, no matter where I am in the world, with a number of feelings each time I enter. When I leave, I am smiling bigger, laughing harder, creating more, growing stronger – and feeling much more at home.


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