A Literary Treat for Tree Huggers

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Trees of all sizes loom large in the world of Linda Underhill, the author of the new book The Way of the Woods: Journeys Through American Forests (Oregon State University). Underhill’s writing is clear, crisp literary journalism, moving with an understated grace as she covers specific types of forests, from rainforests to urban woodlands to the threatened hemlocks of Appalachia. Her writing on old-growth forests displays her deft touch:

Compared to tree plantations or woodlands managed for growing a certain kind of timber, the old-growth forest is an incoherent prayer, devout but disorganized, oblivious to any demands but its own growth and decay. This sacred chaos holds the key to natural processes scientists are eager to study, but there are few places left where people have not already altered their rhythms or otherwise destroyed the evidence of creation at work. The valuable timber in old-growth forests, where trees grow hundreds of feet tall and many feet around, has proved irresistible to those who know the price such wood can bring. But an old-growth forest also offers something less easy to price in the marketplace. It invites us to witness the miracle of creation and change the way we look at our own short lives. The tall trees inspire a reverence equal to any of our own great cathedrals, and they belong only to themselves. Chopping down old-growth trees and hauling them away seems akin to scattering the stones of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and selling them off as souvenirs.

I read the book last week while camping for a few days in the Midwest: first under a giant oak in the Mississippi bottomlands, then beneath the canopy of a maple forest, and finally under a small grove of black walnuts. My copy is a bit dog-eared, having been dripped on by rain-soaked maples and showered with pollen-filled oak catkins. But somehow I suspect the author wouldn’t mind.

Source: The Way of the Woods

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