Conifer Encounter

While sitting in a boreal forest the other day I remembered this story and decided to publish it again.  I often think of the professor from Springfield College, he may have changed my entire life.

Not all forests are alike. On this day I find myself wandering a dense black spruce forest where sunlight can only be experienced in its filtered form, except where trees have blown down and a shaft of white light seems to burn the ground with brightness. Black spruce loves wet, sometimes very wet, soil, and this area is no exception. Years of wind throws (shallow rooted trees toppled by wind) make traveling difficult. I climb over tree trunks as often as I walk around them. The woods are dark, but I find this quieting. At last I find a comfortable seat comprised of a wind thrown tree trunk covered with red sphagnum moss. The contrast of the red peat moss underneath the dark green canopy of the black spruce forest is visually stunning.

As I sit on this perched piece of paradise, I remember the forest gradually changing as I walked down slope to this boreal beauty. The hardwoods, comprised primarily of yellow birch and cherry, began mixing with hemlock, white pine, and red spruce part way down the slope. At the toe of the slope there were dense thickets of balsam fir that could be detected by their delectable odor at some distance. The firs were rich with wildlife sign, mostly in the form of trails and scat. Apparently this was a favorite haunt of snow- shoe hare, coyotes, and owls.

The black spruce forest followed a broad swath of wooded swamp that followed a shallow gradient stream channel. Occasionally this stream channel widened suddenly into a one half to one acre beaver meadow, where, for the most part, the beavers had abandoned their habitat, no doubt in search for greater food supplies. The wet meadows, mostly drained on the upgradient side of the failed beaver dams, were lush with sedges, wetland grasses, and other interesting forbs such as joe-pye weed, asters, and wetland goldenrods. The meadows were dotted with gray, dead skeletons of trees, drowned from the past beaver flooding. Signs of moose browsing could be seen along the edge of the old beaver meadow in the form of bark torn from moosewood shrubs at an elevation of six feet off the ground.

As I sat on my perch I could remember the first time I walked through a wetland conifer forest like this one. It seemed so remote even though there was a road not far off. The dense forest created its own environment free of human noise and a surprise covey for wildlife and the occasional human observer. I was about nine years old, alone, and the world was full of surprises. There were issues I was trying to escape from, and this seemed just the place to hide. It was a hot summer’s day, and the wet, cool peat moss was soothing to the touch. Lost in my own thoughts for quite a while, I was surprised to spot an older gent through the woods. He was wearing khaki clothes from head to foot and the first pair of Bean boots I had ever seen. He was walking along with an old metal pail in his hand. I could see that he had spotted me as he stopped and stared in my direction through a row of spruce trees. At first I wanted to quietly retreat into the dark spruce forest, and then somehow I felt comfortable enough to raise my hand in a wave of hello. He waved back, and headed straight in my direction. He was a very pleasant chap, perhaps 70 years old, although this is difficult to say as I was a terrible judge of age at this early part of my life. After making sure I was OK, he sat down beside me and started chatting as if he had known me for years. He explained he was going to a part of the wetland where the tree canopy was thin, and where the blueberry bushes were 10 feet tall. He asked me to join him, and finding him a fellow of such good nature I figured, what the heck, I might as well.

We seemed to walk only a few steps at a time. Our frequent stops were marked with observations of the natural world. He was the first to explain to me that conifers were shaped like an arrow to shed snow, and their needles had a waxy coating that also helped to repel their white winter blanket. He also explained that the conifers had a distinct advantage in the springtime because their dark green color stored heat that helped them to start the photosynthesis process immediately after the long winter’s sleep, a great advantage over the deciduous trees that had to bud out and grow leaves over a 6 to 8 week period before they could begin changing sunlight to carbohydrates and sugars. He took time along the way to cut a spruce needle in cross section with his pen knife and through a hand lense that hung from his neck he showed me that it had four sides, and the fir trees, although similar in appearance, had a flat, two-sided needle in cross section. When we encountered a pine, he explained that this conifer always had needles in clusters with two to five needles. He showed me a tamarack with its soft needles raised on a bark like bud and invited me to return in the winter to see that this conifer was actually deciduous, loosing all of its needles in the late autumn. He picked up a hand of peat moss, squeezing out the water in his fist. I was amazed at how much water dripped from his hand. He explained that this plant was the lifeblood of wooded swamps, capable of holding moisture for months during drought periods. I remember being in awe of his knowledge, his presence, and the fact that he had somehow, mysteriously, found me in the woods.

When we reached the opening in the woods were the blueberries were abundant, he took a pocket watch from his pocket. With no regret, he declared that we had taken more time than expected to get to the blueberry swamp, and that it would be dark soon and therefore we should return to the road. No need to worry about the blueberries, he declared, they would still be there next weekend.

On the way back I asked him, and this was one of the few times I had spoken, how he knew so much about the woods. He answered that he was a biology professor at Springfield College, but had grown up in the pine barrens in New Jersey. He surmised that most of his knowledge he had learned as a boy wandering those Mid-Atlantic swamps, coupled with reading a lot of books about nature. And then he laughed out loud, almost in a boisterous way. “And once I met an old man in the woods,” he declared, and he laughed again, this time even more loudly.

When we got back to the road, my troubles were left far behind, deep in the woods. He shook, my hand, and said with luck we would meet again. He drove his old Volvo down the dusty road, and as it disappeared around the corner I felt as if I would never see him again.  Although I returned to this place many times, as fate would have it, I would never encounter him again.

And here it is, forty five years later, and this place where I sat helped me to remember such a wonderful episode, such a wonderful time, a time that would prove to be a once in a lifetime, a rich slice of life, a true breath of fresh air, and, perhaps, the beginning of the person I was to become.

Originally written for the Heath Herald in 2006.

  • Emily

    “I remember being in awe of his knowledge, his presence, and the fact that he had somehow, mysteriously, found me in the woods.”
    You found me in the blogosphere, but otherwise my sentiment is the same towards you. :) Great story, Bill. Such knowledge! Thanks for sharing yours.

  • Wild_Bill

    I am humbled by your wonderful compliment.  Thank you so much! 

  • Montucky

    This is a marvelous story Bill, and very well told. While reading it the thought occurred to me that that forest may have been the professors’ best possible classroom and you may well have been his best student.

  • Wild_Bill

    Nature is the best possible classroom.  I use it as my foundation for teaching my graduate students.  Teaching ecology in a classroom, for the most part, seems rather strange.  Although I may not have been his best student I was perhaps his youngest.

  • Wendysarno

    Delightful and mysterious encounter, Bill. As tho the forest brought you an Angel to invite you more deeply into its story. This story you have walked and told every since. Thanks for sharing this again.

  • Wild_Bill

    Yes, somehow the cosmos had a way of creating intersections that are beyond lucky.  That I have been so fortunate is something I will always treasure.  And that I was given the ability to pass on my knowledge, adventures, and love for the natural world is also something that I will always appreciate.  Thanks for reminding me of this.  Your perspective has made my day!

  • Teresaevangeline

    I love how the Universe brings us exactly what we need, when we need it and are ripe for its lessons, and this is a perfect example. Beautiful, Bill.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you Teresa.  Yes, the Universe does seem to work that way but never when we expect it too.  Still, when it happens we need to be ready to take whatever presents itself to the next step.

  • sandy

    Do you think that you would have found your way to where you are, eventually, without that chance meeting? The forest seems to have already had a hold on you, but I like to think that the old professor blueberrying that day for a specific  reason.

  • Wild_Bill

    Yep, I would’ve found the path I took one way or another but certainly this was a real eye opener.  I was young and impressionable and in need of something positive.  I held on to the new found knowledge like a crab holds onto a meal.  But fate did help me along, no doubt.

  • Jo

    I agree with Theresa about the universe supplying us when we need it…seen it happen too many times not to. What a great read this was. I felt part of it all. Loved it.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Jo.  You are correct there is some sort of connection that we all have to this world and beyond.  It doesn’t happen all the time, or even often, but when it does it is very powerful.

  • Al

    Nice story. I love evergreen forests, and it’s fascinating the people you meet in the ones around here, sometimes resulting in long and interesting conversations.

  • Wild_Bill

    The Rocky Mountains have some really unique conifer forests.  They are much different than many in the north because they are relatively dry.  What a beautiful place you live in!

  • Wandering Thought

    What a wonderful story, Bill, and that old man with his wide knowledge of the area was amazing! Your photos, too, are fantastic, and beautiful!

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you.  I was fortunate to have randomly encountered this old gent, or as several point out in the comments, perhaps it wasn’t random at all.

  • Jack Matthews

    Bill, this is a marvelous story, just downright sublime.  You were fortunate.  No wonder you became an ecologist for you met a god among the conifers that day.

  • Wild_Bill

    Yep, in many, many ways I’m a lucky guy.  It’s good to hear from others at how fortunate I have been, kind of gives me a new perspective.  Thank you!

  • Barbara

    I join the rest who state this is a marvelous story Bill – and also those who agree that the Universe does seem to present us with amazing opportunities to follow the paths we are meant to follow, if we but pay attention. The photos too are terrific – the top two remind me so much of the rocky shores of Muskoka and Georgian Bay – obviously the same kind of topography shared across this beautiful wild section of North America… And I finally got on the internet long enough to read your other recent pieces – Blessed, and The Advantage of experience. How I laughed over your adventures with the binoculars and those bloodhounds of yours – what a glorious pair they are – and agreed with you that we are truly blessed in everything that we have been given on this planet… and how we must continually work to guard and protect those blessings.

    Thank you for three wonderful reads on this snowy Sunday morning Bill. You are indeed a fortunate man to have found and followed your true calling, and your companions on your life journey. And I am fortunate as many of your other readers feel, to have found you and your stories… a gift beyond measure.

  • Wild_Bill

    Your comments truly warmed my soul on this cold morning.  I am lucky to have met all of you on the blogosphere for sure, and am blessed that my life is so rich.  Yes, my hounds are two great partners to pal around the woods with.  My biggest blessing in life is finding my soul mate and wife, Maureen, without none of this would have been possible!

  • craftygreenpoet

    What a lovely story, such a great meeting!

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you.  Yes it was a fortunate meeting, wasn’t it! 

  • Ratty

    I’ve met a few people like this man in the woods and on the internet. I still consider myself not much more than a beginner, and I’ve learned a lot from this post alone.

  • Nature Drunk

    Love this story, Bill. And your photo looking down the lakeshore is beautiful; so peaceful. I can almost smell the water and taste the crisp, fresh air. 

  • Wild_Bill

    Although you may think you are a novice I think you are well past that.  Your observation skills are very advanced, and your ability to share every thing you learn is amazing.

  • Wild_Bill

    The lake shore picture was taken in the Hudson Bay area of Quebec.  The nearest town is hundreds of miles away.  That’s why you can smell the clear, crisp air and water! 

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  • Cirrelda

    Great to hear your forest “savvy.” Your descriptions are superb, showing all the changes as if reader was at your side. Glad to learn the term “wind throw” here from you – top of the Sandias is a place where you step like you describe (and I mention that mountane since I now know you know them).

    I hear the laugh of the khaki-clad man and I so understand that – being in that same stage of my life it seems. That transfer between you moved me!

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