I’ve always loved to read. When I was a child, I’d pair my mother’s library card with mine so I could take home 8 books instead of just the 4 my card got me. I was that kid.
I read about dragons and wizards and castles. I read about magical forests.
Forests always disapointed me the most. Dragons, wizards, and castles were too abstract – I had nothing to compare them to. But I could visit forests, and they all let me down.
Growing up in Oklahoma the forests I visited were mostly small copses of pecan and oak trees. The undergrowth was largely made up of brambles, poison ivy, and unassuming proto-trees. What I called moss was really just lichen.
There wasn’t much magic to my forests. They were plain instead of beautiful and empty of any mystery or menace.
At the end of summer, the leaves would quickly change from green to brown, and would eventually fall, covering grass that had been scorched blonde in the August heat. The vibrant fall colors I read about in books seemed just as make-believe as wizards.
I could forgive dragons not being real, but the descriptions of extravagent, mist-filled forests populated by wise trees felt dishonest instead of just being fiction. It seemed like forests were the least real thing in the books I read.
When I was a little older, my parents took me to the Quatchita Mountains in eastern Oklahoma. The higher elevation was home to trees I hadn’t seen much of before, more pine and cedar. It was closer to the forests I imagined, but still fell short.
I moved to Tennessee in my early twenties and visited forests there. They were more interesting, more diverse. But they felt somehow empty. I never left a forest feeling re-charged or healed, or whatever magic childhood books had promised. I mostly just felt itchy from bug bites.
It wasn’t until I moved to West Virginia that I found the forests I had been looking for. Even the forest in my backyard there was more impressive than any I had visited before. I explored the Monongahelia and the New River Gorge and finally figured out what Tolkein and all the others had been writing about.
This is what “forest” means.
There were ferns and moss and bubbling brooks and all the things I had imagined as a child. The trees couldn’t talk, but they certainly looked wise, and there were so many of them of all shapes and sizes. There were tunnels of rhodedendron and big, gnarled roots pulling up from the ground to create small caverns for badgers and rabbits and bears to make homes.
I knew there was no magic, but it felt magical. These new forests (well, new to me, anyway) were Lothlorien and the Old Forest. They were where Oberon and Titania lived. These were my forests.
Since then, I’ve visited other forests, and have found special things about most of them. The aspens in Colorado have their own magic when they are covered in snow and the forests of Ireland are miniature versions of my West Virginia favorites. I’ve even come to appreciate the modest trees of Oklahoma. They aren’t ents, but at least they’re distant cousins.
I’m going to keep exploring and see what else is out there. Maybe I’ll find an ancient dragon or a friendly cave-troll, maybe something else I didn’t think was real.