Seeing the forest and the trees
A few years ago I was given a book about landmark trees in an area full of small towns separated by farms, vineyards and small wooded areas. Locals were interviewed about the most beloved old trees in their towns. It was a testament to the human connection to nature and I devoured it.
When I saw Candice Gaukel Andrews' "Beyond the Trees: Stories of Wisconsin Forests" – published in paperback by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press ($26.95) – I was intrigued and quickly enthralled.
Sure, the 320-page book is about forests and trees, but while the history of the forests and the discussions of trees and other facets of nature are the heart of the book, the author's own discoveries, experiences and encounters with other people as she visits the parks are its soul.
Andrews, a Wisconsin native, is a former Paramount Pictures screenwriter, who left Hollywood to return to America's Dairyland. Her previous books include "Travel Wild Wisconsin" and "Great Wisconsin Winter Weekends."
With summer on tap, readers can also use the book to lead a self-guided tour of Wisconsin forest. Do a staycation at Havenwoods or Kettle Moraine or make a week of it and head up to Wisconsin's pinky and ring fingers to check out Brule River and Governor Knowles State Forests and Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forests Northern Region.
Before you go, check out our cyberchat with Candice Gaukel Andrews about "Beyond the Trees" and Wisconsin's forests.
OnMilwaukee.com: You noted that when you first thought of the book you thought "one bunch of trees looks like another." That didn't turn out to be true, did it? What did you learn writing this book?
Candice Gaukel Andrews: If you drive through a forest, or look at one from the road, it's true that one looks pretty much like another one; they all start to look like similar stands of trees. But when you get inside them — when you start to walk their trails, touch their plants, catch glimpses of their animals, float their rivers, come across evidence of their history (such as old, stone foundations hidden in the underbrush), and talk to the people who live or work in them every day — it's astounding how quickly they begin to reveal their different personalities.
OMC: Are there any "original" forests left in Wisconsin, where one can see what the landscape looked like when Native Americans were the only people here?
CGA: That's a tricky question. I've asked foresters to tell me where the virgin forests are. No one has a complete list because they tend to be very small stands of trees — or even one tree — that somehow escaped the loggers' saws and are often hidden away in a remote part of a forest. I can tell you, though, that the Big Block in the Flambeau River State Forest still has some sections of "original" forests.
OMC: How can you spot them?
CGA: It would be hard. As you learn from Chapter 11 – Nicolet Land Base of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest – a large tree is not necessarily older than a smaller tree growing nearby. Tree growth varies with genetics and environmental conditions. A good place to start locating them, though, would be to look into exploring the State Natural Areas.
OMC: Were you surprised to find a state forest right in the heart of Milwaukee? Do you think people realize it's there?
CGA: Yes, Havenwoods State Forest was a surprise. And even calling Havenwoods a "forest" was a surprise, as it's really more "prairie" than "forest." This goes back to personalities; this forest is definitely about prairies – just as Point Beach State Forest has a decidedly "beachy" personality. I think being in the midst of a large city, Havenwoods probably has a lot of public recognition and awareness. I think what might not be so commonly known is that it was preserved under the state forest laws. I think most visitors probably see it more as an "environmental center" and don't attach the idea of a "forest" to it.
OMC: Do you have a favorite among the many forests in the book?
CGA: That's a tough one! It's like asking a mother which of her children is her "favorite." One day, I may give you one answer; but ask me the next day, and I may be most fond of another. Because they truly do have such distinctive personalities, it's hard to compare them on an even playing field.
OMC: Has our view of forests changed over the centuries? It seems that in the past, scary stories were always set in the dark forest, where evil seemed to lurk everywhere. But now we think of them more as peaceful respites from the hustle and bustle of city life. What changed?
CGA: I address that in the book ("Fear and Longing in the Woods" in Chapter 11). When people were first trying to grow crops on the land, forests were something to be cut back, eradicated and tamed. They were "evil," so to speak, something to control. But now that we're no longer fighting them every day, we miss them. We truly are people of the trees; they're in our blood. And that's the great paradox of our forests, as mentioned in that sidebar.
OMC: What are the biggest threats facing Wisconsin's forests these days?
CGA: Without a doubt, climate change and global warming.
OMC: What can we do about those threats?
CGA: Do what you can to reduce your own carbon footprint. Support legislation that will reduce the effects of climate change on our planet — and particularly on our forests.
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