Posted: November 23, 2020

As we close out 2020, we all have many personal and shared opinions and memories of this very different year. We hear much about how people are longing for companionship and family. Scanning your local paper or listening to the evening news, we read and hear much about the need for human contact and closeness.

At the same time, news resources encourage us to venture outdoors. We hear repeatedly that outside venues reduce the risk of virus transfer and allow for physical distancing. While some people yearn for companionship, it seems contradictory to see outdoor spaces that are quiet spaces away from distractions, noise, and others. Depending on where you are and where you can get to, outside can present unique opportunities for reflection, contemplation, and internal focusing that is calming and relaxing. Studies repeatedly show that trees and forests – the sylvan environment – improve individual health and healing. For those who enjoy wooded landscapes, you already know this; for others, consider seeking solace in Pennsylvania's woodlands and forests. 

Fortunately, Pennsylvania remains well-wooded, with trees and forests covering 58% (16.8 million acres) of its landscape, which represents the state's dominant land use. Private forests dominate, accounting for 69% (about 11.5 million acres), held by nearly 750,000 individual ownerships and corporations, ranging in size from an acre in size to thousands of acres. Among Northeastern states, Pennsylvania has one of the largest areas of public forests covering nearly 5 million acres (27%). Largest among these public forest owners is the state Bureau of Forestry (2.4 million acres), Game Commission (1.5 million acres), Bureau of State Parks (300,000 acres), and the Federal Government (640,000 acres). No matter where you live in Pennsylvania, you likely live close to wooded land, either public or private. Of course, our public land is generally open for your use; however, it is best to ask permission to use private forests, and in all cases it is important to practice “leave no trace" stewardship – if you carry it in, carry it out. 

Pennsylvanians have taken to the woods unlike other years. Record numbers are enjoying time outdoors. At least that was the case this summer and fall. As we move toward the colder months, will it change? For sure. Sojourning to woodlands when it is warm and sunny, is different than visiting in the cold. What do you do? Turn off your phone. Unplug your ears. Open yourself to what is around you. Listen for sounds. Look for things that move and don't move. Participate in the quiet. 

Many of us are not comfortable with silence. Speaking for myself, woods and forests draw out my personal need for quiet. Speaking with a hushed voice, walking quietly, not stirring the leaves or breaking sticks. Trying to hear what is quiet around me is a joy that comes easily in the forest. Holmes Rolston, a distinguished professor of philosopher at Colorado State University, wrote in his essay “Aesthetic Experience in Forests" (1998) about how we experience forests and offers that we do not have to understand a forest to experience it, what we find in the forest informs our aesthetic, which can become the sublime – the excellence, grandeur, or beauty to inspire admiration or awe.  

In the quiet, take the time and the opportunity to look for those things that are still, as well those things that move. Take the time to look for the larger aesthetic, but also the smaller. The grand views, the tall trees, the silent moss, and the noisy squirrel – they all add to the experience. Choose to sit in a place and watch. David Haskell in his book The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature (2016) invested an entire year chronicling what happened on a square meter of a forest. 

Find a place to sit, observe, and listen. Hear the moan of trees as wind moves through the canopy. Watch how nuthatches or chickadees explore tree bark. Enjoy how a gust of wind raises leaves from the forest floor to swirl them back into air to slowly float back to the ground. If you are lucky enough to venture forth in the snow, it is a special treat. Listen for the marcescent (dead leaves that hang on through the winter) beech and white oak as they resonate with wind-driven snow or rattle in the wind. 

Much is to be seen and learned about a particular woods, but it depends on opening your senses to what is around you. In my case, being quiet is most important. For me, I enjoy woods best when I move through them peacefully. In respect, people are quiet in churches, museums, libraries, and other special places. A forest is all of these things, if we give them a chance. They inspire us to be our best, they hold the history of the land, they tell many told and untold stories, and they provide the opportunity to show how we care for what those before us gave to us and what we will pass forward to those to come.

Wendell Berry, an honored writer from Kentucky in The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky's Red River Gorge (1971) wrote, “I would be among the last, I hope, to discourage anybody from going to the woods. In the name of sanity, let us all go, the oftener the better." 

The Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program provides publications on a variety of topics related to woodland management. For a list of publications, call 800 235 9473 (toll free), send an email to PrivateForests@psu.edu, or write to Forest Stewardship Program, The Pennsylvania State University, 416 Forest Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802. The Pennsylvania DCNR Bureau of Forestry, USDA Forest Service, Penn State Extension, and the Center for Private Forests at Penn State, in Partnership through Penn State's Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, sponsor the Forest Stewardship Program in Pennsylvania.

Contact Information

James Finley, Ph.D.
  • Professor Emeritus of Forest Resources

Center for Private Forests

Address

416 Forest Resources Building
University Park, PA 16802

Center for Private Forests

Address

416 Forest Resources Building
University Park, PA 16802