If you wander the north lands of Wisconsin, you may come to a place where magic seems to linger in the air. It’s a special sort of forest where stillness reigns, and tall trees stand around you as sentinels. These are known as the hemlocks.
Not to be confused with the poisonous hemlock plant, these trees are ancient guardians of the deep woods. They are slow-growing, so they tend to be found only in places that have been free of logging for many years. Perhaps that is why, when you walk among them, you get a feeling of something untouched, almost forgotten by humankind.
These are among the largest of the eastern trees. The oldest one yet recorded has been alive for over 550 years, and they have been known to grow over 170 feet high. Among them live other old-growth giants, like the yellow birch. Animals, as well, seem to find these trees comforting. Here I will often discover porcupines wandering about, the tracks of wolves, and the shed antlers of bucks.
The hemlocks tell stories, too. They have the special property of remembering the passage of years in their scars. When lightning or a vehicle or an axe leaves a scar, it heals back in layers, leaving lines that, if you count backwards, will tell you how many years ago the tree took the wound. I’m not sure if hemlocks attract lightning (perhaps they do simply by virtue of their great height), but I find that many hemlocks bear these scars.
When I sit among the hemlocks, I find myself pondering the ways of humans. Though I recognize our need to harvest wood, I wonder at why we haven’t chosen to set aside more forests to remain untouched. Old forests have a certain spirit that one can’t find in younger ones. Like sitting with a person in their 90’s, the trees exude a feeling of wisdom and relaxation. All our human endeavors begin to appear a little less pressing, and one realizes the vital importance of just sitting, and letting our senses take in the world. These trees remind us of the difference between Doing and Being.
If at some point you find yourself wading among a stand of hemlocks, take a moment to sit on the soft shady floor. Still your mind, and let your senses spread out over the forest. And there, in that moment, perhaps the trees will speak to you and share reminders of things long forgotten.