Stump with stone cap and yellow mushrooms. Watercolor by Carolyn Newberger

Illuminating the Hidden Forest, Chapter 52: Keys

In the absence of that busyness, the challenge now is to engage in a different way, perhaps finding surprising richness in places we hadn’t noticed before. As with the forest, I am finding keys that unlock what I might have otherwise overlooked.

To read the previous chapters of ‘Illuminating the Hidden Forest,’ click here.

Aug. 14, 2020

The forest is steamy on August days. Sometimes the morning sun just struggles through wet leaves, glistening on the brown-capped, golden-edged fungi that crowd the fallen branches littering the forest floor.

I don’t walk in these woods as much now, perhaps due to a need to stay close to home during the pandemic, but when I do, I find pleasure in recognizing the familiar places. I orient to a macro map in my head, laid down when I first explored these woods two years ago. The macro map takes me on familiar routes.

The path into the woods. Photo: Carolyn Newberger

The main path is easiest, of course; I just follow the ruts where, from time to time, a neighbor rumbles through on an all-terrain vehicle, etching the old horse-and-cart path with the pattern of its treads.

When a large tree fell across the path last winter, I would sit on the bulk of its trunk and swing my legs over. Now, rounds of sawed tree trunk litter each side of the path, clearing the way for those of us who traverse these woods with our various dogs through the far back boundaries of each others’ properties. Thank you to the generous neighbors who clear the path for us all to enjoy.

Not so easy, though, is finding my way through the micro forest, those places of small groves, mushroom patches, brook embankments revealing tangled roots, and embracing trees. The woods are dynamic, ever-changing from one day to the next, never mind one year to the next. And yet, the nooks and crannies and off-route paths have always yielded the best surprises.

As I walk through the forest today, even amid the forest’s changes, I recognize earlier landmarks like old friends. These are the markers that lead me into the micro forest.

For example, take the fall of broken birch limbs about a quarter mile on the right around a curve in the main path. For two years this jumble of blown white limbs has reminded me to look to the opposite side of the path, where I find the beginning of a narrower path leading to what I call the Hemlock Grove. These limbs are a bit more decayed and tattered now, but they still point me into the middle map of the side forest and the micro forest beyond.

Turning down this path, I say hello to the chaga birch and to the father oak that brought me to tears when I first flung my arms across its massive trunk. I nod to the florid rotting stump in which I discovered a whole universe of miniature forest life, still teeming, its baby pine growing into a spindly childhood.

Moss-covered stump with red mushrooms. Photo: Carolyn Newberger

And suddenly, with the ever-generous capacity of the forest to amaze, I spy a flash of red off to the right. Fixing my eye on this small spot of brilliance, I push through the vegetation to a deeply moss-covered stump sprouting small mushrooms of the brightest scarlet against the vibrant greens. Wonderful, wonderful!

Returning from the hemlock grove to the main path, I continue to a tall stump on the left with a rectangular rock perched jauntily on top. When I first noticed this stump two years ago, it sported a fairy colony of tiny golden button mushrooms.

The stone grotto. Photo: Carolyn Newberger

At that time, curious about what lay beyond, I pressed into the brush and came upon a stone grotto with massive trees above, roots pressing into boulder crevasses like giant winding snakes. This is the micro forest on steroids: magical, astounding, hidden.

The rectangular stone on the button mushroom stump is my key — my Rosetta Stone, as it were — that allows me to return to the hidden grotto that transports me into this marvelous magical world. The forest is full of these keys. They translate into my human visual and spacial language the geography and culture of the forest. When I read them, I know where to go and, sometimes, even what to look for.

Back home, I also search for keys. My geographic world has narrowed beyond recognition, shrunk to a small house on a few acres at the edge of the woods.

In the world as we knew it, many of us, undeniably fortunate, led lives full of demands, schedules, activities, obligations, and travels near and far. We were BUSY. We produced meaningful work, engaged in cultural richness, enjoyed time with friends and family, and engaged with our community.

Frog on a rock. Photo by Carolyn Newberger

In the absence of that busyness, the challenge now is to engage in a different way, perhaps finding surprising richness in places we hadn’t noticed before. As with the forest, I am finding keys that unlock what I might have otherwise overlooked. Background becomes foreground. A phone call with an old friend might unlock connections that somehow got forgotten in the intensity of what we think of as normal life. This morning, contemplating a quiet frog resting on a stone behind my house reminded me of the well-being contemplation provides. And of course, there’s the forest, with its well-trod paths and the keys that allow me to explore its depths and to translate their wonders into my own language.