Have you ever seen a tree standing on tiptoes? Do you know how it grew that way? Trees on tiptoes are just one of the many things you can see if you keep your eyes open and mind engaged while you are out hiking. Are you so familiar with krumholz that you walk right by without noticing? Have you ever discovered how hobblebush got its name?
If you step on (or over) a pile of moose droppings on the trail (moose apparently enjoy strolling on trails as much as we do), do you know whether it was left there in winter or summer? Recently or a long time ago? Do you even notice?
It’s human nature, I suppose, to be seduced by goals and say to yourself something like “When I make it around that next turn in the trail, (or the next overlook, or the summit or . . .) I’ll stop and take a look around.” We all want to get to someplace better than where we are. Hikers are naturally drawn to views, people stop to eat lunch where they can see a vista.
The trick when hiking through the woods is to not get so focused on where you are going that you forget to look around and see all the wonderful things around you wherever you are. What’s the point of hiking through the woods if you don’t notice the woods themselves? You might as well be running on a treadmill in a gym and watching TV, which sounds like the perfect definition of Hell on Earth for a modern Sisyphus.
But it’s also true that if you stop too often and look too closely at everything you’ll never travel far or move fast enough to get any meaningful exercise. So you have to find a balance, learn to observe your surrounding as you move.
To begin to see the woods around you, start by learning the names of the trees you see or, at least the genus they belong to. Learning to tell a black spruce from red spruce can get pretty specialized, but if you are going to really enjoy being in the woods, you ought to be able to identify “spruce” instantly and from a distance. Ditto for the other evergreens, pine, fir and hemlock, and hardwoods like birch, beech, oak, maple, and poplar among. Once you get good at that, it’s inevitable that some unusual tree will catch your attention as you walk along, and you can start delving deeper and learn more.
Of course every forest reflects the environment and it’s fun to sort out what’s been shaped by nature and what by man. If you are walking through a stand of pines planted in neat rows, all the same age, that’s pretty obviously the work of man. But what about a forest of mature trees with a stone wall running through it?
The point is to see more, think more and learn more about what you see as you walk. Start by looking at the trees and it’s only a matter of time before wildflowers, mushrooms birds and animal sign begin to capture your attention as you walk. The more you know, the more of an adventure each hike becomes as each new discovery leads to new questions.
And The Answer Is . . . :
If the moose droppings you see are dry and woody pellets, chances are they were left in the winter when the moose feed on twigs. Summer droppings tend to be softer and disappear more quickly while winter droppings can last for months and months.
Hobblebush? Try to walk through a stand of hobblebush on the forest floor. Instead of growing up, hobblebush usually grows out, and where twigs touch the ground they’ll re-root themselves and leave loops perfectly designed to catch your foot.
Krumholz? You’ll have to head for the top of a mountain or high ridge to see the spruce and balsam fir trees twisted and stunted by poor soils, winter winds and heavy snows.
Stone walls running through the forest? Remember, most of New England was once cleared for field and pasture . . .and forests regrow.
And what about those trees on tiptoes? Those happen when a seed sprouts on a rotting log or stump, the roots eventually reach down into the soil, then the old wood rots away beneath it, leaving the tree “standing on tiptoes” in the forest. See how many you can find on your next hike.