Winter Woods

We don’t really go in for wilderness in the UK. Our national parks are worked landscapes, from the sheep-strewn fells of the Lake District to the Peak District’s moors riddled with grouse butts. Perhaps only the remotest parts of Scotland can be said to be truly wild. In American wildlands the hand of man has often been just as much at work, especially in the past, but the landscape wears it more lightly. I well recall the feeling of awe standing on an overlook near the entrance to Yosemite National Park in California over 15 years ago, the valley floor apparently an unbroken stretch of forest, rock faces and waterfalls pristine and glistening.

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Appalachian forest near Penmar, MD

Even in more populated areas the contrast between the domains of ‘man’ and ‘nature’ can be stark. Here in the broad valleys of rural Pennsylvania, the landscape is covered either in box stores and billboards or unbroken farm fields, nary a hedgerow or copse in sight, though in fairness it is a more diverse and gently farmed landscape than that of the Midwest ‘corn belt’. By contrast, the long ridges of the Appalachian Mountains are entirely carpeted in forest: most of it second growth, very little virgin forest, but nonetheless appearing wild.

The American wilderness philosophy informed the ideal of the Appalachian Trail, which is theoretically intended to run through an unbroken corridor of wild land, usually forested, all the way from the trail’s southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt Katahdin in Maine in the north. At Penmar Park on the Pennsylvania – Maryland border, an uneventful section of the trail crosses its 6th state line about 25 miles south of the trail’s mid-point.

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Lichens in the Appalachian woods

We followed the white trail blazes for a mile or so south and indeed very quickly left any other visible signs of human occupation behind, apart from a lone single-track railway. Besides occasional distant aircraft, a barking dog or a car struggling up the mountain road above us it was quiet, almost too quiet. Very little stirred or made a sound aside from a few passing crows, or a red-bellied woodpecker questing for lunch at the top of a dead tree. A winter wren eyed us warily from the cover of a low mountain laurel but made no sound.

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The silence and sheer bigness of the winter woods was brought home. Even the most unremarkable stretch of this forest must host tens of thousands of species but most of them are now dormant to the point of invisibility, despite the astonishingly mild weather this December. From now until March, centre stage belongs to the lichens and fungi growing on stone, dead wood and bark, and the always green rhododendron leaves. These splashes of seasonal colour are signs that the woods are very much alive even in the so-called dead of winter.

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