Up Close And Personal With The Forest We Call Home

I’m still suffering the itchy consequences of an adventure deep into our woodland acreage, but that’s the price you pay for knowledge.

by Rachael Dupree
PHOTO: Rachael Brugger

You could say I’m a bit of a plant geek. Several ago, I started studying plants and their medicinal value, and since then, I’ve become quite an information glutton for all things of the natural world. Most of the time, this has been a blessing, providing me with snacks during woodland hikes, a garden full of homegrown teas and Instagram opportunities galore. But last week, my fascination with plant life landed me with about 100 bug bites. And I’m still paying for it with itchy skin and scabs.

As sort of a birthday gift to myself, we invited a state forester to come out to our land and help us survey our tree population. (It’s funny how in the past 10 years, my idea of a celebration has shifted from drinks and dancing with friends to getting knee-deep in chigger-infested weeds with a stranger—but I guess these things happen when you “mature.”) Because over half of our property is forestland, learning how to manage it for land health, wildlife conservation and our own pleasure is one of the top priorities for Mr. B and me, and fortunately, our state forestry department—and perhaps yours, too—offers free consultations to help landowners set up a woodland management plan.

To be honest, I was a bit anxious to hear what our local tree guru had to say. When you invest so many resources and emotions into your forever home, you want to hear that you’ve started out on the right foot. The last thing I wanted was for him to come in and tell us our land was a mess and that we’d need to put in hundreds of hours of labor hours to nurse it back to health. Thankfully, even though my skin wasn’t spared, my peace of mind was.

Waist-deep in foliage, I quickly turned from a forest explorer to a delicious host for ticks and chiggers. I should have known better—the bugs around these parts are worse than they’ve been in 20 years, according to our neighbors. Perhaps the middle of August wasn’t the best time to go scoping out new plants to learn about, but would I do it again? Probably. (Maybe in a hazmat suit, though.)

Rachael Brugger

During the visit, we walked the woods, looking at the different tree and plant species growing on our farm and noting the indicators of land health. By looking at the composition of plant growth and the different species present, we learned a lot.

Our land is full of regenerative trees, like red cedars, redbuds and dogwoods, with hardwood trees just beginning to top them in the canopy. These regenerative species are some of the first to come up when land turns over from pasture to forest, which means our land was probably farmed heavily in the 30s and 40s, and then abandoned when the soil was no longer turning a good crop so the farmers could seek out fertility elsewhere. As the hardwoods, like oaks and hickories, begin to tower, the regenerative trees will eventually die out—a normal and healthy turnover of plants in the development of a forest.

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We also noted that while there were a few invasive plants—mostly autumn olives and a few honeysuckles—that need to be dealt with sooner than later, most of what we found on the forest floor were native plants: coralberry, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, jewelweed. While some of these native plants were abundant, almost to the point where they seemed invasive, the forester assured us that this is OK, and that overtime, those species will likely keep their own populations in check.

Now, while we could have learned a lot of this by sticking to the paths Mr. B and I have worked so hard to mow, what fun is that? We forged deep into the woods, spotting things we could never have observed from the safety of clear cuttings: sassafras and slippery elm trees—both valuable medicines—along with a healthy blue ash tree not yet disturbed by the emerald ash borer and this awesome looking plant called white baneberry, aka doll’s eyes.

doll's eyes
Rachael Brugger

This walk through the woods validated everything that Mr. B and I have been working at and dreaming about the past four months since we first stepped foot on this property. We have a healthy, vibrant piece of land full of medicine, food and wildlife habitats, and with minimal input from our own hands, it’s going to continue to grow and develop and become something beautiful. That gives us such a sense of relief.

And as for my obsession with plants: The geekery has only just begun! I’ve got a trusty dichotomous key for identifying trees that fits in my back pocket (because there’s no way I can remember everything the forester pointed out in our short time together), and I envision lots of medicine gathering, wildlife snacking and Instagram posting to come.

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