“You can’t see the forest for the leaves, except in the winter woods”
I’m quite sure that my passion for spending time in the woods goes back to my childhood in Pennsylvania, where I was blessed to live on a farm that had woods as far as the eyes could see. I would go on many solo adventures exploring the forest filled with enormous ash trees and finding plant life that grew only in the forest. I remember lying on my back and looking up at the towering trees in awe. Taking in the enormity of these trees did not make me feel small—it made me feel empowered!
Here in South Carolina, we are so lucky to have a most impressive array of native trees. An hour or so from the coast, in the town of Marion, are forests of tall pines and stately oaks, and these are home to magnificent wildlife. I venture out there many times throughout the year to hunt, and sometimes to take long walks or sit to take in the beauty of the land.
While many people would argue that spring and autumn are the best seasons to enjoy the woods, with the spectacular flowering blossoms of spring and the changing of the leaves in the fall. But I see something extraordinary about the winter woods that many may not realize even exists.
You might say: “You can’t see the forest for the leaves!” The vistas deep into the woods can be appreciated once the trees and bushes shed their leaves. Without all the embellishments of flowers, leaves, and blooming plants, seemingly stripped down to its pure and simple beauty, winter woods are something to behold. Sit very still, and you may see a deer as it moves quickly in the distance, its protective cover gone until spring returns and the trees and shrubs again offer shelter. You may even see turkeys pecking the ground without care, seeming to know that hunting season is months away, and often you can observe hawks and other birds of prey swooping down from the sky to hunt.
If you have never had the experience of being in the woods before sunrise, at first light, it is truly amazing. As the forest comes alive, sights and sounds slowly fill the air. A simple thing such as a puddle of water lights up like a beacon as the sun peeks out from the darkness of the morning hour. One of my favorite sights in the winter is the morning mist, which forms when sun-warmed air meets the cold ground, giving the illusion of smoke rising from the earth.
There is a unique stillness in the winter woods, unlike at other times of the year when activity is all about. The songbirds seem to sing more softly, and the occasional rustle of squirrels is not as frantic as at other times of the year. Conserving activity helps the birds and other creatures make it through the winter months when food sources are limited. Insects seek shelter and become dormant, finding refuge in burrows in the ground and trees, as do snakes, thus making your walk through the woods a little more pleasant.
With all that quietness of the woods, few people know that the trees are actually talking to each other! Yep, they have a unique way of communicating with each other. It is their way of helping the forest stay healthy, with the older trees sharing nutrients with their younger offspring. Studies show that this communication system is like an underground network whereby the trees can warn each other of danger that may be present—such as an invasion of insects and diseases—so that other trees can develop defenses. How wonderfully smart these trees are! And did you know that trees have beneficial effects on our health? That stroll through the woods can help lower blood pressure and make an overall improvement in our immune systems. No doubt, my time spent in the woods is a stress buster for me.
I especially love winding roads in the woods, and it seems like the soft curve in the road beckons you to walk some more, and so you follow deeper into the woods. The winter sun splashes light about the forest road and creates striking shadows and white and gray highlights that shimmer on the darkened bark. The sharp contrast of deciduous trees alongside the bright green coniferous trees makes for an interesting composition. The canopy of bare branches provides a full view of the impressiveness of these stately trees, while the evergreens offer warmth and cover. Occasionally you will come across an unexpected blast of color on a bush that has not lost its leaves. Even the “bones” of a dead tree can stir the imagination.
The majesty of the winter woods is oftentimes overlooked, so I encourage everyone to get outside and take a stroll. It is a time to celebrate the softly spoken quietness of the woods, the bare beauty of the land, and the unveiling of nature as she prepares for the rebirth that will come in the months ahead.
Photos by Jenny P. Hanna Photography