I’ve always loved nature. I’ve always loved spending time in the outdoors. Even before I went to college to study about it, I loved learning about wildlife and wild places. As a kid, I was fascinated by stories of mountain men and explorers who learned how to survive in the wilderness. I would pretend my back yard was some remote mountainside, and spend afternoons building tree limb shelters and trying to start a fire with rocks. My enchantment with nature is what moved me towards my major and career path. I specifically remember the morning in my tree stand on my grandpa’s farm when I had the revelation of how miraculous it all was. I was overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounded me, and the intricacy of how it was all created; the masterful way it all fit together to work as a system, and yet how simple and beautiful it all was. I knew in that moment that I had to make it my life’s work. I wanted to learn all I could to be a good steward of our planet’s resources. I also wanted to learn all of the woodsperson skills that made Jeremiah Johnson so cool.
So I went to college and majored in forestry and took all the classes about trees and wildlife and ecology. But a lot of what I know I didn’t learn in classrooms. I learned following my grandpa around on his farm, and helping my brother plant food plots, and hunting with my dad. I learned from camping with my family as a kid, and exploring national parks as an adult. Much of it is just observing; but there are many things that must be learned from hands-on experience. I am fortunate to have people in my life who passed their woodsperson skills and knowledge onto me, and I have had ample opportunities to experience the outdoors throughout my life. My formal education exposed me to new ideas and deepened my understanding of ecological concepts, but you don’t have to invest in university courses to get to know the woods a little better. All it takes is the initiative to get out and explore.
I remember being captivated by animal tracks as a kid. I’d go on long walks with my grandpa around his farm, and we’d stop and study every track we saw. Just the thought that I was occupying the same space as that deer or bobcat once did gave me such a thrill. I learned the different shapes and telltale signs to distinguish one creature from another. We’d study the depth and pattern, the direction in relation to nearby trails, and play a little game trying to discern the scenario. Did it stand here for a moment? Why? What was it looking at? Did something spook it? Where did it run to for safety? Exploring these questions helped me gain insight into the lives and habits of wildlife that spurred my future interest. Identifying tracks is a skill that any aspiring woodsperson of any age can acquire.
Wildlife tracks are one of the many little signs in the woods that most people don’t take time to notice. One thing I never really took note of as a kid was the variation between different types of plants. A plant was a plant, and a tree was a tree. I remember the first time I realized how important it was to know the difference. I got my first case of poison ivy at a very young age, and discovered my exceptional sensitivity to it. Soon after, my brother showed me what it looks like, and I’ve never learned anything so quickly or so thoroughly since. That prompted a fascination with plant life that I still suffer from to this day. It’s an enthralling challenge to explore the subtle variations and minute details that distinguish one species from another. During my childhood, however, I didn’t realize how complex it was. I just wanted to know which tree was which, and my brother imparted everything he knew on the subject; and almost everything he knew had something to do with wildlife. He taught me about blackberry and greenbrier and how much deer love them. He taught me about clover and radish and why we plant when we do. He didn’t know all of the names for the different species of oak trees, but he knew which trees the deer always showed up under. In my college dendrology course, I learned physical characteristics, scientific names, growth habits, and wildlife uses of almost every tree and plant native to the Southeastern United States. If you don’t want to take it that far, however, you can do pretty well just walking trails with a store-bought tree guide.
Of all the woodsperson skills I’ve gained in my life, there is one I have yet to master: navigation. One of my friends in college nicknamed me Magellan as an ironic dig after I got us lost between our deer stands and the truck one night. As much time as I have spent in the woods, it’s truly a miracle that I haven’t met my end, lost and alone, huddled against a tree somewhere. Despite all of my efforts towards improving this particular shortcoming, I eventually had to accept that I was directionally challenged, and there was nothing I could do about it. In one of my forestry classes, we spent an entire week on “compass and pacing”, a navigational technique using a compass and the length of your stride to measure distance. Predictably, I was terrible at it, but some people find it useful. There are a myriad of ways to learn how to get around in the woods. As hopeless as I am at it, this is a skill that anyone spending time outdoors should at least attempt to learn.
I still like to pretend that I’d make a decent mountain woman. If I was living in the wild, it wouldn’t matter if I got lost, right? I go camping often, and live out the fantasy a few days at a time. I apply my knowledge to my hunting, in an attempt to match wits with the game I pursue. As much woods wisdom as I have gleaned over my life, I’m still learning. My knowledge and familiarity with wild places and wildlife give me a deeper connection to nature than I could ever have without it. For many people, it’s enough to simply observe nature, take in the sights and sounds, and enjoy the tranquility. If you want to take your connection a step further, however, make an effort to learn a little more about the flora and fauna, and the processes that make it all work. To truly experience nature is to notice the subtleties that allow insight into the lives of the plants and wildlife. They are things that may seem insignificant and go unnoticed by most, but if you know what to look for, they can give clues to enhance your understanding. Observe some wildlife and stop to notice their tracks. Take a walk through a state park with a tree guide in hand. Spend more time out there, and keep a sharp eye for all of the things the woods can teach you.