Beauty scale

Jane Billinghurst talks about her favorite things about forests

The translator and editor of ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ believes that a forest is much more than a landscape – it’s a place where life unfolds all around us.

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Jane Billinghurst began working with legendary German forester and “tree whisperer” Peter Wohlleben in 2015. She was the editor and translator of his best-selling book, The hidden life of trees (Greystone Books, 2016), which fundamentally changed the way many people, including Billinghurst, view forests.

Combining forces more deliberately this time, the couple have co-authored a new book, Walk in the forest: discovering the trees and forests of North America (Greystone Books, 2022), which combines Wohlleben’s professional and scientific expertise with Billinghurst’s awe and wonder as a nature lover and master gardener. Billinghurst explains how to walk, hike, and stroll with more mindfulness and intention.

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What was a walk in the woods like before you and Peter started working together?

I live in Washington State and belong to a hiking club. We went out every week in the forest, and the idea was always to get from point A to point B. I mean, obviously, [we wanted] to enjoy the surroundings and be in a beautiful forest, but above all we wanted to exercise. And I thought that was great. Working with Peter, I thought: Wait a minute, there’s a lot going on here!

I learned that the forest is much more than a landscape to be traversed. It’s a place where life happens all the time, sometimes very gradually and sometimes on a tiny scale. I discovered that if I slowed down, I could glimpse a complex world that I had never noticed before. Over time, I discovered that I still liked going from point A to point B, but now I walk more slowly, which gives me time to scan my surroundings.

From left to right: an ash tree in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, a fern in Nelson, British Columbia, and a ponderosa pine at El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

What do you mean by “scanner”?

I realized that if I kept a slow steady pace, constantly looking either side of the trail, my eyes would start to pick up what I was looking for. Now, as I walk, I look up and down and turn my head from side to side. I try to take everything I can. I usually have a special focus for that day because if you focus on everything you will never move from one place – there is so much to see.

One day I will focus on fungi, another day on lichens, another on frogs. This might change during the hike. Once in Silver Lake Park, near the Canadian border, I was walking from the campsite when I realized there was slime mold everywhere. I started with no particular goal in mind, but slime mold quickly became the focus of this hike.

Most slime molds are neither slimy nor moldy. They love moisture and shade, and they help recycle nutrients in the forest. They move to find food and when they are ready to reproduce, some of them develop delicate tube-like fruiting bodies on stems. Some are very small – a collection of fruiting bodies may not be much larger than a quarter. The fruiting bodies I found at Silver Lake were white tubes on black stems at about eye level on a dead log. Every time I turned a corner, there was another slime mold. It was fascinating. Before working with Peter and slowing down, I had never noticed slime mold in my life.

Bald cypress trees adorned with Spanish moss form mysterious silhouettes at Caddo Lake State Park in Texas.

When you notice these details, what are you looking for? Or contemplating?

Take the case of a nurse Log. That’s when a tree falls in the forest and it stays there to rot. Peter explains how it is the process of forest regeneration. It is the forest that creates a closed cycle, so that all tree-bound nutrients return to the soil to nourish the next generation of trees and other organisms.

To do this, you have all those little critters that are busy breaking this nurse logs into her comcomponents. You will have dust mites and beetles and ants, and sometimes of the year, the peaks, because there are many of [insects] for them to eat. You can see where the bark has gone. You can see where the log got mushy, as the components get smaller and smaller, these little criesters take them into the soil where the carbon is sequestered. You watch a whole cycle unfold right in front of you.

Another thing that fascinated me was how much you can learn about history by watching what happens in the forest. If you are in the Northeastern United States, you will find all these stone walls. This tells you that in the past it may have been fields. People had cleared the land, either because the wood was precious or because they wanted to cultivate. So you feel like you’re lost story that the forest is almost protecting and preserving – and you can go find it. You begin to understand that you are not the first person to cross this forest; it has been many things to many different persons weather. It is a dynamic system.

From left to right: bristlecone pine in Inyo National Forest, California, and a view of the forest landscape in Snoqualmie National Forest

Which forests fascinate you the most?

I discovered some interesting woods while writing this book. For example, there’s a patch of Douglas firs in West Texas, and they’re there because of the ice age. The ice moved down and covered the northernmost part of North America, and in doing so, it grew trees on the continent. As the ice receded, the trees rose. But in some unexpected places, like right on the Texas-Mexico border, some of those trees have been abandoned and are still growing there. It is impossible to see this and not think about geological time; the trees live in such a different time frame and in such a different way from ours. And yet they affect us, and we affect them.

How has this changed your daily relationship with trees?

I like woods that are familiar to me and have a connection with my own life. I think I understand these woods better. I live right next to the Anacortes Community Forest Lands, nearly 3,000 acres of forest, wetlands, and rock climbs protected by the town of Anacortes [82 miles north of Seattle] in partnership with the Skagit Land Trust. It is fascinating to observe the changes, season after season, even day after day or from morning to night. On my regular walks, I check beaver dams, watch trees smoke as the sun rises after a heavy rain, look for barred owls staring at me, and listen for tall woodpeckers. That’s cool too [we can find forest] where many of us live. You don’t have to travel far to find amazing things to see.

>> Next: 6 ways to support regeneration projects around the world

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