See the Forest

See the Forest

Nearly every post in this blog is planned well in advance from the topic I’ll cover to the images I’ll utilize.  That way when the time comes, I just pull some photos and start typing. 

However, my planned review of the Cold Springs Trail just isn’t calling to me right now…  the trees are!



This isn’t about tree identification or even the rich diversity of trees we have in Alabama, but really the forest as a whole.  The expression “can’t see the forest for the trees” generally implies someone is missing what’s right in front of them.  While the sentiment is still valid, I see the message as flawed, and here’s why.  The forest is much more than trees.

Now, forests are regularly named by their most common trees or by types of trees, such as Aspen groves, mixed pine-hardwood forest, cypress or gum swamps, etc.  However, there are literally millions of other components that make up a forest. These elements have been building for millennia from the rock-bed below the soil to the microbes and fungal connections spread throughout the forest’s layers.  It is all connected.  Everything we “see” as forest would not exist if it weren’t for all we don’t see.  As fascinating and wondrous as trees are, they cannot grow or survive independently. 

You may have heard that a tree’s roots extend beneath the ground as far stretching as it’s branches, and this is true.  Actually, most reach out much further, and these root systems do incredible things for their species and beyond.  For many tree species, whole forests depend on the root systems that run and connect beneath the soil, not just for water and nutrients, but for “sprouts.”  

Sprouts are thought of as young trees, but unlike saplings they don’t grow from a seed or nut, they grow from fallen trees or roots of mature trees in their species.  Examples are aspens, chestnuts, and sourwoods. Their growth is similar to a new branch of an existing tree, because they already have the foundation of a mature tree’s root system.  Unlike their equal sized saplings, spouts don’t have to spend precious energy building the unseen world of roots to find water and nutrients, they simply get to focus on above ground growth.  What’s more impressive is the size and scale of these systems.  An entire standing forest may be the product of a single seed or nut, with all the trees connected through a network of roots and sprouts from a lone ancestor whose life above ground ended many generations earlier.  

Saplings that develop fully from seeds or nuts can tap into the wealth of resources a mature forest provides.  Each decaying log and its severed root system, revitalizes soil by sharing its unused nutrients with the surrounding trees.  Every dead tree, still standing — or “snag” as they are known — houses countless wildlife, such as birds, squirrels, insects, rabbits, racoons, and foxes.  These creatures support the welfare of the forest and future stands of trees as much as the soil, sunlight, and rainfall.  For a sapling, these fauna serve the role of spreading their seed and creating a new generation of offspring.  Even winter’s cold and snow play important roles in seed development, and this dormant period allows trees to conserve energy when their primary food source — the Sun — is working shorter days.  

Like our forest neighbors, we are not singular standing units.  We are connected to each other and our ancestors through a labyrinth of roots unseen.  We thrive and survive off the resources allocated throughout our communities, and we depend on the natural resources provided by the forests of the world.  As an environmental educator, I strive to help others connect with nature so we can conserve and sustain our outdoor spaces for generations to come.  I also believe nature has a lot to teach us about living in community, and taking time to observe and understand how we connect to the natural world can be a fun and exciting way to learn about ourselves too.

Try this…

Find a place in nature — whether your backyard or a nearby green space — to just sit and study a tree.  Observe it for a little while, and ask questions:

Does the wind blow anything down from the tree?  Is it something wildlife can use to eat or build it’s nest?  Does a bird land there to perch, or feed on insects hiding in the bark’s fissures? Do you enjoy the shade it offers, or rest your back against the trunk? Are lichens and mosses clinging to it’s branches?  How many other life forms depend on this one tree? How is this single tree connected with everything else around it and beyond?  What does this tree need to survive and how might it be depending on the surrounding flora and fauna (including humans)?  

***If the tree is close by, consider observing it regularly throughout the seasons.  Keep a journal of what you find most interesting, or write poems and make drawings related to your observations. ***

Feel free to share questions and observations with us at or share photos of your tree using #TransformOutdoors 







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