by: Jackson Eflin
When I told my friends about my time in the Yuhas Woods with Barry Banks of the Red-tail Land Conservancy, I knew what they were imagining. They were imagining Mounds, or maybe Christie Woods, forests open to the public and thus regulated, romanticized notions being molded into reality by the right applications of pruning and chemicals and enforced paths that make the woods safe for humanity, make us feel like we belong there.
The Yuhas Woods is nothing like that. Yuhas is wild, primal, barely tamed. There are fences, here and there, most of them more suggestions than borders. There are paths, but they require the Red-tail vehicle’s four wheel drive to navigate through, or else they’re made by passing deer and will vanish with the winter. I imagined my Volkswagen in these woods and knew that it would be consumed by the forest. There was a point not far from the gate where a branch had fallen and needed to be chain sawed apart and tossed to the side.
The main path through the Yuhas Woods splits into two parts. The first branch we explored was dense, thick, whereas the other path that runs closer to the river shows a more open forest, the canopy thicker, with less bush growth. The different micro-ecosystems promise something new wherever you go, five steps takes you into a new pallet of color, venerable greens and wizened browns and daring reds.
There are a series of swamps in the woods, places where water pools and whole micro-ecosystems develop. Each is different from the next, a different micro-ecosystem, usually with a dominant plant taking up most of the real-estate. Here Skunk Cabbage holds sway, there Winterberry Holly. But the woods are being invaded, the natural rule under threat by usurpers.
The main purpose for our visit out to the Yuhas Woods was to scout for invasive species, namely Bush Honeysuckle and Garlic Mustard. The Honeysuckle was mostly out of sight, but there were outcroppings of Garlic Mustard here and there. This late in the year they have already scattered their seeds along the four winds and the backs of passing creatures, to set down roots and rewrite the soil so that nothing else can grow. Barry made note of their locations, to come back and defoliate them, allowing the forest to return to its natural order.
It is this natural order that you find in the Yuhas woods. “Foresters will tell you they have to come cut down trees to let new growth in,” Barry says, staring out into the forest at a place where a tree has fallen, a gap formed in the canopy. Sunlight beams in, and new growth defines its own space, the leaves slightly bolder, young and ambitious, the first settlers in this new sunlight. “You don’t need to. The forest will do it on its own.” Many people who control forests will try to prune them and shape them so that they are inviting, safe, navigable for the people of iron and concrete who don’t know how to look at the woods without seeing danger in it.
There is no danger here. The coyotes are more afraid of us than we are of them, and with good reason. We saw none of them, only tracks in the mud, memories of passage. The woods were crawling with bugs minding their own business and hungry mosquitoes, but Josh, another student in the forest with us, found that the Jewelweed he’d applied to counter stinging nettles also repelled them. The forest had provided its own remedies so that we interlopers would not need to colonize the earth or air in our appreciation of its beauty.