On one of the hotter days, sun blazing with temperatures near 90, I was sweating as I went for my daily walk. I knew I wouldn't get far on the paved road in the heat, so I turned down a dirt road and entered the woods. The temperature immediately went down 10 or more degrees. I almost laughed. Mother Nature's air conditioner, of course, is the forest.
I found the trailhead for the nearest mountain, and I slowly began to climb. I was not interested in tackling an entire mountain on this hot and sunny day. I merely wanted a nice trail winding deep into the forest, and that's exactly what I found. I first was surrounded by a miniature forest of ferns, a few acres of tall ferns waving at me from under the canopy. Their natural symmetry and green abundance created an artistic masterpiece we can walk right through.
A bit further up the trail I hopped over a few tiny streams, feeling the coolness of forest soothe my hot face. I had some of life's bigger issues on my mind: life, death, the passage of time and the losses all life must sustain. The deeper into the woods I went, the more balanced my thinking became. Off the trail was a huge fallen maple. Its roots were exposed from the tumble, and its huge horizontal trunk looked like a living room couch to me, asking for someone to sit on it. So I did.
I listened to birds singing deeper in the woods. I hear the loud rat-a-tat of a pileated woodpecker. A red squirrel was nearby, chattering noisily. The creatures of the forest were going about their business, oblivious to me or all my heavy thoughts. I was soothed by the feeling of normality that settled over me. Blue jays squawked. The wind rustled leaves overhead.
I kept going. I walked steadily over roots and rocks feeling the coolness of forest shade. I arrived at a growth of old trees, with no underbrush, and a nearly flat terrain. Here I lifted up my arms to say thank you to Mother Nature for this respite. The sun dappled the ground beneath my feet. I was a lucky lady. Peace was everywhere.
I turned around and made my way home. When I got back to the road, the heat was rising up from the pavement, intense like a hot stove. I darted from one patch of shade to the next until I found myself at my own front door.
Here where I live is where my giant elm tree is dying. A massive and beautiful tree, I have loved it every day I have lived here on Keese Mills Road. It has grown at the corner of our house since we came here, and obviously, it was here a long time before that. It has provided shade in the summer heat, and has been a roadway for squirrels, chipmunks, nuthatches, raccoons and even ermine, easily viewed from my second floor bedroom window. Knowing I would be losing this old friend soon made me sad.
Every day I have looked for a reason to hope it would live forever. Was that a branch with still all-green leaves? Was that a young elm below it, ready to assume a path to master-elm heights? The truth I needed to learn was that even mighty elms die. There are a million other trees nearby I can grow to love. I've taken a hundred photos of my elm over the years, and I will not forget it. It has done its job, provided us shade, and now it is giving us its last summer, yellowing leaves falling too early, rustling in the wind for the last time.
My trip into the woods softened this ache. By sitting on a fallen maple, I learned the gifts of natural progression, and letting go. Life goes on. It goes on differently, but it is still full and rich. The forest has lessons to teach us if we only listen.
My friend and neighbor Gould Hoyt recently passed away. He was a giant in the world of Paul Smiths, an iconic figure whose life was intricately interwoven into the trees, silviculture plots and gardens of this little section of the Adirondacks. He was a forestry teacher who impacted the lives of thousands of Paul Smith's College students over the decades. He was the heart and soul of the draft horses used to teach students a more environmentally friendly way to work in our ancient forests. His personality was assertive and loud and always ready to teach. He was also kind and curious and aware of the fragility of life. Even at 90 he said, "I never expected to live this long, and I still have so much I want to do before I die!" He taught me something every time we spoke. His former students were family to him, and he relished every visit and phone call he got from them. When it was time to leave, he did it quietly, with a rainstormy evening rustling those trees overhead.
Like with my mighty elm, time comes for the end of an era. Let us all learn from the forest. Respect and honor those mighty trees and old foresters while there is still time. Listen for the wind in the tree branches, and share their stories when you can. Keep your memories close. Life does go on.
Randy Lewis lives in Paul Smiths, and is the author of "Actively Adirondack: Reflections of Mountain Life in the 21st Century," Adirondack Center for Writing's People's Choice Award for Best Book 2007.