I walk into the hemlock woods and breathe deeply. Everything is different here… everything from the smell and temperature of the air I breathe to the feel of the earth beneath my feet. And it’s dark here, dark and quiet, peaceful and holy. I cannot help but slow my pace. I cannot help but slow my mind.
There is a sense of family in a hemlock forest. Older trees tower over and protect young saplings. And because hemlocks can grow to be so very old, there is a sense that great wisdom is stored up here… if only we knew how to tap it. Some of the lessons we can glean just by observing the tree…
Hemlock cones are among the smallest for conifers, only 1/2 to 1 inch long. Yet give one of the tiny seeds the right conditions and you could have a tree that grows over 170 feet tall and lives for hundreds of years.
Seeds will only germinate under certain conditions: there must be shade, moisture, and temperatures between 44° and 64° F. Despite these very exacting requirements, I have seen hemlocks growing in the most unusual places, clinging to the sides of steep cliffs, sitting atop boulders.
Campers know that that the “litter” produced by hemlocks will serve as tinder even if it is wet. Hemlocks have made me the One-Match Queen of the Campfire on many occasions. Thank you Hemlocks!
A maturing hemlock forest creates a microclimate all its own. It is cooler and moister beneath the canopy. Not only are young hemlocks protected under the shelterwood, so are deer, turkey, grouse and other animals whose tracks and signs I regularly find there.
In a hemlock forest, under the canopy of the large trees, you will find small trees, maybe only 3-5 inches in diameter. Don’t be deceived by their small size… these trees could be older than you. In the deep shade, the saplings grow slowly and steadily, patiently waiting for their big chance… a windstorm, perhaps, that topples one of the giants, whose roots don’t go as deep as you would think. The sudden availability of light will send Little Tree into a much faster growth season… and it won’t be long (in hemlock years) before he is the Giant.
When I walk into a hemlock woods, I feel as if I have entered a special place. When I die, spread my ashes in a hemlock forest.
Featured in Festival of the Trees #32.