Listen to the lives of trees and breathe in their wisdom - The Williamsburg Winery

Listen to the lives of trees and breathe in their wisdom

By Patrick Duffeler, Founder

What is the meaning of “woods” to me?

A place of peace, first of all, even if you have wolves or coyotes living in them.

In the woods, you can breathe fresh air, you can relax, work with trees and clean them of parasitic plants. Woods offer a place where you enjoy being with nature.

In the woods, you can dive into genuine freedom from most societal stresses and then empty out of mind the concerns of an overly regulated society.

You can listen to the trees, knowing they appreciate your concern over their wellbeing. You can listen to the birds and hear the winds.

You can endlessly read about trees, woods, forests, about legends going back many centuries.

Two books that are additions to my library are The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and Shinrin Yoku and The Art and Science of Forest Bathing by Qing Li. The most extraordinary elements from those books teach the reader that trees communicate via their root systems and also, most importantly, spending time in trees will strengthen your own immune system.

In Northern India, the Neem tree is known as the cure of all ailments. It is viewed as a manifestation of the Hindu goddess Shitala, a mother figure. The tree is dressed in cloth and wears a face mask of the goddess.

In Aspen, Colorado, a single root system has made 47,000 tree trunks covering 106 acres. While the trees themselves are only some 150 years old, this root system may be the oldest living organism on Earth!

You can share that learned knowledge with friends, bring them to visit the special places in the forest, the places where your help is needed to cut wild vines, poison ivy, poison oak, honeysuckle, or even worse, kudzu.

You can enjoy watching a young forest grow from just baby plants to towering canopy.

You can listen to the lives of the trees.

Over the decades of my life, I have been very fortunate.

My mother, who was actually an environmentalist before the word was crafted, took my brother and me for walks in the woods in the late ’40s and early ’50s. At that time, we lived in Brussels, Belgium, and near the city, there is an old forest of ancient copper beech trees that was the hunting grounds of the aristocrats who governed the provinces centuries ago. It is one of the most beautiful forests in Europe.

As we grew up, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting and spending our summer vacations in the Ardennes, which is the forest best known to Americans as the site of the Battle of the Bulge. During our stayover, we would enjoy walking in the woods with our grand uncle, a veteran of World War I trench warfare, and among all his comments, he would teach us about the health benefits of fresh air from the pine forest.

We got to travel in the pine forest of the Eifel on the western end of Germany, in the Black Forest in the southern part of Baden-Württemberg, and also saw the beautiful forest in what is called the “Saxon Switzerland National Park” near Dresden.

Driving through the central German forests in the mid ’80s, we were quite impressed by the level of “Waldsterben” or death of the woods resulting from what I was then told, the level of lead in automobile gasoline.

Eventually, the Germans identified varieties of trees that were more resistant, and simultaneously the European government required all oil companies to reduce the lead content in auto fuel.

It was delightful to see new plantings growing successfully in those areas that had been most impacted by the acid rain.

Having moved to the United States in 1960, I got a good view of the Appalachians in the Southern Tier of New York State, which spreads along the border of Pennsylvania. I visited Letchworth Park, which features the “Grand Canyon of the East” with its multiple falls of the Genesee River and has 66 miles of hiking trails. One of its magnificent waterfalls is as high as 600 feet!

In 1965, when my parents traveled from Europe to see where I was living, I took them to the Southern Tier, and we enjoyed the scenery and area, which makes pretty much the best Rieslings in the U.S. That area is known as the Finger Lakes. I traveled up and down the Appalachian in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia.

In 1966, I was fortunate to travel to Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico. My principal goal was to see the pre-Columbian sites of Monte Albán with the multiple giant Zapoteca pyramids and Mitla. The latter is some six miles from Oaxaca, and on the road to Mitla, the Aztec complex of structures, where one can notice the Arbol del Tule, an over-1,400-year-old cypress, with a circumference of 118 feet.

In 1980, when we were living in Spain, I took Peggy and my two sons to visit Yosemite National Park in California. Later, during the first decade of the new millennium, I was a member of the board of the National Association of American Wineries, and one of the meetings was held in Colorado and another in Washington State.

Both of those trips provided the opportunity of taking a few hours to drive in the woods and, in the case of Colorado, rediscover the landscape while thinking of our paddling down the Green River that had been an adventure in itself in 1981.

Still, what is most amazing are the forests of the West, particularly the great Sequoias and California Coastal Redwoods.

Having a good friend in San Rafael, it was only a very short drive to the Muir Woods National Monument, where the trees, Coastal Redwoods that can live up to 2,500 years, are breathtaking.

In my view, the excessive focus on looking at forests as a primary economic resource is understandable but also misses the point of appreciating the beauty of forests and the need to maintain the presence of old trees living on the planet.

Right here at the Winery on the land that we purchased 35 years ago, we discovered a couple of groves of bald cypress trees in brackish water. They are said to grow 600 years or even longer.

We also discovered several massive oaks on this farm, and with the help of our forester friend Bill Apperson, we learned that we have an oak that is about 300 years of age. We call it the “Tree of Life.” This is fascinating to really learn how trees grow, how impacted they are by the weather, a dry or rainy year, or by a fire. The study of tree rings is known as dendrochronology.

The sequoias hold secrets in their trunks. Now it can be analyzed without cutting the tree but by using a scanner after climbing with a harness and take measurements 30 stories above the ground.

Trees are critically important. They store carbon pollution. They reduce erosion. One deciduous tree can capture 500 to 750 gallons of stormwater in a year. A mature evergreen can hold up to 4,000 gallons a year, and a mature oak tree like our Tree of Life (300 years old) can capture and release 40,000 gallons a year through evaporation. Trees are said to be nature’s carbon removal engines, and that is essential to absorbing carbon dioxide emissions.

Tress can have an incredibly long life that makes us humans dwindle by comparison. In Nevada, a tree was cut, and it was discovered that it was nearly 5,000 years old. National Geographic regularly features beautiful stories about trees.

In ’89, we planted loblolly pines on the south end and created 37 acres of woods now quite mature, which we call “our own Black Forest.”

We also wanted the property surrounded by a buffer zone of trees such that the Winery and the vineyards are in the middle of the farm with 360 degrees of forestry buffer. To that effect, we planted some 62,000 trees over the decades. We have no intention of looking at those trees, simply as another potential harvest.

The pines in our Black Forest are now massive, reaching over 35 feet in height. On the recommendation of our forester friend, we reduced the density of the trees on a per-acre basis in order to favor the healthier trees. That was done almost 20 years ago, and that was when I learned that, regardless of the tree density, the aggregate volume of trunks in one acre will be pretty much the same whether you have 600-800 or 2,000-3,000 trees. With the lower density, you have well-developed trunks, whereas, with the higher density, you have spindly trees.

A couple of years ago, we were able to purchase an additional 40 acres of woods adjacent to our farm, and that has been deeded to conservation and features a beautiful stand of 100-year-old copper beech trees. As a result, our operating farm is well over 400 acres with more than 120 acres of forest.

From winter to summer, we enjoy walking and working in the woods.

We look forward to our forthcoming trips to Romania to visit the forests of the Carpathian Mountains as well as a trip to Poland to see the Białowieża Forest, one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain. The forest is home to 800 European bison, Europe’s heaviest land animal. The Eastern part of this forest is in Bielorussia. The forest is some 3,000 square kilometers.

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