Winter forestBy Scott Steen

I often write and speak about the tangible benefits of trees and forests — their remarkable abilities to clean air and water, to foster biodiversity, to provide habitat, to sequester carbon. But one of the greatest pleasures of my job is that, on top of all of their scientific, life-giving benefits, trees and forests are just so magnificently beautiful. They inspire and nourish the soul in ways that little else can.

Spring forest

Credit: Arranet/Flickr

As a native New Englander, seasons have always had a strong pull on me, guiding the patterns and rhythms of my life. The turn of seasons is when I feel most alive and connected to the natural world. I write this as the first hints of fall begin to subtly take hold — the whisper of yellow and red in the leaves of trees, the hurried pace of chipmunks and squirrels, the first sweet smell in the air of impending autumn. You are most likely reading this at the height of winter, which brings to mind bracing cold mornings, the sun low in the sky through shortened days, the comingled smells of earth and ozone and wood smoke, bare-branched trees standing black against white skies.

Summer forest

Credit: Scott Wylie

In the places I have lived, trees and forests are the most emphatic markers of the seasons. In New England, the turning of the maples in fall is one of the most glorious shows in nature. In the Washington, D.C. area, the flowering of the cherry trees, redbuds and dogwoods in spring makes you glad to be alive. Other parts of the country are blessed with their own spectacles, from the blazing yellow aspens of Colorado, to the quiet majesty of snow-covered pine forests in Montana, Oregon or upstate New York.

Trees and woodlands add joy to even the most mundane of our daily tasks, from walking the dog to driving to work. I remember walking in the woods on my college campus to clear my mind between classes. More and more, I am trying to train myself to look up when I walk to the store or to my office, to see the sky and the birds, to “notice every tree,” as Stephen Sondheim wrote.

Fall forest

Credit: Kimberly Vardeman

In a few weeks, I will be moving to a new home in Virginia, less than a mile from George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. My new daily commute into Washington will take me up one of the great scenic roadways in America, the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The parkway runs alongside the Potomac River and is blanketed with breathtaking woodlands consisting of nearly 100 different species of trees. It is beautiful in every season and walking or biking on the miles of trails or even driving home from work fills me with both a sense of peace and of exhilaration. I never imagined saying that I am looking forward to my commute — particularly in the Washington area, with its heavy traffic — but there you have it.

Trees and forests not only sustain life on earth, they help make it meaningful and beautiful. They provide joy, offer peace and help us to see the world beyond ourselves. As John Muir said, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” Wishing you a bright New Year, filled with joy and wonder.