Schenk Forest and Orchards

As I contemplate the New Year, I’ve been thinking about manmade semi-wild places and what they mean to me. I’m about to teach a class called Religion and the Environment. I’ve watched with interest the debates this year about protecting wild places. And while I love the wild places, lately I’ve been thinking about the sort-of wild places: parks, orchards, and places the canal on which I take my daily jog. Do they matter? Do we need such places in or near our cities? There are deep complexities and competing rights and needs with these little islands of plants and animals. I recognize that. Yet so often, we side on economic concerns rather than the spiritual benefits that accrue though these small semi-natural places so easily forgotten as spiritual reservoirs.

Here is an example in which I had no rights in the matter. I have no right to complain even. Yet, I feel loss. Like watching someone you love, who you have no control over, do something stupid and dangerous and all you can do is watch in sorrow as they exert their freedom.

The large apple orchard across the street from my house was cut down to put up a few very large houses—the bulky, very ugly, monstrosities that go up all over Utah Valley. The orchard had been a calm and beautiful place, filled with green and complexity. I had no right even to be in it, but my daughter and I would explore it often. It was full of wild things and provided a chance to spend time among trees and grasses that harbored a surprising abundance of wildlife even in the middle of Pleasant Grove.

But now, the deer and pheasants that used to wonder by the house and use the orchard are gone and my daughter and I can no longer stroll through the trees, capture insects, follow the stories told in tracks and scat. Of course, it wasn’t my orchard. The owners can do anything they want with it. But even though it was a completely man-made bit of green, it held the strong presence of nature’s grace. I’m sure the owners made a killing on the development of the orchard. I have no right to complain. But something is now missing that has diminished my community and made it poorer despite the new gianormous house’s increasing the economic value of my own house. Oddly I know my reaction is irrational. In fact, an orchard was destroyed to build the housing development I live in! I’m being hypocritical and unfair. I know, I know. But I miss that orchard. I mourn it’s passing. I sorrow without rights, without an ability to complain. I know. But I mourn anyway.

Little pieces of nature matter to our communities, but they don’t seem to carry the clout or interest that warrants the protection that true wild places do. I don’t know how to even form an argument that they should be maintained. They are owned. I can’t buy them. But they bring such rejuvenation to the spirit. I just returned from my year’s sabbatical in Vienna. There were parks everywhere. Little pieces of nature that were manmade but biologically rich. There were forests maintained on the edges of the city that were old—from the days of Little Red Ridding Hood. The Weinerwald was protected and maintained by the decision of forward-thinking people and it’s still a wild and wondrous place.

One of my favorite places in North Carolina was Schenk Forest. It was a forest maintained by the North Carolina State University. The oldest trees were only about 100 years old. It had been created out of farmland as a research site for the Department of Forestry at NCSU. There were footpaths that wound through the hardwood deciduous forest. A gate at the entrance followed a dirt road for a couple of hundred yards to a little park-like area with drinking fountains with such high water pressure you would invariably soak yourself trying to get a drink. Great fun for the kids. My two oldest would drench themselves regularly. At the park you could continue down the dirt road as it made its way down to a river bottom If you stayed on the road, you came through an area of large sparsely spaced trees with almost none of the typical underbrush found in other forests. The openness of the place I found very mysterious and compelling as if I had entered the Shire in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

On the paths in the forest we passed small wetlands. Sometimes we would see turtles, dragonflies buzzed up and down and the path gave a feeling of being utterly alone. The boys would walk and we would talk. We called these “Journeys of Discovery” and it was more than just a walk in the woods. We would stop and turn over rocks, peer into streams, peal back loose bark and go off the trail to investigate a giant wasps nest, watch the birds, snakes or whatever we happened to see.

I loved the rivers that ran through the forest. They were only about a stone’s throw across but in most places ran slow and brown through the soft sandy soil it cut through. The river often slowed to spread out over a wetland where suddenly the number of birds and insects would seem to blossom and it was here that many denizens of the natural world would revel themselves to our gaze. There was a feel to these places of calm mystery. They were largely inaccessible for further scrutiny because we were too far into the forest to carry a canoe or other boat to the place, and given the swampy tangle of fallen trees, emergent vegetation clinging to the muddy bottom, and the obvious fear of running into a snapping turtle deterred me from wading out in fly-fishing waders. So the place seemed untouchable, a promised land to be viewed from the shore, but never entered. It exuded mystery. One time I took the older boys on a long mountain bike ride through the forest. We rode far and in some places road knee deep in culverts when the river passed under a road. Riding through water like that is just fun! It seemed an adventure to me and the boys. I hope they remember that ride. For me Schenk forest was one the magic places of my life. Although artificial in some ways, nature had yet invaded it deeply.

I have not forgotten how much I loved the place and the pivotal role it played in allowing me to spend time with all my kids. I remember catching insects for my entomology classes there and having fun letting the children participate in my hunts and searches for rare beetles, elusive butterflies, and odd flies of every sort. Could I have glimpsed how wonderful those memories would be to me now? How full and rich those memories were? Could I have guessed that they would help me heal in so many ways? I hope it still exists. I hope it stays in the hands of those who can protect and preserve it. How sad I would be to find it no longer there. But it is not mine.

I hope all these little places don’t go away. They are worth a lot of money, I know. Why grow apples or maintain an artificial forest when you can retire on proceeds of a housing development. What would I do?

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9 comments to Schenk Forest and Orchards

  • Tim

    I grew up near wetlands, and enjoyed them, even though they were filled with ugly invasive trees and even though they continually shrunk as houses and golf courses went up.
    I remember looking at awe at a salamander, and watching hawks as they circled above.
    I think there are important benefits from open spaces–even economic benefits. I believe studies have been done showing that cities with green spaces have less crime. I think mental illnesses, such as depression, may be lessened by green spaces, resulting in less medication and less therapy costs, as well as increased productivity.
    It’s unfortunate that many people fail to see the benefit of those places.
    Your Religion and Environment class sounds quite interesting. I wish I was still at BYU so I could take it.

  • Cap

    Excellent, excellent post! I agree with you whole heartedly. Some of my most treasured moments, are times spent in nature. There is a great peace that is found there, that cannot be duplicated by any means. Artificial or not, I think that there is a great need for more of these places.

    I have my first child on the way, and before I was even married I had it resolved in my mind to take my children out on “Journeys of Discovery” (as you had mentioned) as often as I can. Experiencing Nature is something that is often lost in a lot of people, and something that, for me, is greatly needed.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • I lived in Massachusetts for 17 years and was a Scoutmaster for 12 of those years. I thus spent a lot of time in the outdoors and appreciated that time away from the hustle and bustle of life as a computer engineer.

    My wife and I owned 3 acres in Massachusetts, and 2 1/2 of those acres were left “as is”, and it was nice to have our own piece of nature. My wife loves to garden, and here in Utah we have our own “garden of eden” around our house. We can’t control what others do with their land, but we can keep nature flourishing in our property, whether it be in a small flower box in a city apartment or a larger garden in a residential development.

  • dlp

    Last Summer we were walking along the Jordan River boardwalk through the wetlands. Some high school students stopped and asked us to be videotaped for a school project about the value of open spaces. It wasn’t hard to point them to a housing development enroaching on the protected area. Not only do we need open natural space near us, but I believe it’s important to realize there is wilderness ‘out there’ like the Actic National Park. It’s good for our psche to visualize that those spaces exist.

  • Part of my teens and twenties were spent in Riverside, California, which has a long history in the orange industry. Orange groves were everywhere. The Church even had some large groves as part of its welfare system. I worked in those groves after serving a mission, and my earnings helped put me through college. Now the groves have been replaced with Riverside’s failed housing industry full of foreclosures.

    I no longer live in Riverside, but my parents do. In commemoration of those groves I have filled my house with antique orange crate labels from the 1930s. They are framed and 21 in number, filling practically the whole house. They are beautiful, but I would trade them in a second for a restoration of the Church-owned groves. But, alas, my wish will never be — not in my lifetime.

  • Seth

    This reminds me of the book called “Last Child in the Woods.” Which talks about our connection to nature, how that connection has been nearly severed (Nature Deficit Disorder), and what we can do to get it back. I quite enjoyed it and it might make some good reading for the class.

  • Thanks, this inspired me to go for a good walk/climb along a stream near my house in Virginia before coming back to Provo. I wish I had room in my schedule for your Religion and the Environment class. Are you going to be teaching it again, or is it a one-shot thing?

  • Karen

    I grew up on a single acre in the middle of south Phoenix, but that acre was filled with nature (thanks to my Dad). We had a cow pasture, large garden, chicken coops, nut and citrus trees, irrigation ditches, and all kinds of animals. I am so grateful to my dad for that exposure (even though I didn’t like the associated chores). Man-made or not, nature is an essential life connection. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Tim

    A cool recent article about some of the benefits of a little bit of nature in cities is here:
    http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/01/04/how_the_city_hurts_your_brain/?s_campaign=8315

    Sorry…I’m not sure how to include a link, so you’ll have to copy and paste.

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