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Happy Earth Day, Old Forest

Phlox pathIndulge me while I get a little personal today. Earth Day seems like as good a day as any for me to celebrate my favorite place in Memphis–the Old Forest.

In terms of loving nature, I’d call myself a late bloomer. I remember my grandma valiantly trying to teach me the names of the butterflies and birds in her yard, but only a few stuck with me. (I’ll always think of her when I see a bluebird, because when I was small she let me paint a piece of pottery with a bluebird on it. The clumsy results hung on her kitchen wall until she had to move into an assisted-living home for Alzheimer’s patients ten years ago.) But other than our afternoons spent with the bird book, I never truly shared that interest with her. I can’t tell you how often I wish I had a do-over, or that today I could reach past what’s taken away her mind and say, “I get it now! Let me show you everything I’ve learned!”

I wish that I could take her for a walk in the Old Forest.

Painted skimmer
This painted skimmer is as happy to be here as I am.

Because there’s no place in this city that makes me feel more alive than the forest. Everything about it feels special. There are very few cities in the country that can claim an urban escape with trees of the age and size we have here, and that’s because most old-growth forests in cities have long since been destroyed. There’s no telling how large the Old Forest once was, but the piece we have left is so precious.

Here’s what the forest meant to George Kessler, who designed Overton Park:

Nowhere in the United States, except in the Pacific Northwest, will you find tree growth as luxuriant as in the Western Tennessee and Eastern Arkansas forests, and in the two hundred acres of virgin forest in Overton Park you have a property which, as a heritage to the public for the enjoyment of nature, equals in value the cost of the entire park system to the present time.”

And here’s what it means to me.

Broadhead skinkIt means the song of the wood thrush, which somehow sounds like both an arcade game and a perfectly tuned musical instrument. It means the bright red head of a skink, hanging out on a log. It means neighborhood kids learning to ride their bikes on the roads. It means the mourning cloak butterfly that came to rest on my hand early one spring as I shielded my eyes from the sun. It means stumbling upon a group of owlets on a humid early-summer day, watching enraptured as I slapped the mosquitoes off my arms. It means watching our urban forestry fellows measure the height of the tallest trees, the fall leaves reflecting in their mirrored tools. It means the hard, hard winters when my mom was fighting the cancer that took her much too soon, and the only peace I could find in the world being on those trails. Watching the woodpeckers through the barren branches, I knew that at least there was something left in the world for me to hold onto.

The chuck-will’s-widow, or as I initially termed it, “THAT WEIRD BIRD”

It’s not an exaggeration to say I’m not sure how I could have made it through these past few years without the Old Forest. It’s my sanctuary, my inspiration, my place of discovery. Nothing compares to the feeling of going for a walk and finding something you never expected. In the past week alone, I’ve stumbled upon a painted skimmer dragonfly (a species that has never been recorded in Shelby County) and a chuck-will’s-widow lounging in a tree. The last record of that heavily camouflaged bird in the Old Forest is from 1979. That predates me (although not by much)!

The gift that being a naturalist (albeit an amateur one) gives me is that it turns the world into a treasure hunt. Everywhere I go, I see with eyes that are open to the hidden beauty of the earth. But the most rewarding thing of all is to find your special place, spend time there as often as possible, and come to know and love it deeply. That’s how I feel about the Old Forest. And the best part is that we all get to share it–it’s free and open to everyone, 365 days a year. You’ll never enter these woods without seeing something beautiful. Thanks for letting me share this place with you, Memphis.

– Melissa McMasters