Loving the Forest

Photo by Jeff Rogers I have always loved the forest. Ever since I was a child, I have loved walking through the woods, simply exploring. This fascination eventually led me to more serious hiking and backpacking, especially in my native Alabama, where oak, hickory, sweet gum, tulip tree, and white pine are abundant and accessible. A path winding through the woods was an invitation that always drew me in. My father and grandfather heated their homes with wood. We generally only burned trees that were cut down for some other purpose. At times my father would even take a side-job felling a tree in someone”s yard. Afterward we would cut it up and haul it home for splitting and curing. I attended college in Kentucky and worked for awhile as a groundskeeper. We had around 200 trees on our campus. I stuck a field guide in my back pocket when running the mowers and would stop at every new tree to identify it. Studying the 40 different species through all the seasons helped me to commit them to memory. More importantly, it unveiled a deep passion for trees. After marrying, my wife and I moved to Colorado and I began to work in the vast national forests. Though the west was beautiful on a macroscopic scale-the “big sky effect”-I missed the hardwoods of Alabama and Kentucky and the immense biodiversity of Appalachia and the temperate deciduous forests. When my wife and I made the decision to move back to Kentucky, we also made the decision to heat our new home with fallen trees. At the time, I was not one to be particularly wasteful, but I wasn”t keenly aware of any environmental ethic either. My passion for creation had been largely focused on its uses as a place of recreation and renewal. Though I did have a strong understanding of the impacts of humans on wilderness areas through their use of it, I didn”t connect my wilderness ethics while on the trail and in the woods to my daily life choices, The decision to heat with wood made this connection for me in an incredibly strong way. I became ecologically thoughtful. My love of trees became real on multiple levels. I thought often about their value to my family, our community, and our culture. As I became aware of the wastefulness of our development habits, I began approaching developers who were bulldozing and burning trees in order to construct new roads or neighborhoods; I wanted the trees to use for firewood. I committed to only burning trees that were being removed anyway. I chose to split all of my wood by hand and extensively studied how to get the most BTU”s per cord of wood. I invested in a more efficient woodstove. This tree fascination has led my family on a broader creation care journey. Wherever possible, we have come out on the side of simplification and conservation. Today, as a teacher and as a father, I want my students and children to love trees, to know them by name, to understand their benefit as living things, but also to understand their value as a resource of strength and beauty. I want them to realize a sustainable approach to forestry. And I want them to plant trees in their yards some day, like the large chinquapin oak with a wildly irregular crown on a rocky outcropping near our home–a daily reminder of my love for trees, and the Creator”s love for me.

Trent Ellsworth is the coordinator for outdoor adventure programs at Asbury University. He lives in Wilmore, KY, with his wife Emily and their two young children.