Find a Moment of Awe—in the Forest

Barry Boyce on how the glory of trees can connect us to what matters.

Caleb Jones/Unsplash

Each day as I come home from work, I walk on a tree-lined street that’s like a small forest. Some days I’m utterly lost in thought, but when possible I try to drink it all in. It’s so much more nourishing than looking at a screen. If I had to choose between a tree and a newsfeed—including a newsfeed about beautiful trees—I would choose the tree. Every time.

If I had to choose between a tree and a newsfeed—including a newsfeed about beautiful trees—I would choose the tree. Every time.

A friend of mine is an arborist who has long exposed me, on excursion after excursion in parks and wilderness, to the wonders of trees and forests, first in Pennsylvania and now in California. Whenever we enter the land of trees, almost instantly the mood changes. There is a palpable slowing down of thought and speech. You can hear more, and better. You begin to sense with more of your body, and there is even a preternatural settledness that can easily overtake you. Some psychologists now consider this complex of mental and bodily experiences to be an emotion, which they call awe, and it’s considered restorative. The forest is Awe Central.

In his magical book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World, author and forester Peter Wohlleben—who worked for the German forestry commission for decades before overseeing his own Beech woodland and working for the return of primeval forests—unfolds, in one compact chapter after another, the story of why trees are so magnificent and why they affect us. First off, trees are living creatures—not inert objects merely decorating our world. They live, breathe, eat, sleep, make mistakes and learn, communicate, cooperate, and compete, as they ceaselessly reach for light and water.

One of the profound ways being amid trees affects us is through the time scale. Youth for many trees starts at 150; old age can be 500 or more. When you spend time around something existing in those kinds of time frames, it can alter your perspective, so focused as it is on the next minute, hour, day, week, year. Perhaps this offers one reason that a study cited by Wohlleben showed that time spent in the forest lowers blood pressure.

Trees also show us how deeply entrained community is in our surroundings. They network and communicate with each other by exploiting a vast underground system of fungi, warning other trees of dangers and opportunities. Some trees, like aspens, are really not a group of separate entities. They are one organism, and when, in a strong wind, a whole grove of aspens shivers and shimmers as one, it can overtake you with awe.

Perhaps the greatest features of these large organisms that we share our world with is that their power and grace and talent—and indeed their “technology”—can help us reduce our obsession with being the center of everything and expose the folly and selfishness of short-term thinking. They allow us to feel that—as part of a much greater whole—we are both small and large. And while our individual time on Earth is short, our actions ripple through time, and as a human community, our life is very, very long.