The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

We are not alone

It was like standing on the edge of a pool, watching the trees change color as a river of fog flowed over the far ridge, filling the valley in front of me, flowing up the slope to gently, silently wrap itself around me.

The fog condensed on the leaves of pines and Scarlet oaks, collecting into drops that fell gently onto my shirtless shoulders. Trees shivered at the impending winter, shaking blizzards of expired summer raiment cascading to the soil. Even as they fade into the soil, the leaves create a kaleidoscope of color, illustrating the diversity of life surrounding me.

Halfway up the remaining slope, I stepped over a dozen beetles scrambling around atop a chunk of granite. I snapped a few pictures to aid a look-up when I returned home. A quick perusal of the digital encyclopedia – a.k.a. Internet – revealed they reside among dead leaves and other expired vegetation, and most of them occupy their time carnivorizing other invertebrates. No wonder they appeared lost atop that rock; they should have been under it.

There is a lot of that rock left from the creation of the South Mountain region of South Central Pennsylvania, but this was the first time I’d found these little critters. Turns out, their ancestors go back at least 200 million years, and there are more than 60,000 varieties worldwide.

I have always loved wandering in the woods, but when I was smaller, my view was larger. Mostly, I knew hardwood for keeping warm in winter and softwood for selling to local mills for making paper. I loved slipping through the forest and “stumbling across” deer and raccoons. I once left my canoe in the brush and walked up a path and rounded a corner to nearly run into a mama moose and her two offspring.

The past couple years I have begun paying more attention to where I put my feet. I still am friends with the bigger critters, and trees that are way older than I and getting older often prompt me to ask what they have seen while waiting for me to show up.

It has been said, “Reality is an illusion.” I think it had a different meaning then than I take from it now, but wandering in the woods is like wandering in my very own science fiction story. Those beetles I found, for instance, as I stepped over their world: Did the young among them hunker into dinner that evening and regale each other with descriptions of that huge tree-like creature that stepped over their rock? Were they frightened at the thought of being squooshed?

OK, that last question might have been a bit of a stretch, though we do not really know at what level of existence creatures become aware of being alive, or soon not to be.

Gradually, I began wondering how many other species share the planet, trying to eke out a living, and by their efforts making the place a little more livable for the rest of us.

Those beetles, for instance, helping to turn leaves into compost to feed other plants, which feed mammals that feed humans. That’s why it’s called the “food chain.” We humans like to think we are at the top of it, but we’re not. Just ask someone who got too close to a Grizzly Bear.

And from those thoughts came a desire to watch where I am walking, to introduce myself to the myriad creatures with whom I share the woods.

What is the most interesting or revealing discovery you have met while wandering in “wild” habitat? Drop a note in the comments.


  1. Denise Lockamy

    November 7, 2022 at 20:41

    Mushrooms! It wasn’t until the pandemic required me to entertain myself that I started noticing the incredible variety of fungi in my own yard and woods, and the rapidity of their appearance. Now every time it rains I’m out there looking for new surprises.

  2. We went deep sea fishing when I was a teenager. First time I ever witnessed real flying fish! They flew into the boat narrowly missing my face! On the same trip we floated close to a huge leather back sea turtle. It seemed to be as large as the shrimp trawler we we in. Just wonderful!

  3. I once laid in a moonlit beach on Cumberlan Island, Georgia, with my hand on the head of a loggerhead turtle laying eggs in the sand. She angled her head up and took a long breath. I felt a connection that still moves me.

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