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Madelynn Miller: Nature 101: Lessons From a Tree

I am by no means an expert on nature. I’m a naturalist, but not a nature-ologist. I see the world for its intrinsic value, not for the molecular happenings of trees and riverbeds. I am a simple girl who finds herself whole in nature; a girl who feels a sense of relief when the tallest things around me are the trees, not a skyscraper reflecting sunbeams on to my pale face. But that doesn’t mean I know nothing about nature. I know something about trees.

My education in the trees started well before ten, but by that age I knew vacations to the woods were no more routine than brushing my teeth every morning. When we would drive to small town Pinegrove, Grandpa would take me on walks in the woods on the ten-acres of land we own there. The trail is nothing more than trimmed-back branches between the oaks and mangroves, creating a sort of grassy path that leads to nowhere. On our walk, we see Eastern box turtles with necks painted traffic cone orange and firetruck red. They always look like crayons that have been left out in the sun too long—stripes flowing across their noses to the tip of their shell. We see squirrels, usually grey ones, with tails longer and poofier than a household duster. But none of these compare in quantity to the deer. Whitetail deer, abundant in Eastern Pennsylvania, roam the forests. Parades of doe scurry through the underbrush like they are playing a game of tag. I never noticed how high they jump until I saw them next to half-snapped trees from years of decay and lightning storms. They can jump as high as ten feet with those bony legs. No wonder Grandpa and Dad say that venison is the leanest and cleanest protein for our bodies.

Finding these animals was no small feat. On many of our walking trips, I found myself standing no more than two feet from skittish animals, both of us shocked by our unintentional crossing. Intertwining mountain laurel clouded my peripherals. Tall conifers and oaks disrupted my 20/20 vision. But the trees taught me careful attention; they taught me care. When I took the time to notice the little movements between the trees, I could see what hid between the wild bushes ten feet ahead of me. I learned to look for the sandy-white of a deer’s tail in between low hanging branches. I learned to look closely at the ferns beneath my feet so as not to crush an innocent turtle.

I can never forget the sound of the birds when I woke up in the morning. Loud skree and small chip chip filled the trailer from the open windows, letting cool air pass through the stuffy interior. Looking outside, I saw the birds cuddled next to each other in their nests out on tree limbs. And at night, the sound of peepers and bullfrogs grup grup polluted my ability to think. The trees’ leaves would flitter in the nighttime breeze, calming the inhales and exhales of my breath. There was no need for a sound machine when Mother Nature was right there, singing me a lullaby. And the stream: a constant rushing sound filled my brain when I heard it. The sound of dead trees burning into crackling fire crunched my bones. I could feel the warmth of that fire on my shins even when I just heard it. 

Nighttime sounds blocked anxious thoughts. The soft sways of the limbs mimicked mine as I calmed unsteady breaths. The gentle breeze in the leaves taught me calmness. There was no time to cloud the mind with what-ifs, judgments, and questions with no answer. There was only time to look at the stars in passing. It is what some may call bliss—I like to call it really living

The trees were prolific, spanning miles of open space. Some as tall as fifty feet, others no more than one. Leaves of all kinds littered the forest floor. I remember as a young child walking through these woods and collecting leaves with five lobes, leaves with toothed edges, leaves with multiple little leaves, and some with nothing left but a stem. Under the conifers were the best treasures, though: pinecones of all sizes. Some as long as a finger, others just the size of a fingernail. I would take these back to the small trailer situated in the middle of an opening in the forest. I made things. Bird feeders: pinecones rolled in peanut butter and bird seed; necklaces; little people using glue, googly eyes, and little twigs. I never brought toys along to the woods because I knew I could find enough entertainment there without them. Plastic was inferior to twigs; play-doh inferior to mud. 

Leaf hunting became like cloud watching—one looked like a bunny, others a shark. But most importantly, these trees taught me to give back what I took. Pinecones are the way in which conifers propagate and spread seeds. After I would take these life-giving shells to use for human entertainment; I always tossed them back out into the woods, where one day another little girl could come back and have her own pine tree, her own pinecones. The trees also taught me to never take more than I need. The beauty of nature is its ability to regenerate on its own, but only if humans take little from it. Taking pinecones and leaves modestly allows both human creativity and the natural world to thrive. 

Mountain laurels grow everywhere in wild Pennsylvania. It is common to see twenty to thirty mountain laurels in one spot. They grow into each other, creating what looks like a home for hobbits. When I was only eight, I wished to build a fort in those trees. I pictured draping cloths over a few outer branches, hanging a lantern from a low-hanging bough, laying sleeping bags on the dirty, rocky floor to prevent bruises from forming on my skin when I sat down. There were rules, of course. No adults allowed. Boys? I don’t think so. Books? Yes. I would imagine deer becoming my friends, the squirrels my bodyguards, snakes my enemies. It didn’t help that I watched Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and all the other Disney princesses when I was younger; they could always talk to the animals in ways I could not.


The gentle light flickering above my snug, perfectly small hole brought warmth to more than my extremities. The soft sounds of the rustling branches and flickering ferns reminded me of nightly bedtime stories. I felt less threatened in the natural world, free from human-made dangers: car accidents, robbery, and weapons. It was a home free of human implications.

On the path through the woods was a diversion from the regular route. We would make a left and go down a steep hill covered in ferns. Dad was always scared of the snakes that hid in the shadows. I wondered what else could hide in there, the way I wanted to hide in my mountain laurels. One more left would take us to a sparse forest filled with young saplings. Down one more small hump and the forest opens to a river. There are two levels of the bank: up top is a platform where my parents and grandparents would set up lawn chairs to watch us swim in the river. They would always pack a cooler filled with food and drinks knowing we’d end up being there the whole day. We’d fish from up there too. The water was filled with native trout and little sunnies. On the bank below was a rocky landing that led into the riverbed floor. We would skip rocks and see who could jump the farthest. We would blow up innertubes and float or play in them, using string tied to the trees lining the riverbank as anchors in the strong current. Sometimes, though, we would drive to the mouth of the river and float into town on the tubes. Back when the river was high, we would never get stuck on rocks or shallow waters. The river became a central memory of my time in Pinegrove. 

Every year I would travel to this river, a new tree would sprout, or an old one fall down. Tubing down the stream showed me the gradual changes to the forest—some good, others bad, but change nonetheless. I knew to never expect sameness, to understand change as a natural cycle in everyday life. I know to this day that change is important, whether it be in the specific angle of a tree branch or understanding and exploring a new grove. 

At home, though, nature is different. 

I live in a two-story house by my family’s sawmill. I wake up to the sound of chainsaws gnawing away at logs of ash and maple. I hear the beep beep beep of the forklift in reverse. I hear a chipper chr-chr-chr wood into beds for horses, cows, and bunnies. At night, I fall asleep to the sound of children screaming at the house down the street, a train chucka-duh-chucka-duh by at sixty miles an hour. I hear the krrr of car wheels taking off too fast or slowing down too late. I hear sirens taking another person to the hospital. 

Forests here are clear-cut. I was fifteen, driving home from a weekend in the mountains. A loud krrrch sound flooded my ears. I turn and see the tallest oak tree in the forest fall onto the ground covered in industrial tire tracks. Saplings peek out from under the fallen tree, searching for light they’ll never see again. Those same birds that woke me up in the morning in Pinegrove lost their homes here. Babies not yet hatched from their eggs shattered into a million little pieces. This isn’t just a pinecone. It’s the entire tree; an entire ecosystem destroyed for human gain. And little does the human race know, the resiliency of the trees has been left to dust. The broken eggs, torn up ground, and lost lives all broke down the ability for the forest to continue to grow, to give to us. Once we’ve taken so much, we can’t take anymore.  

There are still trees. Many of them, though, lining property lines, creating the “perfect” landscape in development housing, even many creating a half-assed excuse for a forest; I walk in five feet and can see my neighbor’s house on the other side. The birds come around too, but only when the noises stop. Only when the cars stop driving forty miles an hour up my thirty-mile street on the outskirts of 230-people-and-counting small-town.

Fire smells different here. Fumes of burning plastic from last night’s dinners—here, they burn garbage and use single-use dinner plates. I smell a chemical company distill their byproducts into the air “safely” and “cautiously” in the middle of the night; the next morning, I taste the putrid, acid sourness of those chemicals in my mouth. 

The deer are still around. I see them when I am out, but they usually have soulless eyes, a bloated stomach, and a tongue sticking out of their mouth like they just took the “silly” photo in a series of family photos. And they are never with other deer. They are laying on the side of the road because they could not jump over a tractor trailer driving twenty miles over the speed limit on a backroad. 

There’s also a river in town; well, actually a creek. Right next to the bar, where men in their eighties who were born and will die in the same town, working for the same manufacturing company that supports our small economy, drink excess amounts of alcohol to cope with lost opportunity. The name could fool you. Toad’s creek—should have a lot of toads, right? Nope. The creek doesn’t even have enough water to support an ecosystem anymore. It’s dried up in most places, leaving the banks littered with those same men’s empty Busch Light cans and Fireball shooters. 

Trees teach me something here too: the single twiggy sapling growing on the side of the creek taught me that it needs food, shelter, and water, not plastic bottles, evaporated streams, and concrete buildings to grow. After so much human pollution intrudes on the natural space, the trees and everything that comes with the trees will die. 

There was a fort in town, too. A wooden park built many years before I was born. Trees surrounded the play area, and children had a place to escape the world. The wooden park looked like a castle, just like I pictured my mountain laurel fort would be. One day a kid was running barefoot and stepped on a needle: heroine. The park was destroyed, and so were the hopes of a better future for the town. 

Humans and nature cannot coincide the way the world has been built. People uproot land to build houses. Trees are cut down to build parks. Animals are killed because of automotive advancement. But most of all, children’s safety and innocence are destroyed when nature and humans cannot work together. Whitetail deer are not seen running peacefully; they are seen dead. Fawns are seen without mothers. Birds are left hiding, scared of the unnatural sounds of revving and motors. And people are left with polluted minds and bodies without an escape into the world we came from.


I’m reminded of a specific lesson Grandpa taught me about the trees: one day we were planing boards back at the sawmill. I noticed a small purple dot spreading into the tree’s inner rings. Grandpa told me that any piercing metals that inject themselves into a tree will bruise it, rotting it from the inside out. In many ways, we are the same as these trees. We feel pain, we rot, and we bruise in every way a tree does. We must learn to appreciate the trees the way we appreciate other humans. A bullet kills more than one thing: humans, animals, trees. Too much human intervention will kill our world.

About the Author:

Madelynn Miller is a Senior at Cedar Crest College. Majoring in both business and English,

Madelynn hopes to work in the nonprofit sector after her college career. Madelynn will be

attending Cedar Crest College for her MBA directly after her undergraduate education.

Madelynn grew up in a small town. Her family owns a small business, as well as private land in Pinegrove and Clinton County, Pennsylvania. Nature is her passion, and the lessons the natural world have taught her shaped her into the young woman she is today.


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