by Emily Alger
As the maple trees turned golden and the earth began to smell of pine needles and fallen leaves, I went for a walk in the woods. I chose one of my favorite spots in South Hero, Tracy Woods. And I invited Anne Tracy, one of the landowners, to come along with me. Meandering along the trails, it’s clear that this forest is a magical place for children and grown-ups alike. Anne and her older brother Charles (who passed away in 1989) had the run of the place while growing up. Anne says, “my grandfather was up in the woods every day. We would go up to find him, or just run around- the woods were my playground… where my imagination grew, where I learned to explore and love the natural world.”
A Magical Place to Be a Child
Anne’s grandfather was an avid woodsman who invited hundreds of boy scouts from the Islands and farther afield to camp in the woods over the years, while her grandmother loved gardens. She describes walking in the woods with her grandparents, learning about the trees from her grandfather and wildflowers from her grandmother. She tagged along with her brother, who encouraged her to feel brave and independent outdoors.
She explored the world of her imagination, playing in an area they called the Enchanted Forest, where small trees grew in an old gravel pit. “I would play Alice in Wonderland- and pretend to eat the cake that makes you big. And then walk out into it and all the trees are dwarfed, so suddenly I was towering over them. And then I would pretend to drink the potion that makes you small and go back into the rest of the woods.”
Outdoor spaces, from the edge of a stream to a wooded hillside, are important places for children. There are plenty of fallen branches, pine cones, leaves, and other materials to collect. There are hidden worlds to discover as they get a little older. Anne remembers building fairy houses in a mossy grove, just feet away from her grandfather, but feeling independent and brave. Those same branches become building materials later, and the tadpoles in the stream become science projects. There is no better way to encourage children to grow up to be naturalists and scientists (whether it’s a profession or a passion) than to let them explore and learn about the natural world in their own backyard. And time spent with a mentor- like Anne’s grandparents were for her- can be equally valuable.
The Call of the Woods- Finding Peace and Renewal
Adults need wild places too. We all face challenges, worries, and fears in our lives. The woods can help us find a sense of calm. I know that when things seem to be moving too fast in my own life, a wander through the woods help me slow down. And while the trees don’t actually speak to me, I often find solutions to my worries while walking or running along a wooded path.
As Anne grew up, her relationship with the woods changed. Her place of exploration and imagination became a peaceful refuge. For Anne, the woods is a healing place, and she says “as soon as I step into the woods, no matter what is going on in my life, I feel like I remember how to breathe, I become re-centered. I’m so grateful for that. All I have to do is come home.”
The Call of the Woods- Finding Peace and Renewal
It’s these feelings the Tracy family wants to share with the South Hero community, today and into the future. Anne says the Woods were a “magical place to grow up, to be a child and explore. And that’s what I want other children to be able to do. To have these woods as a place to come with their parents and go on walks, or come with their school group. To get up into the woods and explore. To learn to love, appreciate, and protect the natural world.” And for adults? She says that to be someplace where we can set aside the worries of the world, “and just be still and breathe and listen,” is something that helps bring a sense of peace and well-being back to our everyday lives.
Neighborhood children already play in these woods, building forts and fairy houses, visiting the giant hemlock trees, and looking for frogs and birds’ nests. Adults walk here, seeking peace and renewal. So when Anne, along with her father Hobart Tracy and his wife Naomi King, came to South Hero Land Trust, wanting to explore the path of land conservation, I was eager to protect this special place. For the family, this is a way to protect a place they love. As Hobart told me, “this has always been our family homestead, and it’s important to keep it that way. Conserving the land makes that possible.” It has become clear that our community feels a connection to this land too, and I am so grateful to the many community members who gave gifts to make this project possible.
We completed our fundraising campaign (with our partners at the Lake Champlain Land Trust) this fall. Thank you for being part of this special project. When the Woods are conserved and the new trails open, the whole community will be able to enjoy this beautiful place.
I hope you’ll join me next summer, for a walk in the woods.