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Quiet places.

When Theodore Roosevelt was 25, he was summoned home on February 13, 1884. At three the next morning, his mother died. Thirteen hours later and one floor downstairs, his wife died in his arms just one day after giving birth to their baby.

A grief-stricken Roosevelt buried the two women, baptized and found care for his infant daughter, and completed the major responsibility on his calendar--serving as a delegate to the 1884 Republican convention.

As soon as the convention adjourned, he trained westward to North Dakota, climbed on a horse, and spent five days enveloped in prairie solitude. In the vastness of the Dakota Badlands, young Roosevelt found enough relief to return to civilization feeling, he said, "as absolutely free as any man can feel."

Fortunately, few of us suffer the deaths of two loved ones in a single day. But we have our own days of grief and depression amid the relentless stress of 20th-century life. Some find solace in vigorous exercise or hobbies as a balm for nerves frayed by life in a complex society. Others fail to handle the traffic and noise and gravitate toward crime, drugs, or other antisocial behavior.

Millions of Americans, however, find themselves, like Theodore Roosevelt, drawn to the quiet restorative powers of nature. Unable to clear their calendar and trek to a distant wilderness, they do the next best thing--find a patch of woods near home or office. It may be a small urban park or something as simple as a vacant lot overlooked by developers. There they spend a few moments or hours leaning against the trunks, sitting on stumps, staring at a brook or perhaps the sea, or lying prostrate cradled in prairie grasses.

"Wherever I've lived, I've always had a special patch of woods to visit when I needed to," says one New Jerseyite. "Even when I can't get out of the house, I've discovered that I can partly draw one of my blinds and block off all signs of people, leaving me a view of trees. It's soothing."

In my job as director of Iowa's Indian Creek Nature Center, I manage a 140-acre natural area that includes a few patches of prairie, an upland oak forest, and a cottonwoody creekbottom. The trails that wind through it are trod by many of the 107,000 residents of nearby Cedar Rapids.

Over the past decade, I have noticed a pattern in those who frequent the nature center. A young woman I encountered one day last spring typifies the new users. While I was walking one lunch break, I spotted her propped against a box elder overlooking the creek. A clipboard was perched on her knees. When I greeted her and asked if she was going college class work, she replied, "No, my fiance is in the Army in Korea, and I feel close to him here, so I visit this spot to write him letters."

A conservatively dressed businessman I met walking a trail at noon said, "You know, I bought a cellular phone to keep in touch with my business contacts and family, but I've learned that there are times I don't want to be in touch. The phone stole the privacy I once enjoyed in my car. Now, when I want to get away from the world, I come here and walk."

Stump sitters, I call them, and they are attracted to the woods by a vague force. Some write. Others read. Most think, but all seek at the least solitude and inspiration.

Reverend Jeremy Brigham is a frequent stump sitter. "I like the woods because it reminds me of my congregation," he says. "Like people, some trees are round. Others are skinny. Some are prickly, and some look soft. When I was a young minister in Cincinnati, it would depress me when a member of my congregation died. But one day I sat in a patch of woods near the city, and I could see that a tree might die, but the forest lived on. It's just the same with people in my congregation."

Municipalities float bond issues to build all sorts of facilities for recreation from swimming pools to softball diamonds, and businesses construct indoor tennis courts, skating rinks, and golf courses. All cater to people seeking escape. But we have yet to recognize fully and with enough foresight that woodlands fulfill the same need.

Few organizations or governments make an effort to protect these small sanctuaries. Partly it's because stump sitters are hard to count. They're out there, but scattered and hidden. No license is required, and by nature stump sitters shun company. They create no crowds to count, are rarely photographed for the newspapers, and are all but unknown to city fathers, land managers, and recreation decisionmakers.

Perhaps worse, the facility they need is available without cost or need for development or supervision. All too many people refuse to recognize the value of anything that comes free.

Quiet natural places are disappearing fast as America urbanizes. They are being dozed and chainsawed into oblivion--making way for roads, tract houses, and fast-food joints.

Similar urbanization occurred in England centuries ago. For generations many Londoners lived their lives divorced from even the tiniest patch of trees. But the need stayed rooted deep. Dr. David Goode, director of the London Ecology Project, has coordinated a group that convinces the government to remove abandoned buildings and rubble heaps and covert the lots into tiny urban forests. Neighborhood children plant trees, flowers, and grasses.

"These places are biologically mundane, but they have tremendous psychological importance for people," says Goode. "The kids who create them use them, but so do their grandparents who grew up deprived of trees and greenery."

Fortunately, in the United States most cities still have patches of woods tucked behind schoolyards, between housing developments, and along creeks and railroad tracks. It's far easier, cheaper, and biologically preferable to save existing woods than it is to try to re-create them as Goode is now doing.

Activists fight to save forests to maintain species diversity, reduce greenhouse gases, retain scenic values, or produce lumber, firewood, or pulpwood. Noble causes all, but they neglect the important fact that, psychologically and emotionally, individuals and families need smaller, nearby sitting woods where they can converse without the interruption of a telephone or the distraction of Nintendo.

These refuges need only be large enough to provide peace and privacy. In this opinion I differ from my ecological colleagues. When faced with a triage-type decision of whether to save one five-acre piece of woods or five one-acre patches from development, they invariably choose the large tract, citing the substantially richer array of species likely to inhabit it. I'd choose scattered smaller tracts, where kids may ride through on bicycles or stop off on their way home from school.

Of all natural habitats, perhaps woodlands are the best for providing solitude solely because they offer maximum privacy per acre. It takes a big prairie to get out of sight of other people unless you're willing to hunker down beneath the bluestem. Sea and lake shores offer magnificent sitting sites, but they are usually heavily used and developed.

Some argue that nature specials on television provide education otherwise obtained in sitting woods. However, on TV can provide true solitude. "I prefer nature without a middle man," says Cindy Thompson, a frequent nature-center stump sitter.

All across the nation, feisty neighborhood groups are arising to do battle when dozers threaten a nearby woods. Unfortunately, these hastily planned defensive battles are too often lost. But more and more solitude lovers are banding together to go on the offense, forming local groups to protect scraps of woods before developers set their sights on them. Trees Forever in Iowa is doing just that, and similar groups are forming in other states. They are being helped by AFA's tree-planting initiative, Global ReLeaf, which offers a national perspective.

In the 21st century, Americans will have more and more need for sitting woods to bring calm to their lives. If we don't save enough patches of trees to put every American a short walk from a quiet place, future generations may be haunted by the words of a 1969 Joni Mitchell song, "Big Yellow Taxi" (Siquomb Publishing Co., 55 Liberty St., New York, NY 10005):

Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Forests
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; "stump sitting" in the woods proves very relaxing
Author:Patterson, Rich
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Previous Article:The playwright who planted trees.
Next Article:Urban green and cold cash.

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