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Dispatches from the Field: Knobby Knees and Big Trees

By Katie Kull

The first time I experienced Joyce Kilmer – Slickrock Wilderness, I was 6 years old. Like many local families, we had loaded into our Jeep that day to hike the Memorial Loop in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, and, more specifically, to see the Big Trees. I was an eager child, with knobby knees and bright green socks, and as we pulled into the parking lot, I remember feeling a wave of anticipation. My mother grabbed her camera and we hit the trail.

For those who have never hiked the Memorial Loop, it has two pieces – the Lower Loop, and the Upper Loop. Though the Lower Loop is beautiful, and at that time still exhibited many large, stately hemlock trees, the real excitement starts when you get to the Upper Loop, and the massive tulip-poplars that are usually referred to as ‘Poplar Grove’. As I first laid eyes on their sweeping trunks, I felt giddy with excitement. Having lived an explicitly east-coast childhood, I had never seen a tree so huge in my life. I fondly remember my parents, younger brother, and I linking hands and trying to reach around one of the cratered, mossy boles. When we couldn’t quite encircle the trunk on our own, a pair of passing visitors rushed up to help us meet our goal. Before we left the Memorial Forest that day, my mom snapped a photo of my father, my brother, and I standing in between two spectacular tulip-poplars, my bangs sticking to my forehead in the heat of July. I left that afternoon positively transfixed, but I couldn’t have known what the old-growth forest preserved in Joyce Kilmer would come to mean to me.

This summer, life brought me back to my favorite place on earth as a member of the SAWS Joyce Kilmer – Slickrock crew. Now a recently graduated forest ecologist, with perhaps less knobby knees, I was relieved to discover that the Big Trees were still there, just as I remembered them. During my crew’s first hitch, we stewarded the Memorial Loop, clearing brush and logs left by the wildfires and wind events of the previous year. Through a strange twist of luck – or, perhaps because everyone who sees these trees takes a picture with them – I even got a picture of myself between those same two tulip-poplars, practically unchanged by the 16 years that had passed. I can’t say the same for myself – I’ve changed considerably, and it’s not just the lack of bangs. The beautiful, ancient forest sounds different to me, now. I can’t help but hear the names of the plants as I pass them, and never fail to smile at the knowing. “You’re like an encyclopedia of biology facts.” my fellow crew member, Jen, said to me earlier this summer. I consider that an exceptional compliment.

The forestry engineer Baba Dioum once said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” Returning to this magnificent forest as a student has transformed my appreciation, and in turn I have also been transformed into a teacher, sharing the things I have learned with my friends. Every identification, every fun fact, every well-timed photo leads me deeper into the supreme appreciation of this place, and of its federal wilderness designation. It’s the greatest gift I’ve ever been given, and it’s there for all of us.

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