The confusion kicked in after about ten minutes of hiking Forest Park’s Wildwood Trail. I had taken the MAX, a short bike ride, and suddenly I was out of the identity-stripping hustle and bustle of city life and into a place that had startling similarities to a beautiful, remote nature preserve. To call this ‘a change of scenery’ would be as dramatic of an understatement as I could imagine. I walked down the trail, my thoughts slowed, and I began to notice my surroundings. A calm came over me that I rarely experience living in downtown Portland. On some level, I felt that by entering Forest Park, a place I had never been before, I had come home.
My fingers felt the softness of the thimbleberry leaf, my ears echoed with the woodpecker’s knocking, and my vision bounced from tree to tree, marveling at their height and a sense of wisdom they seem to imbue. But on another more unexpected, and perhaps more profound level, I noticed a connection with my fellow humans that I saw on the trail. We only had one point of commonality; the fact we both traveled through the forest. Regardless, every encounter included some sort of greeting. At the very least a head nod was exchanged, but sometimes, full conversations were sparked. How could this be? These people were strangers, and in a matter of seconds, some had become friends. Did the trees really help bring us together?
Before I came to intern at Friends of Trees, I looked up their mission statement: it goes as follows, “Friends of Trees is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit whose mission is to bring people together to plant and care for city trees and green spaces in Pacific Northwest communities.” After I read this, I honestly didn’t have much idea of what it meant. Even after working for two weeks at FOT, it still wasn’t clear. Looking back, I think that at the heart of my misunderstanding was a doubt. I didn’t really believe in the power of trees. But in my defense, mission statements and interns operate on very different time scales. One is permanent and long term while the other is, by definition, transient.
So, I offer this post as a means to help subsequent Duke Engage Interns and first time volunteers at FOT connect with the larger FOT mission. My advice is to not solely read the mission statement- visit it- because at Forest Park, it is manifested in a way that just can’t be ignored. More plainly, before you doubt the ability of the natural world to strengthen individual and community ties, take a trip to Forest Park, or any wild place for that matter, and stay awhile. Make an effort to open yourself to fellow runners and hikers and watch how the forest, nature’s community, destroys the false boundaries society creates and accentuates our deepest and most basic human qualities- the same qualities that Friends of Trees brings to Northwest neighborhoods.
-Jack Gavigan is the Duke Engage Intern with Friends of Trees