WILD THINGS: Not All Classrooms Have Walls

Trees have always had a special place in my outdoor adventures. 

Long before using them as ambush sites in hopes of eventually serving wild game on a dinner plate, trees were for climbing so high that my mother – watching the last of her eight kids throw caution to the wind – might have needed a little something to help calm her nerves after my leap-of-faith return to the grass.

Trees also provided shade from the hot, summer sun on solo fishing adventures to local creeks and lakes. They absorbed and deflected unwanted noise, and produced moist, oxygenated air to breathe.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, the Japanese have called it shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” for decades. Combining a mindful tuning-in of the senses with spending time in nature, the practice was developed as a therapy for preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine during the 1980s.

Researchers found that strolling through forests reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol, lowered blood pressure and increased the activity of disease-fighting white blood cells. 

Olivia Witthun, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) forestry specialist, agrees. She said exposure to trees and green environments reduces depression, anxiety and stress, and in doing so, it improves mental health, mood and life function.

But there’s even more to it than that. Ever wonder why you feel so good after a walk on the wild side? Scientists say it may be from breathing in volatile organic compounds called phytoncides: the “essential oils” emitted by trees and plants. Cedars and pines – species we have in abundance here – are among the most potent producers.

Hunters, anglers, birders and other forest-recreation users have long known about the benefits of a walk in the woods, even if they didn’t have a clue about the science.

Trees clean the air and help clean drinking water for millions of Americans. They also provide valuable cover and food for wildlife: One mature oak can drop up to 10,000 acorns in a mast year. Most are gobbled up by birds and mammals, but every so often, one germinates and begins a journey that could last hundreds of years and reach nearly 100 feet into the sky.

Trees slow and filter rainwater and can protect groundwater and soil around rivers, lakes and streams. A large one can pull about 100 gallons of water out of the ground and discharge it into the air in a single day. 

Trees beautify our properties, and some produce delicious fruit to eat, or sap that can be made into sugary-sweet syrup. 

They also provide wood that can be used for warmth or cooking in a campfire, fireplace or wood stove; or cut into lumber to build homes, furniture and boats.

Wisconsin has more than 17 million acres of forested land, nearly a third of it owned and sustainably managed by county, state and federal governments. Most of the rest is owned by about 391,000 individuals and families, and many earn cash from selective timber harvests. 

Wisconsin’s 1,200-plus forest-product companies contribute more than $24 billion to the state economy each year, providing more than 63,000 jobs as they produce writing and tissue paper, lumber, food packaging and dozens of other items. 

Think the TP shortage during the early days of COVID-19 was bad? Imagine what would have happened if Wisconsin hadn’t been No. 1 in the country in papermaking for more than 60 years!

Not all the news is good, however. During a County Deer Advisory Council meeting in March, DNR forester Jake Schroeder said data show high deer numbers equal low regeneration of young trees. Many local landowners find that deer continually browse young seedlings, hampering their reforestation efforts.

Sources of Tree Information

Dozens of websites offer virtual treasure troves of information about trees, including species identification aids and details about the best trees and shrubs to plant in our area to nurture birds and other wildlife. Here are a few:

• The Wisconsin DNR’s site ( has sections dedicated to tree planting for wildlife, the top native plants to attract pollinators, and facts on forestry, including state forests, parks and other public recreation areas.

• Another valuable website to bookmark is that of the National Arbor Day Foundation ( The organization offers 10 free trees with a membership and recently launched the Time for Trees initiative.

• Finally, Trees for Tomorrow ( in Eagle River – which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary – offers school programs, nature adventures, adult learning and summer programs for all. Every May, it sells containerized tree seedlings with roots already growing in a plug of soil.