The woods and us

"White-throated sparrow," one of many drawings featured in "Within These Woods," a new book by Dr. Timothy Goodwin of Bemidji State University.

“White-throated sparrow,” one of many drawings featured in “Within These Woods,” a new book by Dr. Timothy Goodwin of Bemidji State University.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

I smile to see the midnight fireflies from my darkened bedroom in the woods. The fireflies of my youth in the Sax-Zim Bog twinkled like stars. We see fewer today, but still enough to inspire wonder. Suddenly my smile drained away. What if my boys remember a few fireflies when there are none? We read of vanishing moose, changes in bird migrations, the recession of the boreal forest. What else from our woods might disappear before the next generation?

We carved into a forest to build our home 10 years ago. It was impossible to miss the fact that in addition to the trees we felled by machine, other plant life quickly died from the shock of digging shovels and sudden sunlight. Over the years every storm brought down a new casualty — maples, basswood, the tallest white pine. We are finally starting to reach equilibrium with the woods, learning the names of creatures we once ignored, but I have come to understand that my steps are as consequential as that of the skunks’ and rare black bear’s.

This is the backdrop of reading the new book “Within These Woods” by Timothy Goodwin, a biologist and professor at Bemidji State University. Goodwin’s essays and drawings aren’t just a walk through nature; rather, they each strive to establish the relationship between creatures and humans, a pairing both divine and oftentimes strained.

Once timber is harvested, land cleared for farming or houses, what was once an independent forest becomes something else — natural, perhaps, but interdependent with humans. Interdependency means both parties have rights and responsibilities.

Goodwin writes about the northern woods around the Great Lakes. He writes of his family’s cabin in Northern Wisconsin, but Northern Minnesota readers would find that every plant, animal and bird described is just as familiar. Indeed, only humans observe the arbitrary notion of political boundaries.

From spring peepers to hawks, snapping turtles to white pines, deer to the remarkable little deer mice which build cities in the snow — we learn the names of creatures so easy to ignore if you ignore the wilds which sustain the planet. For instance, in one moment the reader learns about the biology and habitat of the Great Blue Heron; in the next moment Goodwin finds a way to relate the treetop communities of heron nests to our own big cities:

“Though we may perceive that we have removed ourselves from nature, this is not possible,” writes Goodwin. “Even living in the most concreted-over metropolis, we are not removed from nature. Even on a busy city sidewalk, we are surrounded by and connected to life in a myriad of ways. There is a crucial different though: we should know better.”

Each of Goodwin’s essays begins with a profile of a familiar North Woods creature, accompanied by an original drawing that reminds one of the field guides published in another time. Though I am a country boy, familiar with many of the animals described, each essay taught me something entirely new thanks to Goodwin’s detailed observations and clear, sincere writing.

But more than that, each essay relates that creature to an element of humanity — topics ranging from ecology to philosophy, spirituality to anthropology. Goodwin’s personal stories — simple, but relatable — help us learn about the life around us, not much different from life plainly seen in his world.

The book culminates in one final essay about the night sky above the Northland, merging Ojibwe legends of the constellations with what we’ve learned through the study of astronomy.

Writes Goodwin, “As easy as it would be to feel insignificant and alone under this vast night sky, I instead feel rooted to this place, connected to the life in these woods, and therefore part of something miraculous.”

“Within These Woods” not only connects the reader to the natural world, helping us learn the names of the creatures in our woods, it builds our ancient relationship with the place around us. For brief, amazing moments it helps us forget we are part of civilization and remember that we are part of natural creation.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, July 19, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Herbert Davis says

    Enjoy your site and think it is a great educational tool for us city folk. Suggest you read about spontaneous methane release and climate change so you are inspired to become a scout leader and teach youngsters the skills they will need in the world we are leaving them.
    I do realize you think you are a youngster but, time marches on and the climate future is changing at a progressive rate.

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