I have hiked the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest twice. The first time was an overwhelming experience. The second time, while still a beautiful hike, brought great sadness. North Carolina’s “Land of the Giants” memorializes poet and World War I serviceman Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, who gave his life on a French battlefield when he was struck in the head by a German sniper’s bullet. But before he became a casualty of the Great War, Sgt. Kilmer left us with an American literary treasure.
Kilmer’s poem “Trees,” is a beloved work that has been memorized and recited by schoolchildren everywhere for decades past. Even I have used the poem many times in class as an introduction to couplets and personification and parody. Ogden Nash’s simple, yet powerfully brilliant parody “Song of the Open Road” is a personal favorite to which I’m sure most backroad riders can relate:
I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest has a story of its own to rival that of its namesake. This 3,800 acre virgin forest was set to be cut before the Great Depression hit, but when lumber prices plummeted it was spared. In 1936, upon petition of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, this site was selected and dedicated to honor Sgt. Kilmer forever.
The primary two-mile figure-8 trail through the forest offers a moderately easy hike with options at the intersection to continue to the .75-mile upper loop or complete the lower 1.25-mile loop. The largest tulip poplar trees, however, are found on the upper loop, and although they cannot rival the redwoods and sequoias in California, they are impressive and breathtaking all the same.
Forest maintenance traditionally has been hands-off, in the spirit of giving the old-growth forest the appearance of being untouched by man. Only trees that fell across the trail or posed imminent danger were sawed or cleared away. Sadly, two species have become casualties of exotic encroachment. The American chestnut fell victim to an Asian blight in the early 1900s, and although their stumps can be found to this day, they disappeared from the forest not long after its dedication.
This was the forest I hiked on my first visit. By the second visit, three years later, the forest had changed. Scores of fallen trees and twisted stumps made our first impression that a tornado had ripped through the area. When we emerged from the forest hike we learned in the visitors area that these giant hemlock trees had fallen prey to the hemlock woolly adelgid, an exotic insect that feeds on the sap and eventually kills these trees. The danger of falling limbs and dead trees forced forest managers in November of 2010, to dynamite these trees rather than sawing them down to give their remains a natural, or windthrown, appearance. Although I understand what had to be done and appreciate their efforts, the effect was not convincing. It looked more like a war zone to me. Hopefully, forest regrowth in time will camouflage the unfortunate devastation.
But all is not lost. Many healthy hemlock trees remain in the forest, and managers continue to wage war against woolly adelgid so that this regal species does not go the way of the American chestnut. And that’s not all! Most of the downed trees are confined to the lower loop, leaving the upper loop with the giant tulip poplars as majestic as ever . . . .
The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is an American treasure not to be missed. Although it makes for a lovely hike any time of year, I highly recommend hiking the forest in the autumn. The fall color and cool air will make your visit an unforgettable experience.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
—Sgt. Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)