A Thousand Trees from Now

Joseph Gessner, Print and Mail Services

Honorable Mention

As I walk through old forests, the tall tree trunks and high canopies of leaves do not so much block but filter the light. The light streams down on the ferns and mosses, on the soft, rich trail in front of me. The forest overwhelms, and I am released from the everyday to-do lists and problem solving of my mind. It takes me in and forces me to become part of its life. But hiking through a forest is not just a release from my daily life; it is a journey through a complex ecosystem. It is not the beauty of decoration but of entangled biology, organisms battling and working together in a way that sustains life, including our own. The trees don’t thrive or survive on their own but as a forest, as we do not thrive or exist on our own at Princeton University but instead come together to share, nurture, compete, and learn with each other.

I have enjoyed many hikes through the forests of Appalachia, the Adirondacks, and the coastal redwoods, and I have walked the trails of the New Jersey Pinelands since I was boy. Every hike is an adventure into a new world, becoming part of something older, greater, and more mysterious than I. Red oaks and white oaks, hickories and maples, redwoods and Douglas firs, shrub pines and pitcher plants, columbine and valley ferns; more than just trees and plants. And the air, the smell of moss over death, dew over sweat; more than what I can inhale. Chipmunks racing from trunk to tree, hummingbirds whirling from jewelweed to mountain mint; life before and beyond me.

Likewise, at home in Princeton, I relish my daily walks to work through the Princeton campus, passing by the towering dawn redwood and the majestic tulip poplar of Prospect House. I love taking my family and friends on walks past azaleas and mountain laurel on our way to Prospect Garden, admiring the wide variety of flowers and plants while my children run and hide amongst the towering Canadian hemlock trees. I have enjoyed the gardens, trees, and plantings at Princeton University every day I have worked here and visited. It is a gift!

And yet, most of the trees on the Princeton University campus stand as totems or decorations for our journey. They are separate, manicured moments between grass and pavement, but they are no community of trees, no forest, and no true representation of the forests and biology that we need to sustain our life on the planet or even at the University.

What I really crave as I walk through campus is a real community of trees, shrubs, plants, and insects. A high enough canopy of branches and leaves, of oaks and hickories fighting for the sky, to shade the rhododendrons and redbuds, the lichens and moss-covered logs that hug the earth. Maybe only a small forest, but a real forest.

In the last few decades, there have been many people focused on planting trees around the planet, but there has also been a more specific movement to start and develop actual new forests, not just collections of trees. Many of these forests have been planted by members of local communities following a method started by the biologist Akira Miyawaki. In her book, Mini-Forest Revolution: Using the Miyawaki Method to Rapidly Rewild the World, Hannah Lewis celebrates the work of Dr. Miyawaki and the use of his “Miyawaki Method” in establishing new forests throughout the world. Not just planting trees but establishing small and very intense native forests.

“This Technique, which allows for the creation of a mature natural forest in a comparatively small amount of time, is based on a careful calculation of the plant species that are best suited to the local environment. This is exciting in and of itself—a mature forest is a beautiful landscape element; a buffer against extreme heat, polluted air, flooding, and drought; an educational opportunity; and part of an antidote to the global climate crisis. But the Miyawaki Method is also exciting because it can be applied to areas of any size—a fact that has given rise to the term ‘mini-forest’ to describe small dense woods taking root around the world in locations both urban and rural.”[1]

“The Miyawaki Method is unique in that it re-creates the conditions for a mature natural forest to arise within decades rather than centuries. At the heart of the method is the identification of a combination of native plant species best suited to the specific conditions at any given planting site.”[2]

Lewis also illustrates in her book how much Dr. Miyawaki and others since him have made community involvement a central part of choosing the location, preparing the land, planting these mini-forests, and taking care of them for the first three years until they can become self-sustaining. Throughout the world, people have embraced the movement of creating and becoming responsible for these forests and understanding the importance of forests to the planet.

A mini-forest is no replacement for an existing biodiverse forest, especially the declining number of old-growth forests that have taken hundreds and thousands of years to grow and evolve. But a mini-forest on the Princeton campus could connect us with the value and beauty of larger and older forests that we also need to protect and be responsible for.

As Princeton University evolves to make itself more sustainable, we have taken on many projects to reduce our negative impact on the environment and develop a more earth-friendly campus. Princeton is working to eliminate greenhouse gases, reduce water consumption, and lessen the waste we produce. We have also invested in protecting the forests and land around the campus. But we should also look at ways to connect the campus and the University community with a world that is naturally sustainable here on campus. A forest that we can walk by and appreciate every day on our way to class or work would be a great addition to Princeton’s sustainability plan.

I am standing at the front of Prospect House overlooking a large expanse of grass but imagining a forest many years from now, long after I’m gone. There are towering oaks and hickories standing high above a labyrinth of shade trees, shrubs, and ferns. My sons, their children, and their grandchildren come to visit. My children tell their grandchildren about a community day fifty years earlier when they helped plant this small but amazing forest. I see members of the Class of 2027 visiting the University with their children and grandchildren on their twenty-fifth and fiftieth reunions showing them this forest that they helped plant, tree by tree, dirt on their hands, so many years ago.


[1] Hannah Lewis, Mini-Forest Revolution: Using the Miyawaki Method to Rapidly Rewild the World, (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022), 8.

[2] Lewis, Mini-Forest Revolution, 11.