Haunting the Woods


 by Merri Johnson

Nemophilist: from the Greek “nemos” (grove) and “philos” (affection);  referring to one who has a fondness for forests, woods, or woodland scenery,  or one who often visits them – a “haunter” of woods.

In mid-December, my husband and I were hiking the Sunset Ridge Trail at Waubonsie State Park. The day was mild, more like early November than almost Winter Solstice. But the temperature couldn’t hide the reality that autumn was drawing to a close. The trees were bare–their once verdant canopies lying in crinkled, faded piles on the ground. The territorial and mating calls of summer’s songbirds were absent. Even the squirrels were still.

Though the woods were subdued in palette and in activity, a memory of summer’s vigor lingered in a blue puddle of juniper berries on the ground. The waning energy of the low southwest sun still burned in the magenta fruit that clung to the coral berry bushes on the ridgetop. A few, scattered purplish sumac leaves garnished the otherwise monotone salad of plant detritus on the forest floor. Arching, lavender canes of wild raspberry patches evoked images of earlier visitors to these woods, gathering the fruit that was shared by all and owned by none.

The allure of woodlands at this time of year is difficult to put into words. But, there is a word I recently came across that captures my sentiments about being in the woods: nemophilist.  I have not heard the term mentioned in my circle of naturalist friends, probably for good reason.  Apparently, it hasn’t been in common use for over 100 years. In an era of rapidly changing word meanings and new terminology, this archaic word goes a long way toward expressing why I go to the woods.

Do I go there to make a study of flora and fauna? To some degree, that’s true. I do not want to be ignorant of my environment.  Am I there to catch a glimpse of the birds and other creatures that inhabit the woods? Again, yes. I confess to maintaining a birding list. Am I there to get my exercise and fresh air in a beautiful setting? Certainly.  I could go on asking and answering questions like these that relate more or less to utilitarian benefits or intellectual curiosity.

The reason I haunt the woods, however, cannot be reduced to logic. Chalk it up to a feeling of kinship; call it a primitive response to a spiritual longing; assign it to nostalgia for the woodland playgrounds of my childhood.

Whatever the attraction that pulls me into the woods, it is not first and foremost a matter of conventional, scenic beauty. In any season, the woods appeal to me on a level deeper than enjoyment of spectacular natural wonders.

Near the end of our December hike, a few orange berries on the path drew my eyes upward to their source. The largest bittersweet vine I have ever seen was suspended twenty-five feet above me among the branches of several large trees. In summer, the trees’ heavy foliage had kept the secret of the vine, revealing it for the delight of the few who still haunt the woods after the leaves have fallen and others have put away their walking sticks until the spring.


Merri Johnson has always been an outdoors kind of person in the way that many people are. You know the type: open windows as much as possible, not afraid to get dirty, more interested in visiting a National Park than a Museum, collector of small artifacts that end up in dishes on shelves around her home, watcher and feeder of birds. After retiring in 2013, she heard of Nebraska’s Master Naturalist program  and took the training in 2014. Since then, Johnson’s connection to the natural world has evolved into a more thoughtful and intentional observation and curiosity. 

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