Interview with Candice Gaukel Andrews
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why did you decide to write "Beyond the Trees?"
In 2004, when I began traveling throughout the state to do research for my 2006 book "Great Wisconsin Winter Weekends," I found that visiting forests was one of my favorite things to do in each area that I was writing about. That got me wondering if anyone had ever written a book about what it's like to personally experience all of our state and our one national forest. I couldn't find any. There were academic books on our forests and many logging history books, but that wasn't the kind of book I was looking for. I wanted one about what it actually feels like to be in a Wisconsin forest: what it's like to run your hands over a wooden, logging dam turnstile from the 1800s or what it's like to stand in a circle of "cathedral" trees and look up into their lofty crowns.
I knew there was a missing piece in our Wisconsin forest literature: we needed a book on our forests from a nature writer's perspective.
WHS Press: What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learned about Wisconsin's forests?
I learned that Wisconsin forests are extremely diverse -- more so than you would think since they are all technically termed "forests." There are forests that are more beach than forest; forests that are more prairie than forest; forests that are more water than woods; and forests that have virtually no water at all. There are forests that are young and some that are old, there are those that are wide in shape and some that are very slim, some that are remote in location and some that sit near or in the middle of a big city, and some that remain wild with very few footpaths while others are highly developed with specific trails made out of high-tech materials for specific purposes.
In other words, one stand of trees is definitely not like another once you get out of the car, lace up the hiking boots, and start exploring on foot.
WHS Press: In what ways was writing "Beyond the Trees" a personal experience? How do you feel connected to the book?
I started, really, from a "blank slate." I hadn't really visited any of our forests when I started writing this book and didn't know much about them other than the logging history. So, I knew I would have to personally get inside the forests, walk their trails, float their rivers, touch their plants, catch glimpses of their animals, stumble across evidence of their history (such as old, stone foundations hidden in the underbrush), and have coffee with the people who live or work in them every day. This was not so much an academic research project as it was a hands-on, get-down-in-the-dirt-and-on-the-trail kind of acquaintance and connection I needed to make with our forests.
Now that I've done all the research, personally visited all the forests, talked with the people who love them, I feel like I know them all as individual friends, with individual personalities.
WHS Press: How is this book a uniquely Wisconsin story?
This book is a uniquely Wisconsin story precisely because it is about Wisconsin's state forests. We are "forest people" here in Wisconsin. Forests are in our blood; they are part of us. Our European ancestors who first settled here and who strived to establish successful agricultural fields had them foremost in their minds every day as they worked to chop the woods back; they saw forests as something to be eradicated and tamed. They worked their hardest to "control" them. But now that we, their descendants, are no longer fighting them every day, we miss them. We tend to see them as havens from city life and the constant barrage of mass communications.
WHS Press: Which forest is your favorite to visit and explore? Which forest did you enjoy writing about the most?
That's a tough one! It's like asking a mother which of her children is her "favorite." One day, I may give you one answer; but ask me the next day, and I may be most fond of another. Because they truly do have such distinctive personalities, it's hard to compare them on an even playing field.
Today, I'll say that the Brule River State Forest comes to mind because it is so wild and still so "primitive" in many ways. And those kinds of remote, undeveloped places always appeal to me. When writing this book, it was a joy for me to discover the Brule forest's Historic Brule to St. Croix Portage Trail logbook. As a writer, I got inspiration from reading what others had written about their experiences in the forest, right there on a bench on the trail. They wrote down their thoughts on the spot, unedited. The comments were so genuine and from the heart.
Ask me tomorrow, though, and I'll probably mention the Black River State Forest's great diversity of terrain and plants and animals; or I might answer that I love the Coulee Experimental State Forest's quietness and hard-to-find quality. It goes on and on; every day, I'm thankful I got to get to know them all in such a deep and personal manner.
WHS Press: What do you hope readers take away from "Beyond the Trees?"
We Wisconsinites are truly "a people of the trees." The Great Northwoods is in our genes, so to speak; whether we live in northern Wisconsin or the southern part of the state. If you've lived in Wisconsin anytime while you were growing up, you studied the history of Wisconsin's great forests in school. They are us, and they're still in our own backyard.
If I inspire even just one person to get up, go outside, and start exploring a nearby forest, then the long hours and many miles on my hiking boots were spent for a good cause.