On a beautiful Saturday morning in September, a small group of classmates from the Fall Advanced Naturalist Club program joined Ashland Naturalist Joe Sebastiani for a class field trip to Flint Woods. Located in the piedmont region of Northern Delaware, Flint Woods is a 35-acre Delaware Nature Society (DelNature) property acquired through the generosity of the Flint family. The Flint Woods Preserve features the largest remaining old growth hardwood forest in Delaware. Not open to the public, these unique mature woodlands and the adjacent restored meadows can only be explored through a DelNature program. An extensive trail system allows program participants to experience this majestic forest ecosystem.
Left largely undisturbed since the Civil War, these woods contain many old growth specimens of Oaks, Beeches, Tulip Poplars, and Hickories. We began our hike near an old paddock and a barn which had been converted to a covered shelter and stocked with a few picnic tables. From there we entered the forest, crossing a small wooden bridge spanning a picturesque woodland stream.
As we walked along the forest paths, Joe pointed our various plants and trees of special interest and answered the many questions we had about the specimens we saw in the mature woodlands. For example, the rather dark forest floor was covered with several types of lush green ferns, which we learned to distinguish from one and other. Luckily, ferns are not eaten by deer, so these native plants provided us with a beautiful carpet of green to walk through as we made our way deeper into the forest. What was notably absent was the relentlessly invasive Japanese stilt grass which has invaded so many new growth and less dense woodlands.
As we continued through the forest Joe identified numerous mature trees, many of which were well over 100 years old. A giant Northern Red Oak tree, which had crashed across the path in a recent storm, had been cut the day before to clear the path. Joe stopped to count the rings, and we discovered that this particular tree was at least 150 years old!
As the morning sunlight filtered through the trees, our journey through these peaceful woods became a true “Shinrin Yoku” experience (Shinrin Yoku is the Japanese expression for “forest bathing”). Not just a walk in the woods, forest bathing is considered to be the conscious and contemplative practice of being immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest. On this magnificent late summer morning, with the light filtering through the dense canopy above, it was easy for us to immerse ourselves in the forest experience.
We discovered numerous curious little plants along our forest route: a delightful Parasol mushroom, some ornate Shelf fungi, and the fascinating parasitic “beech drops” plant that finds nourishment from the large mature beech tree roots.
We heard bird calls from the thick canopy above (Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers…all identified from their songs by Joe), spied a Canada Warbler high up in the trees, and found a few little critters along the ground: an American toad and two species of millipedes (one of which smelled surprisingly like almonds, if you were willing to put your nose close to it)!
As we walked upwards towards the meadows area, it grew lighter within the forest, and we passed a recently-constructed picturesque pond tucked in between two stands of trees. To our delight, a group of Wood Ducks was gathered there among the reeds and gave us quite a show as they all flew off together.
For those of you who are history buffs, Joe informed us that the path we were following was Old Pyle’s Ford Road. Reportedly, this was the route some of George Washington’s troops took as they marched north from the battle of Cooch’s Bridge, through the Flint Woods area, towards Chadd’s Ford, where they ultimately engaged the British in the Battle of the Brandywine. It was hard to imagine that the very trail we were following had been traversed by American troops during the Revolutionary War. If these woods could only tell the tales of all they had seen over the last few centuries, what stories we might hear!
This gentle uphill path eventually opened up to a stunning vista overlooking acres of restored meadows, with neatly mowed paths of grass for us to wander along. The beautiful meadows on this property were created about a decade ago by the Flint family. Originally corn and soybean fields, they were plowed under and seeded with special mixes of native wild grasses and wildflowers…and now, almost 10 years later, what a fascinating variety of native flowers there was to behold!
And, of course, along with the wildflowers came the birds, bees, dragonflies, and butterflies! Because Wild Senna had been planted in the meadow, we encountered some Sleepy Orange and Cloudless Sulphur butterflies (not often seen in Delaware), both of which use Senna as a host plant for their larvae. And with the abundant plantings of thistle, many bees, Monarchs, Eastern Swallowtails (both light and dark forms), and acrobatic little Goldfinches hovered about the iconic purple thistle flowers. Along one of the meadow paths we spotted a stunning Carolina Saddlebags dragonfly poised delicately on a tiny twig, as if patiently waiting for us to take pictures.
As we neared the pathway home…no one wanted to leave that peaceful and enchanting meadow. To possibly coin a new phrase, we wanted nothing more than to continue “meadow-bathing” for just a little while longer. What a perfect setting the meadow would make for a blanket, picnic lunch, and a good book to read…or simply relaxing, soaking in the sun, and enjoying all the sights, sounds, and smells of nature that these meadows had to offer. We all felt privileged to experience such a magical morning in Flint Woods and its adjacent meadows, enjoying both the natural wonders around us and the camaraderie of newfound friends who shared a love of nature.
DelNature members can enjoy a similar forest bathing and meadow bathing experience in the mature woodlands and open meadows of Ashland Nature Center. Or join a program that will take you through the Flint Woods property with an experienced DelNature guide.