View Full Version : Forests and what's in them.

09-08-2008, 01:41 AM

My characters have entered a forest but I'm having trouble conveying a 'foresty' feel and am in need of help.

I'm trying to write a very 'natural' forest, so there's to be no gravel paths or what have you. I've been to some forests but always been in several days hike away from a town or village, so I'm unsure how much of an impact that area had on the forest around it so I thought I'd ask just to be sure.

I'm hoping to achieve the type of image that would be similar to the forests found in Scotland and some places in England.

Now, to the questions:

-How much grass would a forest have in it? I've been in some that have none, while others have small patches that spring out of the ground amongst other growing plants. Since I'm going for an image that's been largly left alone by civilisation, would there be any grass at all? And is there any other plants I could name to help give the feel?

-Would the forest tend to be flat in terms of plant life? Or would there be huge bushes and ferns everywhere? Would this depend on how close together the trees are, thus how much light is there for them?

-Are there any particular smells or sounds I could add in? When I was there I heard a lot of birds but little else. And the smells were always of damp, rotting wood...

I've probably got more questions but can't think of them so I'll just see how these get on.

Thanks in advance!

09-08-2008, 01:48 AM
I'll give some 'sound' input: A forest has so much white noise and places for sound to go that everything is quieter. Due to those same two observations, sounds that occur in the distance carry in an eery fashion and can come across as either peaceful or scary.

09-08-2008, 02:07 AM
Old growth forests with huge trees generally have so little light filtering through the big trees that grass does not grow except in clearings. Often, these clearings are produced by the death of a tree or small group of trees, either by disease or lightning strike. (Eventually the clearing fills with trees again.)

The forest floor tends to be dead leaves or pine needles, depending on the type of forest it is, quite thick in low-lying places, over moist ground. There are many other plants growing from the forest floor, as in this picture (http://www.ca.uky.edu/forestry/maehrbearky/Hardwood%20forest.jpg). Note that some of the growth is just young trees, many of which will be choked out by the mature tree which spawned them, but that there are other plants present.

New growth forest, with smaller trees, does have abundant grass, as in this photo (http://lh3.ggpht.com/_wJYPsuCyyzo/RsxEoRa9JaI/AAAAAAAAAVA/R4Gu0YhPeQs/beech+forest.jpg). You get new growth when a forest has died or dwindled due to drought, disease, or fire. It can be new growth for a long, long time, too, with a great many tall thin trees rather than those massive giants of an old growth forest.

Either is likely to have plants which produce food for birds and small mammals as well as deer or larger animals. Insect life is abundant. There will be plants with natural defenses, such as thorns, brambles, or impenetrably thick growth.

The smell of wet dirt and wood is plentiful, but you may smell other plant life when you're near enough, and a good nose can smell fire's smoke from many miles away.

Sound carries in odd patterns, traveling farther in new growth than old. Mr. Maryn reports he can hear me pee even though I'm far enough away that he can't tell it's me.

Maryn, basically a suburban girl

09-08-2008, 02:17 AM
With an evergreen forest, the trees tend to be very close together and it is very dark beneath them, with nothing on the ground but pine needles and dead parts of pine trees (the pine needles make the soil very acid - this combined with the low light is not good for other plants).

In a deciduous/broadleaf forest you get a lot more light through the trees. You'll have trees of all ages and sizes, and again the forest floor will be carpeted in dead tree and plant matter, but much more will grow out of it. Not so much grass, in my experience, though there may be some clumps, but you're much more likely to be wading through ferns - mostly bracken. Maybe some nettles and brambles too, and large clumps of moss.

Try watching Robin Hood - or even better, Richard Carpenter's Robin of Sherwood series from the eighties. Plenty of forests there for the viewing.

Sounds: birds, yes. Lots of birds. The rustle of the trees above. Animal noises in the undergrowth - never sure what they are - or deer always running away as you approach - they always see you before you can see them.

Clair Dickson
09-08-2008, 02:22 AM
There will be quite a bit of rustling and such-- especially as small animals scurry suddenly away from the approaching person. But it's all usually pretty quiet. Like Maryn said, sound travels different, so you might turn to where you thought you heard something and see no sign of it.

Trees swaying in the breeze may make a wooden ticking sound or they may make a rubbing sound as branches move together. If you look up at really, really tall trees they will sway in almost frightening large circles (and they will probably make you feel very little.)

Everything is muted in the woods, and as a walker, you might feel inclined to avoid stepping on the branches you see.

You'll smell damp wood, but also sometimes earth (either wet or dry) and you might sometimes catch a wiff of swamp/ lake if there's one nearby. And decaying leaves.

If the forest is more than about 20 years old, it'll be trees taller than you, with limited smaller trees (like said above, saplings that don't know they're dead.)

The further you go into the woods, the more isolated it feels and the more everything kind of looks the same. Tree, tree, 'nother tree, tree fallen down with moss on it.

Hope that helps.

Linda Adams
09-08-2008, 03:34 AM
Location will influence what turns up in your forest, along with time of year. Right now, we're getting the cicadas--very noisy bugs that hibernate in the ground and come out around July to go into the trees, mate, and then die. They sort of buzz in unison.

Squirrels are coming out to gather nuts, so you might hear the crackle of branches or leaves being stepped on--or possible squirrel's claws as it scurries up the tree. I've also heard a squirrel scream (probably a mating call)--I initially thought it was a loud bird, but it came from a squirrel.

Other rustling animals would include chipmonks. I've seen rabbits, but they tend to be very quiet. Also deer.

In Washington State, I saw a woodpecker working a tree one year. You can probably find the sound online.

Forests will also have trees that have fallen down, exposing the root ball (that's actually the term for it). Spiderwebs will start growing on the exposed roots. Fungus could grow on the fallen tree--I saw this in Washington state.

A forester friend told me that sometimes when a tree falls down, it'll continue growing upwards, so you end up with a really weird looking tree. Never seen one like this though, but maybe some pictures are online.

I used to have to go into heavily forested areas when I was in the army (Washington). The one thing I really remember is that the ground isn't flat--it's uneven. I always, always had to watch where I stepped because I'd find a bad angle or a hole hidden by the shrubs. The hole might even have spiderwebs in them. In New Jersey, we added in the fun of ticks dropping down from the trees ...

09-08-2008, 05:07 PM
This is kind of irrelevant, but I thought I'd share: a recent national geographic had an article which pointed out that forests in the USA and Canada were completely different before Europeans came, because the earthworm is not native to North America.

The forest floor would become carpeted in dead leaves, which would not degrade as quickly as they would in earth worm inhabited forests. So there was little or no undergrowth. The european men remarked at how the forest floors were as clear as parks; they could gallop their horses about, even in the middle of the woods.

09-09-2008, 08:48 PM
Just wanted to say thanks for the great help, it's really been a...help! I've already started putting your information to use and it's improved the feel greatly.
Maryn, your second link doesn't work for my, by the way. However, from your description I understand what you mean. Thanks!

On another note, it's given me the craving to go back-packing again!

Thanks guys and gals!

09-09-2008, 09:09 PM
BT, a rule of thumb when describing anything is to layout your scene then take your five (six) senses and apply where appropriate or necessary.

In your forest, you not only note sounds or lack of them but also the way the air feels--clammy, cool, humid. Don't forget bugs and their bites.
The way the forest odors register, dank, fetid with dung, or rich with turpines. Is it dark, dim with filtered light?
Are there edible plants? How about some wild strawberries or refreshing honeysuckle or pure honey from a bee colony.