“Ye cannot see the wood for the trees.” —English dramatist John Heywood, 1546.



It’s often been said that one can’t see the forest for the trees — they’re not seeing the big picture for their myopic, tunnel-visioned focus on minutiae.

But in my case, I may very well consider that comment a compliment, for I see the one eye-catching pine in the midst of Wisconsin’s Northern Highland-American Legion (NHAL) State Forest, the state’s largest legacy forest at more than 236,000 acres.

Since moving to the North Woods 15 years ago, my way-finding sights have been set on what I’ve come to call the “Welcome Home Tree,” a towering red pine on the eastern side of Highway M as I head home northbound for Boulder Junction. It’s bottle brush greenery reaching for the expansive northern sky just south of a gentle bend in the highway that leads to a straight stretch heading toward downtown Boulder Junction — once I see the Welcome Home Tree I know it’s only minutes to home and hearth.

For five generations running from my Great-Grandpa Aschauer to my own children in their youth, the tree stood as a welcoming sentinel that a much-anticipated summer vacation arrival in Boulder Junction was just around the curve, whether chugging into town on the Milwaukee Road or arriving by a DeSoto, Oldsmobile or Dodge.

Why my fondness for this one particular tree out of the millions, billions or perhaps trillions of trees populating the NHAL? It’s hard to say.

Why did I fall in love with my wife, Barbara? Why do I prefer Coke over Pepsi? Why do I love Rex Stout “Nero Wolfe” detective mysteries? Why do I favor pepperoni, onion and banana pepper as my go-to pizza toppings? Why do I split my baseball loyalties between the rival Brewers and Cubs? Why do I love traditional Milwaukee crullers, while I could be chased around the block with the pumpkin spice crullers and red velvet crullers that make their unwelcome visit around the holidays?

I suppose part of it could be attributed to decluttering guru Marie Kondo’s amorphous “does it spark joy” benchmark, but mostly it’s just a shoulder-shrugging “IIIIIIIII dunno” in my best Lou Brown imitation from “Major League.” I just do.

But that being said, I suppose part of my affection is a respectful awe that the Welcome Home Tree is one of the lucky designated survivors of modern forest management, towering over its neighboring trees like Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo in a kindergarten classroom. Surveying Boulder Junction’s forested skyline, it’s evident that at some point in its life the Welcome Home Tree escaped the lumberjack’s axe or cross-cut saw, or more likely the modern logger’s sci-fi timber harvester, a “Star Wars” AT-AT walker designed to fell, strip and section a tree in mere seconds into a Jenga pile of salable timber logs.

The Welcome Home Tree also survived development of Boulder Junction’s recreational Hike and Bike Trail, the paved path making a respectful eastern jog around the towering gentle giant, much like outside-the-box bulldozer operator Mike, crane operator Tony and dump truck driver Pedro schemed to sure that the new thruway expressway made a respectful jog around the little old lady’s rose-arbored cottage in Caroline Emerson and Tibor Gergely’s 1961 Little Golden Book “Make Way for the Thruway,” a well-worn favorite childhood bedtime read.

“You know,” Mike said slowly, “there’s a low place over there. The road could run a little to the right.”

As does the bike path around the Welcome Home Tree.

And if those weren’t enough threats to dodge in one tree’s lifetime, there are always the existential threats of lightning, wildfires, ice storms and freak events like the recent record-making serial derecho that brought hurricane-force winds to the North Woods. Doing post-storm welfare checks on the enduring Welcome Home Tree, I always feel a little like American lawyer, author and amateur poet Francis Scott Key at the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814, seeing the American flag still flying over the fort as he penned the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” today’s “Star-Spangled Banner” national anthem. If the Welcome Home Tree is still standing, all is well and right.

My heart always skips a beat — or two or three — when a DNR truck is parked on the highway shoulder in close proximity to the Welcome Home Tree, my imagination wild with thoughts of a forester leaving a spray-painted date with destiny on its bark. In my fantasies, I imagine myself coming to the Welcome Home Tree’s defense, outfitted as my childhood alter ego Muskrat Man in a wind-billowed cape, utility belt, identity-shielding domino mask and muskrat headpiece, a defeated timber harvester operator shaking his head and driving away vanquished.

As a professional wordsmith, I find there’s a word for almost everything under the sun, and as it turns out there’s a word for tree fans like myself — Nemophilist (pronounced ne-‘mo-fe-list).

While it sounds kind of sketchy, the obscure term, first used in 1838 and out of conversational fashion for more than a century, has an innocent enough meaning — someone with a love or fondness for the woods and the simple, individual delight provided by woodlands.

“The groves invite thee, dear nemophilist, to care-free revel in their vernal bowers.” —Sequoia Sonnets, 1919.

Welcome Home.