Patrick Duffeler’s lifelong love of trees and the lessons they provide
When Patrick Duffeler walks around his Wessex Hundred farm where trees almost outrank the vineyards, he returns to his roots.
Growing up in Brussels, The Williamsburg Winery founder was smitten with trees even as a youngster. Trees remind him of the Germanic heritage of both of his parents. His mother appreciated nature and taught her sons, Patrick and his brother, Eric, to do the same, regularly visiting parks and forests with them at her side. One of Duffeler’s earliest mentors was his Uncle Henry, a World War I veteran and stockbroker, who would disappear with the boys into the forest and share real war stories.
“He was full of wisdom,” Duffeler said. “I spent time in the woods absorbing his stories and reflecting on what they mean.”
But more than words, a walk among the trees back then in Belgium or a stroll today at his Williamsburg home reminds Duffeler to listen.
“I breathe the fresh air and listen to the sounds of silence in a certain respect,” he says. “The sounds of the forest are of birds and animals and nature.
Duffeler committed to purchasing the farm in Williamsburg in January 1983 but did not complete the deal until the summer. Many of the trees he and his wife, Peggy, now deceased, saw during that winter acted as a 50-foot buffer zone around the grounds. That allowed the farm to be in the middle of 100% green space. But by the time of purchase, many of the pines and beech trees had been chopped down.
“We had requested to maintain the buffer zone,” Duffeler said. “My wife had tears in her eyes when she saw that. I promised her I would plant a bigger buffer zone, and I did.”
Duffeler would eventually plant more than 60,000 trees over the 420 acres that make up Wessex Hundred. The initial planting in 1989 was 37 acres along the James River and the nearby ravines. Today that area is Duffeler’s own “Black Forest,” created with the help of the Virginia Department of Forestry, specifically Bill Apperson, a retired forester today.
Trees minimize erosion; their roots promote infiltration. As much as Duffeler embraces those benefits, he’s drawn to the more philosophical ones. The conservationist understands that trees need nurturing to thrive in their own social community. They make us remember we are but a speck of the larger ecosystem
“Patrick looks at things from a European standpoint,” Apperson said, “We speak the same language.”
Duffeler wades into his Black Forest or other wooded areas of Wessex Hundred almost daily. He doesn’t take a cell phone nor does he reserve his visits for warm, sunny afternoons. He actually prefers colder temperatures and keeps warm by dressing in layers.
The woods restore him. Inhaling fresh air provides a medicine unlike any in a bottle.
“Trees heal,” he says.
In one of his two favorite books, “How Trees Can Provide Health and Happiness,” author Qing Li stresses how trees reduce stress levels and blood pressure, strengthen the immune and cardiovascular systems and boost mood, energy and creativity.
The other book, “The Secret Life of Trees,” was written by a German author responsible for the large Eifel Forest, which is approximately 2,000 square miles.
The art and science of trees as therapy is called shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, which refers to taking in all of the forest’s wonders via a sensory experience that calls for total immersion in the woods.
No notifications. No dings. Ideally, no talking. Just listening. Hearing. Smelling. Feeling. Reflecting.
Duffeler accepts that purposeful time outdoors isn’t about increasing productivity or making more money. Planting trees isn’t a revenue booster.
“They’re good for the soul,” he says.
Most of the trees planted on Wessex Hundred are what Duffeler calls noble — strong and straight with a canopy of foliage that renews the soul and reinvigorates the mind.
They hold secrets. Listen for the answers.