The Hitchcock Woods Foundation received some high praise Friday for its efforts to restore and preserve one of the nation’s largest urban forests.

“You are doing a remarkable job,” said Janisse Ray, who was the featured speaker during the Festival of the Woods.

A naturalist, activist and award-winning writer, Ray talked about visiting Hitchcock Woods previously, what she saw then and what was different now.

“I am struck this time by the changes,” she said. “I don’t know if you remember what it looked like five years ago and if you can see how much you have been able to take this place back to being God’s idea of what a longleaf pine forest should look like.”

Ray is the author of “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood,” a memoir about growing up in a Georgia junkyard in a ruined longleaf pine ecosystem.

One of the purposes of Festival of the Woods is to raise money for the Hitchcock Woods Foundation.

The event also is “an annual celebration of the natural and cultural resources of Hitchcock Woods,” said the Foundation’s Executive Director Christine Rolka. “It seems like every week and every month, we are unpeeling another layer of wonder that is contained in this forest. It really does feel that way.”

More than 300 people attended Festival of the Woods, which was held under big white tents next to Hitchcock Woods’ horse show ring. There were several exhibits for attendees to enjoy. Their subjects included the reintroduction of red-cockaded woodpeckers last year to Hitchcock Woods and artifacts found during a Cultural Resources Survey.

Local artist Nancy Wilds, 91, was the honorary chairwoman for Festival of the Woods’ 2017 edition.

The reason for her selection was “her longstanding advocacy of things in Aiken, including the Woods,” said Dr. Harry Shealy, a member of the Foundation’s board of directors and a former board chairman.

Wilds used to visit Hitchcock Woods often on horseback, and she was especially fond of foxhunting.

“I jumped every fence in the Woods, and I never fell off,” Wilds said.

In 1972, she and Pat Koelker founded the Rose Hill Arts Center at Rose Hill Estate. The Art Center later moved to downtown Aiken, and its name was changed to the Aiken Center for the Arts.

Wilds also was among the founders of the Historic Aiken Foundation.

Hitchcock Woods is "one of our greatest treasures," Wilds said. 

Accompanying Wilds to Festival of the Woods was her daughter, Stephanie Wilds, who was in charge of developing a management plan for Hitchcock Woods in the 1990s.

“I have been walking in the Woods since I was able to walk,” Stephanie said. “It is right in the center of Aiken, and it is such a beautiful, peaceful place. I love listening to the sound of the wind in the pines.”

A quilt made by Stephanie was given away in a raffle during this year’s Festival of the Woods, and her mother drew the winning ticket.

In addition, during the event, Lewis Hunter, 17, received a $500 cash prize for winning the Celestine Eustis Essay Contest. He is a senior at Aiken High School.

Ben Thomas Wiedenman, who was the reserve winner, received $100.

Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C, she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.