I am excited to introduce you to the awe-inspiring world of ancient forests. Known also as old-growth or forest primeval, ancient forests are intact woodlands which have been left relatively uninterrupted by human activity. Although these precious spaces are quickly dwindling, we can still find tracts of ancient wood in almost every corner of the world. Let’s use our minds to sojourn into incomparably unique and complex forest primeval.
My fascination with the old-growth forests all started after watching Mindaugas Survila’s documentary The Ancient Woods. Sourcing footage from a small tract of old growth forest in Lithuania, Survila’s film is today the most watched documentary to come out of the country. The Ancient Woods depicts the forest in its true nature, unexplained and uninterrupted by humans. The film is completely wordless, however, you’ll be surprised at what you learn just from observation. While it’s not free, you can watch The Ancient Woods below for just 3 dollars; all proceeds go towards furthering Survila’s projects.
Old-growth forests endure throughout the world, from the Yakushima Forest in Japan, to Tongass National Forest in Alaska, to the storybook Bialowieza Forest spanning Belarus and Poland. Here in the Smoky Mountains, we are fortunate not to have to travel far to encounter an ancient forest. Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is home to a handful of old trees, with some surpassing 300 hundred years in age.
How can you tell if a tree is old? The oldest trees in a forest are typically the tallest relative to their neighbors; their reach extends to the top of the forest canopy. Old trees often have thick, winding branches, thinning bark, or their trunks may even “sag” at the bottom from bearing an ever increasing trunk mass. Even after an old tree falls, it continues to support the forest’s ecosystem by offering shelter to animals and nutrients to the soil and ground life (Maloof, pg. 42). You can explore this database to find the locations of old trees near you! North Carolina is home to many of the East Coast’s oldest trees.
Of course, a forest is more than just its trees – the true robustness of life shines in the level of diversity that can only be found in an longstanding habitat. There are several great books out there that explore the intricacies of an old-growth forest ecosystem, but two stand out as exemplary:
The first is Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old Growth Forests by Joan Maloof. In my opinion, this is the compendium for learning about ancient forests, and anyone from layman to scientist will gain new and relevant knowledge. For example, did you know that the species count and population of salamanders serves as a litmus test for the overall health of a forest? (There are over 25 different species in the Appalachian mountains, more than anywhere else in the world!) Maloof explores the symbiotic relationships which sustain the forest, like how fungi wrap around and extend the tree’s roots to further draw in water and nutrients. Nature’s Temples also busts several myths which persist in forestry science, particularly that forests have to be managed in order to thrive. Rather, the healthiest, most carbon-absorbing forests are not interfered with at all.
I also highly recommend The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell. A biology book with heart, Haskell’s The Forest Unseen takes readers through the intimate details of one square meter of old-growth forest as it changes through the seasons. Readers can learn of the enchanting minutia of ancient forest ecosystems, while sharing in Haskell’s philosophical musings on the science of it all. Each chapter is both bite-sized and thoughtful, making The Forest Unseen a very accessible read. I’ll leave you with a morsel of Haskell’s contemplations:
“Over 95% of the energy that is used in the firefly’s flash is released as light, a reversal of the performance of human-designed lightbulbs that waste most of their energy as heat . . . I light my path past imagined copperheads with my own lantern, pondering the contrast between my flashlight’s inefficient industrial design and the biological wonders that dance all around me. But this is an unfair contest. I am comparing an infant with a sage. Our flashlights barely have 200 years of thought behind them and have developed in a sea of abundant fossil and chemical energy . . . In contrast, millions of years of trial and error stand behind the firefly’s design. Energy has been in short supply for the beetles all along, producing a lamp that wastes little and used beetle food, not mined chemicals, as its fuel.”The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskel
Want more? Check out these titles below:
- Forest Primeval: The Natural History of an Ancient Forest by Chris Maser
- Southern Appalachian Celebration: In Praise of Ancient Mountains, Old-Growth Forests, & Wilderness by Valentine, James.
- The Songs of Trees : Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors by David George Haskell