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The New Old-Growth Forests


One of my fourth-dimension tricks is to imagine the world looking backwards or forwards - what used to be here and why? what will be here when? - and then transplanting myself into that unreal universe. Because trees can outlive humans they are the perfect vehicle for such imaginary thinking. How big will this tree become if it is left alone? Who was around when this oak was planted? Trees are a temporal glue with the added benefit that they travel in symbiosis with us through life - we breathe, they inhale; they exhale, we breathe.


Old growth trees, then, occupy a large segment of my thoughts. I was deeply saddened when I heard that one of the remaining old growth forests (those forests that have never been cut in the historical existence of European colonization on this continent) in Virginia, known as Ramsey's Draft, was no longer in healthy existence because of infestation. I had always dreamed of that hike into those hemlocks and now that has been taken away from me. There are, quite sadly, few of the original old growth forest segments left, so few that these are mapped and preserved wherever they can be found.


And yet.


Wandering through the woods as I do most days I think about the trees I see now. In many instances I am in a park or a preserved piece of land. One hundred years ago, few of these existed. Today, there are many efforts to preserve undeveloped or re-naturing parcels. The tree cover in the United States is today considered to be as extensive (or soon to be) as the original tree cover back in the 1600s. Trees reseed and grow again, especially if they aren't chopped down. Trees get big and old.


It struck me, then, that what we are seeing now is the old-growth forest of the future. These trees around us, in parks, forests, stream valleys, will grow unabated, unthreatened by whole scale clearing. Sure, some will die early, get caught up in a fire, fall prey to disease or insects. But the trees that we can see every day will most likely continue to grow, to grow into their majesty. The American tree clearing mania of the last half of the 19th century has waned, to be replaced by tree farms of foreign forests. Of course, an old-growth forest is a mature forest, with certain species dominating the canopy and less dense undergrowth than we see now. Forests, by their nature, are changeable environments, at first rapidly (to whit the conversion of an open field into a landscape of eastern red cedars in a matter of years) and then slowly. But this pattern of maturation is as much a part of the forest and tree as it is for us. The rich biodiversity of these forests takes a long time to recover as well, but that surely will happen, too.


Strolling through my local park, preserved about 60 years ago, I can now see the outlines of the old-growth forest it will become. The cedars are vanishing, struggling against the taller tulip poplars, themselves weaker and more prone to shorter lives than the oaks. Find that oak that sits alongside the path, and recognize that in three hundred years it will most likely be here, thick-skinned, laden with leaves and acorns, providing habitat for myriad creatures and shade for our great-great-great grandchildren.


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