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What does an old forest look like?

7 min read / May 7, 2020 / By Liz Thompson

“[The forest] has lost its wild, damp, and shaggy look; the countless fallen and decaying trees are gone, and consequently that thick coat of moss which lived on them is gone too. The earth is comparatively bare and smooth and dry.”

— Henry David Thoreau, comparing woods of Concord, MA to the wilds of Maine

Looking to Thoreau

As a teenager, I loved being in the woods. I felt at peace there, far from the noisy crowds at school. The woods were quiet, but there were also signs of a once busy place, of fields and plows and grazing animals. I saw stone walls, abandoned roads, and old cellar holes wherever I went. And the trees were small. This was a new forest, grown up on former farmland.

My home in eastern Massachusetts was only a few miles from Henry David Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond. The woods he walked in the early 1800s were even younger than the ones I knew in the 1970s.

Thoreau wondered what he wasn’t seeing. He wrote: “…no one has yet described for me the difference between that wild forest which once occupied our oldest townships, and the tame one which I find there to-day. It is a difference which would be worth attending to…”

On returning from the wilds of Maine, where he saw some very old forests, he wrote about that difference: “[The Massachusetts forest] has lost its wild, damp, and shaggy look; the countless fallen and decaying trees are gone, and consequently that thick coat of moss which lived on them is gone too. The earth is comparatively bare and smooth and dry.”

Bare and smooth and dry. That’s how I remember the forest floor near my childhood home.

Finding old forests in Vermont

When I started working as an ecologist in Vermont, I sought out old forest. I wanted to know: what was “that wild forest?” What might it have looked like before Europeans settled and “tamed” the land? Gifford Woods State Park in Killington was among the places I explored that first summer, and when I saw it, I was absolutely awestruck.

It was like nothing from my teenage rambles. I saw huge trees, but also small and medium-sized trees—trees of many different ages. I saw openings in the woods where trees had died and fallen over, and those spaces were filled with young new growth. The ground was uneven, with high mounds and deep pits resulting from centuries of trees falling over. I saw mossy rotting logs on the ground, with new seedlings growing from them. This forest had a “wild, damp, and shaggy look.”


Centuries in the making

Stimulated by Thoreau’s questions about the original New England forest, many scientists are researching what we now call old-growth forest—woods that have been shaped only by natural processes for centuries.

David Foster sees old-growth forests as “messy, chaotic, in seeming disarray.” He is Director of the Harvard Forest in Massachusetts and owner of VLT-conserved land. Tony D’Amato, of the University of Vermont, likens them to an unkempt garden late in the growing season. Like other conservation leaders, they feel that we need this disarray, that we need wild forests, alongside the younger forests that give us lumber, firewood, and other forest products.

“We are missing many features from our landscapes that only come with very long periods of forest growth,” said David. “These include the big live and dead trees, the immense windthrow mounds and downed trees, and the uneven ground that develops over three or four centuries.”


Old forests: A natural cycle

Old forests, even those that have not achieved the truly old-growth character that takes centuries to develop, offer unique habitats for wildlife. “A big fallen tree can have tip-up roots where winter wrens can nest,” explains Vermont Fish and Wildlife’s Bob Zaino. “Black bears can den in hollow logs, whether standing or on the ground.”

There’s also the incredible resilience of these forests. “Old forests are a testament to nature’s ability to self-organize, sustain, and rejuvenate in the face of a constant battery of disturbances such as wind, ice, fire, insects, disease, and drought,” says forest scientist and conservationist Ed Faison. For instance, the death of a large canopy tree promotes the growth of young trees in the new patch of light, and the fallen trunk becomes a nutrient-rich site for future seedlings.


Benefits that last a lifetime

Old forests provide clean water, clean air, and carbon storage. We’re learning that old forests, with their large trees, huge fallen logs on the forest floor, and massive underground root systems, hold more carbon than young ones. For all these reasons, VLT has resources for landowners to help them reap the benefits of both old and new forest in their woods.

Old-growth forests are part of our landscape heritage. David Foster explains that they made up the New England landscape for ten to fifteen thousand years, until European arrival. They are now “one of the rarest kinds of forests found here,” he says. They’re biologically important for their structure and habitat, but these forests are “also emotionally and spiritually important to us,” he adds. As author Barbara Kingsolver said, “People need wild places. … We need to be able to taste grace and know once again that we desire it.”

On a recent snowy winter day, I returned to Gifford Woods to enjoy once again the beauty of that very old forest. I stood in the cold woods for a long while, very still, awestruck once again by the majesty and the complexity. Mosses and lichens graced the huge trees, little tracks showed where a mouse had skittered across fresh snow, and skeletons of blue cohosh reminded me that this is not only an old forest, but a rich one.

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