What an Old Growth Forest Knows


photo by Paul Mayer



A few years back when we were living in the city, I came down to the kitchen one morning, turned on KUOW, Seattle’s public radio, ground my beans and made coffee. These gestures always seemed to happen simultaneously. The program on air was in the middle of an interview with a writer who was on book tour, and I thought, I know that voice.

And I did. The crisp Australian cadence of her voice. Years ago we were neighbors north of San Diego. I’ll call her Harriet. I didn’t know her well—both of our families had a fair amount of land with avocado groves to manage, young children to raise, and were pretty busy–but on the few occasions that we did get together, her voice enchanted me. And here it was now, playing away in my kitchen.

That night I attended Harriet’s reading at Third Place Books in Lake Forest. And afterward, over lattes, caught up with the new life of my old neighbor. Both families had relocated. Her’s to Houston, while we obviously wound up in The Pacific Northwest.

Walking each other to the parking lot, I thought the evening had gone pleasantly enough until she gestured with a dismissive sweep of her arm at the dark green woods surrounding us.

“I don’t know how you can live here.,” she said. “If you’ve seen one pine tree, you’ve seen them all.”

And on that note, Harriet hopped in her vehicle and was gone.

I was stunned. My first thought was that they are not all pines, not by a long shot. It’s so much more complex than that. Richly complex.

The Old Growth Forests of The Pacific Northwest are essentially conifer forests, dominated by Douglas firs and Western hemlocks. Stretching from SE Alaska and SW British Columbia, through Western Washington and Western Oregon to the border of Northern California, and from the Pacific Ocean eastward to the crest of The Cascade Range. Sometimes referred to as Primary Forests, Virgin Forests, Primeval Forests, and my favorite, Ancient Woodlands (in Britain), an Old Growth Forest is defined by Wikipedia as a forest that has attained great age without significant disturbance, and thereby exhibits unique ecological features.

Walk through it with me, if you would, for we later left the city and moved north—onto San Juan Island. Into the wilderness, so to speak. We live in an Old Growth Forest at the foot of the sea, where Western red cedar thrives. Growing year round in our mild winters, these trees reach heights of 200 ft, and may be two or three centuries old. This is the tree with which I am most familiar now.

Mother Cedar. Distinguished by it’s fluted base and graceful, feathery branches. It’s fragrant, sweet smelling needles softly carpeting the forest floor and tracking into our home daily. The exterior of our home is shingled in cedar shakes, making it appear at one with the woods. A half dozen cedar Adirondack chairs sit upon a cedar deck, and another half dozen in a circle around an outdoor fire pit. We are all about cedar here. We probably smell like cedar.

An Old Growth Forest is comprised of large trees, standing dead trees (snags), and fallen trees. Water-repellent and rot-resistant, red cedar can last for hundreds of years on the forest floor. As such, logs and snags may foster more life after their death than they had before. Covered now with mushrooms and mosses, and nursing huckleberries, ferns, and salal. Over time, it may provide a substrate for seedling shrubs and trees.

Time is long here. While some trees reach upwards of 1,000 years of age, others are on their way back to decay. There is a mix of tree ages and of regeneration. An Old Growth Forest is a continuum.

An Old Growth Forest has remarkable resilience—to natural events. Recovering quickly from fires, windstorms, and disease, but not from human events such as clear-cut logging. At a time when the U.S. has lost 96% of its Old Growth Forests, what this Old Growth Forest Knows is immense.

That air you breathe, Houston. We put it there.



Filed under Old Growth Forests

15 responses to “What an Old Growth Forest Knows

  1. Deborah Derrick

    Love this one, Kim!


  2. Donald Brown

    you are the Master Writer

  3. Perhaps even “Harriet” would swoon at the sight of your Pacific Madrone tree. I first introduced to this tree by you and Paul, on your Island. I am forever smitten.
    “The Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) is such a beautiful tree. Glossy green leaves and clusters of creamy white blooms that give way to bright red fruits are all exquisite characteristics. But the most famous of the Madrone’s features is the cinnamon brown/red bark. The trunk and branches of this Northwest Native evergreen are wrapped in bark of an extraordinary color that peels away in summer to reveal lighter tan underneath.”

  4. Alice B. Acheson

    Brava, Kim,

    That last paragraph, especially, was wonderful and I loved this sentence, as it is something that I had not previously “absorbed.” — An Old Growth Forest has remarkable resilience—to natural events. Recovering quickly from fires, windstorms, and disease, but not so from human events such as clear-cut logging.

    Thanks, Alice

    ========== Alice B. Acheson, Book Marketing/Publishing Consultant P. O. Box 735 Friday Harbor, WA 98250 360/378-2815 http://sites.google.com/site/alicebacheson a little elbow room wrote on 10/18/2016 1:34 PM: > WordPress.com > a little elbow room posted: ” photo by Paul Mayer BY KIMBERLY MAYER A > few years back when we were living in the city, I came down to the > kitchen one morning, turned on KNOW, Seattle’s public radio, ground my > beans and made coffee. These gestures always seemed to ha” >

  5. Wow, what a way to end a visit, an insulting downer. And seeing how I actually live a short walk away from Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, I take extra offense to this. But alas, we often speak before we think so there you go.

    You did right by the PNW forest. Yes, firs, cedars, hemlocks and a few pines here and there. As someone said, the madrona may be the best one of all. You and I know they are all very different. When you look closely at them, you see the differences.

    Those trees she gestured to are ones in my front yard and at the far back near our creek. They’re what keep our air clean and our temperature cool. They cast a soft, beautiful outline on the landscape, better than billboards and neon signs. Plus, you can always hide behind them when you don’t want to speak to silly people! Thanks for the post.

  6. Christine Ahrens

    Indeed you are your grandfathers girl. Grampa Bernie loved trees, how many times did you hear him say “there is nothing more beautiful than a tree”
    Hugs Christine

  7. staceelynn1

    I agree with you 1000%. I love trees and am forever grateful that I was born, and have lived most of my life, in such a magical and beautiful part of the world – that being western Washington of course. I never take it’s beauty for granted. We’re incredibly lucky!

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