One benefit of being an ardent pursuer of spring ephemeral wildflowers is that you frequently find yourself in mature woods, because that is where those flowers perform best and where many of the rarer ones thrive.
The most mature woods are those that have never been logged or disturbed – by definition, Old Growth Forests.
There are many synonyms for the term Old Growth Forests including Old Growth Wood, Virgin Forest, Primeval Forest, Primary Forest, Preserved Forest, and Pristine Forest. They all reflect an ecosystem where life is born, thrives, and ends in a very stable pattern, and where elements are recycled and put back into the equation of life.
Another characteristic of Old Growth Forests is the variability in the life cycle present in the habitat. They have large trees, standing dead trees, multiple layers of canopy, as well as gaps where some iconic trees have succumbed to the forces of nature, either weather or disease. This allows an opening in the canopy that results in the birth of a focal younger landscape hosting different species, including grasses and forbs (non-grass flowering plants).
And the forest floor is the recycling plant, turning old trees into new soil.
Old Growth Forests occur throughout the world and are estimated to cover 1.1 billion acres. 61% of these occur in Russia, Canada, and Brazil. The appearance of these forests however will not be uniform. Variables like plant census, weather, altitude, geography, and others will influence the composition, structure, and look of the forests.
The consistent thing about all Old Growth Forests is that there is diversity. That includes a diversity of species as well as a diversity of habitats. Across an old growth forest the many variables of moisture, light, soil quality, companion plants, and animals leads to micro-environments that allow many different organisms to thrive. Tree stands that are essentially monoculture (single species) tree farms do not offer the variability necessary to support as broad a range of species.
Can a forest recover from disturbance and become “Old Growth”? Yes. But the time it takes varies with the nature of the forest. It could take from hundreds to thousands of years, depending on the habitat. Deciduous forests of the eastern United States can develop old-growth characteristics in 150–500 years. In other areas, such as interior British Columbia, Canada, where fire is a common, a climax or old growth forest ecosystem can develop in 120 to 140 years. By comparison, for the Pacific Northwest’s coastal rainforests, old growth is defined as trees more than 250 years, with some trees reaching 1000 years in age.
But a visit to an Old Growth Forest for most of us is not about statistics and science. It is about the experience and the activation of our senses. My own exposure to Old Growth Forests is somewhat limited – this would include relatively small areas of eastern deciduous forest, the Douglas-Fir and Western Redcedar forests in Mount Ranier National Park, some coastal Longleaf Pine forests in the Florida Panhandle, the Redwood and Sequoia forests of Northern California, and oddly, the Bluegrass Prairie of Kentucky, where multi-century old Blue Ashes, Bur Oaks and Shellbark Hickories are the iconic features, but widely spaced. Is that a forest? By my definition it is, just one where the mid-canopy is under represented, and where the grassland and forb understory plays a prominent role.
But the experience of hiking in an Old Growth Forest is relatively consistent on a sensory level. The first is tactile – underfoot the soil is forgiving – “Bouncy”, as scientist and author Thomas Barnes described it, due to the accumulated layers of compost. It just feels softer, and welcoming.
The second is olfactory – because there is a certain scent to an Old Growth Wood; it is a combination of moisture, mushrooms, leaf litter, and decay. Somehow the mix lessens anxiety and gives the welcome of an old couch.
The third is auditory – the sounds in an Old Growth Wood are crisper and cleaner. Perhaps it is the cathedral nature of the canopy and, in some locations, the relative lack of a midstory, that allows for the sound to carry and magnify. The bird and tree frog calls seem to be broadcasted.
The final sense invigorated by a walk in these woods is visual. One must stop to take in the grandeur of the iconic trees with their deeply furrowed, moss and lichen laden bark, and monstrous roots.
The architecture of the branching structure causes you to stare in amazement.
Yet, the fact of the matter is that I will not be able to find the words to adequately describe what one experiences when they finds themselves in an Old Growth Forest. It truly has to be experienced to be appreciated. But please, when you find yourself there, slow down and breathe deep. Disconnect from your phone other than to take photos. Feel the sponginess of the soil. Inhale through your nose to register the musk of the environment. Scan the horizon and focus your vision on the iconic trees – not a mere glance, but a study. How furrowed is the bark? Are there lichens and mosses that are part of the marriage that is the ecosystem of a single tree? Appreciate the overall architecture of the huge trees. And listen. How far away is that bird? That tree frog? That flowing stream? How does the breeze sing through the canopy?
It is my opinion that you have to experience this for yourself and I encourage you to do so. An important point is that many of these Old Growth Forests are within easy reach of most people of modest fitness standards. We are not suggesting that you hike the Appalachian Trail. The key is to find resources that will help you identify opportunities to experience it for yourself.
Since most of my followers are in the Cincinnati region I will give you my favorite Old Growth Forests in the area:
California Woods Nature Preserve, Cincinnati, OH
Old Growth Trail, Curtis Gates Lloyd Wildlife Management Area, Crittenden, KY
The Big Woods, Hueston Woods State Park, College Corner, OH
Griffith Woods Wildlife Management Area, Cynthiana, KY
But I would also encourage everyone to bookmark the Old Growth Forest Network link so that they can visit Old Growth Forests across the country (see link below). The Network has already done the research for you and have verified the quality of the sites that they list.
In summary, I can find pleasure and invigoration on any Footpath, but the multisensory experience of an Old Growth Forest is unique. Somehow the setting triggers both stimulation and relaxation. The stimulation is a positive alertness to take in all that is offered for observation. The relaxation is on a more modern life urgency level, where the forest invites you to slow down, take a deep breath, and pay attention to your senses. Let your mind go where your senses lead you, and enjoy.
One of my goals for the remaining years of my life is to see Old Growth Forests in other parts of the world, both the continental United States and beyond. Footpaths will invite you along for the trip.