Journeys in ancient and old growth forests

Category Archives: Values of old-growth forests

Our signature on the land

Aldo Leopold, a grandparent of the modern conservation movement, remarked that the definition of a conservationist is written better with an axe than a pen. “A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land,” offered Leopold.

I think of this as I decide which trees on my woodlot to cut for firewood. My chainsaw bites into a diseased beech, and I direct its fall into a gap between two trees. I hesitate over cutting a white ash that’s close to death. I decide to leave it and a year later I find that a woodpecker family has taken up residence in the now dead ash. I cut through the bark of another beech tree to kill it, but leave it standing to provide deadwood habitat for wildlife. I cut some poorly formed sugar maple from a clump, leaving the best two with more room to grow. I cut a few white birch trees to give light to a young, vigorous red spruce, and I pause to remark on just how beautiful a young red spruce is, growing beneath the canopy of mature forest, its branches sweeping down from its centre stem, with a graceful upward curve at the tips.

I take a light approach to my cutting.  I nibble away here and there, cutting some of the poorer quality trees. Ideally, my cutting will slowly restore conditions found in mature, natural Acadian Forest: an abundance of shade-tolerant species such as red spruce and sugar maple, and plentiful dead trees to provide homes for wildlife.

In this way, I accumulate three or four cords of firewood to heat my house for the winter, working evenings and the odd weekend. In exchange for some tree felling work, a friend brings her truck to my woodlot in early summer to help me transport the firewood from the forest to my woodshed. It’s a nice excuse to be social. I don’t bother to keep track of the time it takes me to cut my firewood. I do it because I enjoy it: the outdoor exercise, the satisfaction of slowly encouraging a healthy forest, the smell of wood smoke from my stove in the fall. I think, too, of my carbon footprint when I sit beside my woodstove in February – and smile at my local, small-scale energy production. It’s a luxury to be warm without worrying about the price, both in dollars and carbon, of furnace oil or electric heat.

yellow birch crop tree
A middle-aged yellow birch. Photo by Jamie Simpson

It’s also a luxury to have a daily connection with the forest. There’s magic in spring’s first trillium, in discovering a hemlock I hadn’t seen before, in stumbling across a bear one fall afternoon, in the sound of a hermit thrush at twilight in May. Or in drinking water that comes from a shallow well on the woodlot, water that is clean and delicious thanks, in part at least, to the intact forest surrounding the well. There’s something special in sharing the woodlot with friends who come to hike or ski, and with strangers who seek out the trails for a Sunday walk. My neighbour tells me he tracked a cougar on my property once, and that gives me a little chill if I happen to be in the forest at night.

“You have to have vision. I started with cut-over woods, and some day down the road there’ll be big red spruce and hardwood here,” remarked a woodlot-owner friend of mine. “I just hope I get to cut a few of them,” he added with a laugh.

My friend bought his land in the 1970s, a property covered mostly with thickets of balsam fir that had grown up after clearcutting in the 1960s. With careful, thoughtful management, my friend improved the quality of his woodlot with each thinning and harvest, gradually decreasing the abundant balsam fir and increasing the red spruce, yellow birch, white ash and sugar maple. “You look at what you’ve got in a particular area and work with it – the woodlot tells me what to do. I concentrate on taking out the balsam fir and poorer quality stems of other species; I leave the good stuff to grow,” my friend explained.

“The big trick,” continued my friend, “is thinking a few generations down the road. We see 50-year-old trees and think we’ve got a mature forest – even I do that. But we should be thinking about 150, even 200-year-old trees.”

‘Forest time’ is a concept that some woodlot owners and foresters argue we need to get into our heads when thinking about the forest. Forest time spans human generations. There are trees living today that once had Mi’kmaq families as their only human neighbours, that witnessed the expulsion of the Acadians, that were present at the birth of Canada. A red spruce or hemlock or sugar maple starting its life’s journey today might be seen alive by our great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren.

candace with old yB
An old yellow birch. Photo by Jamie Simpson

An old tree continues a role in life for decades after its death. A myriad species of fungi and insects commence a slow but inevitably effective siege against tough tissues that kept the tree standing over centuries. The tree fills with life. Amazingly, the tree will contain more living cells – of fungi, bacteria, insects – while decomposing than it did while living. Woodpeckers excavate nesting holes that they use but a single season, thereafter abandoning them to any of the dozens of other wildlife species that require tree cavities for shelter and raising young. Eventually, nutrients from the red spruce cycle into new life; particles of the tree’s structure, not fully decomposed, build soil structure, improving growing conditions for living trees.

Our agriculture and forestry practices brought phenomenal changes to Nova Scotia’s native Acadian Forest. Mature forest declined to a fraction of its natural abundance. Old forest species such as red spruce, hemlock and sugar maple shrunk in abundance, replaced by species that thrive on disturbance, such as balsam fir, white spruce and white birch. Early accounts of Nova Scotia’s forest describe abundances of trees 3 to 5 feet in diameter. The average size of trees fell precipitously: there was once, not many decades ago, a rule against cutting any tree less than 10 inches. Thanks to frequent and indiscriminate clearcutting, the average diameter of a log at a sawmill is now less than 6 inches.

An old red spruce at Sporting Lake, Nova Scotia. Photo: Jamie Simpson
Red spruce in the Acadian forest. Photo by Jamie Simpson

Of course, the Maritimes was never an unbroken swath of large, old trees; there are areas with poor soils that cannot support big trees, and insects and large windstorms, and occasionally fires, take their toll. But on the whole, the Acadian Forest is a shadow of its former self. So much so, that it is labelled as one of the most endangered forest types in North America.

Thinking in forest time, however, gives hope. As the writer Bill McKibben points out, our remaining bits of old natural forest need not be considered relics of former glory, but rather a “promise of the future, a glimpse of the systemic soundness we will not see completed in our lifetimes, but that can fire our hopes for the timelessness to come.” This is the thinking of woodlot owners who work carefully to restore value to their land, guided by a vision that they will not fully realize in their lifetime, yet are inspired nevertheless to work towards.

Our decision, as a society, to set aside a small portion of the land from logging, mining and settlement, also gives hope. Within these protected areas, covering a little better than a tenth of the landscape, the natural cycles and flows of life will unfold. Forests are dynamic entities, always evolving, so the idea this land will be restored to a past condition isn’t quite right. But with time, these forests will demonstrate the potential of our forest outside of direct human manipulation. Give these set-aside lands 50, 100 or 500 years to develop, and whoever walks through them will see a forest phenomenally different from lands that continue to be managed with current forestry practices.

I think about the 300-acre nature preserve next to my woodlot. At present, the nature preserve is indistinguishable from the surrounding forest: young mixed forest, some of which grows on former pasture land, the rest cut numerous times. But even 50 years of uninterrupted natural growth will result in noticeable change. Red spruce and other mature forest tree species will take over the dense patches of already dying balsam fir. The amount of deadwood will rebound, providing homes for increasing populations of birds, small mammals and the microscopic life that builds soil and drives nutrient cycling. I smile as I think of someone walking the same trail as I do, perhaps a friend’s daughter’s daughter, remarking on the massive white pine and yellow birch trees – maybe 3 feet across – that she finds there.


Jamie Simpson is the author of two books about the Acadian forest: Restoring the Acadian Forest: A Guide to Forest Stewardship for Woodlot Owners in Eastern Canada, and Journeys Through Eastern Old-Growth Forests. A version of this article first appeared on Jamie’s blog about the Acadian forest.


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