You can read an old-growth forest

if you can interpret signs. It’ll still be tough, they’re so mysterious.

It’s easier if a very astute naturalist has come before you and shown everyone how important it is to preserve these ancient environments. In this case, A.B. Williams, who embraced a stand of woods in Ohio, with the great name North Chagrin Reservation, in the 1930s.

Williams was working toward his doctorate and established a trailside museum here (since burned down and replaced). It’s a maze of a forest rich in 300- and 400-year old beeches, sugar maples, tulip trees, hemlocks and other species. The United Nations has defined old-growth forests as naturally regenerated stands of native tree species where there are no clearly visible indications of human activity and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed.

Not all trees in an old-growth forest, also called a climax community, are old. Counterintuitive, but true.

Some are though, big old honkers.

This one has significant wounds. It’s still alive! says Maud, looking up.

Compartmentalization. Something trees are great at, humans not so much. What happens is that, according to what tree people call CODIT (compartmentalization of decay in trees, duh), when a tree is wounded it begins to protect itself by slowing or preventing the spread of disease and decay by forming “walls” around the wounded area. Getting into the specifics of this process would take a year and a day, but suffice it to say that the walls run in every direction, ingeniously.

Maud has spent some time in emergency rooms as an r.n. How to deal with deaths there? Yep, that is what she says, compartmentalization. How a person stays sane when there is insanity all around. I know quite a few people now that are having a very hard time dealing with our current dire political situation. They can’t eat, can’t sleep, dream of taking up a new life in Canada or on Fiji, et cetera. They might do well to emulate the trees. Put aside a set amount of time each day to wring your hands and think dark thoughts. Then you can at least enjoy your dinner, and catch some sleep at night.

Wildflowers fringe the forest.

Here in North Chagrin, there are some signs that are a bit inscrutable. How to explain this marking on bark? All suggestions welcome. A map created by druids?

Or this stretch of marked ground where a fallen tree decayed. Looks like someone dragged a body through here.

The hills have eyes. So do some young trees.

We know that people love beech trees, their smooth grey bark, useful for leaving your mark. It seemed a mere toss-up whether she said, ‘I love you,’ or whether she said, ‘I love the beech-trees,’ or only ‘I love—I love.‘ That’s Virginia Woolf, from Night and Day.

Despite the fact that this forest is old growth, that doesn’t in this case mean unspoiled. Some people find peoples’ autobiographical messages on beech bark annoying. I don’t. Thoreau said, I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines. I like to think of someone tramping some miles through North Chagrin, too shy to unburden himself to someone he cares for, and surreptitiously taking switchblade out of pocket to say I love-I love.

There are also black cherries here, some of them quite opinionated. What are you trying to say though, standing there akimbo?

Gigantic hemlocks. Bark that is positively prehistoric.

Soaring tulip trees. They can reach 200 feet tall. Indigenous Americans used their straight solid trunks to build dugout canoes.

Delicate leaves.

Toadstools/mushrooms (your pick) thrive here in the humus.

Craggy roots lay upended, fairy tale characters.

All around, insects buzz. The only sound, aside from the panting of excited dogs. We fall quiet. Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me? Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road.

Here is shagbark hickory, bearing fruit.

There aren’t that many trees whose names denote their appearance. Think: apple, linden, oak, pine, chestnut, on and on. Shagbark is what it is.

When a tree falls in an old-growth forest, you let it lie. Well, most of the time. If it crosses a trail, it’s only mannerly to remove it.

Old-growth forests in the United States are rare. One estimate holds that stands of century-old forest now account for only seven percent of forest cover in America. Another expert puts it at less than four percent. Yet another, six percent. Whatever, it is indisputedly small. Since 1600, 90% of the virgin forests that once covered much of the lower 48 states have been cleared away. It’s sad because they harbor extraordinary amounts of biodiversity, including rare species. The percentage of the world’s forests that are old growth is a bit larger– 21 percent, according to the World Resources Institute.

Occasionally a view opens up, appearing out of nowhere.

Let’s try to interpret the signs. Preserve the canopy, the rot, even the bark scars (nothing is perfect, and sometimes imperfection is wonderful). Visit an old-growth forest near you and place your palms on the trunk of one of these giants.

Fall silent. Dream.

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