Joan Maloof’s Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests
Reviewed by Andrew C. Gottlieb
Joan Maloof’s latest book, Among the Ancients, is an enjoyable, informed, readable genre-collage that takes readers to what will most likely be unfamiliar territory: Eastern United States old-growth forest. It’s easy to consider “old-growth” as synonymous with Redwood and Sequoia National Parks, with the gigantic Douglas firs of the Pacific Northwest, with Washington State’s Olympic National Forest. After all, isn’t that what we’re talking about? Huge, old unlogged trees in a few national parks? In her preface, Maloof tells us that Maurice Schwartz of the United Nations Forestry Division at one point found 98 different definitions of the term. So, old growth isn’t just giant, and it’s not just 1,000 years old. It’s really a section of forest where trees—even small ones, high-altitude pines—have been left to grow through a natural life-cycle, a cycle that increases the biodiversity of the forest itself.
Maloof takes us on her journey to forests small and large in each of the 26 states east of the Mississippi, most of which contain trees that for some reason—activist or accident—were not logged early last century when the eastern part of the United States was mown like a lawn for timber during the industrial development of the timber industry and the nation’s building and population expansion. But these aren’t redwoods. Tulip poplars, buckeyes, poisonwood trees, oak, hickory, maple. “No matter where you live in the East, there is an old-growth forest you can reach in a day,” she tells us.
And yet, though the book is broken into 26 sections organized by state and region, this isn’t simply a guidebook. It’s a collection of essays, a meditative, thoughtful exploration of Maloof’s forest travels and how she links our past and present to deepen her (and our) understanding of why old growth needs to be preserved. And it’s a bittersweet journey: Maloof celebrates the trees that remain and mourns what’s been lost. And even some of the remaining forests we do visit with her are underfunded and in sorry shape. In Mississippi, in the Bienville National Forest, Maloof found that “pine trunks were rising out of a field of slash. Everywhere there were stumps from small trees and not-so-small trees. The forest floor looked as though it had been chewed up and spit out, and the deep ruts told me there had been some very heavy machinery in this forest recently.”
Maloof has done her research but doesn’t write in a stiff, academic voice; nor does she speak with the surface directive of a travel guide. She takes us to a place and speaks fluidly and freely about her feelings for the remaining forests and for the actions of forestry and timber “experts” of days gone past: forest management or perhaps mismanagement.
In Tennessee, the Citco Creek Wilderness holds old-growth yellow buckeyes. Maloof tells us the biggest buckeye in Tennessee is actually in the Smoky Mountains: 136 feet tall and a trunk circumference of 19 feet. But here in Citco Creek Wilderness, she enjoys a rare sight: “I was walking in the shade of a buckeye canopy. You can’t do that in many places. It was a joyous feeling.” Buckeyes, she tells us, when logged, take 15 years to return, then 40 years to reach sapling stage. This is the sadness of the old-growth tour; there’s a constant reminder of what we’ve lost, how short-sighted we’ve been in the name of timber production.
And Maloof doesn’t shy away from making her case: she’s on the side of the trees, of preservation, of saving what little old growth is left. “When Ivory-billed woodpeckers and Carolina parakeets became rare, ornithologists collected more instead of fewer. Today, I can see hundreds of these birds in museum drawers across the world, but not a single one in the wild.” In Maryland, her visit to Swallow Falls State Park is special for her. Swallow Falls is a small forest that can be seen quickly: “…what a delightful hour or two it is! Hemlock, white pine, yellow birch—my old friends.” But the majority of the Maryland essay discusses Maryland state forester Fred Besley, a man who took control of Maryland’s forests in 1906 and felt that “the most important use of the forest . . . is for Lumber.” At one point Besley convinced the state legislature to reverse a law that would allow the federal government to acquire state land for creating national forests. Maryland, Maloof tells us, is now “one of only seven states with no national forest.”
But amid the warnings and reminders are essays filled with joy at being in sections of forest, at seeing old trees in different parts of the U.S. There are occasional black and white photos, and before each section is a simple but handsome map with Maloof’s directions for finding each spot. It’s inviting: these essays that take one wandering to forests also invite the reader to do the same. There is a section of notes for each state, and a list of other forests to visit some of which are not open to the public.
Whether Maloof is considering Thoreau or the life cycle of a caterpillar, she approaches her subjects with respect and careful observation. This book is a pleasure to read, and anyone ready for a tour of new forests will find learning and insight here, a peaceful read, and an author who is an ally in the fight for forest preservation. “Is it the trees that want their story to be told?” she wonders. “Or is it this beauty, this stunning beauty of our planet that does not want to be forgotten?”
Andrew C. Gottlieb is the Reviews Editor for Terrain.org. His work can be found online, in many print journals, and in his poetry chapbook, Halflives, (New Michigan Press.) Find him at www.andrewcgottlieb.com.