Q: So, Great Hemlock, you have been in this forest for a while, tell me what it was like back when you were a seedling.
A: Ooh, that was 300 years ago, let me think. I remember looking up to see if I could locate my parents. There were many trees that shaded me from the sun, but none that I recognized. Now that I am older and have seedlings of my own, I know that when they are ready, hemlock seeds fly away on the wind and parents never know what becomes of their offspring. I think it is the same for the white pine, yellow birch, and spruce trees near me.
Q: How has the forest changed since then?
A: I hardly know where to start. For one thing, the canopy was much tighter. All the trees seem to race to see who can be the first to reach the sun. They get to a certain place and spread out their leaves and gobble up all the sunshine for themselves. That was fine when I was a seedling, but as I grew taller I found my upper branches in the sun. After a while, others around me would fall, leaving gaps in the forest and more sunlight for the forest floor. Man was that a jungle. It seemed like every weed known to tree took off growing rapidly. Finally, the soil became just right and many of those weeds couldn’t take it, leaving just me and my friends – the acid loving species.
You can see them too if you look around. I’m not the only ancient one here in this forest. See that rotting log over there? That tree almost took me out during the storm of the century, but now it provides a habitat for moss, fungi, insects and salamanders. It all depends on the moss though. Do you know how long it takes for moss to cover a log like that? We’re talking a hundred years or more. I haven’t been able to figure it out though – is moss one plant or many plants all together? I can’t imagine having siblings and offspring all around me like that, it gives me the creeps.
Of course the animals have changed too. Nowadays you’ll find nearby the ruffed grouse, wild turkey plus birds like the black-capped chickadee, pine siskin and crossbills which depend on me for food and protection. I don’t mind them much, they can’t really do any damage. The deer, rabbits and porcupines give this old tree heartburn, however! I never saw a turkey or ruffed grouse when I was a seedling. Of course, back then I didn’t have to worry about insects much either. There’s this little creature called the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid that has me really worried. I’ve heard whispers from other trees that it kills every hemlock it finds and it is moving down the spine of the Appalachians from Virginia. I’ve lived a long life and I know I’ll be like that downed log over there someday, so that doesn’t worry me. But what will become of my seeds? What about all those other creatures that depend on me? I just worry about what the forest will become when all the hemlocks have gone the way of the chestnut.
Q: Have people changed as well?
A: Heavens, yes! Who do you think introduced that pesky little adelgid bug in the first place? I don’t think people have a clue about the forest these days. When I was a seedling, the trees around me described life before the settlers. There were people of course, but they tended to move through the forest from place to place like any other animal. They didn’t build towns like they do now. But once the farms were started, then the towns came and now I hear the towns are called cities and take up more space than any forest – at least on the east coast.
During my lifetime, I have seen changes in the way people walk through the forest. At first people would scout for building timbers – fortunately for me, I’m not very useful for building houses. Although, they do like to burn hemlocks for the heat, aroma, and fireworks we provide. I have been fortunate. People would also hunt the grouse, deer and turkey. I liked these people. The first group just seemed to view the forest as a warehouse of human resources, but the hunters understood the animals needed more than just a place to eat and sleep. The animals need specific foods, specific places, the forest was more than just a warehouse.
These days, people use the trails through the forest for exercise. Ever since that new housing development went in over the ridge, the people have cut trails through here which never existed before. They come running through here just as quick as you please, they don’t even try to talk to us. We are just a backdrop. Occasionally, I get families on an adventure walk. It reminds me of long passed times. In my younger days, people would walk slowly, thoughtfully, observing all around them. The parents would instruct the children on the identification and uses of various plants. It made me feel real special – important even. There was a reverence for trees, people understood that we are the backbone of the forest. Without trees, the soil would cook to become brick and nothing very useful would grow. Weeds would try to make a go of it of course, but without trees, rocks would not be broken down into soil in the first place.
Q: Why do you think Old Growth Forests are important?
A: The importance of old growth forest is both practical and spiritual. On the practical side – you never know what science will discover. There are plants and animals that live only in old growth areas. Perhaps one of these organisms will provide the cure to cancer someday. You won’t know if all the old growth forests are gone.
On a spiritual note, people could learn a lot from a forest. Life is a circle my friend. Nothing exhibits this more than an old growth forest. Life and death are balanced, each depending on the other for constant nourishment. Nothing is wasted. If people could ever get a grip on this very basic idea, the world would change dramatically.
If for no other reason, old growth forests are important as reminders of the past. People seem to forget so quickly. It will be interesting to watch and see if people come back to the forests and try to relearn the old ways. I have met a few who are trying to live a pre-settlement life. I worry that the option of starting all over again may be lost if all the forest is gone. I cannot bear to think about people abandoning the forest altogether.
Still, I think there is hope. There are the few passionate people that continue to bring friends and try to introduce us to them. And as a worst case scenario, perhaps the people will be the ones who go extinct. I’m sure the world would suffer much damage if that is where civilization is heading, but at least the rest of us could pick up the pieces when it’s over. It would take lots of time – more time than a hemlock could imagine, but when the rocks tell me how old they are, I know the earth will be ok.