‘nature’s temples:’ understanding old trees and old-growth forests, with joan maloof

natures-temples-joan-maloofWHILE READING the new book “Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests” by environmental scientist Joan Maloof, the expression “not seeing the forest for the trees” quickly took on added meaning.

It would be easy visiting or even looking at photos of a place where very large, old trees grow, to see nothing else, but Maloof’s book shines a light on all the life in the complex and interconnected community that is such a forest, from lichens to salamanders, snails to beetles, birds and more.

Joan Maloof, a professor emeritus at Salisbury University in Maryland, founded the Old-Growth Forest Network to preserve, protect and promote the country’s few remaining stands of old-growth forest. She introduced me more intimately to these miraculous places, their inhabitants, and critical importance on the December 12, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast. We also talked about surprising current thinking on “managing” forests and woodlots (usually not a good thing); about how damaging (and not helpful) earthworms have proven to the forest ecosystem, and much more.

Read along as you listen to the Dec. 12, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


joan-maloofq&a on old-growth forests, with joan maloof



Q. I saw on the Old-Growth Forest Network website, oldgrowthforest.net, that you have coordinators in various states around the country. Though they might be the best known, the old-growth forests in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest are not the only tracts of old trees in the U.S., are they?

A. That’s right, and that information has been really difficult to find. Where is the closest old-growth forest to where you live? By old growth I mean a forest that has never been logged; an original forest carrying on its own ecological functions.

People as you mentioned tend to think of the redwoods but there are remnants of our original forest scattered throughout the country, so at the Old Growth Forest Network, we wanted to not only draw attention to those remnants and protect them, but we’ve said we should increase the number of old-growth forests by taking some of the older forests that were perhaps cut once 100 or 200 years ago, and let them fully recover.

It’s a big task, so how we broke that down is by counties across the U.S. We tried to get one volunteer coordinator in each county, and they look around in their county to see if there are any old-growth forests left, and if not, what is one of the older ones that we can make sure get protected and remain open to the public—so that all of us can experience these places and appreciate them.

Q. So how old is old, and does that depend on the species? That segues to the question: Can you actually tell the age of a tree by its girth? Everyone thinks you just look at how wide it is and that gives you an indication.

A. Those are both really good and deep questions. How old is old? That one does depend on where you are in the country, and what kind of tree species, so those definitions shift. For instance, if we are talking about the redwoods and the sequoias, it takes over 1,000 years for the forest to really develop its full component, meaning the trees live their maximum ages, die of old age, then fall and become food for the forest floor and the creatures there.

In the Eastern forests, we don’t have trees that are quite that long-lived, so may take say 300 years to have trees that are growing to their maximum age and dying of old age, and having young ones come in—having the natural turnover. So it’s very dependent on time and place, but if you just look at “has this forest been left along and unlogged?” then we can say yes, this is an old-growth forest.

As far as the question about girth, yes, sometimes you can have trees that are very old, but because of how they are growing. Either they are in an extreme environment—and what comes to mind is that they are on the cliff-face edges of Lake Champlain, in the Northeast, where there are these [white] cedar trees that are really gnarly and are just hanging over the edge of that rocky cliff face. But because those trees were not looked at for timber, because of their location and shape; they were left alone. You might look at one of those trees now and think “nothing special,” but if you were to actually core it and count the rings, you would find that the tree was over 400 years old—old-growth trees, even if the whole habitat wasn’t.

Even straight trees—sometimes even those can fool you. I knew someone who had a small piece of forest, and needed a piece of timber for a project, and they found a little straight oak tree in the forest, and said, “OK, we can cut this one out.” Well, they cut it and found it was 125 years old. But because it had been growing in that dense, shady forest, it had been growing so slowly that you couldn’t tell.

Q. I live in a rural area surrounded by a state park, which a century ago was farmland, after the original trees were stripped away–so lots of so-called second growth. A lot of time I hear people talk about how we need to manage the forest better. And indeed it looks like a mess in there, with lots of invasives and no trees reaching full potential. But does all forest need managing?

A. That question right there was really the motivating force in me writing this book called “Nature’s Temples.” So many times when I travel the country and give talks, and talk about forests and old-growth forests, I would have private owners come up to me and say, “Oh, we have forest land, but we were told it had to be managed to be healthy, so then we wanted to do the right thing. We called in a forester.” The management often turned in to thinning, or logging. These folks were wondering if they had done the right thing.

Really the reason I wrote this book was to give voice to the fact that forests actually do not need to be managed to be healthy. We look around and say: What are the healthiest forests on our planet—meaning the most biodiversity and the biggest trees and oldest trees? Those are actually in the places that have been left unmanaged.

It gets complicated when like you said with parts of your state park that had been cut and cleared and now is growing back, because often those trees are growing back too densely. Because of that you have a lot of natural thinning, and natural tree death. But if we could only be patient enough and wait, those forests would recover on their own, and regain the biodiversity.

Q. I think if we took out all the Oriental bittersweet and multiflora rose [laughter] and the stuff that’s choking so many of the individuals.

A. And that’s another point. We live in a very different era now with invasives. I’ve seen cases where there is a natural second-growth forest but with very few invasives. The old-school forestry tactics would say come in here and do some thinning, so these trees have more room. But often that very thinning is what opens up the soil to the invasives coming in. That can actually be a bigger problem than having the trees be too close together.

beetle-by-andrew-joslinQ. I love this line in the book to this point:

“Left alone,” you write, “old-growth forests are the incubators of ever-changing life forms.”

Left alone, they know what to do and do it.

You also point out that even forests of very old surviving trees, that have not been interfered with—even there, there is some attrition, some death. And that dead trees play a role, too. I think that bears reminding gardeners and other homeowners of. We don’t want to be cleaning up compulsively; the dead and dying have a very important role in a biological community. Can we talk about how dead and dying trees figure in the food chain?

A. If you counted all the living things on a standing healthy live tree, and then you counted all the living things on a tree that died and fell over, you would find there was much more life on the dead tree lying down.

The fungi will come in and start utilizing that wood that has been laid down over decades or even centuries, and then you have the beetles [above] that are in the softened wood that are feeding on the fungi. And then you have the amphibians and the reptiles that are feeding on those beetles, and it’s this beautiful living sponge, if you will, and those nutrients are also being released back to the soil and to the tree roots.

That’s what happens in a natural native forest—there is a constant recycling of those nutrients. We are almost sometimes in our gardens used to seeing a dead tree as a failure—as if we did something wrong, and it died; it looks bad so let’s take it away.

In a garden where you are trying to create a certain aesthetic, that’s fine, but there should always be places left where that natural regeneration and ecological recycling can happen.

Many, many creatures depend on those things. To an ecologist such as myself, when I visit an ancient forest now and see an ancient tree that’s gone down, instead of thinking what a shame I think, this is great—this tree reached its complete life cycle, and it’s still going on and adding benefit to the forest.

Q. Sustenance.

I kept having “aha’s” as I read through the book. The other day I was thinking that I want to add a boundary along my road of a diverse group of native viburnums—a bio-hedge, so to speak. There is one that I was interested in that I have read great things about, and I have seen it in my area in certain spots. But it’s never in commerce, because it’s very hard to grow—but it’s in your book, and it’s the Viburnum called hobblebush, V. lantanoides or alnifolium. [Below.]

I started to think after reading your book: Is the reason I only see it growing in those certain places, and that no one is able to propagate it on a commercial scale, because it is dependent on this old place with soil mycorrhizae and so on?

hobblebush-by-andrew-joslinA. Exactly; it’s probably dependent on a fungus or mycorrhizae relationship with the roots—some fungus we don’t even understand yet, because it’s not even an important commercial species. So someone will dig it up, and stick it in a pot in the nursery, and try it and it won’t do well, but we don’t even know why.

Q. There was a lot of that in the book—your weaving together for the reader this whole community, and the connections, and that nothing is unconnected or on its own in this world.

So let’s talk about what other organisms besides the trees is living in these forests–sort of indicator species. You had illustrations in the book of the brown creeper, and the winter wren, both of whom I enjoy in my garden. So I thought, why are those in the book? What do they mean?

brown-creeper-2-by-andrew-joslinA. For the book I really relied on the other experts in each of these fields who have done the studies. They’re studied the ancient forests versus the young forests, and asked what kind of birds are we seeing in the younger forests, and what are we more likely to see in the ancient ones?

In the ancient forests they found the birds that needed cavities, which really makes sense, because there we have old trees, which have lost a limb, and there is a hollow space—or the dead trees. So that is where those birds that do not weave nests, but that find little holes, can go and carry out their reproductive tasks.

Also in the older forests, the woodpeckers are more common, because they can find the cavities or make cavities that are used by other birds. Even the ground-nesting birds do better in the older forests because there might be a clump of ferns and shrubs that then are protected from browsing of the deer by some old trees that have fallen down. Because these forests have so much more going on, it is more difficult for predators to find those nests. It’s really the structure of the forest that benefits those birds.

And then, there are more insects in the older forests because there is more plant species diversity, and more insects means more food for birds, too. Like you said, it’s all connected.

Q. I most of all loved the chapter in your book “Nature’s Temples” called “The Role of Insects in the Forest” because I don’t think insects get their due. Especially even from gardeners, who are always on the lookout for a “pest” species. Tell us about their critical contribution—as food, but they also control a lot of potential for things going amok; they keep some things in check, too.

A. Some people would say if they could wave a magic wand, they’d get rid of all the insects on the planet. [Laughter.] But if we did that, then the plants would take over—which doesn’t sound so bad, but then the way ecology works, there would be one or two plants that would be more successful than the rest of them. They would be the ones that would take over, so then we would have a planet, or forest, with just one or two species in it.

But because there are these insects that are continually nibbling, and keeping the plants in check, it allows for a lot of different species to exist. The insects tend to specialize in certain plants, and then because of the insects that are nibbling these different plants, there are then predatory insects that are feeding on them that we know about, that wouldn’t exist if not for the other insects, and the birds that wouldn’t be there and then the plants themselves: Think if the wonderful fragrance we associate with plants, like the balsam fir or the walnut leaves. Those plants would not have developed  those chemicals if it were not for trying to repel those insects that were trying to eat them.

Q. To us, we say, “What a nice aroma,” but that wasn’t the point of it. It was an anti-predation chemical defense.

So insects: the more the merrier in many cases, though I am sure people will freak out hearing me say that…but my name is Roach, so I can love bugs.

On the other hand, the presence of earthworms, which gardeners might have been raised to believe are helpers, is not such good news in the forest, is it? There is a chapter called “Worms: Friend or Foe of Forests” in your book. What about them?

earthworms-by-andrew-joslinA. I was raised as a young woman to think: worms—good, good. They turn things over, and aerate the soil. It wasn’t until maybe five years ago that I started learning that oh, these worms we think are so good are actually non-native worms that were brought in here, in most cases.

They’re eating too much of the detritus on the forest floor, and then a lot of the native herbaceous plant species can’t live because the detritus—the dead leaves and things—aren’t holding the moisture in the soil. They’re not able to be food for the fungi, and so those native plants are dying as we lose the detritus because of these non-native worms.

So I decided to include that chapter just because there is a lot of misunderstanding about that, and I wanted to let people know what is going on. In the glacial areas of out country—like up in New England—we actually have no native earthworms in our soils. So if you find earthworms, they are the invasive ones. But down in the more southern areas that were not covered with glaciers, we do have some native worm species that are part of the habitat.

So just an understanding of what is happening, though there is not much that can be done there. But to let people know not to go fishing and release their worms, or as I did at one point with composting with worms. I though it would be great; I’d have a bin in my kitchen and compost all my food scraps. When that didn’t really work out, I released that bin into my compost pile, thinking I was creating soil.

Now I know that made me part of the problem in a way, because it was a non-native worm I had introduced into my ecosystem.

Q. Now because of time constraints, we’ve just skipped over a few of the groups of organisms in the book, and in these forests: lichen, fungi, mosses, liverwort…. But I do want to ask you something almost like where we began our conversation:

Getting back to the Old Growth Forest Network. So we’re not all in the primeval forest; but maybe we have that oak that proves to be 125 years old, or tracts of second growth that’s gotten older. What should be all be caring about, and conscious of; what’s the advocacy piece?

A. Thank you for asking that question. When I first started this work, speaking out for the forests and trying to protect them, I thought there would be so many people out there doing this work with me. As I have gotten further out on the edge of that, doing more and more of that, I realize it’s kind of lonely out here.

It’s surprising how few people are speaking out for the trees in their communities, or the forests in their communities. I guess I would just say there needs to be more of us that are not assuming that someone else is doing the work.

Look around in your yard; look around in your property; look around in your community.  Say where are the oldest forests; who owns those forests? How can we help make sure those forests are protected? It’s possible that some of your listeners own those forests and can be making decisions about whether to log or not. Maybe this book would help them make the decision to preserve at least part of their forest.

Or if you don’t own forest land, perhaps there is a state park nearby, and you can get involved in the management of that park, and perhaps speak out to say yes, this was logged in the past, but how about if we keep it as a reserve of beauty and biodiversity and not log it again?

This book, I really wrote it to give all of us the stories and the ammunition to preserve those forests.

how to win ‘nature’s temples’

natures-temples-joan-maloofTO ENTER TO WIN a signed copy of “Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests,” Joan Maloof’s book, simply comment below, answering the question:

Did any of Joan Maloof’s revelations in this interview surprise you–whether about forest management or earthworms’ roles or any of it? Anything you want to share about old forests near you?

No answer to the question, or simply feeling shy? No worry; just say “count me in” or something to that effect, and I will, but a reply is even better. Winners will be drawn at random after entries close at midnight on Tuesday, December 20, 2016. Good luck to all.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Dec. 12, 2016 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


(Illustrations from “Nature’s Temples” by Andrew Joslin, used with permission of the publisher, Timber Press. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon links yield a small commission.)

  1. Joan Gillespie says:

    Hi Joan,
    Yes the earthworm thing did surprise me.

    Where I live in southwest Ohio, we have a forest called Bender Mountain. I am a member of the Western Wildlife Corridor whose mission is to protect the corridor along the river and Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana Border. They hired a forester named John Klein who surveyed the Bender Mountain forest and established that it was an old growth forest.

    It’s right in our backyard and most of our community aren’t aware of it. It is owned by 3 groups. Western Wildlife Corridor, Delhi Township Parks and The Sisters of Mount St. Joe. It should remain safe and there is also an abundance of native wildflowers here.

  2. Paula says:

    I live in western Columbia county in New York, and I have at least 3 trees, all maples that are estimated to be about 200 or more years old. I treasure all of them, and often wonder what they could tell me about what they’ve witnessed, if only they could speak!

  3. Sarah Faford says:

    I love this podcast and it really got me thinking about old growth forests in my area. I am a transplant to central Iowa (orginially from eastern Illinois) and the area is heavily farmed and has been for generations. Being a native of the upper Midwest, tallgrass prairie is my first love, but there is something about an oak savanna that will always have a place in my heart.

    This episode really got me thinking about how to best preserve these environments in my area, even if it is just conscious stewardship on the land we own. So much has already been lost in Iowa, and to sit idly by while more land is lost is just not something I can allow myself to do.

    Thank you for always bringing thought provoking topics to my earbuds!

  4. Jacquelyn says:

    Thank goodness for those “voices from the wilderness” (forests ha ha) and not; Ruth Stout, Rachel Carson, and more recently Rick Darke, Sydney Edison, Claudia West, Roy Dublin, Larry Weaner, Doug Tallamy and others and now Joan Maloof all observing nature and contributing to our knowledge and hopefully practices that will sustain the complex system that is nature. I would love to include Nature’s Temples to my library.

  5. Ann Oehler says:

    The earthworm information surprised me the most.
    I will share this blog and book with my garden club. We are small, but with all the publicity for Buffalo winters, western New York still has some unpaved, undeveloped land. Maybe we can help our local forests.
    Thank you for sharing.

  6. Irena says:

    The point about earthworms probably will be one of the biggest eye-openers to the listeners and the readers, as it was for me when I learned about their non-native status and detrimental effect on leaf-litter that forests need and get deprived of.

    I personally love walking around old woods and hunt for mushrooms which are hard to come by in the new growth forest. Some areas in the Catskills, Vermont, New Hampshire is it where I enjoy them misr frequently. Hopefully one day I’ll visit one the big national park forests, too.

    What a fantastic book and thank you for introducing us to the writer so that we at least can take a peak at her creation and get ourselves educated. Much needed activity…

  7. Emma Dickson says:

    Okay, call me surprised – Non-native earthworms!! So if all the earthworms in the northern states are non-native, then Eastern Ontario, Canada must also have only the non-native type. Call me extremely surprised. I really have to look into this. Plus the idea of not managing forests. We hear a lot about “managing” forests and woodlots around here. We have about 50 acres of mostly new growth so another idea to be researched. Thank you for presenting such an interesting and informative topic. I need this book and so does the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources :)

  8. As someone living on the Coastal Plains, we don’t pay enough attention to our forests. This interview has got me curious whether we even have any “old growth forests” in my area (northern Virginia Beach) with the amount of development that has occurred through our history. I know that “maritime forests” are a rarity here. Time to start googling!

  9. Sheri Cline says:

    This was a great article. I live in north coastal Washington state (San Juan Islands) and love our local parks and beaches. I love walking into the forest and breathing the air, smelling scents mingling forest and sea. You can feel the layers of decay under your feet like a sponge. I salvage off the beaches for my garden dragging in driftwood logs, shells, crab shell casings and seaweeds to feed to my soil life. (The neighbor’s think I’m crazy) I’ve worked with a few builders to rescue flora from properties to be developed and replanted a few easements and filled my front yard with native ferns, Salal “Gaultheria shallon”, Oregon grape and wild rose that my local deer love to nibble on. The earthworm part of the story was a bit of a surprise but I’m living in a neighborhood that’s full of uniformed property owners who mostly hire uneducated landscape workers that have wiped out the worm & amphibian population by spraying weed and bug killers. Not a frog anywhere and when I started working my soil I couldn’t find any worms. It was a joy last year just to sit, close my eyes and listen to my garden and the life in it. A busy bird unrolling leaves on my Rainer cherry to get to the worms hiding within and wasps cutting rose leaves to make their nest. I did have stress watching the aphids and ants at the tips of my fruit tree branches (Cherry, Apple & Plum) but relaxed when I figured out that those tips would be pruned back in winter. They had no effect on my fruit and harvest. Still making that fresh morning juice from my own apples and have enough Granny Smiths left for one more Christmas apple pie! Merry Christmas and I look forward to your wonderful post in the New Year!

  10. Debbie Cook says:

    Very interesting ! I live in southeastern Kentucky and own about 25 acres of mostly forest that was logged in the 1940’s. I was going to let foresters manage my property, but now I am not sure. There is old growth forest in the county where I live (Lily Cornett Woods) I want to read more when I have time at home.

  11. Alana Steib says:

    I loved this story, Margaret! For the past year I’ve been working with neighbors surrounding Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area, after NJ DEP began opening up this mature, upland forest to commercial logging. And to add insult to injury, they’ve contracting with NJ Audubon to write the logging plan!

  12. Dave Anderson says:

    We humans are an impatient lot. Nature moves at a pace we can’t comprend, we find it so difficult to let these processes play themselves out. Feel we must go in and “fix” every thing.

  13. Kathryn Gardner says:

    Thank you so much! This interview will make a difference in how I manage the small property that I have on the border of the George Washington National Forest in Virginia.

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