More than four decades ago I rendered a pen-and-ink sketch of a charming wild creature with which I enjoyed a near-magical encounter while living at 7,000 feet in the folds of a Wasatch Mountain pine forest. I later penned an essay titled The Ghost that Flies at Midnight telling the story. The secretive nocturnal “creature” happened to be the North American Flying Squirrel, and my connection with this tiny and mysterious wild animal was short-lived and singular; I have never met anyone else who has even seen one in the wild.
Recently I have been considering the claim by a segment of environmental scientists that modern professionally-managed forests cannot replace what is lost with the removal and disappearance of natural, undisturbed old growth forests. Coincidentally, I have been reading a book about the world of American owls – including the environmental changes which have challenged – and even threatened the survival of – the “world” inhabited by these fascinating birds-of-the-night. The connective tissue between these two subjects lies in the realization that these same “cute” flying squirrels constitute the principal food source for the rapidly-disappearing North American Spotted Owl, both of which species live almost exclusively and entirely in old growth forests.
The flying squirrels themselves depend for food upon the false truffle which they find attached to the roots of certain trees, which they in turn help to propagate as they scatter its spores in their own activities. The truffles benefit the trees by supplying specific nutrients not readily synthesized naturally. As a further step in this cycle of inter-dependency, the pellets excreted by the owls after consuming a squirrel further spread the truffle spores throughout the forest floor. This arboreal drama is but one example of the kind of symbiosis which is a hallmark of natural old growth forests – among a small remnant of which – I was apparently blessed to live for 40 years without realizing it.
The argument between the timber industry and environmentalists just a few years ago made the spotted owl an iconic, half humorous (and ill-chosen) central figure. Those arguing for the preservation of old growth forest remnants were not merely concerned about one species of owl, nor were they trying to put an end to all timber cutting. The spotted owl became a symbol because it was discovered to be one obvious casualty of a thoughtless (but profit-driven) wholesale clear-cutting strategy. In the process of defending its case the giant timber companies put forward the argument that the “managed” forest – re- planted and cultivated forests such as those they proposed to fill the giant open spaces left behind after their mechanized harvests – would in the end be more productive and just as beautiful – as the primal forests, they would in time replace. And they point to living examples to prove it.
The term old growth has a very specific and well-established definition. It refers to stands of ancient groves of mature, never-before disturbed integrated species of trees, together with the supporting communities of flora and fauna which have developed and matured with them over long periods of time; hundreds of years.
What we know now but might not have fully understood just a few ago is that once “disturbed” or destroyed these priceless pieces of natural history cannot be renewed or “managed” back into existence. The complex combinations of inter-related life forms – from snails and salamanders to nesting birds, migrating animals and insects by the millions will not return. On my annual visits to the Pacific Northwest I am exposed to visual reminders of every side to this unfolding story: vast stretches of decades-old ugly scrub land left behind by mindless clear-cutting, new replacement forests of baby conifers of identical size and geometric spacing reflecting the sense of responsibility to the future on the part of the modern timber industry, and the soldier-like stands of middle-age trees in “managed” mountain-side “regiments” awaiting the chain saws of some carefully planned future harvest.
And I continue to experience the heart-stopping thrill of walking beneath forest giants that are 300 and 400 years old, in the midst of the lushness of a green-and-growing biodiversity, the un-measurable dimensions of which boggle the mind of the thinking visitor. Here, even the dead standing, and supine and decaying trees are important citizens of the primal system, supporting the birthing of new growth, nesting sites for myriad forest creatures and thousands of kinds of fungi, lichen and molds – all contributors to the whole. I can only hope that we will always have a sufficiency of thinking, caring people in our society to insure the survival of our disappearing old growth forests.