George E. Beetham Jr. is editor of a Philadelphia, Pa., weekly newspaper when he is not out exploring and learning. His earth science column Adventures on Earth appears weekly. This essay is from the Oct. 10, 2012, column. All photographs are © George Beetham Jr.
When lumber companies cut trees in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they very nearly obliterated what had once been vast expanses of old growth forests, also known as virgin forests.
They timbered with a will, cutting up forests as though on a mission of destruction.
Of course, the motive was profit. Lumber was needed to build. There were other uses: bark for tanning leather, pulpwood to make paper … there was no single way to make money from forests.
When they finished, the land was laid bare. Fires raged as slash, the branches that had no marketable use and were therefore left behind, dried out and caught fire.
The fires burned the top soil, composed of organic matter deposited by dead and dying trees or leaves that fell in the fall.
When the fires finally died out, what was left had no market value at all. The lumber companies abandoned the land and moved on to other ways to make money.
They sold land to the federal and state governments, often at bargain basement prices.
Slowly forests returned. The result was national and state forest lands where biologists re-established forests and managed them for sustainable timber yields.
In many places, state and national forests have nearly matured since the early 20th century. In many places they are approaching climax forest, once again old growth.
There were a few places, though, where parcels of forest were not cut. Sometimes the lumber company just forgot remote holdings. Sometimes the timber was not what the lumber companies were seeking.
These small plots of old growth forest offer glimpses of what American forests in the east looked like before the lumber companies went in and cut them down.
There is a place in Northwest Pennsylvania in the Allegheny National Forest that was left uncut. Rather appropriately it is called Hearts Content Natural Area.
There is a trail that circles through the stand of hemlock, pine, and beech of Hearts Content; there is a shorter circuit and a longer one.
One does not have to walk too far into the plot to get an appreciation of what it represents. There is an immediate sense that this is primeval forest.
It does not take too much imagination to daydream about wood sprites and faeries dancing in the dappled light that filters through the hemlocks.
Hemlocks have naturally lacy branches. If you look up from the base of a hemlock tree it looks very much like a lacy doily silhouetted against the sky.
Beech leaves litter the forest floor and path in early autumn, lending brilliant fall color to the deeper greens of the conifers. Ferns abound, and small mushrooms sprout from the logs of dead trees.
The emphasis is on living. Death contributes to life. It’s the process of renewal of which we are part, though we don’t like to think about it.
Old growth forests draw us into this ongoing process by their very beauty. It looks inviting. It makes us want to enter. Realization of what the forest represents slowly seeps into the mind through the senses taking in the aesthetics of the place.
When we step out of an old growth forest, we too are renewed. Memories of the experience linger long after the experience, enriching our lives.