A Treasure By Any Other Name: Lessons Learned in Maritime Old Growth Forests

There are precious few old growth forests left in the Maritimes, mere postage stamps surrounded by oceans of abused wilderness, altogether constituting less than 0.01 per cent of our regional landscape.

Most of these natural treasures have been cut at one time or another, but have since reclaimed some semblance of maturity. Opinions vary on which stands deserve the title of old growth – the Nova Scotia provincial government even has a checklist which boils these extraordinary ecosystems down to cold, hard grades – but for the purposes of this article I trust myself to know which is the real thing.

There’s something special about old growth, something transcendental that lifts a great weight off your shoulders as soon as you step inside. Suddenly there is space, there is life, there is clean air and pure dew. It’s difficult to describe their emotional powers, but their ecological importance is actually pretty straight forward.

Think of these forests as seed banks, containing within them all the ecological ingredients necessary to recreate the lost Acadian forests of Atlantic Canada. With a few exceptions they safeguard everything, from the mightiest trees to the basest bacteria, needed for a second coming of nature. Here is the habitat required by countless birds and mammals, the appropriate micro-climates for a plethora of lichens and mosses, and a place where our finest trees can truly stretch skyward. Few places are more important to the future of our region than these…

Old Growth
Nova Scotian old growth, Coolen Lake.
Zack Metcalfe photo

Coolen Lake

It’s difficult to say where these forests are located because all reside off the grid, reachable only by the logging roads honeycombing our lackluster woodlands. I myself navigated them only with the help of professionals, folks who, for one organization or another, make it their business to track down these old woods and advocate for their protection. The first of these was near Coolen Lake on Nova Scotia’s south shore; afraid I can’t be more specific.

Getting here took more than a drive but also an unforgiving hike through decade old clearcuts absolutely packed with unimpressive spruce, forcing me to wear goggles lest I lose an eye, and walk hunched over to avoid as many branches as possible.

Stepping finally into the old growth was, well, a relief. Suddenly I could stand up straight as the trees were spaced well apart, and the lack of lower branches allowed a view for many dozens of metres. I hardly needed the GPS to confirm my arrival.

This was a stand of softwoods, such as Eastern hemlock and Red spruce, together reminiscent of stone pillars from antiquity. It was cool here, the sunlight bouncing off iron grey bark and giving this place a noble hue. Here and there was deadwood, enormous trees which had lived out their lives and tumbled with dignity, their remains essential to forest ecology. The moss was so deeply rooted and interwoven that I was convinced no downpour could carry away the soils beneath.

I spent a lot of time here, pressing my palm against its oldest trees, some of them positively primeval in appearance and worlds apart from the early-successional brush I’d clawed through to get here.

Coolen Lake stands out among the remaining old growth of Atlantic Canada because, of all such kingdoms, this one contains the oldest confirmed hemlock in Nova Scotia, so far as I know. A core sample revealed its age to be a staggering 423 years, predating European settlement and representing an ancient breed of hemlock, before us settlers altered their genetic destiny with fire and saw.

I couldn’t find this specific tree, sadly, but the GPS confirmed I stood mere metres away at one point. It’s a misconception that the largest trees are always the oldest. Size depends on soil and climate more than age, and the elder in my midst that day looked no different from the straight and glorious neighbour standing next to it.

I was satisfied to know this elder was present. For the sake of this tree alone, the forest surrounding it must survive.

Old Growth
Nova Scotian old growth, Coolen Lake.
Zack Metcalfe photo

Deadwood Walking

At the very terminus of yet another logging road nearish the St Mary’s River, stood thick, hardy, medieval Sugar maples and Yellow birch, more fitted to the fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien than the wilds of Nova Scotia. It was autumn and while they weren’t at their best, the red and yellow leaves still clinging to their branches were nevertheless mesmerizing.

This stand of old growth was doubly special because, unlike its counterparts across our region, this one consisted almost entirely of hardwoods, their leaning, swooping, peeling trunks emanating a bizarre kind of beauty, as strange to behold without their leaves as a turtle without its shell. They were humbling in a way, representing an ecosystem both globally and regionally endangered, yet holding this hill in the middle of nowhere.

I’m appalled to say that these trees, as I was made aware upon my visit, are slated to be cut, offered up to the axes of forestry. For all I know they’re already gone. How anyone could look upon such exceptionalism and see only lumber makes me both angry and frightened. The loss of these ecological gems carries us ever closer to a future without beauty.

Old Growth
Nova Scotian old growth.
Zack Metcalfe photo

The Safety of the Slope

Directions to this last slice of old growth were so convoluted I’m convinced I could never find it again. All I can say is that I was on yet another of the logging roads divvying up Nova Scotia’s eastern shore, well off the beaten trail.

This hike was the longest yes, and the moss was so deep upon arrival that I sank noticeably with each step. The forest I had come to see wasn’t a forest at all, but instead a slope on which, in decades past, it had been too inconvenient to harvest, leaving alone the largest Red spruce I have ever had the pleasure of seeing.

There were perhaps four of them, towering over all others by orders of magnitude, straight as arrows and mingling their branches at outstanding heights. They were an old growth forest all to themselves, scattering progeny across the lower woodlands which would soon, themselves, be harvested. To my understanding, however, these giants would remain, their trunks wider than my wingspan. They have not been cored but are absolutely ancient, and in sore need of protection.

They reminded me of the Northern white rhino, recently forced into functional extinction across its native range. In his book The Last Rhinos, conservationist Lawrence Anthony condemned the murder of these animals by poachers after their horns. Unfortunately this prized ivory is more valuable on the black market, pound for pound, than gold, so to understand the drive of professional poachers, Anthony suggested imagining these rhinos were carrying around horns made from this precious metal. I feel the same about these domineering Red spruce, these lost titans of our Maritime forests. I look at them and see a natural wonder deserving of legal safeguards, where some foresters see only a trunk of solid gold.

Old Growth Spruce
Old Growth Spruce.
Zack Metcalfe photo

A Search Undone

There are many things we Maritimers must do to protect our remaining scraps of old growth, and to encourage their restoration across our beleaguered home. We must pester our government representatives for forestry overhaul, replant the portions of property we can afford to surrender, support the research and conservation organizations protecting these woods independently, but the most important move we can make is to visit.

Stepping into genuine old growth and learning the difference, both physical and metaphysical, between these and the abused bushes covering most of our home, is indispensable for all members of our electorate. Consider such strolls an integral part of your natural education, because upon graduation, no woods will ever look the same again.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with Your Local Atlantic.

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