August 30, 2011

Book Review: Among the Ancients by Joan Maloof

There are old growth forests east of the Mississippi, at least 26 of them! Plant scientist, ecologist, and professor of biology and environmental studies at Salisbury University in Maryland Dr. Joan Maloof visited one old growth forest in each of the 26 states east of the Mississippi River and writes about her journey to each forest and her observations of the forest in her second book titled Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests which was published in April 2011 by Ruka Press.

Image: Among the Ancients book cover (source)
In the preface to the book, Dr. Maloof offers the following definition of old-growth forests (she tells us someone found 98 definitions of the term): "Old-growth forest are places that have been left alone for a very long time. This usually results in large, old trees, but in some marginal environments, such as mountaintops, even the ancient trees are small."  She expands the definition of old-growth forests in the chapter titled Indiana: Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest: old-growth forests also include "many young trees. The trees are likely to be of many different species. There are also many dead trees, some still standing, and others fallen over on the forest floor. Dr. Maloof shares the locations of these 26 old-growth forests because she believes "as more of us visit these places, more of us will understand what our landscape used to be, and more of us will make the effort to protect the ancient forests that remain." In addition to the publication of Among the Ancients, Dr. Maloof has founded the Old Growth Forest Network to preserve existing and future old-growth forests.

The review copy we received was in Kindle format so we have not seen the book's images and illustrations in print. However, the quality of the illustrations was one of the first things we observed about the book. The story of each forest is preceded by a well laid-out page of maps, photographs, and line drawings. I can mentally locate each forest at two geographic scales and imagine the forest and its trees based on the photos and drawings. Additional photographs of each forest are sprinkled throughout its chapter.

Another early observation was that each chapter/story contains a lesson. As I got deeper into the book I began to think of it as "lessons in forest ecology, politics, and ethics." The forest ecology lessons are not explicitly didactic but rather, Dr. Maloof generates hypotheses through her natural curiosity, by asking questions of what she observes in the forest. Here is an example from Tennessee: Falls Branch, Cherokee National Forest:
I was surprised to see that the largest trees were buckeyes. No doubt these bumblebees, or their kin, gathered nectar from the yellow flowers of the bucketyes earlier that summer. In this forest, I was seeing more bumblebees and more wildflowers than in other forests that time of year. I wondered if the early blooming buckeye trees gave the bee colonies a good early start. Then later, when the wildflowers bloom, there would be plenty of pollinators, and therefore more seeds, and more wildflowers the next year.
In addition to ecology lessons and "did you know" moments, Dr. Maloof peppers her chapters with stories about the people responsible for the existence of the 26 old-growth forests featured in the book. These stories are not apolitical and from them we learn about Dr. Maloof's conservation ethics. The story of Saddler's Woods in New Jersey provides a good example. Saddler's Woods is a true urban forest (distinguished from the application of the term to all the vegetation within city or metropolitan limits). Dr. Maloof tells us that "most of those who preserved eastern forests from the rampant logging of the 1800s and 1900s were white-skinned." She also tells us that this was not a result of attitudes towards nature but was a result of land rights and access systems; old-world European rulers granted land to European settlers in the U.S. However, Saddler's Woods was saved by a former slave.
The African blacks brought here as slaves were not granted any land, and the inequity of those two different settlement histories persists today. The wealth disparity between whites and blacks in America stems from ancestral land ownership, and it is perpetuated through inheritance. If we really want equality we will have to do away with inheritance, but I don't foresee that as long as those who benefit from the system as it stands are the ones in power....The man who protected Saddler's Woods didn't get his property through land grants or inheritance. His name was Joshua Saddler, and he was a black slave on a Maryland plantation. In the early 1800s, he escaped to New Jersey with his wife and two daughters, Fearing recapture, he began working for Cy Evans, a Quaker farmer....Evans eventually bought Saddler's freedom from his former owner and helped him purchase a plot of wooded land....his will, dated 1868, stipulated that none of his heirs 'shall cut the timber thereon.'"
Dr. Maloof also offers advice to forest land owners. She encourages the land owner who is negotiating a logging contract "to consider removing five or ten or fifty acres, whatever you can afford, from the logging plan. Watch that reserved corner age, watch how beautiful it becomes, compare it to your logged areas. Let your own senses tell you what is best for your land."  By the way, this is one strategy of creating future old-growth forests.

Among the Ancients is not your ordinary field guide!

Joan Maloof has a great sense of humor which she deploys to great effect in many of the chapters. One of our favorites is from Delaware: James Branch, Trap Pond State Park:
We just waded through the shallows, pulling the canoe along. I would have been happy to walk the entire length of the creek, but that wasn't possible either. My left foot sank into a hole so deep that water rushed over the top of my only dry boot, and soon I was in water up to my thighs. I hauled my wet and muddy self back into the canoe before I had to start swimming.
I have one criticism of the book: the author's anti-urban bias especially in the chapter on Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan. Her humor, this time sharp, is apparent in the following excerpt: "I'm glad the people of Manhattan have a green oasis to visit, but I wouldn't want them to think they were experiencing what it feels like--and sounds like--to be in a real old-growth forest" (original emphasis). It is unfortunate that the author chose an urban park as the example of old-growth in New York state and in New York City. Her final analysis only adds to misconceptions about the role and function of nature in cities. Dr. Maloof hoped that "in the places densest with humans, we would leave space for the forest and habitat for other species." This is the reason she provides for not visiting the Adirondacks or Catskills. Manhattan's human density contributes to the preservation of "wild forest lands" outside the city and you can find "forest and habitat for other species" in the city. Otherwise, I enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

We kindly thank Ruka Press for the review copy.

1 comment:

  1. This book is now on my list. I have only had the privilege to experience a few old growth forests, but each one was like walking in a cathedral.

    ReplyDelete

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