Nature’s Temples

“Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests,” by Joan Maloof (with illustrations by Andrew Joslin), is a profoundly inspirational work of science writing that describes the structure and ecology of old-growth forests.

The book begins with an awe-inspiring overview of the history of forests on Earth, the earliest known from fossil-records dating from 383 million years ago! Maloof discusses the role of forests in removing carbon from the atmosphere, and the surprising discovery that the largest, oldest trees are far more effective at this task than a multitude of younger, smaller, fast-growing trees. She presents a convincing case for the preservation of old-growth forests, on the grounds that they are essential for the survival and well-being of all other life on Earth.

Maloof then goes on to make the reader fall in love with all the living beings found in old-growth forests, one short chapter at a time. She introduces us, first, to the trees themselves, then one at a time to the birds, amphibians, snails, insects, herb plants, mosses, fungi, lichens, worms and mammals that are resident in old-growth forests. And it is truly a book of wonders.

One of the things I had always wondered was how deer and elk could find sufficient food in an old-growth redwood forest, in which the browsable branch tips are hundreds of feet high. The answer: Although the herbaceous understory might be shaded out, a rain of lichen from the lofty canopy provides ample nitrogen-rich food for them. But what is a lichen? It is a magical symbiotic alliance between photosynthesizing algae and mineral-harvesting fungi! Mushroom salad. And I had no idea how amazingly diverse was the world population of lichens, especially within the remaining old-growth forests.

The most surprising thing I learned from this book was that the (mostly non-native) worms found in North American forests north of the ice-age moraines – areas that had once been covered in glacial ice – are in fact doing more harm than good to the forests in which they are found. In order to develop the rich biodiversity that enables a forest to thrive into grand old age, a thick layer of forest-floor duff must be allowed to accumulate. The moist, decaying duff at the surface of the forest floor supports diverse fungi, which in turn support diverse plant life, and allow for the germination of tree seeds, which might otherwise lie dormant. If too many worms begin churning under the duff, too quickly, that mechanism for growing diversity in the forest is disrupted, impeding the growth and healthy development of the forest! And I had always assumed that worms were good for the trees!

Live and learn.

In fact, there are so many new things to learn, in the pages of “Nature’s Temples,” that the book bears repeated readings. It is a definite must-have volume for the shelves of a Druid library.