The Natural History of an Ancient Forest
Friendship is one of the rare, beautiful gifts of life. I am fortunate to have you as a friend. Although I know the richness that your friendship gives to me, I can only guess what richness my friendship may give to you. But if I could, I know what I would give you to make your life as beautiful as mine.
I would give you the excitement of each sunrise-the birth of each new day.
I would give you the seasons in all their splendor. I would give you the May perfume of a high desert morning as the sun dries the dew from sagebrush, bitterbrush, and juniper. I would give you the July scent of pondersoa pine, the August fragrance of warm, ripe blackberries, and the October aroma of a thicket of mountain mahogany. I would give you the sharp, clean odor of spruce in the cold, thin air of a high mountain winter.
I would give you the colors of flowers and the songs of birds. I would give you the symphony of canyon winds, the orchestration of thunderstorms, the eternal tempo of the sea.
I would give you the coolness of clear mountain streams, the tenderness on new grass. I would give you the freshness of summer rains, the silence of winter snows. I would give you the wonder of rainbows and of northern lights, and I would give you the majesty of snow-clad mountains. I would give you the sun, the moon, the stars, the wind, the rain, the, snow. I would give you the fertility of the earth, the wisdom of eons entombed in rocks.
And I would give you the peace of each sunset-the reflective beauty of the land at day’s end.
But I cannot give you these things. They are not mine to give. So, my friend, I offer you my hand. Take it and come back in time with me that I paint for you with words the beauty and dignity of the land as I have seen it. Then, in small measure, can I share with you the richness that you have shared with me-friendship.
“I have added to my list of heros Chris Maser, a gentle, kind, unpretentious man endowed with a gift—rare, but much needed in our time—the ability to teach. In his books, articles, lectures, and field trips, this man unselfishly gives of himself, articulately and effectively passing knowledge from his mind to yours or mine or anyone willing to learn. A walk through the woods with Chris is a learning experience second to none. Every step is the equivalent of reading a chapter in a book of mastering a complex concept, cracking a difficult code. . . . In the preface to his book [Forest Primeval], this great naturalist says, ‘So, I offer you my hand. Take it and come back in time with me that I may paint for you with words the beauty and dignity of the land as I have seen it.’ … As I said earlier, the heroes on my list, including Chris Maser, are much more than naturalists; some are prophets.”—Alex Chappell Nature’s Call
“Forest Primeval . . . is an elegiac book that defies easy categorization. Maser has written a natural history of the evolution of the forest that once covered the west slope of the Cascades. It is also a field guide, providing concise life histories of the plants and animals that populate the forest. It is a text on ecology that explores the web of interactions that tie these plants and animals together. And finally, the book offers a context of human history in brief snapshots. Beginning with the rebirth of the forest following a major fire in 987, Maser weaves these various strands into a book that resonates.
“If you want to know the difference between a tree farm and a forest, this is a book you will want to read.”—Dale Goble University of Idaho Law School, Moscow, ID. Journal of the West
“In this classic work of ecology, Chris Maser traces the growth of an ancient forest in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains from its fiery birth in the year 987 to present. A unique ‘biography’of an ecosystem, Forest Primeval portrays a diverse fabric of plants, animals, and microorganisms working in unison.
“Maser offers precise yet evocative accounts of the lives and events within the burgeoning forest: the habits of deer mice who help reseed the burned earth, the seemingly accidental but vitally necessary symbiotic associations between fungus and tree root tips that stimulate growth, the constant predation among wildlife. He revels how over the course of a millennium, ‘microbes and fungi change a forest just as surely as a raging fire, only inconspicuously and more slowly.’
“As the life cycles of the forest progress, Maser’s minute scientific observations unfold against the backdrop of history, a chronology of ‘humans struggle and suffering that is paralleled in the life of . . . a single 1000-year-old Douglas fir.’ In taking this millennial view, Maser shows how the forest represents our spiritual and historical roots as human beings. Arguing that our survival is as intertwined with the forests as are the myriad interlocking life cycles that created them, Maser makes a plea for the immediate global implementation of restoration forestry.”—Oregon State University Press
“What is the next best thing to hanging out in the trees? Reading about trees, of course. In between excursions to the forest I like to absorb as much information about trees as I can. And there is a lot of great information out there.
“I just finished reading Chris Maser’s fantastic book, Forest Primeval: The Natural History of an Ancient Forest. In it he describes a small patch of forest in the Pacific Northwest as it grows from its birth (after a lightning strike fire) in 988 to the beautiful old growth forest that he has known and loved since childhood.
“Over the thousand years of this small grove, Maser describes many of the creatures and processes that work together to create one of the most diverse and majestic ecosystems in the world.
“The author knows the forest in intricate detail, and we are introduced to a long list of characters, each one of them performing a small, but necessary task in the web of life.
“From fungus in the soil that grows on the roots of Douglas-fir, to voles, cougar, wildflowers and massive 900-year-old trees, the author makes the small grove he is describing leap off the page with a green fecundity. But catastrophic changes are coming to the ancient grove.
“Along with describing the characters and changes in the forest, the book also describes the characters and changes in the human world. In the 17th century, as the small grove grows into old age, one thing is certain—invaders are coming, and they view the earth and its resources quite differently than the native people that lived with the forest for about as long as it existed.
“Of his own people, Chief Seattle said, ‘Every part of all this soil is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hollowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished.’ He warned that what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.
“The prescient Chief had the newcomers pegged, and was saddened by what he saw. ‘We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of the land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy—and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his fathers’ graves, and his children’s birthright is forgotten.’
“Forest Primeval is written equally as much from the viewpoints of a poet, an artist, a philosopher, and a scientist. Maser knows the ancient forest and its denizens well, and he has a deep respect and love for each and every one of them.
“He invites us to consider, and says, ‘As we journey through the forest of a thousand years, keep in mind that as the forest is growing and changing, so is humanity, and they will ultimately converge at a time and in a way that will forever change them both.’
“Maser concludes by asking whether we can overcome our inherited myth of human superiority over Nature in time to halt the destruction, and begin the healing.
“We haven’t been able to so far, and time is running out. The primeval forest is almost gone.”—Gregg Koep, Vancouver Island Big Trees.
Photo of the mountains © by Chris Maser, 2009. All rights reserved. Photo of me was taken in 1960 by Harvey Thorstad.
Forest Primeval: The Natural History of an Ancient Forest. 1989. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, CA. 282 pp. (Reprinted in 2001 by Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, Oregon.) Published in a Canadian and Czech editions.
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