Smitten by old-growth forests
Jamie Simpson’s new book turns our awareness to the beauty and diversity of the natural Acadian forests surrounding us
Jamie Simpson loves old-growth forests. In fact, he’s so smitten that he’s been searching high and low for them for many moons. The result is a narrative guide titled Journeys Through Eastern Old-Growth Forests, published by Nimbus.
Simpson has a background in biology, forestry and law, and has worked as a forester, writer and advocate for sensible forestry practices. He has received several awards for his conservation work, as well as the Elizabeth May Award for Environmental Service, and the Environmental Law prize at Dalhousie University.
The 40-year-old is also the author of Restoring the Acadian Forest: A Guide to Forest Stewardship for Woodlot Owners in the Maritimes, also published by Nimbus. Here, Simpson chats about his love for forests in general, and old-growth forests in particular.
Tell me about the first time you fell in love with an old-growth forest.
I remember walking on a relative’s property, near my home-town of St. Andrews, New Brunswick, when I was about 20, and coming across an enormous white pine tree, roughly a metre in diameter. It was the only large tree within a forest of much smaller trees, and it struck me that this tree was likely the ‘normal’ tree for this area, and that all of the small trees were a result of past cutting and agriculture. A couple of years later, I visited an old-growth forest in south-western Nova Scotia, and saw hundred of these massive trees—hemlock, white pine and red spruce. It was such a contrast with most of the forest we have in the Maritimes, and I wanted to learn as much as I could about eastern old-growth forest.
When I was working for the Ecology Action Centre, I spent a lot of time bringing people’s attention to the atrocities in our forests—indiscriminate clearcutting and whole-tree harvesting. One day the thought struck me that it was just as important (if not more important) to bring awareness to our remaining remnants of natural Acadian forest—its beauty and diversity. As Aldo Leopold wrote, “We grieve only for what we know.” To know our native Acadian forest, you’ve got to get out and spend some time in some of these old forests.
Along with your narrative stories in the book, there is a lot of information. How long did it take you to compile the information and pull the book together?
I picked away at the book over roughly four years. I talked with lots of people to gather bits and pieces of information about old forests in each of the Maritime provinces. There’s no formal record of old forests, so it took a fair bit of sleuthing to find the sites. I was really lucky to work with Alain Belliveau on the maps in the book. (Alain is a botanist at the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre). He put a lot of effort into creating those maps—very impressive.
What is the most important thing you hope that readers will take away from reading the book?
I hope that readers will be inspired to visit some of these sites—or to go searching for other old forest sites. Once you visit an old-growth forest, you realize just how much potential our Acadian forests have – if well cared for.
If you could have three wishes granted in relation to old-growth forests, what would they be?
First, I think it’s important for people to realize the incredible contrast between natural forest (that is, the old-forest remnants), and the bulk of “scrappy” forest we see when driving around the Maritimes. Second, clearcutting has little, if any, place in good forest management in the Maritimes. We need to introduce incentives to encourage quality-improvement forestry, and regulations to curb the worst of the practices (such as whole-tree cutting and indiscriminate clearcutting). Third, we also need to identify, document and conserve remaining old-forest remnants. Some work towards this end has been done, especially in Nova Scotia, but unfortunately old forest sites are still being clear-cut.
What do we stand to lose if we don’t pay attention and preserve our old-growth forests?
Anyone who spends some time in an old-growth forest comes away with a sense of having visited somewhere special, like a cathedral. But beyond being natural wonders, old forests are windows into how our forests tick, outside of significant human influence. If we want to manage our working forests well, we need to look to remnant old forests as blueprints. After all, these forests have been living and growing in our corner of the world for thousands of years; they have lots to teach us.
What else would you like people to ponder related to old-growth forests?
Once in a while I hear a misconception about these forests, that they’re just full of old, dying trees; essentially stagnant. This sort of condition sometimes occurs on old farmland that grows up in white spruce or other early successional species. But old-growth forests are anything but stagnant. They’re full of trees of all ages, from seedlings to centuries-old giants. They also store far more carbon than any other forest type on the landscape. Old-growth forests are healthy, vibrant, and carbon-rich.
What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?
Ha! I don’t know. The whole project was fun, really. I once heard someone say that the most difficult thing about writing is “applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair.” I’d say that’s the same with me. Hiking in the woods and getting ideas is the easy part.
The most rewarding?
Seeing an idea that bounced around in my head for a while come to fruition in the form of a book is pretty darn rewarding. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say how much they like the writing, and how much they’ve learned about our forests by reading the book. I also enjoyed working with the editors at Nimbus; good folks.
What do you do in your spare time besides hike in the woods and paddle?
I have a bit of an addiction to climbing things. I love to rock-climb. There’s super climbing in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and sometimes I travel to climb far-off cliffs. I dabble in ice-climbing, and I climb trees whenever I have the chance. I also love to play music, both my fiddle and my guitar.
Do you have another book in the works, and if so, what is the topic and where are you in the grand scheme of things?
Hmm—good question. I’m really excited that Nimbus is bringing out a second (and expanded) edition of Restoring the Acadian Forest in the spring. Otherwise, yep, I have some ideas kicking around in my head, but have yet to get the seat of my pants connected with the seat of my chair and get typing. I’d like to write more on trees and working in the woods. But I’d also like to share some of my travel adventure stories sometime. Like the time I swindled a mugger with a handful of Canadian Tire money.