The Ghosts of Forests Past

Aerial image of Indiana today.
Aerial image of Indiana today.

I have worked in the conservation of nature in tropical countries for about 20 years now. I started as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995 in Central America, where my job was to tell local people how to manage natural resources like forests and rivers. I was uniquely suited to the job, because as the only person in the sector of my host country – Honduras – with a college degree, I thought I knew just about everything. Thankfully, I have learned a lot about the world and myself since then. One lesson remains unchanged, though: we are destroying the natural world at a far quicker pace than we are allowing it to heal.

The truly impressive thing about some developing countries is the amount of untouched land out there. In many places you can still walk into an old-growth rain forest that nobody owns and look up at monkeys and macaws, and amidst the raw humidity and shrieking insects and birds, it is easy to imagine yourself into a nature documentary. Wild places are still out there, all over.  And that is a part of the problem. When you have an overwhelming abundance of something you can fall into the trap of thinking that there is no limit to the supply. We can use it as much as we want, and never run out. This lesson has been learned and forgotten a thousand times in North America. Passenger Pigeons blackened the sky, until they were gone. The buffalo were endless. The coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest would supply lumber forever.  And the great forests of Indiana could never be exhausted.

Screeeeech. What?! The great forests of Indiana? Who are you kidding? Have you been to Indiana lately? The typical mental image is land flat as a pancake, and nothing taller than a corn stalk as far as the eye can see. It didn’t used to be that way. Barely 150 years ago Indiana contained some of the lushest forest and most massive trees on the continent. I kid you not. The photos below, from Gordon Whitney’s 1994 history of forests in America, tell you the story.

forest canopy
Wild sycamore in wild Indiana. They don’t come any bigger than this


forest canopy
Massive oak tree in mid-western hardwood forest, a ghost of forests past.


forest canopy
Tulip tree in Scott Co., Indiana.

I want you to hear the voice of Robert Ridgway, preeminent naturalist of the late 1800’s, who took many of these photos.

“The [Wabash] River flows for the greater part between dense walls of forest . . . If the forest is viewed from a high bluff, it presents the appearance of a compact, level sea of green, apparently almost endless . . . the tree-tops swaying with the passing breeze, and the general level broken by occasional giant trees which rear their massive heads so as to overlook the surrounding miles of forest.” Ridgway described forest monarchs that “attain an altitude of more than one hundred eighty feet.”

“Going into these primitive woods, we find symmetrical, solid trunks of six feet and upwards in diameter, and fifty feet, or more, long to be not uncommon, in half a dozen or more species; while now and then we happen on one of those old sycamores, for which the rich alluvial bottoms of the western rivers are so famous, with a trunk thirty or even forty, possibly fifty or sixty, feet in circumference, while perhaps a hundred feed overhead stretch out its great white arms, each as large as the biggest trunks themselves of most eastern forests, and whose massive head is one of those which lifts itself so high above the surrounding tree-tops.”

This was Indiana, people. The endless forests are replaced with farms and cities. And THAT is my worst waking nightmare for the vast forests of the Neotropics: seemingly endless cathedrals of trees and beasts will be turned into corn fields and cattle pastures. Unless we can remember history, and teach the lessons of history better than I did as a Peace Corps volunteer, the ghosts of forests past will become the ghosts of forest present. All that will be left for us will be blurred photos and the writings of long-dead naturalists.

Recommended reading

Gordon G. Whitney. 1994. From Coastal Wilderness to Fruited Plain: A History of Environmental Change in Temperate North America 1500 to the Present. Cambridge University Press.


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