Old forest, old growth, primeval forest: these terms all refer to a forest that has not been logged by human beings. One presumes that such places in North American look pretty much the way they did before the Europeans showed up. There are very few places left like that in North America, fewer still in New England, which of course was one of the first places on the continent settled by Europeans who brought with them metal saws and axes, tools well-suited for dismantling trees, and an attitude to use those tools.
I grew up on a crowded street, but two streets up slope were the woods of Beech Hill– my church. I used to go there alone to think and just enjoy. My fantasies in those wonderful years between ages 10 and 13 centered around the forest. I imagined myself in a log cabin in the woods, living off the land as a hunter, fisherman, and trapper. As a grown-up I eventually tried hunting (failed, too squeamish), fished madly for a couple years but outgrew it, never did trap anything. What stuck was a love of the New England forest.
When I learned that there was a small slice of primeval forest in the nearby town of Stoddard, New Hampshire, and a state expert was going to give a tour, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to see what real estate looked like before it became real estate, in other words before the Europeans showed up with their their of concepts of "property." I wanted to imagine myself in some ancient time; I wanted to see what the woods looked like in those days. Yes, I know, I know, I was (still am) a romantic fool.
I was not disappointed. The trees really were grander–taller, wider, more luscious in the crowns–than the second, third and fourth growth forest that makes up almost all of our tree cover in New England. Just the look of an ancient oak that has fallen from old age and maybe a random wind, the moss covering it after a few years, the lost-world feeling when you get close to it, well, that experience doesn't exist in second growth forests. I can't remember a word of what the guide said, but I do remember the feeling of those woods. I'll rank the memory, visual and emotional, not verbal, as one of my best.
I transferred the memory of that feeling to creating a small section of primeval forest in the Salmon Trust. In fact, I wrote a novel, a thriller I called Firewhirl, about a threat to that forest. It's a volume that would fit in the Darby Chronicles but you won't find it online or in a bookstore. Alas, the story was turned down by all the publishers that my agent submitted it too. One of these days I'm going to self-publish it as an ebook.
My fantasy of the primeval forest has a rather dismal postscript. At the time I was writing the early books of the Darby Chronicles and that day I took the tour of the primeval forest I did not know that the idea that it was untouched by human beings other than native Americans was no doubt wrong. Hitching rides on those European ships were creatures not native to the region–earthworms, honey bees, and a zillion other critters.
Without those creatures, the forest duff likely would have been as much as a foot deep in the deep woods. Plant life would not be the same as it is today. Chestnut trees, the dominant and grandest trees of the New England forest, would have pleased the eye. Today's "primeval" forests have a very shallow forest duff, having been chewed down by earth worms. Alas, the Chestnut trees pretty much vanished from a blight and cannot be found in today's "old growth." In other words, there are no true primeval forests remaining in New England. Alas alas.