Back to Stories

Forests of Immortal Stories

How ancient trees draw human love in Greater Yellowstone and across the globe

Old-growth forests, like this ancient limber pine in Wyoming's Gros Ventre Wilderness, have long found refuge in Greater Yellowstone. Photo by Susan Marsh
Old-growth forests, like this ancient limber pine in Wyoming's Gros Ventre Wilderness, have long found refuge in Greater Yellowstone. Photo by Susan Marsh
by Susan Marsh

A recent news article introduced me to something called the “forest of immortal stories.” That phrase was all it took to pull me into Alan Burdick’s January 9 piece that ran in The New York Times; I believe all forests are filled with immortal stories. The article, called “The Trees Saved Me,” focuses on a particular old-growth European beech forest in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains, where the trees carry the stories and memories of nearby villagers, and those of their ancestors. Because people love those beech trees, they have been working to protect them.

Fagus sylvaticus once covered much of Europe. Only scattered remnants of that vast primeval forest persist, some of which are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The “site” includes nearly 100 separate stands scattered across 18 countries. Most of the old-growth beeches are found deep within inaccessible mountain ranges where wild and sacred spirits dwell and roads are impractical to build. UNESCO calls this collection of beech forests a “book with many chapters.” Each has its individual significance and together they tell a story. 

One forest in Romania is said to include the highest concentration of old-growth beech in Europe. About half the trees have been marked with small steel plates, and
each is offered for “adoption.” For a small fee you can attach your story to a tree, which will in turn read the narrative when you scan a QR code on the plate with your mobile phone. Tree 2224, for example, holds a daughter’s expression of gratitude for her mother who, in 1944 at age 16, “found refuge from the Nazis hidden among the ancient trees.”

Where, I wondered after reading the Times piece, is the thread that ties me to my version of a storied forest? Like the villagers in Romania, I know individual trees and when I encounter them, and they tell my stories.

I grew up beside a 10-acre woodlot of second-growth alder, Douglas-fir, western hemlock, Pacific madrone and bitter cherry. A semicircle of cedar stumps and root wads were my towers and climbing gyms while the patch of flat, bare earth within made a fine make-believe camp. To my young imagination, the place was wild. Now I know that my sylvan playground was actually an old landing, leftover from the days when the original old-growth was logged.

People sometimes ask me, “What is your favorite tree?” I have a number of responses to that question.

When I started backpacking at age 15, alpine larch quickly became my favorite. Five of us spent a week in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, climbing rocky ridges and scrambling along high routes, traversing steep snowfields one at a time on the end of a rope, and wandering into lush alpine meadows.
The debate about how to conserve, restore or otherwise protect old growth is one I hope can be settled for the benefit of the forests, the creatures that depend on them, and those of us who believe that the comparison of such forests to cathedrals is apt.
It might seem odd that a tree I’d never seen before leapt into my heart, but when I recall the stories I associate with alpine larch, my love for it isn’t odd at all. After years of car camping with my parents and weeks at Girl Scout camps, I thought I knew the “great out there.” Now, for the first time, I carried all I needed for nearly a week in my Trapper Nelson pack. Everything about that experience was new, fascinating, exhilarating. Alpine larch holds my first story of the wild Cascades, and numerous subsequent chapters that I keep close to my heart, as Romanian villagers have done for centuries.

Before the larch enchanted me, the car-camping trips with my parents offered their own delights: tall, thick-boled Douglas-fir, western red cedar, and bigleaf maple covered in ferns and moss. We often traveled east of the Cascades, where I encountered old-growth ponderosa pine. I would press my hand against their bark, a jigsaw puzzle of cinnamon and gold, with a sun-warmed scent that I can smell as I write this. The forest floor was covered in a cast of long, dry needles many inches deep. The trunks were pillars five feet thick, and under a light breeze the great trees sighed with a faraway sound, their lowest branches far above my head.
Forested areas never harvested by European settlers or their descendants, 1620 to 1990. Map courtesy Pennsylvania State University
Forested areas never harvested by European settlers or their descendants, 1620 to 1990. Map courtesy Pennsylvania State University
Since moving to the Greater Yellowstone region in the early 1980s, I have expanded the number of forests and tree species I love and have drifted into selecting as special a few individuals. One is a leaning Douglas-fir on the crest of a low ridge. It comforted me after my husband died. Another is an old whitebark pine that has so far resisted both blister rust and bark beetles. I give its burled trunk a high-five each time I pass it on a hike.

Particular snags are special too. Limber pines in particular stand out among them. The spiraling wood grains that made them strong have become polished sculptures of gray, brown, and the warm red colors of a sunset. Some old pines, snags at first glance, surprise me by holding onto a ribbon of bark and one high branch with green needles.
I would press my hand against their bark, a jigsaw puzzle of cinnamon and gold, with a sun-warmed scent that I can smell as I write this.
All of my favorite trees are old. Having lived long enough to collect scars from fires, wind, rockfall and other kinds of damage, they have a perspective beyond what a mere human can attain. Many are nearing the end of their lifespans. The dense spruce forest along a creek near my home has been in decline for 30 years, its fallen trunks jack-strawed across the water. Those trees still standing are riddled with pitch pockets, carpenter ants and the conchs of wood-rotting fungi. Dead branches outnumber the needled ones.

Old-growth forests, whether in large continuous stands or scattered pockets, have long found refuge in Greater Yellowstone. We used to call them the “asbestos forest,” because unlike ponderosa pine, adapted to frequent moderate-intensity fires, our high-elevation spruce-fir forests rarely burned.

I’m using past tense for a reason. The fire frequency regime now looks like it will increase due to climate change—shorter winters with less snow, warmer, longer summers with less rain. Result: forests subjected to more drought stress, wind and insect activity. Add to this the intensifying recreation in the region, with its attendant-abandoned campfires, and you have a recipe for a conflagration.

Some experts say old growth forests face exceptional wildfire danger. It seems to me that middle-aged forests are also at risk, as fires potentially eclipse the younger species’ role as successors to the old-growth trees. The mix of vegetation we are accustomed to seeing in the forests of Yellowstone may be replaced with landscapes we don’t recognize. Old-growth forests, vital to many wildlife species from goshawks to tree voles to springtails, may be a thing of the past.
Protecting old growth has long been a matter of leaving it alone, but perhaps that may not work anymore. Human intervention to reduce the threat of wildfire may be necessary, including the kinds of forestry practices that make for heated debate.
With the recognition that old forests store carbon and therefore are useful in combatting climate change, there has been a recent uptick in efforts to conserve them. The U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management have been tasked with conserving and restoring old and mature forests, thanks to a 2022 executive order from the Biden administration.

How might this be achieved? Protecting old growth has long been a matter of leaving it alone, but perhaps that may not work anymore. Human intervention to
Old-growth whitebark pine, Salt River Range, Wyoming. Photo by Susan Marsh photo
Old-growth whitebark pine, Salt River Range, Wyoming. Photo by Susan Marsh photo
reduce the threat of wildfire may be necessary, including the kinds of forestry practices that make for heated debate.

Executive Order 14072 required federal agencies to complete a nationwide inventory of old-growth and mature forests. The initial report (FS-1215a; 2023) states that about 18 percent of the forested acreage within national forests and BLM land is defined as old growth. My experience in several national forests where I have worked leads me to believe most of this acreage is within designated wilderness, wilderness study areas, or other protected categories.

I see a conflict emerging. These protected areas harbor old growth, but come with legal prohibitions on thinning and other treatments that may help reduce the threat of wildfire. Perhaps it’s time to resurrect the old idea of buffer zones. Instead of buffering the designated wilderness by restricting logging near its boundaries, upwind forest could be managed to encourage lower-intensity fires.

The debate about how to conserve, restore or otherwise protect old growth is one I hope can be settled for the benefit of the forests, the creatures that depend on them, and those of us who believe that the comparison of such forests to cathedrals is apt. We need them in many ways.

“The trees saved me.” I would add that trees save all of us, from the wood products they provide that we use every day, and the oxygen they send into the air while storing carbon, to the spiritual repose offered by an ancient grove. The forests of Greater Yellowstone comprise a book with many chapters, each with its unique significance. Together they will tell our story.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.

Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
Increase our impact by sharing this story.
GET OUR FREE NEWSLETTER
Defending Nature

Defend Truth &
Wild Places

SUPPORT US
SUPPORT US

Related Stories

November 3, 2023

To Protect a Section of Precious Land
Why would Wyoming put a wildlife-rich 640-acre land parcel up for auction? Hint: Big money.

December 1, 2023

Glory is not Just in the Going
To slow down and take in the wonder of Nature is to recognize the spirituality and wonder of our environment.

December 13, 2023

Ecocentrism and Anthropocentrism: Where do we Stand in Greater Yellowstone?
In this guest essay, Clint Nagel examines two world views of humanity’s role on planet Earth. And says the time to...