I almost miss the inconspicuous brown sign on the side of the North Cascades Highway, which passes through Washington state’s famous mountain range, and nearly drive right past Rockport State Park. When I pull into the lot on a clear spring Saturday, only two other cars are here.
But as I meet the first of the park’s colossal Douglas firs, their hulking, wrinkled trunks alive like enormous elephants, I realize that the only fleeting, blink-and you'll-miss-it apparition in this ancient forest is me.
Here, among 670 preserved acres, all the organisms collaborate in harmony as they’ve done for countless generations. Saplings sprout from fallen logs, slugs meander across dying leaves, and spongy moss covers the earth, muffling my footsteps.
The dense canopy above me—western red cedars, western hemlocks, and those firs, some more than 400 years old and as tall as 250 feet—protects this enchanted world from over-exposure to wind, rain, and sun. As I feel my surroundings heave with untold layers of life, death, and regeneration, I catch a whiff of sweet and earthy humus, that damp smell of deteriorating twigs, leaves, and other plant matter on the loamy floor.
I’ve traveled about 100 miles north of Seattle, where I relocated after leaving New York City last year, to visit one of the state’s last remaining old-growth forests. It’s set about 50 miles inland, in the shadow of 5,400-foot-high Sauk Mountain. I’m looking for a peace of mind that I’ve come to rely upon during the pandemic. On almost daily walks in the woods around Seattle, which has an impressive 28% canopy cover, I’ve found respite from the uncertainty of the past year.
My strolls in the city led me to fantasize about longer trips to commune with trees. The Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park, with its dreamscape of moss-covered Sitka spruces and big-leaf maples, was only a four-hour drive away. And in an old Seattle Times article, I stumbled upon Rockport, an undisturbed sylvan kingdom of centuries-old trees, harboring bald eagles, ospreys, four kinds of woodpeckers, and two species of owls. A visceral urge compelled me to jump in my car to go luxuriate in the living history beneath these enduring stands.
The mental benefits of being surrounded by trees are well documented, particularly in Japan. There the practice is called shinrin yoku, or forest bathing; the term was coined in the 1980s when the country’s urban populations were experiencing the negative pressures of burnout in a booming economy. Decades later, shinrin yoku is still promoted by the government— and even prescribed by doctors—as a way to mitigate the effects of stress. Research from organizations including the U.S. National Institutes of Health has also shown that trees release anti-bacterial and antifungal phytoncides into the air, possibly boosting the immune system.
For me there is a magic to being in Washington’s wooded areas and particularly its old-growth forests, which have become endangered because of aggressive logging along the West Coast. They’re like primeval portals into another age, reaffirming our infinitesimal place in the world.
The phrase “old-growth forest” was coined by ecologists in the ’70s, though the habitats can also be called “primary” or “virgin” forests. Generally the terms are used to describe woodlands that have been undisturbed for more than a century, resulting in a complex ecosystem that’s far more biodiverse than younger second-growth forests. But that minimum age varies with climate, species makeup, fire cycles, and other factors. (The ecological cycle of forests in the West generally includes a periodic clearing by naturally occurring wildfires. But with unprecedented fires in the western U.S. in recent years, more than half the acres burned annually can be attributed to climate change and human influence.)
“Old-growth forests are teeming with biodiversity,” says Shyla Raghav, Conservation International’s leading climate change expert. “In many ways they are irreplaceable.”
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