Wandering into an old growth forest is like wandering into a portal that leads to another world. Elsewhere I have written on the beauty, for example, of the great Redwood groves of the far Northern California coast. But then many people know of the majesty of the great Western forests. Few, however, realize that the East has a wildness that in every way matches anything that might be found in the West. For it is the Earth herself that is wild, regardless of coast or mountain or plain. The East is largely paved over — logged, exploited, destroyed — but not entirely. To quote a great prophet of my youth, “life finds a way.” In the West, beauty is so expected, at times it can almost feel banal. Men and women alike drive to clifftop perches where they can sunset pose for their latest “live authentic” Instagram posts. In the East, what few untouched corners remain stand so breathtakingly against their largely tame backdrops, they are every measure as impressive as the iconic places we photograph and print on the calendars on our walls.
It is difficult to imagine the American east coast as it existed when the first Europeans arrived. There are dozens of accounts by those first settlers of the wilderness that existed then. Indeed, those European settlers largely feared the Eastern American wilderness as both a physical and spiritual jungle that had to be tamed and conquered with the “light” of their “beacon-on-a-hill” civilization (“The Witch” was an especially good fictional exploration of this). The great White Pines–standing as they did at 200+ feet tall–were quickly logged to build ship masts for the British to sail and conquer the world. Much as disease wiped out the indigenous population of Native Americans, so too did blight and disease ravage the indigenous trees of the East: the American Chestnut (pictured below), the American Elm, much of the Eastern Hemlock. Today, experts conclude that probably less than 1% of the east coast’s ancient forests remain — but they do remain, and are all the more extraordinary because of it.
There is perhaps no place more bereft of nature than New York City and its staggering metropolitan area. And yet, perhaps miraculously, ancient forests continue to stand there as they have among the ages. These forests exist, in fact, in nearly every borough. The Bronx has fifty acres of behemoth oaks and tulip poplars that grow along the coast of Pelham Bay. Queens has trees that rise at heights greater than the Statue of Liberty — old souls that, at 425 years old, have stood longer than the civilization that surrounds and seeks to devour them. And somehow, against all reason and probability, tucked far away along the northern tip of Manhattan island is a cathedral-like grove of red oaks and tulip trees. Entering among them, I felt as though I had somehow gotten lost and re-entered the Redwoods of the West that I love so dearly. I wasn’t sure what to feel — gratitude for their continued existence despite the city that encroached upon them? Or overwhelming sadness and a sense of loss for the great American wilderness of the East that is now all but exterminated? For those who are interested in seeing New York as those first reckless conquerors might have seen it, I would especially recommend the Welwyn Preserve on Long Island — a forty-acre forest along the shores of the Sound that is one of the most impressive I have ever encountered apart from the great temperate rainforests of the West.
The more I went looking for these special pockets of wildness, the more I seemed to find them nearly everywhere I looked: a dark, mossy hemlock forest in a tucked-away gorge amongst the suburbs of Westchester; a fairy-tale wonderland hiding behind the pristine sand dunes of Fire Island; a private, members-only paradise on the cliffs of New Jersey overlooking Manhattan. Spreading out from New York, I began to explore old growth forests further afield: Caledon State Park in Virginia, where one can wander among the woods that George Washington played in during his childhood; Cook Forest State Park, where Penn’s Woods nearly match the jungles of the Pacific Northwest, with hemlocks and pines that reveal Pennsylvania’s dark, evergreen, glory days of yore. Of these places, perhaps none stood out more than the Adirondacks: a park larger than Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite combined. Here, forty-six peaks molded by some of the oldest rock on Earth are draped with up to a half-million acres of primeval forests — a living, dripping wilderness of maple, birch, cherry and pine. And yet, in nearly every place I went — perhaps most especially in the forests that continue to survive in crowded, urban areas — I was almost always alone. Walking among the non-concrete giants of Manhattan? Alone. Wandering in an ancient family forest nestled on the banks of the Bronx River? Alone. Exploring one of only two maritime holly forests left on the eastern seaboard with the sun peeking through the trees just before sunset? Alone, even in spite of being there on a holiday weekend on a tiny barrier island exploding with tourists. As far as I can tell, these east coast Edens remain largely unknown and unappreciated. On the one hand, I find myself grateful for the lack of tourists — Muir Woods, only six miles from San Francisco, is largely Disneyland with trees, and a kind of old-growth nightmare. On the other hand, I often found the solitude of these places alarming. Do people realize how precious these forests are? Do they realize the magnitude of what will be lost forever if we don’t recognize and protect them?
The overwhelming lesson the great forests of the East continue to teach me is the sacredness and fecundity of place. In perhaps all the most essential ways, an untouched landscape is the truest expression of the Earth in that place. Consider a Redwood forest: the trees can’t tolerate extreme heat or cold, require bounteous precipitation to support their enormous growth, and yet also require frequent wildfires to support their reproduction. The Redwoods, therefore, grow along a narrow band of the California coast in which the temperatures are remarkably moderated by the nearby ocean; they grow along a mountainous coast that traps extreme amounts of rain in the winter and nearly endless fog during the summer droughts; they have specially adapted needles that catch the summer fog and allow them to manufacture their own rain throughout the extremely dry summers; they have extraordinarily fire-resistant bark that allows them to survive the frequent summer wildfires and reproduce once all their seedlings’ competition with the undergrowth is burned and stripped away. The Redwoods and the California coast are one, and neither can exist in their truest sense without the other. Indeed, the overwhelming reason behind the infamous desertification of California (even when you consider climate change) is the landscape’s reckless and short-sighted over-exploitation. What happens when you log 96% of the Redwoods, which turn the fog into rain all summer long? You end up with drought-resistant live oaks, which exist mainly in semi-desert steppes. And so California turns brown in the summer, ravaged as it is by invasive European grasses. So it goes.
The east coast is a similar story. When one thinks of New York City, does one think of its remarkable waters and estuaries? Does one think of the fjord that swoops by its hilly, bedrock-exposed shores? Does one think of the tulip poplars, towering over 150 feet above the deer and the beavers below? Does one think of the tupelo trees growing in the swamps, outliving all others at 700+ years old? All these things are arguably far more essential, far more indicative of New York’s essence than the civilization we have erected on top of it. Wilderness is too often thought of as something “out there” in some faraway national park, most probably on the west coast somewhere. In fact, nature and the wild exist within us. Humans aren’t separate from nature — we are nature. Nature interpenetrates our wild selves and can reveal the essence of who we might be — but only if we still ourselves to listen. In wild places, we can hear the cosmos speak. She speaks truly there — clearly — in a way she hardly can among the cacophonous barrage of the cities, among the sprawl and highways of their suburbs. The wildness of place exists equally in the East as it does the West — in the North as it does the South. Discovering the wild, it is my hope that we as a civilization might come to discover our selves.