Nature’s Temples: A Natural History of Old-Growth Forests

Nature’s Temples: A Natural History of Old-Growth Forests by Joan Maloof was originally published in 2016 but has since been revised and expanded in 2023 by Princeton University Press. Joan Maloof, PhD, is the founder and director of the Old Growth Forest Network.

This quick read starts out with the basics: “What is an Old Growth Forest?” Maloof details that OG forests have certain characteristics about them, but with specific attributes that can not easily be described. Mostly, these forests have been allowed, for a lengthy time, to act naturally as forests. This means that from top to bottom, the forest is working and changing together. They encompass a wide range of vegetation other than trees and a whole smorgasbord of wildlife: insects, birds, mammals, and more.

Forests as we know them today, even old growth ones, are not all that old in geological terms. Individual trees that are the oldest in a forest are not necessarily the largest. The author describes how to determine (mostly) which trees are the oldest and also goes over some of the oldest known tree species: an Eastern Hemlock that was 555 years old and a Black Gum that was an amazing 679 years old to name a few.

Starting in chapter 4, Nature’s Temples catalogs the various types of wildlife and plants found in forests. These short chapters describe the birds, amphibians, snails, insects, herbaceous plants, mosses, fungi, lichens, worms, mammals, and humans of the forest. In old growth forests, there is always more diversity of all these categories (save humans) but the numbers and types found differ. Maloof includes many studies indicating the variances of old growth forests versus the various stages of forests that have been logged or clear cut.

I really enjoyed the chapters on birds and insects as both work in harmony to provide color and beauty to the natural landscape. The chapter on snails had me raising my eyebrows. Yes, snails are important. But no, hardly anyone is going to get excited about saving a forest because of some minuscule snails.

The author admits that the chapter on fire in the forest is probably the most controversial in the book. Forest fires are difficult to study and their history is complex. Each forest has differing species of trees that make up the forest, not to mention all the other plant and animal life. There is no quick answer for how to use or not use fire to “manage” forests. But like anything involving nature, the complexity is part of the reason to not paint with such a broad brush. And like most things, the management plan tends to lead towards whatever makes the most money.

Final Takeaways

Maloof is an advocate for not only protecting the shrinking remains of old growth forests. She is pushing for the conservation of “second growth” forests as well, in the hopes of letting forests eventually become old growth over time (a long time). Both causes are noble and worthy, but unfortunately, even forests left to recover may never fully become what they once were. (Or they will take a lot, lot longer to do so.)

Overall, Nature’s Temples: A Natural History of Old-Growth Forests is a great overview of what old-growth forests are (or were) and the denizens of these magnificent forests. The text is easy to read and has a conversational style, at times too casual or emotional. (See the snail chapter!) The chapter on humans also started deviating when Maloof started talking about how to measure beauty and descended into (I think) an argument that less beauty leads to more war. That said, I do agree with much of what she says about nature and mental health.

Prior to reading this I wanted old growth forests protected. This book only increases that desire. received a copy of Nature’s Temples: A Natural History of Old-Growth Forests from the publisher, Princeton University Press to review.

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