When you enter a grove peopled with ancient trees, higher than the ordinary, and shutting out the sky with their thickly inter-twined branches, do not the stately shadows of the wood, the stillness of the place, and the awful gloom of this doomed cavern then strike you with the presence of a deity?”

– Seneca


Rooted firmly in the moist soils near the shore of Elm Pond, 12 miles northwest of Moosehead Lake, stands an old growth cedar grove.  Many of the trees are more than 300 years old.

I visited the cedars with the landowner and his forester, the same man who estimated the cedars’ age with an increment borer.  In the 1970s, the grove became a state-designated significant deer wintering area, which means the landowner cannot cut the trees without a written harvest plan that also meets the needs of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.  My job as a state biologist was to determine if the deer still wintered beneath the trees. The fate of these trees hinged on their presence.

Wearing snowshoes, we trudged over three feet of snow to look for deer tracks. Snow falling from a low gray cloud ceiling filtered softly down through the green boughs of the ancient cedars. Stepping into this primeval forest was stepping back in time. I was in awe of the largest cedars I’d ever seen in Maine. The three of us linked arms and could barely wrap around one of the largest trees, some of which stood 80 feet. The forester called me a tree-hugger. Most foresters abhor the words “old growth” because it reminds them of the 1990s logging battles over spotted owl habitat in the Pacific Northwest. They prefer the term “late successional” forests.

Aside from the faint sound of falling snow and the soft musical trill of white-winged crossbills, the woods were as silent and reverent as a historic cathedral.

I first developed a love affair with old growth trees after seeing my only king’s pine in a hollow near Maine’s Chesuncook Lake in 1988. A retired game warden guided me to the giant white pine branded in the late 1700s by a British timber surveyor. Trees branded with the king’s broad arrow were a message to Colonists, “these trees are reserved by the King of England for the British Royal Navy.” Being forbidden to cut branded pines became one of the rallying points for Colonists during the American Revolution.  Maine’s king pines that could be cut and moved by teams of horses or oxen – the one near Chesuncook Lake could not – were floated down the Penobscot River to be used as sailing masts on British Naval ships.

Royal thoughts of a different nature occupied my mind as I walked among the magnificent cedars. Mesmerized, I wondered what stories these elder citizens of the Maine woods could share, if only they could speak.  Native woodland caribou, extinct in Maine by the early 1900s, undoubtedly rubbed their antlers on the stringy bark of these trees.  Generations of caribou likely stretched their necks to nibble on the highly nutritious bearded lichen that still hangs from the cedar’s limbs.

These trees were 200 years old when the last Maine mountain lion was killed in 1937 near Little St. John Lake, 30 miles north of Elm Pond. How many mountain lions, I wondered, hid in the limbs of these trees waiting to pounce on a caribou calf? The trees were also 200 years old when the last wolf was killed in Maine by bounty hunters in the late 1800s.  How many female wolves with playful pups sought refuge from the sweltering summer heat in this cool, dark cedar grove?  What other lessons could these trees teach about Maine’s early natural history?

This cedar grove has survived ice storms, droughts, hurricanes, forest fires, and fluctuating timber prices. But the old growth cedars may not stand much longer. I could find no evidence of deer. The present owner of the trees operates a prosperous cedar log home company. The trees have outlived many “owners” but they will not outlive this one.  A chainsaw will undo in minutes what Mother Nature took 300 years to create.

If the cedars are solid, the wood will be sawed and planed into uniform logs.  Some will be used to construct seasonal cabins on remote Maine ponds.  The cabins may be visited several times a year.  If the wood is hollow or honeycombed, it will be made into cedar shingles.  Perhaps some of the shingles will end up on a garage or doghouse in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

To make myself feel better, I rationalize that forests are a renewable resource. When these trees are gone, I tell myself, a new forest will appear, thus perpetuating the timeless cycle of renewal.  But in my heart, I feel a kinship to this irreplaceable special natural area. These trees are much more worthy of state landmark status than the grotesque statue of Paul Bunyan overlooking the Penobscot River in Bangor.  Odd how we memorialize the symbolic figure of a lumberman more than the ancient trees that made Bangor the lumber capital of the world in the mid-1800s.

Small pockets of old growth trees are rare relics, a reminder of the grandeur and vastness of Maine’s unbroken virgin forests that once blanked the state. They inspired H.D. Thoreau’s classic 1864 book “The Maine Woods.”  When these dwindling stands are harvested, we deprive ourselves a link to our past and Thoreau’s “tonic of wildness” that may yet inspire future poets and philosophers.  Try as they might, no museum or library can teach us as much about Maine’s forest legacy as ancient trees themselves.

By late afternoon, after four-hours of snowshoeing, the forester and landowner placed a three-by-three-foot timber harvest map on the hood of my truck.  Using a Biltmore stick, hand calculator and pencil during his hike, the forester opened a field notebook to show me his calculations in board feet, cords, and the trees’ monetary value.  All of the old cedars had “reached their economic maturity”, according to the forester, and therefore needed to be harvested.

Grief overwhelmed me. I was an accessory to a pending crime against nature. Deer that had prominently factored in the protection of the cedar stand no longer wintered here.  Standing in the growing shadows of the trees in the fading afternoon winter light,  darkness penetrated me. What right did I have deciding the trees fate?  After all, I had spent a mere four hours with these solemn giants.  They had stood their ground for more than 2.6 million hours, and counting.  Many of these living monuments took root before George Washington became president.

I struggled signing the state-landowner agreement form certifying that deer no longer wintered beneath the stand. My signature opened the door to harvesting one of the largest remaining old growth cedar stands in Maine. How ironic that these trees, also known as Eastern Arborvitae (trees of life), having flourished amid unimaginable hardships for three centuries, will forfeit their life for log cabins, shingles, storage chests, and home siding. The trees deserved a better fate. I now understand why the largest trees make the loudest groans when they fall.

I was a young, inexperienced biologist at the time and did not know how or if I could have persuaded the owner to sell to a conservation buyer.  Not preserving the stand is my single greatest sorrow and failing as a wildlife biologist. Years later, I’m still haunted by my participation in signing the cedars’ death warrants.  The trees visit me in my dreams.  In one scene a radiant Joni Mitchell stands among rows of sun-bleached tree stumps resembling headstones and sings, “They took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum and they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em.  Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Ron Joseph retired to Camden after a 33-year career as a wildlife biologist in Maine.