Old growth forests…from seedlings to giants

Have you ever looked at one of those massive, towering Douglas firs or western red cedars—the kind with roots that grip the forest floor like giant toes and crowns that disappear high in the sky—and wondered to yourself…what stories could this tree tell?

A forest sketch I did while pondering my novel “The Hollow Cedar





















Vulnerable new life

Every tree has its own story to tell. A new seedling faces a thousand dangers every day in the wild, unpredictable forest.

A Douglas fir seedling and beetle I painted for a signage project at Federation Forest.


The few who make it

The true forest giants—the ones that live for hundreds of years—have something to tell us about success in life…about being a survivor, and about beauty and strength in old age.

Six hundred years later, the seedling and its neighbors tower over a bull elk.


It all fits together

Life in a mature forest seems to go on forever, with layer upon layer of living beings—from the teeming soil to the bustling canopy. Some life-forms are tiny, ephemeral, nearly invisible. Others seem impossibly big. It’s a study in contrasts.

A section of an illustration for the Federation Forest project.


Where do we fit in?

I may be biased, but the forests of the Pacific Northwest are the most beautiful, fascinating places on earth. In any season, they are enjoyable—but when I’m in an old-growth forest on a bright summer day, I want to grow roots, sink them deep into the forest floor, and stay there forever.

A snippet of a working sketch for “The Hollow Cedar“.



















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12 thoughts on “Old growth forests…from seedlings to giants

  1. Pingback: The Slow Nature Movement | Denise Dahn, artist/writer

  2. Such a lovely reminder, with your words and the illustrations, of why I live where I choose to do so. My favorite places seem to be on the suburban rural fringe, where the wild things amaze me with how they co-exist and adapt to all the human disturbances. Where the air is full of oxygen from all the green and I get a mix of wild and domestic animals. I see more people able to see the wildlife in their backyards here.
    The baby birds that I rescue from being stuck in the garage, the cowbirds that ride on the horses, the salamanders that hide under any old piece of wood in the grass. We had a raccoon come into the house last week when we left the door open. A toad that jumped away today as I moved a rock. And this morning, the chickens were chasing an injured crow, perhaps annoyed that it’s parents were always stealing their eggs. Three days ago, a great blue heron stopped at our pond, fishing for goldfish. I’m part of a neighborhood group that tries to educate that with minimal changes to our yards, changes that can be beautiful, the birds and the other creatures can stay here in the city. We have been here 25 years. In the last year, for the first time, we have seen deer and bunnies in the neighborhood. Cottontails, I think. Jim asks “How long will it be before the cute bunnies become the damned nuisance rabbits?” I just say it’s not my plan to grow lettuce. Or to let our dog be untrained.

    • How wonderful! I think this is the way we will all need to live in the future…more willing to share our spaces with wild creatures. It’s like being good ‘gardeners’ of the planet and good stewards of the wildlife at the same time. And you could always plant lettuce for the rabbits… (and some for Jim, too!)

  3. Wow Denise,
    Your illustrations are fantastic, when I look at them they take me away from the big city hustle and bustle allowing my imagination to hear the bird calls from high in the old growth, to feel the cool forest breeze on my skin, the soft forest floor under my feet, not to mention the smells – oh how I love the smells of the forest! Old growth makes me think of the documentary Among Giants by the film maker Chris Cresci (and others) who featured a committed tree sitter. It reminds the viewer to give thought to our majestic old growth forests and what is and can happen to them without intervention. Check it out at http://www.amonggiantsfilm.com/. We need these reminders and the images with them….

    As for your previous post weed or new wild? Seems a trendy topic these days and well worth discussion. Have you read the Michael Pollen book Second Nature? If not I think you would enjoy his poetic and sincere exploration of a similar topic regarding the interaction of gardeners, weeds and management of it all.
    Second Nature
    Chosen by the American Horticultural Society as one of the seventy-five greatest books ever written about gardening, Second Nature has become a manifesto for rethinking our relationship with nature. With chapters ranging from a reconsideration of the Great American Lawn and a dispatch from one man’s war with a woodchuck to reflections on the sexual politics of roses, Pollan captures the rhythms of our everyday engagement with the outdoors in all its glory and exasperation.

    One of the ironies of looking to closely at what we currently consider invasive species is how it can influence our innocence. I was reading an article by Ben Hewitt in the most current Yankee magazine and I could relate to his comment that “ignorance is bliss”. The article is titled “The Uninvited: Kill them all? Learn to live with them? There are no easy answers when invasive plants move into our forests, meadows and backyards.”.
    When taking walks at our cabin in the NE part of Washington the thistles the nap weed can transform my peaceful/meditative walk into obsessions of how to rid MY precious forest from these WEED invasions. I am sure there are many other species I don’t know about lurking in the undergrowth or even in plain view that I am unaware of and I think I like it that way, again “ignorance can be bliss”. I like the idea you mention of exploring how these species can fit into our perceptions of nature and how our forests/animals and WE as humans can perhaps adapt and live together with them. I think pondering this topic helps me sleep better and not worry (as much) about HOW TO KILL THOSE BASTARDS without pesky pesticides.
    Ok, I know I am a bit wordy – thats all for now….
    Keep up the good work, I am really enjoying your blog.

    • Thank you so much Fran! I’m glad you are finding so many ways to connect to nature in your life. For so many of us, it’s truly a lifeline to well-being.

      The film you mentioned, Among Giants, was so inspiring – (actually, I very loosely based one of the characters in my novel, the Hollow Cedar, on these guys). And just last night, when I checked back on the website, I see they finally succeeded in their 4-year effort to preserve this grove – just 3 days ago an agreement was reached! That is good news, indeed. Bravo!

      In Seattle, we are lucky to have several urban parks with old growth-y forested areas – there is one short walk from my house. I can pop down there and spend a half-hour “among giants” and come out feeling renewed and relaxed. But, every time I go there, I think how easily that 60 acre plot could have been logged and paved like everywhere else, or made into sports fields, etc…if not for the foresight of the pioneer family that donated it with the unusual stipulation it remain natural. Looking to the future…we all need to do more of that, I think!

  4. Denise…We just got back from a walk along the beach…but your beautiful paintings and thoughts about old-growth make me want to go right back out—-this time for a hike in Schmitz Park. Mom

  5. Like your sequenced blog….was just reading in Seattle Magazine about trails and hikes here in the NW. One that sounds interesting is up at Mt Rainer..a barrier free trail that walks out and around some of the oldest trees in the Forest..Dad

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