The famous 'Big Tree' in Sipsey Wilderness, Alabama. Joan Maloof pictured at the center. (Courtesy Joan Maloof)

Ask Joan Maloof for a definition of an “old-growth forest,” an area of ancient trees undisturbed by humans and overtaken by nature, and she will not be able to provide a satisfying answer; simply put, there isn’t one. What she can describe is the emotional and environmental value of these centuries-old trees, which is exactly what she does in her second book on the subject, “Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests.” The text, a sort of mash-up of “Silent Spring” and “On the Road,” chronicles her trek to old-growth forests in every state east of the Mississippi, including the close-to-home Schoolhouse Woods at Wye Natural Resource Management Area in Maryland. Maloof, a professor emeritus at Maryland’s Salisbury University, will be speaking about her work at the United States Botanic Garden on Thursday.

“The easiest way to describe [old-growth forests] is that these are places that have been left alone for a long time, so the natural processes of the planet have taken over.

“We may need these forests, most important, for that emotional resonance, for that beauty, for that feeling of awe and spirituality that we get in a forest. In ‘Among the Ancients’ I describe those feelings that came up for me in those places. . . . It has given me more power, courage, enthusiasm, to try to create more old-growth forests, to let more places go, so that our children now can experience them, to know what our land should look like.

“I just like to point out that not every single forest should be a source of timber and money; that there are some places we should save just for the biodiversity and the beauty.

Joan Maloof is starting the Old-Growth Forest Network, a project that will protect one forest in each county. (Rick Maloof)

“I was just born loving plants of all kinds. . . . Living in Maryland, I looked around and thought: Where are our native plants? Where are our natural areas? . . . I started trying to understand the ecology of these forests and the things that live in these forests, and I saw so many of them were mixed natural forests, being logged and converted to pine plantations. And I knew when [that happened] we’re going to lose a lot of the other organisms.

“The first chapter [of ‘Among the Ancients’] is in Sipsey Wilderness, in Alabama. I drove all the way there in my little truck. I had to backpack in four miles to see this giant old-growth area. Just that process of hiking through that forest and then camping at the base of this ancient tree, all by myself, the stars came out and an owl, and I just thought: This is where the magic of the Earth is. These are the places and the moments that will last a lifetime. That will open the parts of our consciousness that maybe we didn’t realize was there.

“The goal of the Old-Growth Forest Network, my new nonprofit, is to identify one forest in every county [across the United States] that will no longer be logged. . . . I’m just getting started, but I’m very enthusiastic about it. For years I’ve been trying to get my students to save the world and do something about deforestation, and now I feel like it’s my turn.”

Reading and discussion, 12 p.m. Thursday, Conservatory Classroom at the United States Botanical Garden. Pre-registration required at usbg.gov.

Among the Ancients

Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests

Joan Maloof

Ruka Press, 256 pp., $17.95