Ray Asselin, creator of the documentary “The Lost Forests of New England,” is a filmmaker and naturalist who works to raise awareness about preserving the natural world.
Through his hourlong film that debuted last year and has been shown at events throughout the Valley, Asselin explains the importance of old growth forests, illustrating their genetics and complex role in nature. The documentary includes footage of the region’s rarely seen old-growth trees, and tells the story of central New England’s old-growth forests.
Through a detail analysis, Asselin encourages others to work to preserve the lands and create a foundation for younger forests to become old growths. He warns of permanent destruction of the forest ecosystem, and the environment in general, if restoration of old growth forests does not begin soon.
The Gazette recently caught up with the Wilbraham resident.
Q: What is your education and career path? Why did you decide to make this documentary?
A: Well, I started out as a child. I have a bachelor’s degree in math that I never really used. I’m retired now, but my career was in IT, working on mainframe computers. I worked for the Wall Street Journal for 19 years, but I’ve spent pretty much my whole life in the woods. Even as a kid, I grew up in the woods.
And I’ve been doing photography on and off for about 40 years. I’m a wood turner for 20 something years as a pastime. But I moved into movie photography, motion picture photography, a couple of years ago, dabbled in that for a while. Then I got interested in old wood forests with Bob Leverett. I don’t have any professional or scientific background in forestry or the natural scientist, but I have been a naturalist for decades.
Q: How did you meet Bob Leverett? How was he essential to the project?
A: “I met him in the late 1980s. I had heard that there was somebody discovering old wood forests, remnants, in western Massachusetts. And I thought, we don’t have any old growth forests left around here. I’ve got to see this. So I called him up and just asked him if I could meet him and maybe go on a hike with him to show me some of these places and he said, ‘sure.’
So that’s what I did and we became friends. He taught me a lot about these remnant old growth forests we have. So after spending years with Bob, seeing some of these places and learning about them, a few years ago, one day we got the idea that we should really do a film about these places so that people can become aware. And he thought that was a good idea, so I started working on that and I never expected it to go too far.
Q: What is your training and experience in filming? How did you get some of the vivid shots in this documentary?
A: (It is) self-taught. I started out many years ago when film still existed with still photography, slides and that sort of thing. And quickly got more into motion pictures. In that particular film (“The Lost Forests”), most of those shots were done with motion activated cameras, camera traps, but I’ve done other films with either being there shooting live, camera traps, or a combination of the two.
Q: Where was the film released?
A: Once it was done, this particular film was first shown at Harvard Forest in Petersham and some of the scientists from there are in the film. They had a public event there to show it last summer and it filled the place. They actually had to use two different rooms to show it.
They were kind of astounded at the turnout and the response to it, and so was I. So then we started getting phone calls from other people who wanted us to come and show there, and have a question-and-answer panel at the end. So that has just snowballed…
Q: Where has it been shown since?
A: Let’s see, there have been a bunch of places. Greenfield Cinema, the Berkshire Museum Theater in Pittsfield, the last showing was in Holyoke on Easter Sunday at the Garden City Arts Center. We have shown it at Williams College in Williamstown and Trinity College in Hartford. Arcadia Wildlife Center in Easthampton, Hitchcock Center in Amherst, Mt. Wachusett Visitor Center, gosh, I can’t remember all of the places. Most of them were free events so they didn’t sell out, but they had a full house.
Q: To you, what is the history of an old grown forest?
A: Well, if you think about before this country was settled, the eastern half of it was deciduous forest that was original, primeval forest. Other than some area where Native Americans had manipulated it and managed it, the prime part of the eastern United States was virgin forest.
Then European settlers, having come from Europe where forest was largely gone a long time before, they lived in an agricultural society. That’s what they knew, they were farmers, and crop raisers. The natural thing for them to do here was the same kind of thing. They have to clear forest to harvest with. So the forest start coming down.
The main reason that New England was settled by the English was because the English navy needed ship masts, and they had their eyes on our white pine trees here. That’s why the colonies were established here in the first place. Once the settlers started harvesting these pine trees, you have to remember that they had no way of making a living here. They were just brought here and they faced this huge wilderness forest. They had just hand tools, they had no way to make money and no way to grow food, no buildings.
They had to start from scratch so they started taking down wood, especially pine trees, because that was easy to work. They realized that this tree is going to be our livelihood. So that led to exporting those white pine trees. That’s how the American economy got started.
So the old growth forest was falling quickly. We ended up with virtually no old growth forest left to speak of except little remnant pockets here and there where they were so inaccessible that people didn’t want to get up into those rocky mountains species.
Q: Why are old growth forests important?
A: We’ve decimated all of our original forests pretty much, and in process we created a simplified forest structure. We keep managing it and cutting trees before they get even near their maximum ages because we want that timber. So that has a lot of consequences.
Those remnant old growth forests are the most genetically diverse forests that we have because that’s how nature made them. They have been untouched for hundreds or thousands of years and have adapted and evolved to thrive and withstand all of the disturbances that come to them naturally, such as windstorms. They have the genetic diversity to adapt to pressures put on them by nature.
What we have done by harvesting these places, we have simplified the structure of them, we have reduced the diversity dramatically. Now especially, in this age of climate change, that’s really important that forest be able to adapt to changing conditions and they do that by little variations in their genetic make up.
The forests obviously produce oxygen for us, they moderate climate conditions, they filter our water, they provide all kinds of complex biologically relationships from microbes up to moose. The total biological richness and diversity is as good as it’s gonna get in an old growth forest, nature doesn’t provide anything else better.
Q: Is there a way that we can use wood products without permanently destroying our forests?
A: We need wood products and paper. We all use wood. So we have to have forests that we can harvest timber from. But I think it’s really important that we maintain and preserve as much as the old growth forests as we can. But we should also set aside other forest land to eventually go back to old growth forests.
Q: What are the consequences of over harvesting wood?
A: What you see today in a lot of these managed forests is that nonnative species come in when they do a harvest or a clear cut and they open up the trees and let in a lot more sunlight, which encourages growth of the sun-loving plants on the forest floor. There are seeds there from all these nonnative plants and other organisms, those nonnative plants then thrive and take over and eliminate the conditions which do not allow native plants to grow. That’s having a real dramatic effect on our lands. It is not wise for us to do that, it is not natural. It will take hundred of years for a managed forest to revert to an old growth forest.
Q: What about the Berkshires or the Pioneer Valley is relevant to old growth forests? What can be done locally to preserve the forests?
A: The Berkshires primarily have some of these old growth remnant locations. That’s what’s important about them. The Pioneer Valley does not really have any growth forests here, but we have some forest lands that are more mature than others. For example, Mt. Tom. The forest there isn’t old growth, but it has more mature forests that someday, if left alone, will regain old growth status.
There are some trees that are close 300 years old, but they are few and far between. But the forest itself is not an old growth forest, there are just individual trees. So we have a lot of woodlands and forests that have been managed over the decades and centuries. A lot of them are maturing, but they are not old growth Hopefully we can set some aside. Especially state-owned forests, let’s say, would be prime candidates to be left alone…
Q: What is the biggest threat to the restoration of old growth forests?
A: Now there is a big push to give to the biomass industry. They want to cut and burn wood for fuel and energy, create wood pellets and start a biomass industry here in western Mass, and that would just be a disaster on our forest. When you have a natural resource that’s in demand, it puts a lot of pressure on it. We can get into the whole discussion of climate sequestration, which is a really big thing right now for climate change.
And forests are the best, easiest, cheapest and simplest way to absorb more of the carbon dioxide out of the air. All we have to do is just stand back and let the forest grow. I would like to see some percentage of at least our state-owned forests protected by law.
These state-owned forest lands are characterized by law: They are working forests, park lands and reserves. The reserves are set aside to be left alone. I want a legislator to put it into permanent law that these lands are off-limits. We don’t want to stop all logging, we need wood products. Wisdom dictates that we don’t cut every piece of forest land or cut every forest land.
Q: What have you worked on in the past and what are you working on now?
A: As far as films go, I have several that are out there on Youtube, where the “The Lost Forests” film is. There is one on the wildlife of Mt. Tom for example which has done well. “The Lost Forests” one is the only one that we have gone and shown. I’ve done two on the peregrine falcons at Mt. Tom.
The first one in 2015 on peregrine falcons has gotten the most hits on Youtube than anything I have ever done by far. That one was watched by people all over the world. Currently, I am working on something. It’s going to be about the eastern white pine tree and its role in American history. It’s probably the most significant tree in New England, if not American history. I also have plans to do some on other specific tree species like the American Sycamore.