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Seattle Audubon advocates and organizes for cities where people and birds thrive.

The Forest of Notre-Dame

By John S. Farnsworth, Ph.D.



Notre-Dame cathedral, circa 2008 | Photo by Celso Flores, Flickr CC BY 2.0


When Notre-Dame de Paris burned a couple of weeks ago, it came as a surprise to some that the attic of this stone edifice was made of wood. The attic, which was called “The Forest,” was constructed of enormous oak beams, each one milled by hand from a single oak.  There were 1,300 beams in all, the wood having been felled over a ten-year period starting in the year 1160.  Each tree was estimated to be between 300 and 400 years old, which means that the wood in The Forest dated back to the ninth century. 

Twenty-one hectares—nearly 52 acres—of forest was clear-cut to provide the lumber for the cathedral’s attic. Even if the people of Paris wanted to rebuild the cathedral of similar materials, today, they would be unable to source the wood locally. In France itself, only .01% of forested land is untouched forest. Indeed, in all of Europe, only 4% of wooded land comprises primary forest, and most of that is located in the northeastern section of the continent. (Compare this with 18% of remaining old-growth forest here in Washington.)

I’ve never visited Notre-Dame cathedral, but I taught for a term at the University of Durham, during which time I resided in St. Cuthbert’s Society across the street from the Durham Cathedral, a Romanesque building completed thirty years before work began on Notre-Dame. As a visiting scholar I had the chance to tour the cathedral privately, including the library of 5th-century manuscripts, the central bell tower, and the attic. I remember distinctly being told by my tour leader, one of the cathedral’s canons, that the oaken beams were irreplaceable. “If these burn,” I was informed, “the cathedral is lost.”

"Our trees are a treasure we seldom appreciate."

Our trees are a treasure we seldom appreciate.

One of the reasons I’m so proud to have become a member of Seattle Audubon’s board of directors is the long-term commitment the society has made to the city’s trees. Two years ago Seattle Audubon convened the Neighborhood Flyway Symposium and spearheaded efforts to have Seattle become an Urban Bird Treaty city. In the 1950s the tree cover in Seattle was estimated to have been at 50%, but now our urban canopy has dwindled to 23%. 

Seattle has an urban forest management plan, and has committed to the goal of reaching a forest canopy of 30% by 2037.  That’s great, but planting new trees is only a partial solution. The Seattle Audubon urban forestry initiative is keyed, first of all, to keeping the trees we already have. Why? Because old trees make better habitat. And that’s not just for the birds, but for people as well.

Older trees—and for our purposes here let’s define “older trees” as anything that rooted prior to Seattle Audubon’s establishment on April 17, 1916—are not simply larger versions of younger trees. They have far more cavities for nesting, for example, and they create necessary diversity in the forest canopy. When is the last time you saw a Bald Eagle perched on a two-year old sapling, or a Great Horned Owl roosting in a newly planted tree? If we want birds larger than feral pigeons to remain part of the life of this city, then we need to conserve larger trees.

In many species, a tree doesn’t even begin to take on old-growth characteristics until it’s three times the age of our Audubon chapter. Three times. And more and more, those of us who are part of the Audubon conservation movement are realizing that ancient forest canopies are wondrous cathedrals unto themselves.  Please join me in helping to preserve the forests we have left.

John Seibert Farnsworth is one of the newest members of the Seattle Audubon Society’s board of directors. Dr. Farnsworth is Senior Lecturer of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Emeritus, from Santa Clara University. His new book, Coves of Departure: Field Notes from the Sea of Cortez, was recently published by Cornell University Press.




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