See the remarkable richness of life in Europe’s old-growth forests

A photographer ventures into the woods to document the beauty, value, and fragility of these wonderlands that are still standing tall.

Published 19 Apr 2022, 11:21 BST

Italy’s Abruzzo, Lazio, and Molise National Park is home to some of the oldest beech forests in Europe. Thanks to a location that’s difficult to access, these trees have escaped felling for centuries.

Photograph by Orsolya Haarberg

I am drawn to the serenity and sheer beauty of pristine nature. Being in it heightens my perceptions and narrows my focus. As I concentrate on the surroundings, an inner stillness fills me and helps me capture a sense of place. This was the case when I packed my camera equipment and ventured into some of Europe’s old-growth forests to highlight these unique environments that have remained intact for centuries, despite recurrent threats of human disturbance.

The visits were often challenging because of unfavourable weather conditions and the distances I had to cover while going multiple times to the most photogenic locations. But the joy of the experience always prevailed. Hiking off-trail through the foggy laurel forests of Madeira, I was enveloped by trees that may have been up to 800 years old and whose trunks provided me with shelter when clouds released a sudden downpour. It felt like entering a holy space. 

In the Abruzzo region of Italy, these beeches are bedecked with abundant lichens, a characteristic of old-growth forests.
Photograph by Orsolya Haarberg
Like fallen snow, Cladonia lichens blanket the ground beneath mountain birches in Norway’s Rondane National Park.
Photograph by Orsolya Haarberg
String bogs in northern Sweden feature ridges that link small islands of coniferous forests.
Photograph by Orsolya Haarberg
Laurel forests—found in Madeira, the Canaries, and the Azores—are living relics of the southern European stands that thrived millions of years ago.
Photograph by Orsolya Haarberg
The laurel forest of Madeira, a Portuguese archipelago in the North Atlantic, is inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in part because the trees support many endemic species, including more than 70 plants and the Madeira laurel pigeon. Growing at an altitude ranging from about 1,000 to 5,000 feet, the laurels are found in the ribbon of mist that frequently wraps the upper ranges of the islands, creating the cloud forests of the temperate zone.
Photograph by Orsolya Haarberg

Roaming the intact Scots pine forests of northern Sweden and the mountain tree lines of southern Norway rewarded me with the sense of freedom I always get in the Scandinavian wilderness. The beech stands rising from the steep slopes of Italy kept me in awe of the power that forests shielded from exploitation can possess. I feel privileged that I was granted access to explore and photograph these wonderlands.

Excluding Russia, only about 2 percent of the forest areas in Europe are primary, or have never been cleared, reflecting a dazzling richness of life that once filled vast wooded ecosystems. Most of the areas are now protected, but as the human population continues to grow—with devastating impacts on the planet and its living creatures—the future of these forests is far from certain. I, for one, hope that they will still be standing for many centuries more.

In this spot in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains, the tree line is marked with Norway spruces, which are sculpted in winter by the forces of wind and snow.
Photograph by Orsolya Haarberg
This story appears in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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