By: Doug Phillips with photographs by Robert P. Falls, Sr.
Reviewed by: Mike Hardig
The University of Alabama Press, 2006
Last March two friends and I took an overnight canoe trip into the Mobile-Tensaw river delta. On our second day we visited Alabama’s champion Bald Cypress tree. I have a photo hanging on my office wall of my companions standing in front of the champion. Every time I look at that picture I’m struck by two things: First, it’s an awfully big tree, 121 feet tall with a 324 inch circumference! Second, it stands conspicuously and incongruously in a forest of much smaller, younger trees. The old champion is a vestige of an earlier forest now all but gone.
In his recent book, Discovering Alabama Forests, Doug Phillips informs the reader that change is what a forest is all about. Phillips has prepared a wonderful treatise on one of Alabama’s finest natural features. With a style that is succinct, thorough, and engaging, Phillips leads a comprehensive tour of the evolution of Alabama’s forests, from prehistoric times to the modern age, illuminating how the forces of ecology, culture, and economics have all had a hand in shaping forest systems, and vice versa.
Forests are dynamic entities, Phillips informs the reader, reflecting the story of “time, change, and the progression of life.” He quickly dispels the notion that the forests of Alabama existed in some “eternal” primeval form prior to the arrival of axe and saw-wielding settlers. Geologic and climatic forces have been shaping the forests of Alabama since time immemorial. Yet, there is no denying that human habitation has had profound impacts on Alabama’s forests. Phillips gives a detailed, unflinching, and balanced accounting of those effects and their anthropologic causes.
Phillips thoughtfully details the many significant aspects of Alabama’s contemporary forests, from species and ecologic diversity to environmental, economic, and spiritual values. Today, he tells us, Alabama possesses a greater variety of species of oaks, maples, and magnolias than anywhere else in the United States.
In the final chapter Phillips provides a thorough accounting of the lingering issues and looming concerns for Alabama’s forests. He pragmatically acknowledges that today’s forests service many equally-valid interests for many different people, for example, as an economic engine, a spiritual base, a provisioning ground, a playground. Phillips knows that these often competing interests need to be balanced and managed with goals of stability and sustainability, for both the forests and the peoples. Phillips concludes by proposing five commonsense recommendations to help Alabamians sustain plentiful forestlands for the long term.
The text is richly illustrated with the lush and artfully-composed photographs of Robert P. Falls Sr.
If you love Alabama’s forests you have got to read this book.
Mike Hardig is an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Montevallo.