Book Offers a Field Guide to the Past

By Michael Dover Gazette Contributing Writer 

Once in a while, if we’re lucky, something comes along that expands our perception of the world around us. What was once “background” becomes discernible: we add depth and breadth to our experience of our surroundings. This happened to me when I read Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England (Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vt.) by Tom Wessels, and later went to a workshop that he led. Wessels, an ecologist at Antioch University New England in Keene, N.H., opened a new dimension—time—to my walks in the woods, helping me see the history of the land and its use by observing what’s there today.

Wessels takes readers through a series of illustrations of wooded sites, showing how to estimate the ages of trees, determine the likely cause of disturbances—such as fire, logging and storms—decades or even centuries ago, and understand the meaning of what we see. In the process, we get to know the history of land use in New England. One of the most intriguing of these stories links the picturesque stone walls of New England forests to the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century.

The story begins with merino sheep, prized for fine wool, developed in Portugal and kept within its borders by the nobility there. When Napoleon conquered Portugal in 1809, that restriction was lifted and the American ambassador imported 4,000 of the animals to his Vermont farm in 1810. After the War of 1812, the United States imposed heavy tariffs on British goods—including textiles—and “sheep fever” took hold in New England. The area’s sheep population grew rapidly: in 1840 it reached a peak of 1.7 million in Vermont alone, and similar explosions happened elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands of acres were cleared for sheep pasture as farmers took advantage of this burgeoning market for domestic textiles. By 1840, about 75 percent of our region’s land was in agriculture, mostly pasture.

All of these fields had to be enclosed to keep the sheep from overrunning nearby cropland. At first, New England farmers used stumps and brush from cleared land to make fences. Later, these were replaced with zigzag split-rail fencing. Eventually, though, as timber became scarce, farmers used the next material at hand: stone. Stone fences, as they were called, soon crisscrossed the landscape, keeping sheep in their pastures and out of crops. Wessels tells us how to determine what was enclosed by walls remaining today. If the wall is topped by small stones, it enclosed a cultivated field; if it is primarily large stones, it  surrounded pasture or hayfields from which there was no need to remove small stones.

As quickly as the sheep craze began, it ended, as overgrazing—especially on marginal hill farms—took its toll. (Many rock outcroppings we see in the woods today are the lasting remnants of that overgrazing.) Farm families migrated to the rich soil of the Ohio Valley, leaving the former pasture lands to revert to forest.

Walking the woods hasn’t been the same for me since I read Wessels’ book. I don’t always engage in his type of detective work when I’m in a forest, but often I stop and look at a stump, deadfall or some other feature and think, “How and when did that happen?”

Field guides are invaluable for helping us know what we’re seeing. They invite us to ask, “What kind of bird/flower/insect/reptile is that?” and investigate further. In the process, we can learn how the creatures we’ve identified make their living, and how they interact with each other. Reading the Forested Landscape is a field guide to the past: we get to ask “How did it get that way, and why?” In answering questions like these, we also learn more about ourselves.

Michael Dover is a retired environmental scientist and member of the Hitchcock Center board.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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