The Return of the Woodlands: A story of natives and invasives

By John Sinton For the Gazette
November 23, 2019

Farm abandonment in New England around 1870, as envisioned in a diorama at Harvard Forest’s Fisher Museum in Petersham. COURTESY OF HARVARD FOREST

I began this series on environmental transformations in the Pioneer Valley in March, describing the land and its peoples before the English arrived in the mid-1600s and the effects of the influx of people, plants and animals that followed. In the second part, I left our readers at the height of deforestation around 1850. The few remaining great trees grew in inaccessible spots, the rest cut for potash, buildings, fences, heating and sundry other uses. The construction of railroads beginning in the mid-1840s placed further demand on forest resources. Williamsburg woodlands accounted for 11 percent of its land cover in 1841 but only 8 percent in 1860; Northampton’s forest cover was 25 percent in 1840 and 11 percent in 1860. Hold in your mind the image of bare, deeply eroded hillsides and limitless views.

A flood plain forest by the Mill River today. COURTESY OF JANINE NORTON

Since hardwoods were in such great demand, most of the remaining woodlands and new growth were in pine and hemlock. Hunting remained unregulated, contributing to the local extinction of large mammals and birds. A hunting competition in 1848 produced a total of more than 19,000 dead animals, including 6,000 red squirrels, which inhabit pine woods, and 2,300 gray squirrels, which live in mixed hardwoods. The remaining carcasses included “striped squirrels” (chipmunks!), raccoons, rabbits, 2,600 blue jays, several hundred grouse, woodpeckers and pigeons; also included were crows and hawks (already few in number due to bounties), a few weasels, larks and woodcock but no turkeys (which had almost been eliminated by that time).

What happened next was completely unforeseen. The second half of the Industrial Revolution caused a transformation of the landscape when coal rapidly replaced wood as an industrial fuel, and new sources of timber were opened in the North and Northwest. After the Civil War, the forests returned, and the steep slopes of the Valley began to recover as vegetation re-covered them. Later, early plastics began replacing wood for industrial purposes.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the internal combustion engine began replacing horse-drawn travel with unintended consequences. Fewer horses meant less need for grazing land, leading to further forest recovery. In the cities, the lack of seed-rich horse manure decimated the population of Eurasian house sparrows while simultaneously reducing equine stink and muck.

Accelerated erosion and intensive land use in New England around 1850, as envisioned in a diorama at Harvard Forest’s Fisher Museum in Petersham. COURTESY OF HARVARD FOREST

Philosophical and cultural transformations occurred alongside more mundane shifts: The twin currents of scientific conservation and land preservation slowly made their way into America’s mainstream. Conservationists demanded the use of “best practices” to restore land and to log conservatively, while preservationists created national and local parks for all the people, securing some of America’s last remaining “wilderness” and funding local and regional land trusts to provide open space for the general public. Just how and when these shifts in the American mentality occurred is fertile ground for another column that digs into the importance of these movements here in our valley.

One last great ecological surprise awaited the Mill River as the 19th century ended. A new wave of exotic plants, insects and diseases arrived here on the heels of the Industrial Revolution’s population boom. Gardeners imported ever more ornamentals, transplanting trees, shrubs and exotic herbaceous plants from distant origins to our hills and valleys. Many non-native species that had arrived 100 to 200 years ago have only recently become nuisances, such as Japanese knotweed, which thrives in disturbed soil and creates swaths of vegetation that obscure our view of rivers. Others include multiflora rose, Japanese barberry, Norway maple and exotic honeysuckles.

An old field and white pine forest around 1870, as envisioned in a diorama at Harvard Forest’s Fisher Museum in Petersham. COURTESY OF HARVARD FOREST

Along with plants came their hitchhikers — insects and mites, viruses, fungi and bacteria. Some came in ship’s ballast or sacks of seed; some were brought in the baggage of Italians, Germans, Chinese and British immigrants to grace their new homes with comforting companions. The result was a wealth of organisms that either got along commensurately with natives or decimated them. Non-native insect species have accumulated in the forests of the United States at a rate of about 2.5 per year over the past 150 years. The result has been damage in the billions of dollars. Gone from the woodlands are American chestnut that once comprised some 25 percent of eastern forests. American elms, of course, have disappeared as the preeminent streetscape tree in our area, and hemlock, beech and ash are seriously threatened as well. Efforts are underway to re-introduce these iconic trees, but we must accept that global transport has forever changed our landscapes.

Despite post-Industrial reforestation, the landscape of the Northeast no longer resembles the lands once cultivated and managed solely by native peoples. What once was meadows and grasslands populated with native species now resembles a European-style agricultural landscape. Such dramatic changes have largely escaped our notice because succeeding generations of European Americans found the newly planted fields so useful, so “natural.” But for Native Americans, the transformations that began 400 years ago have come at a steep price. Beginning with the early English settlement, many native people were killed or forced from their homelands. And the native plants on which they depended were largely edged out as non-natives took over.

Do not, however, underestimate the resilience of native people or native biota. The Abenaki, Nipmuk and Pequot are still here, part of our fabric, and they remain the foundational shapers of our landscapes. And a growing movement to restore native plant species to our New England soils continues to inspire hope for further transformation, informed by our past.

John Sinton is an adjunct professor of landscape architecture and regional planning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of “Devil’s Den to Lickingwater: The Mill River Through Landscape and History.”

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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