Seeing the Forests and the Trees

Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England
By Tom Wessels
The Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vermont, 1999 (paperback), 199 pages.

Stepping Back to Look Forward: A History of the Massachusetts Forest
Edited By Charles H.W. Foster
Harvard University, Cambridge, 1998, 339 pages.

When I was a kid, out in the patchy, suburb-fringed but, to me, luminously beckoning woods behind our house, I tried and tried to walk like an Indian. Meaning noiselessly. Artfully. It never worked; no matter how gingerly I stepped, my Keds would crackle the leaf litter or snag-snap the twigs, and I would wonder was it all in the perfect moccasins of long-ago Native Americans, the ancient learned poetry of their footfalls?

Well, no, I’ve come to find out from Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England. Here is a marvelous source, a slyly informative tourbook of sorts, written by Tom Wessels, the director of the Environmental Biology Program at New Hampshire’s Antioch New England Graduate School. Wessels makes you see the forest and the trees. Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, is a fan. “Fascinating,” he blurbs. “Equal parts Sherlock Holmes and Aldo Leopold.”

And, sure enough, I felt like a thick-headed Watson when Wessels/Holmes solved my why-I-couldn’t-walk-like-an-Indian mystery. The answer lies in fire. I knew that Native Americans deployed strategic brush fires to control their environment, but I didn’t really get why. First of all, they found that, if you burnt forest undergrowth, you charred away disease-carrying mosquito and black fly populations. Plus, those flames replenished the soil and made the land more hospitable to nut- and berry-producing trees and shrubs. Which in turn lured game for tribesmen to hunt.

Then, on page 35, not knowing he’s rocked my world, Wessels states: “The removal of litter also made it possible to stalk game quietly.” He goes on to add that as a boy, he, too, had tried walking silently like an Indian in his suburban woods and he, too, had failed. Native Americans knew that cleared forest floors meant quiet forest floors. And so, armed with ash longbows and arrows tipped with “hart’s horn and eagle claws,” as one of the Pilgrims noted, they padded on soft-soiled, shade-cloaked lanes, barely making a sound. Their woods, in other words, weren’t my woods.

Fire isn’t unknown today as a land management technique. (Conservation groups are currently using it on parts of Martha’s Vineyard, for instance, mostly to bring back once-lush, and now forest-encroached meadows.) But Prometheus’s gift is rare in these parts; in the New England woods of our century, the only red, orange, and yellow allowed arrives courtesy of October foliage. Forest fires are to be stopped, not started. Hence, to cite a Massachusetts stat, there were some 50 fire towers rising as secular spires in the woods a generation ago, and somewhat less now. Due to the vigilance of fire-spotters sent aloft, and due to a pair of federal laws passed at the beginning of the 20th century, forest conflagrations – for ill or good – are a thing of the past. Those two laws? The first was 1908’s “Permit Law,” in which anyone lighting an open fire must get a permit from the town warden, and 1914’s “Slash Law,” which bade loggers to cart away any slash, i.e. sawdust and leaf litter, rather than burn it off.

It’s surprising that fire has become so uncommon. Partly because, out in the woods, I often notice charred sections on old tree stumps. Once again, Wessels set me straight about this. It seems there’s a fungus species called Acsomycetes, which preternaturally resembles flame-blackened wood and often covers the surface of decaying beech and maple. How to tell the difference between the real and the imitation? Rub your finger on the genuine and soot comes off; not so for the fake.

Enough about fire, then. In our own era, New England forest “disturbance histories,” in Wessels’s phrase, mostly stem from logging. In colonial times, the biggest white pines were reserved for ship masts for the British navy. Other trees were bent into staves for barrels to transport rum in the triangle trade. An average settler family used 35 cords (that’s 61 tons!) a year for fuel. Eventually, wood was logged for railroad tracks and to stoke the first train engines before coal took over the job. In our day, paper companies are the prime culprit.

Ever since the 18th century’s “great swarming time,” when the population burgeoned here in New England, our woods have been thinned and thinned again. As far back as 1818, John Lowell voiced the budding “ecological” sentiments of his era in his Remarks on the Gradual Diminution of the Forest of Massachusetts and the Importance of Early Attention to Some Effectual Remedy. He wrote: “No man dreamt that the day would arrive in which his descendants might regret the improvident profusion of their ancestors.”

Profusion or not, times have changed, and the forests of our time have recuperated quite a bit. Just hike in the Berkshires to know what I mean; Mount Greylock has been stripped bare several times over for timber in past centuries, and now it’s lush and green and, come spring, bursting pink and white with mountain laurel. Today’s forests resemble what the first Massachusetts Bay colonists saw more than any other era in between. How so? The farmland and cleared fields of the 19th century have reverted back to woodland. Our quantity of forest is heartening, then. But not the quality; there’s virtually no old-growth forest left in New England. As Wessels describes what we’ve lost, it makes you ache. When the first settlers arrived in New England, forests were, in parts, “redwoodlike,” full of trees that seemed like “true monarchs.” He adds, “The tree that most captivated [the early explorer’s] attention was the majestic white pine. They simply had never seen a tree of such stature…. Some white pines encountered by the early colonists were recorded at heights of up to 220 feet, trees whose stature would fit nicely in a Pacific Northwest old-growth forest but seem out of place in our current image of a New England woodland.”

Though Wessels is at his best chronicling the whys and hows of a forest’s history, he isn’t mired in the past. He can policy wonk with the best of them. But the fine points of land management, really, are more the purview of Stepping Back to Look Forward: A History of the Massachusetts Forest. It’s a collection of essays about aspects of woodland history and policy, distributed by Harvard University Press (several of the writers are associated with the Harvard Forest, in Petersham). Some of the prose is tinder-dry, some of it tart and enlightening – especially Nancy M. Gordon’s precis of the economic uses of Massachusetts forests.

Reading the Forested Landscape and Stepping Back overlap here and there. I came across a good handful of passages imparting the same tidbit about the origin of gypsy moths in this country. In 1869, a Medford importer named Leopold Trouvelot had the buggers shipped here from abroad, thinking they’d produce silk, only to let a bunch escape from his lab. You’ve undoubtedly seen the results of his bungling. Many summers since–1980 and 1981 were the worst–have featured the rancid cotton candy of gypsy moths, nestled in branches, slowly choking trees through the Northeast.

But the fact that the two books duplicate information isn’t all that significant. Their differences lie in tone and look. Wessels’s book features lovely etchings by illustrator Brian D. Cohen, for instance, while Stepping Back trots out a parade of bar graphs. Still, both work off each other, a mortise and tenon for building a house of insight.

Wessels, bless him, wins the sweepstakes for issuing wonderful details. Here are some of my favorites: Did you know that you can tell a stone wall was built next to a cultivated field, rather than a grazing field, by the fact that it includes small stones (which were cleared for plowing)? Or that beavers repair their dams by sound? The louder the echo of rushing water, it seems, the more mud they know to use for caulking. Or that the de-forested landscape of 19th-century New England owes its genesis to Napoleon’s defeat of the Portuguese? Vanquished, they lost their monopoly on Merino sheep, and, in 1810, the then-American ambassador to Portugal imported a herd of 4,000 to his Vermont farm. Thus began New England’s “sheep fever” years, in which three-quarters of the land was cleared for grazing, in an effort to corner the world’s wool market.

Because Stepping Back leans more toward a prescriptive aim than Reading the Forested Landscape, and because it’s concerned with only one of the six New England states, its scope is invariably narrower than Wessels’s book. The essays are more about forests vis à vis humanity, than forests for their own sake. And why not? As Stepping Back‘s editor, Charles H.W. Foster, declares, the Massachusetts forest has long been “of, for and by the people.” It hasn’t qualified as wilderness for centuries. Indeed, it was this fact that prompted the Bay State’s own Henry David Thoreau – the most famed proponent of forests as sacrosanct – to hightail it to the woods girding Walden Pond. In an essay on the private forestry movement, Stepping Back writer William A. King cites Thoreau’s dismay at the denuding of Concord’s woodlands via “the heedless practices of local farmers.”

You don’t launch a preservation campaign unless something is threatened. Which is not to say that Thoreau consciously “founded” the environmental movement; it’s more that, in his writings, he sowed the emotional and philosophical basis. That’s because he was almost in a state of mourning (and terminal crotchetiness, if I may be so bold). In Thoreau’s time, tanning factories were decimating forests in search of bark (hemlock mostly, stripped for its tannin) and mills were fouling streams with their outwash. In the 17th and 18th centuries, and on into the 19th, people valued forests for their utility, not for their aesthetics.

For a long time, Thoreau did, too. He wasn’t that ahead of his time. Yet, as author Stephen Fox writes in his Stepping Back essay, “Massachusetts Contributions to National Forest Conservation,” in his last years Thoreau “moved fitfully toward a more heretical notion of trees for trees themselves. As he shifted between these two propositions – nature for itself versus nature for humans – Thoreau unconsciously anticipated an essential tension that would stretch across future efforts in forest conservation and, ultimately, the entire environmental movements.”

It’s that movement, propelled by sheer love of the woods, not hunger for its products, that infuses Reading the Forested Landscape. Wessels is an aficionado, a lover, of the New England forest. Stepping Back to Look Forward cherishes the forest, too, but without such obvious ardor. It’s also the more cautionary of the two works. Aside from the usual suspects of global warming and acid rain, we learn about insect invasions and policies gone awry. But the book also lauds those persons who have fought back, dedicating their lives to the preservation of our forest. Unsung heroes dapple these pages.

The more famous stop by, too. One Colonel Greely, a protégé of the pioneering naturalist Gifford Pinchot and author of 1951’s Forest and Men, reminisces about attending a 1905 meeting of the American Forestry Association. It took place in Washington, D.C., and Theodore Roosevelt put in a dramatic appearance. “I was thrilled when the President threw down his manuscript and strode across the stage,” writes Greely. “With shaking fist and flashing teeth he thundered ‘I am against the man who skins the land.'”

Meet the Author
So, as the new millennium dawns, are many of us.

Contributing Writer Katharine Whittemore lives in Cambridge and is the editor of American Movie Classics Magazine.