Walk in woods yields hidden histories
Wessels, a professor of ecology at Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene and the author of “Reading the Forested Landscape” and an illustrated field guide called “Forest Forensics,” took a group of people out into the woods in Francestown on Sunday afternoon to explore the history hidden in the trees.
The walk, sponsored by the Francestown Land Trust, a nonprofit group dedicated to conserving natural spaces in town, focused on a corner of land off of Russell Mill Road where Greenfield, Francestown and Lyndeborough come together.
Climbing up a steep Class VI road, Wessels stopped every now and then to point to a clue in the landscape. The sloping terrain on either side of two stone walls gave insight into how the land was used before the trees took it back. Much of the landscape of southern New Hampshire was almost completely barren of trees in part of the last three centuries and crops, hay and pastureland stood where the forests stand now.
If the forest floor is smooth and clear, and the stone walls that bound the land are made up of large rocks and fist size stones, chances are the land was cultivated for growing grain, said Wessels.
Because the land had to be cultivated often in order to sustain crops, the appearance was smoother and the smaller stones, that worked their way up to the surface each spring with the freeze and thaw cycle had to be removed. Those rocks found their new home on New England's iconic walls, Wessel's said. But hay fields and pastures weren't cultivated as often, or at all, and so it was only the large rocks that made their way to the boundary lines.
Pastureland also had trees – big, old white pines, maples, and before the blight took them, chestnuts – to provide shade for the grazing animals and many of those trees are still with us, surrounded by new growth that has risen since the pastureland was abandoned.
One of the events that left the biggest mark on New England's forests, said Wessels, was the sheep craze that swept the eastern seaboard in the early 1800s. Across the ocean, Napoleon had invaded Portugal and Merino sheep, which the Portugese had jealously kept for themselves, were suddenly free for the taking. In 1810, a Vermonter named William Jarvis brought 4,000 of the sheep to the region and by 1940, there were four million of the critters roaming around in fields that once had forests. But when the Ohio Valley opened up to farming, the sheep farmers headed west to literally greener pastures, Wessel said, and New Hampshire's trees started their rebirth.
One massive white pine that had a curve that ran almost parallel to the ground before heading up towards the heavens told the story of another moment in New Hampshire history: The great hurricane of 1938.
The tree, said Wessels, and many like it, was young when the storm blew through. Many of its older brethren were thrashed to the ground by the winds that blew 186 miles per hour at the top of the Blue Hill Observatory near Boston. But some of the younglings survived, though not unscathed, and grew into mature trees with a tell-tale curve in their trunks.
Wessels said that trees have an amazing ability to adapt to the changes that happen to them and around them.
“Trees are constantly adjusting to everything around them by following the cues they're getting,” he said.
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Nancy Bean Foster may be reached at email@example.com.
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