The Woods Around Us

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Tradition has it that the first European settlers in America had to chop their way into a solid wall of impenetrable forest that reached from the high-tide line of the Atlantic Ocean to the edge of the prairie in Illinois. But tradition has been so strongly influenced by the heroic labors of the pioneer axeman farther west that we have forgotten what primeval New England was really like.

Long before the days of colonization, travelers and explorers cruising along the coast found that the forest was interrupted in many places by vast tracts of open land. Sometimes there were large trees, commonly oaks, “without underwood, and not standing so close but that they may anywhere be rode through.” In 1524 Verrazano, traveling inland from Narragansett Bay, reported “open plains twenty-five or thirty leagues in extent, entirely free from trees or other hindrances.” In other places the forest was honeycombed with large cleared fields where the Indians cultivated their corn and beans. Almost without exception the earliest witnesses remarked upon the large treeless areas they saw everywhere from the Saco River in Maine southward beyond the Hudson and even far up the river valleys into what we know as central New York State.

All the Indians of the northeast were part of the great Algonkian relationship. Those near the coast were to some extent hunters and fishermen, but the staple of their living came from agriculture. These tribes lived in more or less permanent villages of dome-topped wigwams with a wooden framework covered with bark or skin. Around each village lay the cornfields, cleared by the men with fire and stone axe, cultivated by the women with hoes of bone or shell, and fertilized with the well-known fish that was laid in each hill at planting time. Primitive as the operation was, the fields produced large quantities of corn of many kinds, as well as beans, squash, and various other crops. Judging from the early accounts, the amount of land under cultivation must have been truly impressive. William Wood, for example, in an early piece of promotional literature published in 1634 and called New England’s Prospect , described one Indian cornfield alter another in specifically named places all along the coast.

Because the same field was cultivated for several years running, the fertility of the soil eventually declined and the crop yield began to fall off. When that happened, new land was cleared and the old abandoned, to grow up in time to brush and trees. Trees were also cut lavishly for fuel, and the woods were in constant retreat around each village as long as it remained in one place.

Beyond the cultivated lands the forests were repeatedly burned. Many early voyagers spoke of the number of fires they saw all along the eastern coast and at the same time commented on the open, brushless nature of the forest. Students of vegetation do not agree as to whether it was fire that kept out the underbrush or whether the forest burned readily because it was naturally dry and open for reasons of climate and soil. We do know that the Indians deliberately set fires in order to improve the growth of grass in early spring for the benefit of game animals and to clear out the underbrush and so make their hunting generally easier. Probably most of these were small ground fires that did relatively little harm to large, thick-barked trees. But even a fast-running grass fire will kill the small seedlings on which the perpetuation of a forest depends; and as the older trees succumbed to blight or tempest, the forest became more and more open until it resembled a park-like plantation. Early observers also recorded that wet, swampy land, where fires could not easily penetrate, was commonly covered with a dense, thickety growth. So it seems likely that the openness of the woods was at least in part the doing of the Indians.

When the Pilgrim Fathers at last dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor, the prospect of the bare December woods must have made many a heart secretly sink. One may wonder if the Pilgrims could have survived even as well as they did if, in their weakened, halfstarved condition, they had had to make a clearing in the forest before they could put in their first crop the next spring. Fortunately the kind Providence in which they so fervently believed had led them to the site of an abandoned Indian village. Only three or four years earlier the original inhabitants of the place had been virtually wiped out by a plague of smallpox. So it turned out that the Pilgrims found land already cleared for them, as well as a hidden store of unused’ grain that carried them through that first grim winter. Then in the spring Squanto, the Indian who was to become their fast friend and helper, appeared from the woods to begin their initiation into the uses of Indian corn.

In the first years at Plymouth there was little occasion for any undertaking beyond securing the necessities of life. But soon more venturesome scouting parties penetrated farther inland. When the first explorers returned from the north, they told with awe of the dense, dark forests of the interior. There were no sunny fields there where women chattered at their work; only an occasional band of hunters, passing along narrow woodland trails, broke the deep stillness.