The Woods Around Us

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Contrary to what many people believe, there is nothing inherently wrong with the fertility of New England’s soil—what there is of it. Until recently, the highest yield of corn per acre in this country was produced in Connecticut. The difficulty lies in what the glaciers did to the topsoil, and the key to the matter is that phrase, “what there is of it.” All the soil that once mantled the landscape was scraped away by the ice. Much of it was carried off and dumped into the ocean, and the rest was thoroughly mixed with rocks of all shapes and sizes and of great abundance before it was set down again. Fortunately there were rivers and lakes that washed some of the soil out from among the rocks and assembled it into usable masses here and there. But relatively few of these patches are large enough to do more than provide turning space for a small horse-drawn hayrake.

It is worth noting that when the ice sheets of the last glacial age pushed down into what is now the Middle West, they did not encounter mountains or hard rocks. Unlike New England, the limestones, sandstones, and shales of that region were soft; and as a result, the same glaciers that scraped New England bare of soil brought riches to the present states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The ice crushed and ground rocks to fine powder, and mixed the old surface with this and with fresh minerals brought up from deep in the subsoil, creating a new topsoil that has remained bountiful to this day.

It was the competition from cheap western land, level and clear enough to allow the use of large farm machinery, that put the pinch on New England agriculture. When canals and then railroads came along and provided low-cost transportation for bulk freight from the west, the bottom fell out of the old farm economy. As a result, hordes of Yankees gave up and went off to populate the new lands; and it is not always as easy as you think to tell an old-stock Ohioan or lowan from an oldstock Vermonter.

Defection from the hills received a further push from the expansion of waterpowered industries; and this in turn was enormously stimulated by the Civil War. People who did not go west moved down into the mushrooming factory towns nearer home. While the farmer’s daughters went to work in the mills, his sons went off to fight in the war. Perhaps it was the general restlessness of soldiers going back to civilian life; perhaps it was just seeing other parts of the country and other ways of living that offered greater rewards for toil, but in any case, large numbers of young men never returned to the old hill farms.

By the 1870’s farms were being abandoned wholesale, even in the recently opened parts of northern New Hampshire and Maine. Deserted farmhouses became increasingly conspicuous in the landscape, and soon it was apparent to even the least observant that a great change was taking place in rural New England. The general public grew highly excited and a loud cry of alarm went up over the decline of a way of life that had become centrally embedded in our national tradition. Files of popular magazines of the 1880’s and 1890’s show the state of public opinion. Every volume for those years has articles written from all points of view, impassioned, reasoned, or merely sentimental, setting forth proposals for keeping people on the farms in order to preserve our great heritage of plain living and high thinking, and of course in an idyllic rural setting.

The farmers who were trying to squeeze a decent living from the rocky hills took a different view of the matter. When a family decided to leave, there were few takers for the farm. Many simply moved out and, after a last lingering look at the old home, shut the door and went away, leaving the place to the forces of nature.

With no one on hand to repair a leaky roof or replace the first broken window, it took only a few years for an abandoned house to fall into decay. No one was there to grieve over the more complete havoc wrought by fire or violent windstorm. With the garden unweeded, the paths untrod, even the pastures ungrazed, the land that had been so laboriously cleared soon grew up to brush, its very existence as a homesite all but forgotten. In less than a generation there might be nothing left but a cellar hole far in the woods on a road no longer kept up by the town. A man from southwestern New Hampshire once said that when he was a child in 1865 he knew of nine old cellar holes within a mile of his country school. In the same area in 1887 he counted 23 of them.

To catch the flavor of the changing times, one can make a pilgrimage to the Berkshire plateau, the little highland that stands between the Connecticut River and the Housatonic in western Massachusetts. Pioneer settlers first pushed into these hills in the 1720’s along the old trail that is followed by the present road from Westfield to Great Barrington. Once settlement was begun, the hill country developed rapidly. It reached its vigorous prime about the time of the Revolution and continued for several decades in this happy state. But with clearing for farms, logging for sawmills and tanneries, and making charcoal to feed the local iron foundries, the entire primeval forest was either removed or at least drastically altered. Then, around the time of the Civil War, the great rural decline struck hard at the farms and towns of the Berkshires.