- Historic Sites
The Woods Around Us
For those with the eyes to read them, New England’s forests, pastures, and stout stone walls reveal cycles of rural life
August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
Pay a visit first to the boyhood home of William Cullen Bryant. He was born at Cummington, Massachusetts, in 1794, the son of a frontier doctor. The house has been preserved, a substantial dwelling that still looks out over open, rolling hayfields. One can easily in imagination picture the countryside flourishing with many small farms and reconstruct the village as a busy little place with a surprisingly large number of small industries. Then go to Buckland and search out Mary Lyon’s birthplace. When she set out on the path that finally led her to the founding of Mount Holyoke Seminary in 1837, she came down from a home in a well-populated rural country, with neighboring houses in sight here and there across the fields. Today you follow a back road up into the lonely hills and find at journey’s end only a cellar hole in a small clearing in the woods, the spot marked by a bronze plaque on one of the ever-present boulders.
The course of farm abandonment in New England can be read in the changing proportions of cleared and wooded land. From 1815 to 1820 all but 27 per cent of the entire area of Connecticut had been cleared of forest. Those were the peak years. By 1910 the woods had expanded to cover 45 per cent, and by 1955, 63 per cent of the state. Farther north the cleared area never reached such an extent, and the maximum came later. Only 25 per cent of Maine has ever been open country and that was in 1880. At the present time about three-quarters of all New England is covered with woodland or forest; the remaining quarter includes all the cities and their sprawling suburbs.
When the trees begin to reclaim their old dominion, the course of events follows a well-defined pattern. In the south and southeastern parts of New England, encroachment by the woods begins with the appearance of tiny red cedars scattered among the dry, skimpy grass and goldenrod of a neglected pasture. In the extreme north and northeast and at higher elevations elsewhere, the edging-in of red spruce, with a spatter of balsam fir, betrays the deterioration of pasture land. Throughout the great central region, however, it is white pine that first takes over the old fields.
Even today, pines are so characteristic of the region that for a vignette symbolic of New England, one might use a rough, bouldery hillside covered with short grass and clumps of fern, a bit of stone wall, and a single ancient pine, gnarled of trunk, horizontal of bough, and soft and delicate of foliage.
At the height of agricultural development many old pines survived in wood lots or along roadside walls or in pastures. In a good seed year an old pine produces seeds by the million; being light, and each equipped with its little sail, these easily blow out across the fields. The open, sunny grassland of an old pasture suits an infant pine very well; and in a few years an unused field becomes thickly stocked with thrifty young trees. By the time these are head-high to a grown man, their branches may meet in a completely closed canopy that darkens the ground below and smothers the old pasture grass and weeds. In the deep shade and in the dense, springy mat of fallen needles that soon forms under a pinewood, few other plants can get a foothold; and the pine grows up in a virtually pure stand.
As the trees grow older and larger and the thick canopy of foliage rises, occasional breaks appear in the ceiling where a tree succumbs to windstorm or blight. Such islands of light are quickly floored over by a brushy thicket. Elsewhere the woods are dim and quiet. No sun-loving pine seedling can survive in the darkness; but certain shade-tolerant hardwoods begin to infiltrate, sparsely, at first, and slowly, but persistently. By the time the old-field pines are some forty years old, the leafy underbrush is becoming conspicuous, and it is clear to a thoughtful observer that the next generation in these woods is going to be different. At about this time, too, the growth of the pines begins to taper off, and in another twenty years or so they all but cease to grow.
When they are full grown and just before the younger hardwoods begin to crowd in on them, the pines are ripe for lumbering. Although most of their wood is knotty and by no means up to the quality of slowly grown virgin timber, still it is useful for boxes and crates and matchsticks; and when there is a market nearby, it can provide a tidy return to both landowner and lumberman.
It was between 1890 and 1925 that the great harvest of old-field pine was reaped in New England. In those years lumbering was done by clear-cutting. This is essentially a mowing operation in which everything is cut off close to the ground. Scattered among the raw stumps are ferns and a few little flowering plants. Small tree seedlings and saplings that are flexible enough to bend rather than break under a skidding log will remain, if somewhat the worse for wear. But with the overhead trees gone, the climate in which the forest survivors live is abruptly and drastically changed. The new conditions are too much for some of the forest plants, and many of them languish and die.