- 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
For others, though, the going of the pines brings a new lease on life. Young broad-leaved trees go into a rapid spurt of growth and soon make a thick coppice that consists largely of oak, maple, and beech, and, in the old days, chestnut. Any of these that were large enough to be cut in the lumbering operation sprouted vigorously from the stump. Pines, on the other hand, like all conifers, do not sprout, and a tree cut down is a tree gone forever. Moreover, any pine seedling that starts among fast-growing stump sprouts is shaded to death in its infancy. So wherever hardwoods have a firm foothold they effectively shut out any new pines, and the next generation of forest bears little resemblance to the old.
Any parts of the old forest that were not yet infiltrated by hardwoods at the time of lumbering soon became restocked with seedlings of one kind or another. If a good pine seed year follows directly after the cutting operation, and if there are enough old seed trees left in the neighborhood, the new stock may consist at least partly of pine. Chances are that there will also be plenty of birch, poplar, and cherry, whose seeds are light and easily distributed by birds or the wind. Even when outnumbered by pines, the hardwood seedlings grow so much faster in their first few years of life that they offer strenuous competition to the new generation of pine. Here things are quite different from the dense sod of an old pasture, where the pine is much less inhibited than the hardwoods by the close company of grass and weeds. As a result, the new generation of woodland is promptly dominated by broad-leaved trees, and the old-field pine goes the way of all transients.
In the thirty to sixty years since the great pine harvest, landowners have taken from the new growth whatever they could find that was useful or salable. Most often this has meant repeated clear-cutting for cordwood. The little selective logging that has gone on has removed the better trees of kinds that could be sold for saw logs, leaving the trash to develop for the future. Though sprouts from a very small, cut-off tree of a desirable species may grow into quite respectable timber, those from a large old stump never form usable logs. Moreover, the most vigorous sprouters are not the best timber trees. As a result, the “forest” cover of much of central and southern New England is now a sorry mixture of the most persistent weed trees and low-grade stump sprouts.
To the informed eye, however, this scraggly woodland reveals many clues to its past history, especially in winter, when most of the trees are bare. Chief and most eloquent are the stone walls that outline roads and fields and woodlands everywhere in New England. Proper New England walls are dry-built, not rigid with mortar, their stones kept in place only by skillful arrangement and balance. Sometimes the stones have been cut and shaped so that only the smallest chinks interrupt the flat surfaces of top and sides. But true country walls are made of rough stones just as they were carted from the field in a horse-drawn stoneboat and piled into straightforwardly functional fences, full of sheltering crannies for mice and chipmunks.
The miles upon miles of wall that the winter traveler sees from the road are the accumulation of two, even three, centuries of labor. From earliest colonial days the building and upkeep of fences was one of man’s most important private and civic duties; and considering the local situation, fence usually meant stone wall. Public records of the Colony of Connecticut show that the General Court strove mightily with the problem of proper fencing. Repeatedly it handed down regulations intended to enforce the maintenance of fences adequate to keep cattle on the property of their owner and more especially out of the neighbor’s cornfield.
In 1634, after a number of individual judgments, the court ordered that each town should forthwith “chuse fro among theselves seaven able and discreet men” to ponder and make recommendations for improving the common lands. “And whereas also, much damage hath risen not only fro the unrulynes of some kynd of Cattell but also fro the weakness & insufficiency of many fences, whereby much variance and difference hath followed, which if not prevented for the future may be very prejudiciall to the publique peace; It is therefore likewise Ordered, that the said 7 men soe chosen, or at least 5 of the, shall sett downe what fences are to be made in any Comon grownds, and after they are made to cause the same to be vewed, and to sett such fynes as they judge meet uppon any as shall neglect or not duly attend their Order therein. And when fences are made and judged sufficient by the, whatsoever damage is done by hoggs or any other cattle shall be paid by the owners of the said cattle, without any gaynesaying or reliefe…”
Even this firm dictum did not settle the matter, and later courts had to order the fence-viewers time after time to tend more conscientiously to their duties. More than a century and a half later the office of Fence Viewer was still important enough to be incorporated into the governmental machinery of new territories, such as Ohio, then being admitted to the Union.