- 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 generations wall-building went on as fields were cleared of rocks and trees, until most of New England became laced over with a finemeshed network of stone. Though the walls often run with no discernible meaning through the woods today, they mark off what once were open fields and lanes or show the course of the local road before it was leveled and straightened to suit the demands of traffic moving so much faster than the horse or the ox. Many a roadside picnic area makes use of a nook left by a roundedoff curve or a relocated bridge, and one of its charms may be the wall that still separates private field from public way.
In this land the trees, too, record details of local history. The ordered row of wide-spreading maples edging the woods by the roadside once graced the front of a house that may have fallen before that horror, fire in the country. That ancient oak with its low, heavy boughs forming a crown as wide as it is high clearly lived its formative years in the open, without the jostle of slim young things that now crowd around its knees. Long ago it was left in the open pasture to provide shade and shelter for the animals, and it had grown to stately size when the farmer gave up the struggle and the brush crept in. The tall red cedars now deep in the woods certainly started in an open, grassy place a long time ago when there were no fastgrowing, broad-leaved trees nearby to overtop them and shade them to death.
Many patches of woods have no ancient giants among the smaller trees. But look at the way the trunks grow from the ground. Nearly all of them stand in bouquet-like clusters. Perhaps you can find the remains of the stump in the center from which the present trees sprouted when the wood lot was clear-cut between fifteen and forty years ago. The parent woods, too, may have originated as coppice or sproutwood that grew up after an earlier woodland was cut for charcoal and posts and cordwood; and the present trees may be as much as the fourth or fifth generation of sprouts from the original forest.
Fires and grazing, too, leave their marks on the land. Where a poor sort of pasture is being invaded by trees, there is an abundance of red cedar. Cattle eat the seedlings of broad-leaved trees as fast as they appear but leave the prickly cedars strictly alone. Fire, on the other hand, kills red cedar but encourages the increase of the fast-growing black cherry, which only sprouts more vigorously from every root and stump when its above-ground parts are destroyed. Aspen and the little, gray old-field birch will seed in on bare soil when an old cultivated field is abandoned or when a hot fire sweeps through a dry woodland, burning off the protective humus mat from the ground.
Of course not all the land once cleared for farming has been abandoned to grow up to forest. New England agriculture has not dried up but rather has taken other channels. Recent decades have brought a shift to the production of specialized, high-value crops such as tobacco, cranberries, and maple syrup; and the countless part-time farmers who keep a few dairy cows or a flock of laying hens contribute a substantial share of the total agricultural output of the region.
Under the term “rural non-farm population” the federal census lists other thousands of happy people who are enjoying country scenes with the comfort of city incomes and whose “farm,” as they will call it, may consist of little more than a few decrepit but delectable apple trees and a few acres of grassy field that are mowed more to keep the brush down than for the sake of the few wisps of hay they may yield. The houses that time passed by and the villages where nothing much has happened for a hundred years may bespeak a functionally decadent landscape; but they please our eye and give us a sense of having roots. And today’s non-farmers can look with joy on the wooded hills that so discouraged their great-grandfathers, the spiritual if not the literal ancestors of us all.