Using Subtle Clues to Interpret Past Land Use Histories

Mary Ewell Sustainability

Our landscape is covered with various clues that can help us understand how the land was used after colonists arrived and began settling the region. Stone walls provide us with an obvious clue that some sort of farming had occurred. But was it used to keep livestock in an area or to keep them out of the area. Was it used as a pasture, hayfield, or for cultivating crops? Other subtle clues may remain to help us interpret the activities that had occurred in what is now a forest.

Most of our stone walls were built in a relatively short period of time from 1810-1840. This massive physical effort was part of what has become to be known as “sheep fever.” In 1810 when Napoleon defeated the Portuguese, 4,000 sheep were sent to New England. These weren’t just typical sheep either. These were merino sheep and their wool was supreme in quality. It was in these 30 years that most of New England was deforested for sheep pastures and hayfields.

By 1840, there were an estimated 4 million sheep in New England, representing the height of land clearing. However, by the mid-1800s farmland abandonment was beginning as lands in the Midwest were becoming open for agriculture and people were moving to cities and larger towns for work. Cotton was becoming more popular as well.

As farmlands were being abandoned our forests began to colonize what once were pastures, hayfields, and cultivated lands. Now our region is over 80% forested. However, there are many clues that help to tell us a story of what types of past land use had occurred. We can determine the natural and human disturbances that have helped to shape our current forests.

I teach a graduate-level class at Antioch University that is largely based on Tom Wessels “Reading the Forested Landscape.” In this class, students learn about forest community ecology and how to interpret past land use and disturbance histories by examining various clues in the forest. One of our field trips includes Goose Pond in Keene where our class practices the skill of reading the forested landscape. These skills help us to uncover a treasure chest of information that dates back to about 200 years ago when the land was being cleared for farming.

We examine areas that were used as sheep pastures in the early to mid 1800s and later probably converted to cattle or horse pastures. We are also able to date the approximate time the pasture was abandoned, which eventually became an old-field white pine forest. We can find signs from the Hurricane of 1938 that hit Keene on September 21, 1938, and some of these trees were part of a salvage logging operation that took place right after the storm. We can even find sign of the Great September Gale of 1815.

The eye of this hurricane passed over the summit of Mt. Monadnock, leveling the once forested summit. We can locate an area that was used for cultivation as evidenced
by the very smooth ground and small piles of stones that were unearthed from repeated plowing. We are also able to age various logging events based on decay rates of stumps and aging multiple-trunked hardwood trees.

All of this information tells us some of the history that the land and forests of Goose Pond has seen over the past 2 centuries. Understanding and recording this history is a vital part of our cultural heritage. It tells us how our lands were once used and how disturbances such as storms, fire, and logging play a critical role in forest ecology. While stonewalls will still be present in another 200 years many of the clues from our trees may be absent due to decay or logging. Thus only part of the history can be interpreted unless we learn how to read the forested landscape.

For those of you who are interested in becoming forest detectives I highly recommend “Reading the Forested Landscape,” as well as Wessels recently published “Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape” which is a pictorial accompaniment to the previous book. Also, to get a sense of land use history you can visit the Fisher Museum at Harvard Forest in Petersham, MA.

Jeffry N. Littleton is the principal ecologist for Moosewood Ecological LLC located in Chesterfield, NH. He assists clients with diverse services for conservation and land management planning, as well as landscape design and installation. He is also a member of MICAS/The Monadnock Sustainability Network, a 501c3 whose mission is to encourage sustainable living practices and resource conservation in the region.