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The Woods Around Us

July 2024
19min read

For those with the eyes to read them, New England’s forests, pastures, and stout stone walls reveal cycles of rural life

Tradition has it that the first European settlers in America had to chop their way into a solid wall of impenetrable forest that reached from the high-tide line of the Atlantic Ocean to the edge of the prairie in Illinois. But tradition has been so strongly influenced by the heroic labors of the pioneer axeman farther west that we have forgotten what primeval New England was really like.

Long before the days of colonization, travelers and explorers cruising along the coast found that the forest was interrupted in many places by vast tracts of open land. Sometimes there were large trees, commonly oaks, “without underwood, and not standing so close but that they may anywhere be rode through.” In 1524 Verrazano, traveling inland from Narragansett Bay, reported “open plains twenty-five or thirty leagues in extent, entirely free from trees or other hindrances.” In other places the forest was honeycombed with large cleared fields where the Indians cultivated their corn and beans. Almost without exception the earliest witnesses remarked upon the large treeless areas they saw everywhere from the Saco River in Maine southward beyond the Hudson and even far up the river valleys into what we know as central New York State.

All the Indians of the northeast were part of the great Algonkian relationship. Those near the coast were to some extent hunters and fishermen, but the staple of their living came from agriculture. These tribes lived in more or less permanent villages of dome-topped wigwams with a wooden framework covered with bark or skin. Around each village lay the cornfields, cleared by the men with fire and stone axe, cultivated by the women with hoes of bone or shell, and fertilized with the well-known fish that was laid in each hill at planting time. Primitive as the operation was, the fields produced large quantities of corn of many kinds, as well as beans, squash, and various other crops. Judging from the early accounts, the amount of land under cultivation must have been truly impressive. William Wood, for example, in an early piece of promotional literature published in 1634 and called New England’s Prospect , described one Indian cornfield alter another in specifically named places all along the coast.

Because the same field was cultivated for several years running, the fertility of the soil eventually declined and the crop yield began to fall off. When that happened, new land was cleared and the old abandoned, to grow up in time to brush and trees. Trees were also cut lavishly for fuel, and the woods were in constant retreat around each village as long as it remained in one place.

Beyond the cultivated lands the forests were repeatedly burned. Many early voyagers spoke of the number of fires they saw all along the eastern coast and at the same time commented on the open, brushless nature of the forest. Students of vegetation do not agree as to whether it was fire that kept out the underbrush or whether the forest burned readily because it was naturally dry and open for reasons of climate and soil. We do know that the Indians deliberately set fires in order to improve the growth of grass in early spring for the benefit of game animals and to clear out the underbrush and so make their hunting generally easier. Probably most of these were small ground fires that did relatively little harm to large, thick-barked trees. But even a fast-running grass fire will kill the small seedlings on which the perpetuation of a forest depends; and as the older trees succumbed to blight or tempest, the forest became more and more open until it resembled a park-like plantation. Early observers also recorded that wet, swampy land, where fires could not easily penetrate, was commonly covered with a dense, thickety growth. So it seems likely that the openness of the woods was at least in part the doing of the Indians.

When the Pilgrim Fathers at last dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor, the prospect of the bare December woods must have made many a heart secretly sink. One may wonder if the Pilgrims could have survived even as well as they did if, in their weakened, halfstarved condition, they had had to make a clearing in the forest before they could put in their first crop the next spring. Fortunately the kind Providence in which they so fervently believed had led them to the site of an abandoned Indian village. Only three or four years earlier the original inhabitants of the place had been virtually wiped out by a plague of smallpox. So it turned out that the Pilgrims found land already cleared for them, as well as a hidden store of unused’ grain that carried them through that first grim winter. Then in the spring Squanto, the Indian who was to become their fast friend and helper, appeared from the woods to begin their initiation into the uses of Indian corn.

In the first years at Plymouth there was little occasion for any undertaking beyond securing the necessities of life. But soon more venturesome scouting parties penetrated farther inland. When the first explorers returned from the north, they told with awe of the dense, dark forests of the interior. There were no sunny fields there where women chattered at their work; only an occasional band of hunters, passing along narrow woodland trails, broke the deep stillness.

Once the first settlements were chipped out of the edge of the wilderness, immigrants arrived in increasing numbers. In many cases entire communities came directly from England to start a new life together in the New World. Then, as immigration and natural increase brought crowding in the first tight little communities, groups began to split off and settle in new places.

Naturally the most fertile and accessible regions filled up first. By 1700 there were 80,`0 people living in the low-lying areas along the coast and up the great central valley of Connecticut and Massachusetts as far as Northfield. By 1776 Thomas Pownall could write that the land between New Haven and Hartford was “a rich, well cultivated Vale thickly settled & swarming with people. … It is as though you were still traveling along one continued town for 70 or 80 miles on end.”

As time went on, the flood tide of settlement moved westward and northward, creeping up out of the broad valleys and into the more rigorous hills. Litchfield, in the upland of western Connecticut, was founded in 1719. Petersham in central Massachusetts was settled between 1733 and 1750; Grafton County, New Hampshire, between 1760 and 1772. By 1780 the farthest frontier stood in central Maine and Vermont.

The years between 1830 and 1860 were the heyday of New England agriculture. Probably every American’s response to the idea of living in the country is colored by the image of the family-sized New England farm of those days. The farm was as nearly as possible a self-contained economic unit, with useful work for everyone, however large the family might grow. The littlest ones could hold the skein of yarn to be wound for grandmother’s knitting or set out milk for the cats, who in turn earned their keep as mousers. A boy was needed for man’s work as soon as his muscles were strong enough. And a woman’s life was filled with the routine but tangibly constructive work of sewing and cooking and the eternal details of keeping a family clean and comfortable.

Pleasures were simple and homemade. It the household needed outside distractions, there were plenty of neighbors within gathering distance for barn-raisings or quilting parties. Odell Shepard, writing about Connecticut, said, “In early days our people could see the lights in one another’s windows and could communicate by shouting from farm to farm. An old man has told me that in his youth it was possible to arrange a barn dance among a dozen of his neighbors without any man’s stirring from his front door. … Another old man has told, me of the time, far back, when he, sitting under his elm tree on a Sunday afternoon, could see seven or eight friends of his sitting in front of their several houses and under their own elms.” For the most sobersided there was always Sunday church meeting and the excitement of occasional camp-meeting revivals.

We have an outsider’s picture of the times from Harriet Martineau, an English “authoress” who traveled widely in America in 1834–36 and wrote a charming and lively account of what she saw and what she thought about it. One of the houses where she visited stood on a hilltop in Stockbridge, a handsome old town in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. From her host’s doorway she could see everything that went on in the busy village, since, apart from the forest-covered mountains, the entire landscape consisted of lush green fields, broken only by the road and the Housatonic River. She also visited Gloucester and thought that “the place has the air of prosperity that gladdens the eye wherever it turns, in New England”; and she saw what Karl Marx never realized, that “as a mere matter of convenience, it is shorter and easier to obtain property by enterprise and labour in the United States, than by pulling down the wealthy.”

Although the first aim of a farm in those days was to provide the family’s material needs, a cash crop of some sort was needed on even the meagerest place to provide for a few necessities such as iron tools and salt; and many of life’s amenities were available for the buying. Most of the scant plowable land was needed for subsistence crops, but there was plenty of steep and stony land that made satisfactory grazing for cattle as soon as it was cleared of trees. Over the years, consequently, more and more cattle were raised for a market crop, and an increasing proportion of farmland was devoted to hay and pasture.

Even in the midst of this happy summer season, and before the frontier tide had reached the northern limits of the country, the ebb had begun almost unnoticed from the earlier settled regions. It was the little towns in the hills that slipped first. It took only a generation or two of life on a high, remote farm, where summers are short and winters long and bitter, and where the sheep need sharp noses to graze between the rocks, to send a farmer off looking for a more promising place. There is the case of the Connecticut hill town of Hartland, scarcely twenty miles from Hartford. The population of Hartland Township has shown a decrease in every federal census since the first one in 1790. The condition soon spread; and by 1820 many towns in rural areas of southern Vermont and New Hampshire had begun to lose population.

For a long time the trend of the migration was northward into the still-empty parts of upper New England. Gradually, however, an even stronger tide to the west set in as the front line of advancing settlement poured out onto the fertile, level lands beyond the Alleghenies. The floodgates to the Midwest really swung wide with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the beginning of steam navigation on the Great Lakes in the 1830’s.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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