Exploring The Last Green Valley: Reading the forested landscape

Exploring The Last Green Valley: Reading the forested landscape

The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor is more than 1,000 square miles with 707,000 acres of land.

Our region is 77 percent undeveloped land with 67.1 percent forested land including 12.3 percent coniferous forest (pine and hemlock trees, etc.), 49.9 percent deciduous forest (oak, maple, hickory, etc.) and 4.9 percent forested wetlands.

To walk, hike or experience the outdoors in The Last Green Valley is usually to take a walk in the woods.

Have you ever walked a woods trail and wondered why the forested landscape looks the way it does? Have you wondered about the history of a particular patch of woods that is now filled with trees? Have you ever stopped to examine a stone wall and wondered how it got there and why?

Last year I purchased two books that are perfect for understanding the forested landscape. One helps to explain what you may encounter in a New England forest and the second is a handy guidebook to take with you as you explore the woods and forests of the region.

Both books are written by Tom Wessels, ecologist and director of the environmental biology program at Antioch New England Graduate School.

I purchased them through the Northern Woodlands website and suggest both if you’re looking to understand the woods and forests that surround us. Both will help you experience the outdoors with new eyes.

“Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England,” and the follow-up “Forest Forensics: a Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape,” are well-written with illustrations and photographs.

They clearly describe exactly what you are seeing in the woods, and interpret what happened over the past 100-plus years that made the forest appear the way it does today.

Prior to reading Wessels’ books, my woods walks tended to be jaunty outings on trails that wind through our region’s state forests and parks and private land trust properties.

Now, my walks are slower and I take the time to look and focus more on what I am seeing on the landscape. I’ll step off the trail and into deeper woods to examine features previously unseen by uninformed eyes.

Now, I don’t just look at the trees, but beyond and through the trees into the forest to take in the whole landscape and topography. I am more aware of what the forest is telling me and I look for the evidence that tells the story of that particular plot of land.

Wessels’ books helped me to understand the five most common forms of forest disturbance, including agricultural abandonment, logging, blowdowns, fire and ice and snow breakage. With his helpful guide, illustrations and pictures, the past comes to life and a newfound appreciation for the forest emerges.

One hundred and fifty years ago, our region was predominately cleared land with acres of pasture, hay and crop fields in regular rotation for raising livestock. By 1850, Connecticut and Massachusetts were 70 percent cleared land.

Today, both states are approximately 60 percent forested land. With farm abandonment, the forest grew back and bore witness to one of the greatest ecological success stories in the country. A walk in the woods today is to find traces of our agricultural past, but you need to look closely for the clues.

Throughout New England, stone walls are pretty much everywhere. To drive along our older, smaller roads is to see stone walls bordering the roads and marking land boundaries.

We have stone walls that line our road in Putnam that are typical of our southern New England and northeast Connecticut region. They are made mostly of flat stones and some sections have huge flat capstones of three feet or more in length.

Closer examination will help you understand what the walls were for – was it a boundary wall, was it built to hold livestock within a pasture, or did it bound a plowed field used for raising crops such as corn?

According to my handy Wessels’ guide, if you find a stone wall in the woods with higher soil levels on one side, then that side was once a plowed field and the soil along the wall was pushed up from the process of annual plowing.

We have such a wall on our property in Putnam. Our back pasture has a long stone wall that serves as the boundary between our property and our neighbor’s.

Our pasture was once a plowed field used for growing corn and has soil about halfway to the top of the wall. Our neighbor’s side of the wall was never plowed and doesn’t have any soil built up on their side of the wall.

Have you ever walked in the woods and suddenly come upon a huge tree that seems out of place? Perhaps it is a pine tree three to four feet in diameter with wide open branches reaching out horizontally into the forest.

Such a tree was once the sole occupant of pasture land used for raising livestock. With no competition for sunlight, it grew out and up with a huge canopy of leaves. After the pasture was abandoned, other trees grew in, first birch then pine and eventually oaks and maples. Today that old field tree stands as a silent reminder of its former role as a shade tree to cows, horses and perhaps sheep.

In the woods of my grandfather’s old farm in New Hampshire, I have found sections of a low stone wall topped with remnants of barbed wire fencing.

Wire fencing came in during the mid-19th century and in some cases was used to add height to the top of older pasture stone walls.

If you find barbed wire, it was for horses and cattle, but if you find smooth mesh wire, then you’ll know the former pasture was used for raising sheep. Barbed wire can easily catch on the soft wool fleece of the sheep, damaging the quality of the wool and rendering it less valuable for sale.

Wind events will have a great effect on the appearance of a woodlot and forest. The hurricane of 1938 had a devastating impact on trees throughout central New England with massive blowdowns that also impacted the wood products industry.

The house where I grew up in Massachusetts was surrounded by old oak trees. On our property were three or four oaks that were leaning way over to one side though they were still alive and growing.

I called them walking trees because I could actually walk up the trunks for 20 feet or more. They were all leaning in the same direction due to the swirling winds from the hurricane of 1938.

Wessel describes one of the most common effects of wind on trees and the creation of what he calls pillows.

“When live trees are toppled by snow or ice loading, their roots rip out of the ground, excavating a pit or cradle. As the tipped up roots decay, they drop the earth they excavated, creating a mound or pillow adjacent to the cradle.”

I have encountered pillows and mounds throughout the region’s woods. The appearance of the mound will depend on how long ago the tree was uprooted. Evidence of the remains of an uprooted tree from decades past will appear only as a slight mound on the landscape almost indiscernible to the untrained eye. A more recently uprooted tree, however, is clearly visible with earth and rocks intertwined in the exposed tree roots.

To walk the forests and woodlands of The Last Green Valley is to discover a living, breathing and ever-changing land. The history of our region can be discovered not only in books and the human record of the past, but also in the visible biological evidence found on the ground. The history is there to learn if you take the time to read the forested landscape.

You can find Wessel’s books and other excellent books on forests and woodlands by going to the Northern Woodlands website, northernwoodlands.org, and clicking on the shop tab and then books tab.

We live in a beautiful part of New England. I hope you’ll find the time to explore our woodlands and come to appreciate what we have here in The Last Green Valley. Join me and together let us care for it, share it and pass it on.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.