How to 'read' a forest
3rd February, 2009
For most of us a walk in a forest goes by in a kind of green blur, but as Tom Wessels reveals, knowing what you are looking at can unravel complex stories etched into our forested landscape, fostering a sense of place that promotes future stewardship
As a terrestrial ecologist, I am something of a generalist. My interests lie in forest, desert, and alpine ecosystems, yet people who know of my work would most likely say that reading the landscape is my speciality.
With careful observation it is possible to separate former pastures from crop fields, from hay fields and wood lots. It can be inferred if trees have been blown down by a storm and the type of storm responsible. Fire and logging leave clear evidence of their former presence. Plus all of these events can be roughly dated solely from the visible evidence left on site. All these features offer wonderful evidence for unravelling detailed forest histories if one knows how to interpret them.
Being able to understand what a landscape is telling you, is important when trying to reconstruct the history of a place, to pin down an archeological or cultural story. But it can also be an engaging mystery-solving activity – one that can help forge a much stronger connection to a place.
I often find that when I am walking through the woods I am in dialogue with the forest. As I walk, I encounter an abrupt change in canopy composition or structure. I immediately ask why and start gleaning the site for evidence. When I find evidence that either supports or rejects my original hypothesis, the forest is answering my question.
It was in this capacity during the spring of 2006, that I was asked to help interpret the agricultural history of a now wooded parcel of land in the Green Mountain National Forest of Vermont in the United States. I was a member of a seven person archeological team that was trying to puzzle out some very unusual stonework found on the site.
Piecing together the jigsaw
I had been told by the archeologists before getting there that this stonework consisted of dozens of large, flat-topped – for lack of a better word – ‘cairns’ that seemed to have no logical purpose unless they were in some way related to the site’s past agricultural use. Since the stonework was unique and on federal lands, the decision had been made not to disturb the area with a standard dig. Had a standard dig revealed an intact soil profile under a cairn, it would prove they predated the cultivation of the site and would have to be assumed to be of Native American origin. Without digging them up there was no way to tell if the cairns were related to the site’s past agricultural use and I would need instead to infer the site’s history solely from visible evidence.
To the uninitiated, a walk in a forest can be like travelling through another dimension – a beautiful background that engages us by its presence. In a way, the experience is similar to meeting someone we’re attracted to. We are drawn to that person but have no intimate connection to them.
Reading a forested landscape allows us to develop a deep level of intimacy with our place. Just as we need to know their history, and what experiences have moulded those we love in order to build deeper relationships, so it is with the places we inhabit. Once we come to understand the history of our landscape, the forces that have shaped it through time, the fascinating stories it has to tell if we only know how to see them, the stronger and deeper our connection will grow.
This deepening relationship can bring us to a point where we no longer have the false sense that we are somehow apart from the landscape. We start to see that truly we are a part of it.
Evidence suggests that our species, modern Homo sapiens, has been on this planet for at least 150,000 years. For more than 95 per cent of that time, all generations of people existed in hunting-gathering cultures.
Critical to a fulfilled experience of life for people in those cultures were intimate connections to their community, intimate connections to their place, traditions that further linked a people to its place through stories, rituals, and festivals, and finally ample time for reflective practice provided through the arts, contemplation, even prayer that allowed knowledge to be converted into understanding, and eventually wisdom.
Knowledge and understanding are often used interchangeably, yet they are very different. Knowledge is having mastery of factual information, the stuff that we test for in objective exams. It is strictly a mental phenomenon. Understanding, however, is being able to comprehend the implications of knowledge. It involves not just the mind, but also the body and emotions. It can be pictured as the aha! moment of a light bulb going on over someone’s head in a cartoon.
Looking closely at the character in the cartoon, you would notice that they have a smile on their face, that their eyes have widened, and that their chest is inflated. Understanding can also occur at deeper levels such as epiphany or revelation.
Reading the forested landscape can help forge an understanding of place. It can generate those aha! experiences that open our eyes and bring us in. I can’t comprehend the depth of the connection that hunting-gathering peoples had with their landscapes, but I do know that through reading forests, I continue to deepen mine.
I believe we are hard-wired to need these kinds of connections in order to have a rich and full experience of life. Yet as our human culture has evolved, we have witnessed a continued erosion of strong connections to community, place, and ourselves through reduced time for reflective practice. In the United States, the average individual changes addresses every 3.6 years. How is it possible to make meaningful connections to community or place when people move so frequently?
With the expanding digital age, we are exposed to ever more information with ever less time to process it and to develop understanding – a trend that I believe is not good for personal well-being. Whereas too much unprocessed knowledge can be deadening, understanding always generates a fulfilling experience. Developing understanding is why we like to learn. We need to find ways to re-forge our connections to the land. Reading the forested landscape is one way to begin to reclaim a strong and vibrant connection to place.
Tom Wessels is a terrestrial ecologist and a professor at the Dept of Environmental Studies, Antioch University, New England. He is the author of three books and is an active environmentalist.
Watching the detective: forest forensics in action
We walked around the Forest Service gate to a woods road that cut across the slope. I started to examine the ground on both sides of the road. Whenever I am working to interpret a forest’s past agricultural history in New England, I always start by looking at the ground. I am not looking at the vegetative cover or the nature of the forest litter, just simply the micro-topography of the ground itself. As I looked uphill from the road, I could see large pits and mounds, or what I prefer to call pillows and cradles. These features told me that live trees had been toppled there in the past by either wind or snow and ice loading.
When a live tree falls in a forest, its roots rip out of the ground excavating a pit, or cradle. The roots, now sticking up into the air, hold the earth removed from the cradle. Through time, as the roots decay, the excavated earth is dropped as a mound or pillow. Once formed, the live roots of surrounding trees invade the pillow and cradle stabilising them. Large pillows and cradles in New England can be visible almost a millennium after a tree-topples. Since the pillows and cradles on this side of the road were quite large and didn’t appear to be worn down by the hooves of livestock, I began to think that this area had always been forested and never opened for any agricultural use.
As we proceeded on the woods road, the ground down-slope, where the cairns were, quickly changed. Although sloping moderately, the ground on this side was smooth and even – a clear sign that this area had been ploughed in the past, removing its pillows and cradles. Since there was no stone or wire fencing along the once ploughed side of the road, I had evidence to confirm that the uphill side was always forested and not pastured.
In New England, land was ploughed for two reasons, either to create hay fields or crop fields. In the case of a hay field, it would need to be ploughed – to remove the pillows and cradles that would get in the way of working a scythe – and then seeded. Hay fields were generally ploughed just a few times. Crop fields however were ploughed every year before planting. As I wandered down into the ploughed area, I started moving across the slope to see if I would come to a stone wall, knowing that a wall would hold the evidence to confirm if the site was originally a hay field or crop field.
From deep inside the earth
Most of this region is covered in glacial till – a jumble of material from fist-sized particles all the way up to large boulders. In soils that support perennial plants, the roots of trees, shrubs, even grasses stitch everything in the soil together as a unit so when the ground freezes and expands in the winter and then thaws and settles in the spring, rocks remain fixed in place. However, in cultivated sites that lack perennial roots, rocks can be moved up and out as the soil begins to thaw.
Most people don’t know that when the spring thaw begins, it moves from the bottom up, not from the top down. Below the frost zone the ground temperature is 50º F all year round, creating a large reservoir of heat. As the winter abates and the cold can’t get as far into the ground, the thaw moves upward collapsing the pocket where the rock originally resided. When the thaw reaches and releases the rock, it can’t return to its original position. In this way, rocks are slowly ferried to the surface through repeated freeze and thaw cycles. When a rock, even the size of a fist, surfaces, it will be removed from the crop field to ease working the soil. Rocks don’t surface in hay fields or woodlands because the roots lock them into place.
Eventually I did come to a wall. It was about two meters wide with large rocks framing it outside and small rocks filling the inside. Stonewalls built solely around hay fields in New England are generally not very wide and constructed with only large rocks. The wall in front of me was clear evidence that annual ploughing had occurred here.
Having figured out that the area holding the cairns had once been a crop field, I was ready to examine the stone structures themselves to see if they meshed with the site’s cultivated past. I turned from the wall back toward the centre of the site where I encountered a cluster of cairns. I was struck by their size and the quality of stonework.
The largest ones measured about seven by 10 meters in width and length. The external walls were carefully built and then filled with rock inside to create structures that had horizontal flat tops. The down-slope walls of the cairns were sometimes close to three metres high with the top-slope walls being built to a height of one to two meters. Because of the cairns in this once cultivated site, the sheer amount of rock that they held, plus the nature of their construction made me think that they weren’t related to the parcel’s past cultivation.
The amount of rock in the cairns and the surrounding walls, however, was far beyond the volume I had ever seen in a New England crop field of this size, suggesting that much of it may have been imported. The construction of the cairns also made little utilitarian sense. I could imagine that if a crop field generated a large amount of rock that cairns like these might be made to hold those stones, but their top-slope walls would have made getting rid of all that rock much more labour intensive than just dumping it into an expanding cairn.
In this case, reading the forested landscape answered some questions about its history, but also raised a few more. Why were they built? Are they burial mounds? Do they have calendar significance such as the standing stones at Stonehenge? Do they have ritualistic significance? As yet, we don’t know.
A walk in the forest...
// Find forests and woods to walk in near you on The Forestry Commission website which has details of walks and trails, how to get there, the grade and length of
the trail and what to look out for such as ancient monuments and hill farm ruins.
// The Woodland Trust cares for more than 1,000 woods. Access is free; membership includes a directory of their woods
// Some of Britain’s most beautiful locations including forests, woods and nature reserves are managed by the The National Trust. They have a ‘Great Walking’ section on their website
// Experience the diverse landscapes of the UK by visiting a National Park – there are 9 in England, 3 in Wales and 2 in Scotland
// Join The Ramblers Association who have around 500 groups in England, Scotland and Wales, organised into around 50 areas.
// Buy ordnance survey maps online
This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2009