NAA: Reading the Landscape

The old Bald Hill School site

I never miss a field trip with Robert Wesley if I can help it, and this was to a site new to me. We hoped to add some tools to understanding ecosystems by finding clues to past land use, with a smattering of biology thrown in.
Near the original schoolhouse site at the edge of Bald Hill School Rd., we saw typical evidence of a former inhabited site-myrtle and daylilies. The Acer saccarum (sugar maple) and Fraxinus americana (white ash) in the woods are 25-30 years old, but larger trees run along the road, indicating perhaps the age of the road and/or a property boundary.

Hedgerow trees along Bald Hill School Rd

Hedgerow trees along Bald Hill School Rd

Pinus strobus on right

This Pinus strobus (white pine) has wide lower branches. When the pine was first growing, it must have been open around it, as further evidenced by the young Acer rubrum (red maple) nearby. It must have once stood in a field, which still existed until fairly recently,as the forest is still young.

Following Robert Wesley

Following Robert Wesley quick

As we walked, and by walk  I mean sometimes we ran, we got quick lessons in botany and tree identification.
No one needed any help identifying the black flies, but according to Robert, they don’t bite for the first few days they appear, and sure enough, they didn’t. Like most bloodsucking and all stinging insects, only the female bites. (Hey, they need to, for the babies. And those ovipositors evolve into such handy weapons!)

Sapsucker damage on American elm

Sapsucker damage on American elm

Sapsuckers really did a job on this Ulmus americana (elm), and yes, they can kill a branch or even a whole tree by girdling it.

Oak

Oak

We also saw a rather magnificent oak (note the tiny figure standing next to it).>

Pits & mounds

Pits & mounds

We then came to an area that, though it had been logged extensively, had always been a forest. We saw the pits and mounds, typical of unplowed ground, which are caused by trees tipping over and then decaying.
On the other side of the road we saw the opposite-evidence of plowing. When a slope is plowed, the soil moves downhill at about a foot at year and raises the height at the bottom of a field.

Furrows

Furrows

Since a field on a slope was generally plowed from top to bottom each time, at either end you might see the dip of a “dead furrow” or the ridge of a  “back furrow”.

Farmland that has returned to forest is not as fertile as if it was never farmed. As it reverts, the first trees will be those who don’t have to germinate in shade, such as red maples and white pine (or if it is wet, ash or elm), depending on the seed source in the area. Later the white pine will die out and be replaced by shade tolerant species such as beech, Tsuga canadensis (hemlock) and sugar maple. Other trees species may grow where an “event” such as a blowdown, has occurred. Check the leaves on the  forest floor to  to get an idea of the relative quantity of tree types. Pastures leave behind Crataegus (hawthorne), Malus (crabapples) and Rhamnus (buckthorn), which the cattle or sheep don’t eat. Long term pasture use can level the ground almost like plowing.

Remains of a stone wall

We came across a rock wall near the road, usually evidence of “getting rid of” rather than construction, and so often evidence of a field edge.

Further along, a large patch of old fashioned Narcissus pseudonarcissus told us we were near former civilization.

Narcissus pseudonarcissus

Narcissus pseudonarcissus

Soon  we came upon the basement of an old homestead. The lower stones were dry laid, but the upper ones were cemented with concrete, which means repairs were made after its arrival in America in the late 1800’s. We also saw a seep, which might indicate a good spot for settling. Nearby stood ash and Juglans nigra (black walnut), probably planted by the former owners.

House foundation

House foundation

The lessons never stop…On the hillsides as we drove away we saw red maple in full bloom-perhaps evidence of poor soil. Hilltop soils are less fertile, because the soluble nutrients run downhill.
I look forward to applying what I’ve learned today, probably coming up with more questions than answers. The more I learn about reading the landscape, the more sense of place I feel where ever I am.

Recommended reading:
Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels

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