Besides the built structures, the great facts to be faced on this land are its woods, its fields and its waters. Our fundamental position is this: the forest, the fields and the hydrology of this land have been directly and indirectly transformed by human activity in countless ways over centuries. Please note that prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the native people of this particular region cleared the forest floor with fire once or twice a year to facilitate their movements and vision. The continuing impact made by climate change and invasive species make it impossible to simply withdraw our footprint from the land, a course that might seem high-minded and righteous to high-minded and righteous people. Without that option, the only mindful policy left is to take responsibility for its condition and evolution. We cannot step outside our humanity and manage this environment as nature’s or Gaia’s agent; these are only masks we might wear to hide from ourselves.
Well over half of the area of this land is in woods. The “natural” history of this forest is extremely dynamic and complex. As briefly as possible, this history can be summarized as
1. Logging a predominantly white pine and hemlock forest in the early and middle 19th century for the tannin in hemlock bark (used in curing leather) and the superb lumber of white pine.
2. Clearing what remained of perhaps 90% of the remaining forest (leaving only groves as “woodlots”, and those trees on the steepest slopes and ravines) to create a landscape of dairy and subsistence farms.
3. With the gradual and steady decline of dairy farming throughout the 20th century, allowing an unintended process of reforestation to reclaim most of the hayfields and pastures of these farms. (In fact, our Northeastern United States is said to be the most rapidly reforesting region of the world).
This new forest bears almost no resemblance to the one first encountered by the settlers, and this reforestation has been accompanied by the continuous arrival of catastrophic tree blights imported from all around the world. Elm, American chestnut, yellow birch, black birch, beech and many other species have been decimated by introduced pathogens and insects, and the complete destruction of ash and hemlock is probably inevitable in coming years. The point is, it is a mistake to think of these woods as “wild”; they are no more so than the fields that we mow.
The most important species of trees in our woods are sugar and red maples, red oak, black cherry, white ash, black birch, beech, pignut hickory, poplar, hornbeam and white pine. More isolated populations of yellow birch and basswood are found among the taller stands. On the edges of the forest are niches for stands of ironwood, black locust, black willow, serviceberry, staghorn sumac and hawthorn. A plantation of Norway spruce that was here when we arrived is now the “Old Maze”, along with a stand of larch (a deciduous conifer) planted by the last family to farm this land. We planted additional stands of larch and Norway spruce (now called the “New Maze”), as well as plantations of red and black pine.
As noted, most of the currently forested areas of these properties were pasture and hayfields well into the 50’s, with the exception of farmer’s woodlots and hillsides to steep for grazing. Fields were abandoned one by one; old stone walls running through the woods sometimes have tree stands of different ages on different sides. It is possible to see lines of higher, older trees running through woods along these old walls, since farmers tolerated and even encouraged trees along walls for shade and as landmarks. Certain types of trees are almost always the first to colonize an abandoned field: black birch, red maple, ash, and, most terribly, hawthorn, are those trees in these fields. In sun-drenched re-foresting fields and on the edges of woods, pioneer seedlings and saplings grow in maddening density creating nearly impenetrable thickets. In theory, given enough time, these saplings will sort things out themselves through Darwinian struggle, eventually selecting the largest and tallest trees that will shade-out and smother their competitors, but this process might take one or two hundred years to complete.
Our chthonic policy on the woods is largely the same as the Indian tribes that roamed and hunted these hills, although we cannot use fire to achieve similar aims. We have painstakingly removed unviably crowded and damaged seedlings and saplings by the tens of thousands from stands and edges, especially in the central part of the main property. We have also removed a great many dead trees, fallen trees and limbs from the same areas. We have received countless minor injuries from even the smallest of the hawthorn trees we cleared; their thorns can be over two inches long and are strong enough to pierce a shoe from bottom to top. The visual evidence of this decades-long effort is almost non-existent. After cutting and dragging sometimes more than 90% of the individual trees in a given area, the results are…nothing. These treated woods look completely “natural”. Woods with open floors and open edges are universally experienced as beautiful and pleasant by people. We share an affinity for them that is very deep and old, like our pleasure in watching flowing water.