Every day, now that summer has arrived here in Harvard Forest, I’m struck with the false sense of having landed in the tropics: same high humidity and almost daily rainfall, the lush greenery and exuberant growth, exotic sounding birdcalls and all those monkeys…um, chipmunks running around. Walking through the woods yesterday I saw how similar a temperate and tropical rainforest look. The trees are mostly tall poles, struggling up through heavy foliage to reach the light, and here and there are bigger specimens, the ones who made it up there first and got to hog the penthouse real estate. The only thing missing is the buttress.
Plein air drawing at Rutland Brook. 8″x8″ graphite and pastel on toned Canson Mi Tientes paper.
Funny about the birds, too. One of the commonest species around the Canal Zone in Panama is the slaty antbird. You can’t go thirty steps without hearing or seeing one skulking around the understory. Northern equivalent? The gray catbird. Another ubiquitous dark gray skulker with a blackish cap and inquisitive and noisy manner. How about the frugivores? Tanagers and euphonias and manakins make a tropical living out of eating berries. So do the cedar waxwings, which are just now nesting- well after the phoebes, who have started their second clutch- and it’s timed to coordinate with the burgeoning fruit of the New England summer: blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, black cherries, and some kind of bright red fruit I’ll have to get back to you about. The hill beside Benson House is covered with blueberries as well as tiny but perfectly sweet strawberries. The waxwings have built a large messy cup nest in one of the maples next to the house and have been practicing their hovering skills over the berry patch where they drop drown to feed most merrily. And being a good primate with a sweet tooth I’ve been following their example. Another tropical evolutionary echo, perhaps. Is this why humans learned to watch birds? To learn where the food sources are?
One of the most mysterious and seductive similarities between the forests of Meso-America and northern New England is the plethora of stone ruins scattered throughout the woods, just waiting to be stumbled upon or over if you aren’t watching your step. There are cellar holes, house foundations, remains of former small industries, fallen chimneys and miles and miles of stacked stone walls winding up and down hills, across streams, everywhere. There were once a thriving people here. Where did they go? What cataclysm drove them to abandon their homes?
Stone wall at the Old French Inn, Harvard Forest. Once a waystation for drovers between Petersham and Athol, Massachusetts. Plein air drawing, 22″ x 15″, graphite and pastel on Rives BFK.
The New England landscape of Thoreau’s time was pastoral, tamed, cultivated. The old forests had almost entirely been cut and the newer forests were managed woodlots to be used as fuel and lumber. In his journals (excerpted and interpreted from an historical and ecological standpoint in a fascinating book by David Foster, Thoreau’s Country), Thoreau commented on the decline and rarity of large animals:
Is not this [the muskrat] the heaviest animal found wild in this township? (May 17, 1854)
Minott says his mother told him she had seen a deer come down the hill behind her house, where I.Moore’s now is, and cross the road and the meadow in front; thinks it may have been eighty years ago. (January 21, 1853)
And Bill Bryson describes it in A Walk in the Woods:
In 1850, New England was 70 percent open farmland and 30 percent woods. Today the proportions are exactly reversed…until the middle of the nineteenth century, farms survived in New England because they had proximity to the coastal cities like Boston and Portland…then two things happened: the invention of the McCormick reaper (which was ideally suited to the big, rolling farms of the Midwest but no good at all for the cramped, stony fields of New England) and the development of the railroads, which allowed the Midwestern farmers to get their produce to the East in a timely fashion. The New England farmers couldn’t compete, and so they became Midwestern farmers, too. By 1860, nearly half of Vermont born people- 200,000 out of 450,000- were living elsewhere.
Thoreau was well aware of the social changes going on around him, and railed against them. The California gold-rush was a contributing factor in the human migration, and Thoreau didn’t mince his words (and I, being a former Californian, am really delighted by this one):
I know of no more startling development of the morality of trade and all the modes of getting a living than the rush to California affords. The philosophy and poetry and religion of such a mankind are not worth the dust of a puffball. The hog that roots his own living, and so makes manure, would be ashamed of such company. It makes God to be a moneyed gentleman who scatters a handful of pennies in order to see mankind scramble for them. Going to California. It is only three thousand miles nearer to hell. Satan, from one of his elevations, showed mankind the kingdom of California, and they entered into a compact with him at once. (February 1, 1852)
Doyle’s Old Homestead, what’s left of it, Harvard Forest. Plein air drawing, 22″ x 20.5″, graphite and pastel on Rives BFK.
So the farms were gradually abandoned and the forest once again claimed the landscape. Deer, bear and even moose have repopulated the woods, the goshawk nests again, and the fisher thrives at densities last seen prior to the arrival of European fur traders. The ruins of the past are scattered throughout, just waiting to be discovered, silent remnants of an earlier culture. They are poignant, haunting and strikingly similar to the stone ruins deep in the abiding forests of the Yucatan.
As for antiquities, one of our old deserted country roads, marked only by the parallel fences and cellar-hole with its bricks where the last inhabitant died, the victim of intemperance, fifty years ago, with its bare and exhausted fields stretching around, suggests to me an antiquity greater and more remote from the America of the newspapers than the tombs of Etruria…This is the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. (Henry David Thoreau, February 13, 1851, Thoreau’s Country)
As I write this I am getting ready to head out the door and drive up to Maine, with a stopoff in New Hampshire to join up with Cindy House. We are off to the coast, or as they say here, Down East, for a few days of hiking, birding and sketching. See you soon!
Drawing a fine old sawmill and millstream at Moore State Park, Paxton, MA. Photo by Barry Van Dusen.