The Ghosts in the Forest

A single-boulder quarry sits alone in the Petersham woods; it represents the cutting edge of stone-splitting technology, circa 1830 or so.

Overgrown and hidden deep in the New England woods-housing chipmunks and foxes- are root-tangled foundations, stacked-stone walls, and single-boulder quarries. The New England woods are full of ruins- relics of a people long gone by; a haunting and lovely sight. The trees growing up and through them are visual metaphors for transformation.

The foundation of Doyle's homestead, an abandoned farm site in Harvard Forest. Who was Doyle, and where did he go?

The idea for an art/ecology/archaeology/history project began to germinate back in 2008; that’s when Ant Man Mike had his own Bullard Fellowship and spent 6 months in Harvard Forest running experiments.  With sketchbooks and sketching supplies in hand I tagged along. You can see some of that artwork here. It was a glorious time of drawing birds, plants, charismatic waterfalls… and the mysterious ruins in the forest that caught my eye and fired my imagination. I had to come back and snoop around, dig up stories and make a lot of drawings. The Bullard Fellowship, which is awarded by Harvard University, as a rule is given to scientists and academics. Undaunted, I applied.

One of the stacked-stone walls running through the forest, up hills and down into valleys for miles and miles. They once bounded pastures and croplands and now give shelter to critters that enjoy living in the new forest.

Last year about this time I got word that the proposal had been accepted-  I am honored to be the first artist to receive the Charles Bullard Fellowship. The next eight month will be spent drawing and studying the forests of New England and the archaeological sites of the early settlers who broke ground and made their living from it. How did they change the landscape, and why did they ultimately abandon it?  How did the cleared, tidy and tamed land that once characterized New England, in the span of just over a century, grow back its forest to a nearly pre-settlement levels? How quickly the wildlife returned to roam through old fields and pastures, now grown up in hemlock and hardwoods. After man, nature prevails; it has the power to regenerate, given enough time and sufficient neglect. That’s a message of purest hope.

Doyle's land is blessed by a clear running stream with a series of cascades and pools; I followed a stone wall downhill to find this scene tucked down deep in the woods.

I’m going back to Harvard Forest, in Petersham, Massachusetts to tell ghost stories-tell them through the lens of an artist, by way of drawings and paintings. Using Harvard and Harvard Forest’s archives- and they do have a great collection of farm ledgers, diaries and old photos- I’ll dig up names and life stories (I guess I’m thinking of Doyle here-he certainly caught my eye), adding a sharper focus to the portrait I’ll be drawing- a portrait of the New England forest as it reclaims the artifacts of the past.

18 thoughts on “The Ghosts in the Forest

  1. Judy Warner says:

    Very exciting news for you. I live not far from Petersham, our woods too are filled with relics. Your drawings are so interesting and inspiring–

    Would you ever do a sketching workshop? I’d love to join it—Judy

  2. Marissa says:

    Exciting! I’m a bit jealous, I went to school for a bit in western Mass and have wanted to go back ever since. It has such wonderful and old history, I can’t wait to see what you make.

  3. Cris says:

    What a terrific project for you! I first found your work as I prepared for last winter’s trip to Panama, and I printed a few of your glorious drawings to paste into my journal for inspiration. Can’t wait to see what you do next!

  4. Paula says:

    Debbie—Found my way here through Murr’s blog, actually through her tee-shirt project. Very nice work! I’ve been to Panama, have a few roots in OK but live not far from Petersham, of all places. If you’d like to meet for coffee sometime on the other side of the Quabbin, let me know. Maybe I can help you find your way around the area, or point you in the direction of other natural beauty in the region. You’re in good company, western Mass is teaming with artists and writers. Welcome and best wishes!

  5. Laura J says:

    You might want to get in touch with Dick Boisvert and Edna Feighner at the NHDHR. // (add http) They are friendly and helpful. And I have a lovely foundation with a splendid stone drain on the wooded esker behind my house. If you don’t mind cats (unsmelly, socially acceptable, I-am-not-a-hoarder cats) you are welcome to spend some time in my spare room. Email me and I’ll send you my Google map coordinates.

  6. zeladoniac says:

    Wow, you folks are an awesome resource! I’ll be in very good company out there. Thanks for the notes.

    Judy, it’s very likely I will teach a sketching workshop sometime this summer; it would be great to have you in it. I’ll announce the schedule here when it gets nailed down.

  7. Pam says:

    I’m interested in a sketching workshop as well. I was a late arrival to the plant workshop you were at with Barry at Wachusett Meadow a few years ago and missed your wonderful exercises and instruction. Would love to get another chance — your work is inspiring.

  8. Kathiesbirds says:

    Debby, How marvelous! I finally made it here to see the paintings. Having grown up in the New England woods, these types of scenes are quite familiar to me and have shaped who I am. How I used to love to play Indians in the forest. We made Tee Pees and wigwams from the bushes and downed limbs. I climbed vines and drank from the streams (Not advisable nowadays). I was a wild thing there myself and longed to live in the woods always. I think you have captured that wild mystery well with your drawings and paintings. I can’t wait to see more!

  9. Kathiesbirds says:

    P.S. After visiting here the other day I thought about your paintings alot. In the middle of the night a poem came to me and I sat up in bed, turned on the light and wrote it down. I hope you don’t mind but I titled it “Ghosts in the Forest” because it is inspired by these paintings. It is posted over at Kathie’s Poet Tree blog if you want to read it!

  10. Nicky says:

    Hi there, I came across your blog searching for info on Petersham as my husband has also just been awarded a Bullard. We arrive with 2 young boys at the end of this year, but you will probably be long gone by then.
    In any case I’ll read your blog with interest as we are looking forward to exploring the forest for ourselves! You certainly make it all look very magical.

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