White-throated sparrows are singing in cold, blustery Petersham. Back in Oklahoma that would have announced the onset of winter. Here in the north it ostensibly heralds spring, which at this point is a mere promise; I’m still dressed in down and wool. As oaks, maples and birches groan and wave their bare branches in the freezing wind and crows fly backwards, I peer through streaming eyes and try to sketch with my pencil wrapped in a stiff bunch of somebody else’s fingers. That’s when I remind myself: I signed up for this. And I wouldn’t have it any other way, except maybe a few degrees warmer.
My time here in Harvard Forest is turning into a delightful cram course in history, archaeology, and ecology (with side trips into ornithology and local cuisine). My project as outlined in my Bullard fellowship is thus: to study New England landscapes and historical sites being reclaimed by the forest, to dig into farm ledgers, letters, and other material and give names and stories to the ruins, and by blending and mixing together all this great material, to draw a unique portrait of the forest and its cultural and environmental heritage. And I could add, to dress warmly and boldly go..
My project is going gangbusters, and with the indispensable help of Harvard Forest archives (and archivists) and the awesome, knowledgeable members of the Petersham Historical Society, I’ve been gifted with reams of detailed history and personally guided to haunting and likely haunted ruins deep in the forest. And, boy, are there ever a slew of stories to share: drama, commerce, humor, and tragedy are written in stone around here. More to come as these stories unfold.
Along with the human stories, I’m learning ecological ones, especially those concerning trees: the ephemeral nature of contorted oaks on Martha’s Vineyard; the fresh minty scent of black birches (scrape a twig and sniff), the peculiar concept of Beech Hell, the living ghosts of American chestnut, and the sweet gifts of Acer saccharum. Just a reminder on this 2011 Earth Day: you can’t have a forest without the trees. Go eat a waffle, dress warm, and boldly go up to your nearest tree and give it a great big hug.