Tuesday, December 8, 2015
How the woods grew back
As I've mentioned before, I think, in the 19th century most of the New England woods were cleared -- not so much for farmland or pasture, but for charcoal. Itinerant charcoal burners would pay the local landowners for the privilege of clearing a tract of land and making charcoal from the wood. The farmers would then often do a desultory job of removing the worst of the rocks and use the land for pasture, but much of it wasn't really good farmland and there wasn't that much demand for more farmland in New England back then anyway.
So the woods actually started to grow back in the 20th Century as petroleum took the place of charcoal in smelters and forges. The so-called stone walls that run through the woods today are evidence of the clearing, but they aren't really walls. They're just where the farmers dumped the rocks. Sometimes they mark an old property boundary but more often not, and there is no art to their construction, they're just piles.
Of course the new woods aren't like the old ones. For on thing there aren't any chestnuts or elms. But I suspect the large tracts of oak and pine are also less diverse than the old growth forest. What I observe is that beeches tends to fill in first on the edges of clearings, while the oaks and hemlocks fill in behind. Occasionally you'll come across a solitary giant beech in the midst of the oak forest, but at this point in my neck of the woods these are likely to be dead, remnants of the first stage of regrowth.
There are other markers of human intervention, such as the white pine plantation that runs along the road at a depth of about 200 feet. That I'm told was planted about 70 years ago, and the original plantings are starting to die. The understory is mixed with a lot of hardwood moving in, but for whatever reason the hemlocks haven't been able to get started among the pine trees.
Since the largest top predators are gone, the fauna would be different anyway. But the wildlife is still moving in. Black bears have been spreading east and south and there are now a few in Connecticut. This is just in the past few years. You'd see the occasional fox even when I was a kid, but now there are bobcats, quite a new development. Turkeys were scarce until maybe 20 years ago, now they are common. We're also seeing more fishers and smaller ferrets. Raccoons are largely nocturnal -- I only see them as roadkill, but they're here obviously, along with skunks and possums. I won't even start on the birds, voles, and snakes. So there's plenty to see. These creatures have moved in from smaller refuges; it's impossible to say how the mixture is different from what was here before.
So the situation is still evolving quickly. People feared the invasive woolly adelgid would kill off the hemlocks, but fortunately we had a couple of cold winters that set them back. If that doesn't keep happening, however, which it probably won't, they'll return.