Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, by Tom Wessels

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Tom Wessels’ book helps me understand what I’m looking at when I examine the woods that come almost up to my porch. Although I live in the mid-Atlantic, we share the same type of forest as southern New England, one of seven types in the U.S. Ours is called the Central Forest. There are differences, but the trees I see from my porch are those I saw in Massachusetts: oak, maple, white pine, honey locust, maple, ash. We also have sweet gum and black walnut, which are not found up north, or at least not yet.

This is not a tree identification book, however. It’s more like a magic decoder ring. It gives the information you need to look at a patch of woods and make a pretty good guess at what it looked like 100 years ago and what has occurred to disturb it in the meantime.

Wessels sets up each chapter as a mystery, starting with an etching of a forest by Brian D. Cohen and then pulls out the clues that tell us what has happened there. Was it once a pasture or farm that was left to reforest itself? Has it been logged, and if so, how many times? Has there been a hurricane or a forest fire? Have they been affected by blight? What do the trees tell us about the soil and topography?

At the end of most chapters, he takes a look back at the historical context of the disturbance. For example, in precolonial New England, Native Americans used fire as a forest management tool. They burned the litter on the ground and low-growing vegetation to control insects and make it easier to move silently. “These precolonial, fire-managed woodlands looked dramatically different from New England’s present forests. They were parklike, with massive hardwoods creating a canopy over forest floors carpeted with grasses and berry bushes.”

However, the diseases brought by settlers decimated the Native American population, whose knowledge was then lost. “Within fifty years of the landing at Plymouth Rock, the Native American, fire-managed ecosystems of southern New England became a memory,” replaced by the dense, almost impenetrable forest that I see from my porch.

There are also fascinating nuggets buried in this irresistibly engaging book. For example, in the last major gypsy moth outbreak in central New England in the summer of 1981, scientists found that “the oak trees not yet attacked by the gypsy moth larvae changed their leaf chemistry, apparently in anticipation of the approaching insects.” The trees were communicating with each other using an airborne chemical message (jasmonic acid).

This discovery reminds me of another book I’ve heard of but not yet read: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben. A German forest ranger, Wohlleben explains that trees are social beings, working together in networks and sharing resources. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

Now when I stand on the porch, I can read the history of the trees in front of me. More than that, I’m aware that what I see are not the separate individual trees I’ve always thought them, but rather a community. These trees are talking to each other in ways that I cannot decipher.

What book has changed your view of the natural world?

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