Book Review-Reading the Forested Landscape

Reading the Forested Landscape-
A Natural History of New England
Tom Wessels

This is a very interesting book with a unique perspective. If you are the kind of person who takes in a lot of your surroundings and ponders what shaped them, then this is one excellent read. Especially if you are from the area this books covers, New England (mainly southern Maine and New Hampshire, western and southern Vermont and northern Massachusetts).  I am a bit out of these parameters (upstate New York) but still found his examples edifying.
The author is a landscape detective. His focus is figuring out what lies before him, and how it got to be that way. And to notice the thread that underlies the obvious and less obvious aspects that have a tale to tell in the changing landscape. The fallen tree. The preponderance of one kind of plant over another. The gypsy moth. The stone wall and the story that it tells.

The chapters of this book start with a shaded etching of a scene, like a beaver dam, or piece of forest. The author then goes on to tell what he sees in the drawing that gives him clues to deduce what has happened to this particular piece of land to make it what it is now. Was it fire, or wind or the human hand that did the most re-shaping?

And he goes through the details of the drawing bit by bit, allowing you to see what he sees that forms his opinion.  There are elements of the drawings in the page margins that highlight the clues. This approach is a great way to help folks think about the details in of what they are reading. And instead of straight-up telling you, he uses that best of teacher contrivances, he makes you think for yourself by asking questions and going through a point by point detailed explanation so the information is driven home.

This approach has sure helped me in my understanding in my daily traverses of nearby woodlands. And I reckon most people who read this book (and I read it front to back, unusual for me for a ‘nature book’) will start looking at their environment differently. Now when I take a walk around this semi-rural area, I notice things that I had not previously. Not only that, but I ask questions differently. I may now look around and think, ‘why so many ash trees?’. Questions I may have had previously in the back of my mind, but now have a better framework to assemble them.

There are some aspects of the book I am less comfortable bit, but before I nitpick, I want to say clearly that this book is a good read and if you are a person like me that wonders why the landscape looks a certain way and what may have proceeded it current status, then this book will encourage your exploring and perhaps even give a few answers.
One of my big questions is how accurate is the information provided. I do not doubt the author’s desire to understand all of the previous changes to the landscape before the current state of what we see, but some of it still sounds speculative. But I guess that there no other way but to guess. This was a time before Google maps and photographing the planet so we could see what actually happened.

And so in Tom Wessels recounting what previously transpired, he has to take into account what Native Americans did to the landscape to alter it for their needs (such as clearing areas by fire). And then the changes that the newly arriving Europeans did to further change the landscape.
Some of this is pretty well documented, especially post-colonization, and so it is not wild speculation. But still when I read it I wonder how applicable some of these stories are to what I see in front of me.
I also likes the way he uses personal anecdotes to fortify his observations. By going out of his home after a storm to see what changes were wrought,
Mr. Wessels goes into so much more detail than I am conveying here. How the landscape was initially formed (glaciers and other geological changes), changes brought on by insects and fungi (i.e., chestnut blight), and of course the major changes in obvious and unobvious ways by Homo sapiens.

I would suggest reading this book when you have some time to read a chapter or excerpt and then go into your local woods and see if his words help you decipher your own woodlots and landscapes. I think you will find they do.