Nature Notes From Massachusetts: How The Land Has Changed

by Hari Balasubramanian

0305151548I've lived in Massachusetts for 8 years now, and I've always been struck by the density and variety of trees here – maples, oaks, birches, beeches, chestnuts, hickories, white pines, pitch pines, hemlocks, firs. Look in any direction and your view is likely to be blocked by a tangle of trees: in the winter and early spring crisscrossing, leafless branches form a haze of brown and gray; in the summer, when the leaves have returned, there is a lush, impenetrable wall of green.

Apparently this wasn't always the case: in the mid 1800s, the naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, was “able to look out of his back door in Concord [now on the outskirts of Boston] and see all the way to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire because there were so few trees to block his view.” In Natural History of Western Massachusetts, Stan Freeman writes:

“in the early 1800s Massachusetts may have looked much like a farm state in the Midwest, such as Kansas and Indiana. Farm fields, barren of trees, stretched from horizon to horizon…”

Also consider this. In 1871, when the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) surveyed the stone fences that European farmers in the Northeast had constructed, they found 33,000 miles of such fences in Massachusetts alone! That number should make clear just how much land was put under the plough.

Things changed quickly, though. As the United States expanded westward in the 19th century, fulfilling its so called Manifest Destiny, the Midwest emerged as a major player in agriculture. Midwestern crops could be sent back east by railroad. The farmers of the New England, unable to compete, abandoned their lands. The forests grew back, hiding the thousands of miles of stone fences.

UntitledIn 1893, forest land in Massachusetts was about 30% of the land area of the state. In 1998, forest land actually increased to 60%. This still holds true — see 2014 USDA map. The six million residents of Massachusetts are concentrated in a few cities and suburbs, and despite the resurgence of local farms, much of what the state needs is supplied from outside. Travel west of Boston (along I-90 or Route 2 or back roads such as MA-9) and the towns are never very big. At the edges of these towns – with their abandoned mills, red brick buildings, the odd convenience store, gas station, a church or two – are miles and miles of thick forests, winding brooks and wetlands. Even the exceptionally busy Mass pike or Interstate-90 runs through land that has simply been left alone. Driving by at 70 miles an hour, I once remember spotting a blue heron resting among cattails in a small pond.

In Amherst, which is in the western part of the state, residential areas are continuously interspersed with a patchwork of conservation lands. One of my favorite spots is called Lawrence Swamp. Much of it looks like this picture I took a couple of weeks ago. I love how still the water is! You can follow even the smallest of ripples – created, say, by an insect skimming the surface. The mound you see adjacent to the dead pine tree is an active beaver lodge. A flooded landscape with dead trees, broken stumps and floating logs – very haphazard, but to ecologists such features constitute a habitat structure, an arrangement of the physical space that allows diverse species to thrive. In March and April, red-winged blackbirds perch themselves on the stumps, punctuating the silence with their screeches. Occasionally a pileated woodpecker will knock its beak against a tree trunk, not just once but continuously creating an eerie drumming rhythm that can be heard from far.


When Thoreau was having his simple, back-to-nature Walden experience in the 19th century, many species I can easily spot now were less prevalent or even completely absent. For example, the last wild turkey in Massachusetts was shot in 1851. Now they've made a huge comeback; I see them regularly in groups of 6-10, foraging in meadows. Moose were absent then but are now around. Beavers had been eliminated in the 17th and 18th centuries thanks to the profit-driven excesses of the fur trade. In the 1930s, they were re-introduced, and have transformed the wetlands of Massachusetts, creating swamp-like habitats that benefit a host of other species. Just to give two examples: blue herons and pileated woodpeckers make use of small tree islands in these swamps; with the increase in beaver-engineered landscapes, their numbers have risen in the last century.

The return of forests, wetlands, and once-missing or threatened animals: how counterintuitive these trends are at a time when habitats and species elsewhere are being lost rapidly!


References: My primary source for this piece has been Natural History of Western Massachusetts, but also David Foster's Thoreau's Country: Journey Through a Transformed Landscape. The map of the state of Massachusetts comes from this USDA report. Here's a related column on beavers I did for 3QD last year.