Finding old development under modern forest

It's amazing how quickly a forest can grow back on clear-cut ground. I've written here before about a National Seashore in Wisconsin that looks like forest primeval today, but was, less than a century ago, a treeless expanse of small-scale timber, fishing, and stonecutting industry. The same sort of thing happens in New England, where colonial and 19th-century farms, roads, and fences have been allowed to disappear beneath a forested landscape — and to disappear well enough that people often forget they existed, at all. Now, digital archaeology is helping to uncover these sites once again.

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  1. If you go hiking in the "100 mile wilderness"-- the last 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, where there are no paved roads for 100 miles (though several gravel logging roads) you will notice that you will be walking all day through (apparently) pristine forest, no signs of humanity but the trail, and then suddenly there's a classic New England stone wall (with trees of 50 years or more growing out of parts of it) in the middle of nowhere.

  2. The other thing to look for is a patch of daffodils in the spring, or a lone apple tree. The daffodils seem to persist and spread for decades. Some of those old heirloom apples are long sought by apple conservationists. Maybe there will be a one stone that was the doorstep. Sometimes there will be a spring coming up from under a stone block. Some of those stone walls may not have ever had a real purpose except to provide a place to put all those damn rocks.

    But it's still quite a stretch to mistake this third or fourth growth forest for the original virgin forest. The old growth forests were like dim cathedrals.,

  3. I quite agree that first- and second-growth forests are easy to distinguish in the Eastern mixed forest. Arguably, in my part of the world (northeastern New York), there is no "old growth", since all the ecosystems were severely disrupted in the last ice age. The soil takes longer to rebuild than that.

    It's hard to tell old-growth from second-growth in pitch-pine "fire climax" regions. There, the entire forest burns and rebuilds itself every few decades, owing to the inflammability of the pines. Arson is part of their lifestyle. Their cones do not release seeds unless they are burnt: they are the most inflammable of all the trees, and once a generation they burn down the forest to clear away the competition for their offspring.

    The subalpine krummholz is nearly all old-growth, since there was never anything economically viable to harvest there. The signs of human visitation persist for centuries, though, because the soil and vegetation are so fragile. But you can often see a fir tree, no more than thirty feet tall and having only a few live branches, that is nevertheless centuries old.

    I have the good fortune to have visited patches of woodland left that are fairly undisturbed: never logged, never farmed, not even extensively hunted, by virtue of inaccessibility. There's nothing like hiking in a stand of 300-year-old hemlocks.

    I've also had the experience of coming upon a ghost town in the woods that I know nothing about. All that is left are stone foundations, walls, hearths and tumbled chimneys. There were a cluster of houses, some tanning vats, and a mill or two. I've asked some knowledgeable locals, and nobody seems to know anything about who lived there or what they called their settlement. One of these months, I'm going to have to get into the county historical society and see if they know anything. The register of deeds will be hopeless. If you don't know the plat number, you won't be able to find anything, and the property in question has been state forest since the 1880s..

    In places like Harriman State Park in New York or Mount Washington State Forest in Massachusetts, you can even find extensive evidence of heavy industry. Those places had been hellholes in the nineteenth century: the land so degraded that it was merely an ocean of mud, all the trees burnt for charcoal or peeled for tanning, iron furnaces belching smoke that hung as a pall over the entire area, abandoned buildings falling to ruin. Now they're quite pleasant again, but the hiker must be careful not to fall into an abandoned mineshaft, implale a body part on a rusted metal implement, or start a rock slide in a defunct quarry. If you know what to look for, there are signs of habitation and industry everywhere!

  4. Compare that the England where some of the hedges are 600 years old. A hedge is mentioned in the account of something like the Battle of Hastings, and that hedge is still there.

  5. Even newer than the ice age, the Age of Sail really helped cut down on the distinction between 'pretty damn old growth' and 'relatively new regrowth'.

    The bill of materials for a good size wooden ship (especially one designed to actually survive substantial cannon fire) involves heroic amounts of massive, solid(none of your 'manufactured wood' particleboard or plywood crap), cuts of various hardwood, especially oak.

    I'm actually not sure that some of the classic 'wooden ships and iron men' era designs could even be executed today. Sure, we can deliver enough steel to lay the keel of an aircraft carrier by the end of the quarter; but a Man 'o War might be a modest sized forest of centuries-old high quality hardwood.

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