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Local Literati and Landscape Change

Local Literati and Landscape Change, Part 2.

Phudd Hill from the east side on a November evening.

“This neighborhood of ours holds about a hundred and twenty-five acres… Within this area it has something of the diversity of a macrocosm. A part of our neighborhood, the greater part, is wooded hills, long-lying, gently rounded hills, the tipmost top of the highest part being a thousand feet or so above sea level. There is plenty of acreage of hemlock-dense woodedness to afford good sheltering place for white-tailed deer and good prowling place sometimes for a bobcat neighbor. Then the hills, as they slope downward, change from woodedness to sunny, open uplands and then change again to forty acres of bottom-land through which about a half-mile of brook runs crookedly. It was all a farmstead once upon a time, but not in many years…”

– Alan Devoe and Mary Berry Devoe, Our Animal Neighbors, pp. 2-3.

Shortly after John Cowper Powys (he of our 27 April 2011 blog) moved out of Phudd Bottom in 1934, Alan and Mary Devoe moved in. Later, they moved to the house on Hickory Hill Road which is now owned by the Dufaults. They lived there until Alan Devoe’s death in 1955. Although relatively little read today, Devoe’s books were an important contribution to mid-20th century American naturalist writing. His works often explicitly juxtaposed peace and death in nature with the contemporary tragedy of WWII. While some of his essays described Northeast wildlife with little reference to place, some of his books however, most notably Phudd Hill (1937; written at Phudd Bottom) and Our Animal Neighbors (1953; written at the Hickory Hill Rd house) provide specific snapshots of life on and around Phudd Hill during that era. John Cowper Powys and Arthur Davison Ficke (a local poet, see earlier blog) provided flattering fly-leaf snippets for Phudd Hill.

[Update Dec 2015: In October of 2015, former Hillsdale Town Historian Jay Rohrlich published a front-page article about Alan Devoe in the Columbia Paper; this interesting article, aside from providing excerpts of Devoe’s writing, places him in the context of preceding and contemporary nature writers.)

Alan Devoe, possibly on a bridge across the creek paralleling Hickory Hill Road.

ACT I: Maps & Figures (and a couple of photos)

(WARNING: There now follow a series of maps and tables, but there is a set of forest photos after these… please bear with me, just trying to set the stage.)

Devoe’s writings, like Powys’, give a us chance to ‘taste’ landscape change. In Devoe’s time, Phudd Hill and much of the County was reforesting after a wave of agricultural abandonment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

By 1950, “improved farmland” (a census term generally connoting worked, open farmland) in Columbia County was only half of what it had been at the peak of agriculture some 70 years before. Today, we have about one third of the peak farmland. Devoe’s landscape was largely one of young forests, shrubland and old field. We can illustrate the extent of that evolution by looking more closely at landscape change on Phudd Hill.

Percent of Columbia County in “Improved” Farmland (yellow); in Forest (green line); and as Shrubland (brown line).

This map, with Hawthorne Valley Farm represented by the red circle in the middle, illustrates how forest extent has changed over time in and around Hawthorne Valley. The purplish shading indicates the approximate extent of forest in the late 1920s; it is based on the forest delimitation indicated on a topo map of Kinderhook published in 1933 (and available on-line). The green shading indicates more or less the modern extent of forest based on the most recent topo map of the region. Notice how forest has expanded out from its early 20th century cores. Click on image to enlarge it.

At the simplest level, one can perhaps say that the composition of a given forest is determined by two main factors: the physical setting (that is, soils, climate, exposure, topography) and history. Considering the limitations or opportunities provided by physical setting, one can perhaps say that Phudd Hill harbors five types of forest niches: rich bottomlands; steep, thin-soiled hillsides; level uplands on medium deep soils; dry, rocky hilltops; and moist, perched pockets. These locales grade into each other, and do share some tree species, but, at the same time, their dominant species are largely distinct. The table and mas below start to paint part (and only part) of the picture.

These are tree maps we made several years ago from the north end of Phudd Hill; this is the opposite end from the Devoe house, but the general distribution of tree types is similar. The black lines are topo lines climbing to the top of Phudd Hill which is just out of the lower righthand corner of the image. The dotted yellow line illustrates the extent of our tree surveys. The trees pictured here are primarily the trees of the moistest portions of the hill – the floodplains along the creek and the small-scale hillside valleys. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Red Oak and Sugar Maple are two of the most common trees on Phudd Hill, yet they have relatively little ecological overlap – Sugar Maple likes the richer soils (notice how its distribution somewhat follows those of the trees pictured in the previous map), while Red Oak searches out drier land. White Pine is scattered in these plots, which included no old, upland fields. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Here are the thin-soil, steep-slope specialists: Chestnut Oak and Hemlock. Chestnut Oak especially seems to be most common on the rocky hillsides, while Hemlock spreads a bit further onto flattish terrain, although it does not enter the wetter spots that Red Maple accommodates. Red Maple has one of the largest ecological ranges of any of our trees – from wet pools to dry hillsides. (Click on image to enlarge.)

These are the odds ‘n ends in some ways, but notice how even amongst these rare trees ecological partitioning is apparent. Bitternut Hickory, White Oak and Beech tend to stay on the deeper, flatter soils. Most of the other species seem to range more broadly. Black Birch’s distribution is interesting to note – I consider it a ‘middle of the road’ (or, rather, hill) tree: it tends to be found on neither the deepest, moistest soils nor the driest sections. Sorry about the White Pine repeat – it seems just as widely scattered as in the first map! (Click on image to enlarge.)

These maps illustrate how physical location can effect tree distribution. For the most part, the hillside shown above has experienced very limited clearing (albeit there is evidence of historical, perhaps woodland, grazing). However, to a large degree, the determinant of forests in our region is land use history. The age of the forest not only determines tree size, but also which tree species are present – some trees grow best in open sunlight and die out as they are shaded out by their elders; some trees grow best in shade and gradually take the place of the early colonizers. Furthermore, how a field was used and abandoned can also affect subsequent forest development. A pasture which was gradually abandoned over several years sports a different initial forest cover from a ploughed field which was abruptly abandoned. (Those of you who enjoy exploring forest history ‘on the hoof’ will like Tom Wessel’s book entitled, Forest Forensics.)

If this field were to be abandoned at this point, it seems likely that the White Pine towering in the background and beginning to sprout in the foreground would become dominant (photographed in Canaan).

This Hawthorne Valley pasture, on the other hand, is now dominated by the pokey likes of Red Cedar, Common Juniper, and Multiflora Rose. The first can develop into a low forest tree. The Rose clumps can go on to become nursery sites for other tree species which grow up within the sheltering thorns.

ACT II: Forest Photos (and a trio of maps)

On Thanksgiving Day and the following, we walked along the hill behind the former Devoe and current Dufault house. Both landscape position and landscape history influenced the forests we walked through. At the risk of scaring the reader off with more maps, I present three more – these are aerial photographs of the same patch of land: the hill behind the house. The first image provides one with an idea of the ‘lay of the land’ – one can look at this and, based on the earlier tree distribution maps, make some guesses about what trees would naturally occur where.

The last two aerials illustrate our walk. The first labelled picture is from 1952, the second from 2010. I have indicated on both maps the location of some of the photos we took during our walks. At each photograph site, I’ll try to briefly describe which trees were present and, in a crude way, make some guesses as to why those particular species were around. Interspersed with my verbal and locomotory ramblings are extracts from Devoe’s writing. Even if I’m not 100% sure of the location he was referring to, they give you another way of seeing the landscape he was living in.

This is a dense topo-line diagram of the southern end of Phudd Hill, the Devoe/Dufault house is indicated by the purple star.

Our walk overlaid on the 1952 aerial of the same portion of South Phudd. Those black dots invading the fields are predominantly White Pine.

The same area in 2010. Notice how fields that were just speckled with Pines are now Pine forests. Below, we show photos of those forests and some of the other sylvan new arrivals. The labels are in the same locations on each photo and so can serve as landmarks helping you compare the photos. You might want to open up another copy of this blog in a second tab so that, as we go through the following photos, you can quickly refer back to these maps.

“It will be best, perhaps, to explore first the hedgerows and thicketed places. These low-growing tangles are the favored sites of many birds, affording thick-foliaged shelter from sun and rain and being not readily penetrable by enemies. So set forth and investigate the old quince hedges that grow along tumble-down stone walls; look into the hawthorn bushes that dot old hillside pastures; see what the brambly patches of wild blackberry may hold. In a close-growing thicket of young maple saplings you may find, with luck, a wood thrush nest in progress…Investigate meadowsweet and smoke bushes; have a look into the tangles of wild grape.You may often find the nest of field sparrows in the meadow sweet, or in the smoke bush you may come across a vesper sparrow’s home…In the wild grape, or in a thorny jungle of blackberry, you may discover nests of catbird and brown thrasher, song sparrow and Maryland yellow throat… There is not space to mention all the nests which, by a little perseverance, you can find in the spring in bushes and low-growing thickets.Certainly you will find the cup, lined with horse-hair, which the chipping sparrow builds; you may find the stick nest of a shrike, felted over with bark strips and mosses; you will almost surely find a bluejay’s nest, built a little higher than your head and made coarsely and bulkily like a crow’s.”

– Alan Devoe, Down to Earth, pp. 122-125.

Photo Location A: This small field was apparently one of the last to return to forest, perhaps in the 1970s. This is not surprising given its proximity to house and barn. Relative to most of the other spots that we visited, the land here is flatter and the soil probably deeper. Its topography and vegetation suggested that it went from cultivated field to forest. It is now dominated by Sugar Maple saplings.

A stand of wrist-thick or smaller Sugar Maples dominates this flattish ground.

In case you’re uncertain of your winter tree identification, just look down. Sugar Maple leaves make up much of the leaf litter. Some care needs to be taken in deriving forest composition from leaf litter composition – Sugar Maple leaves, for example, decompose much quicker than oak leaves.

This is the wall that separates the B field (to the left) from the A field. Notice how the older trees along the wall tend to have the most branches on the right side of their trunk; this imbalance suggests that, when they grew up, the field to the right was still open while the field to their left was already growing up in woodland.

Photo Location B: As we walked up the ravine’s east side, we entered what used to be the west end of a larger field. In 1952, this appeared to be clean land, but by the late 1950s extensive invasion of woody plants is evident.

The same wall but now focussing on the terrain of the B field. Notice how there appears to be a ridge running parallel to the wall (most evident at the base of the large tree). This may be the remains of a plow terrace of sorts – farmers ploughed from hill top to hill bottom, folding the soil downhill as they went. When they reached the bottom, the mound beside the last furrow was left in place. Over years, it formed a ridge of sorts like what is shown here.

The trees in the B section are older and more diverse. One is still finding Sugar Maple, but there is also more White Pine, Black Birch, Ash, and, ….

especially along its margin with the ravine, Red Oak. Looks as if the Turkeys have passed this way searching for acorns.

Photo Location C: The Ravine. As far as we can tell, this ravine may never have been completely cleared. Doubtless, wood was cut from it and cattle may have strayed into it. Its Sugar Maple/Hemlock combo is interesting and may reflect a slope with patches of deeper soil and/or selective forestry that favored Sugar Maples (for their sap production).

“Behind our house an old wood road climbs the hill. It goes beside the glen or ravine I spoke about a while ago and it leads through maple woods, hemlock woods, and at last the hill’s open summit which is a birch-thicketed place where the deer are fond of bedding… We have a kind of lookout place, up where the ravine becomes very deep and great oak trees tower in a throng.”

-Alan Devoe, Our Animal Neighbors, p,34

The old woods road approaches a stand of Hemlock, the ravine is to the left; field B to the right.

The ravine or gully drops away to our left. Its steep sides are home to both Hemlock (left) and Sugar Maple (right) , together with Black Birch and Shagbark Hickory. These are large, old trees; the slope was too steep to farm, and even logging may have been tricky. The apparent whitewash on the Sugar Maple helps tell you that it is indeed a Sugar Maple – the white comes from a species of crustose lichen found mainly on this tree species.

Those are big, old Sugar Maple. Here, Otter is standing beside one that grows on the west bank of the ravine.

Photo Location D: Coming back out of the ravine we arrived to field D. the southwestern corner of this area had puzzled us in the old aerials, but apparently it is spot which, because it is the steepest part of this field, reverted to forest earlier. Even in the aerials from the 1940s, this corner is invaded by shrubs if not saplings. Its botanical trajectory is a mystery but it is now, in part, a stand of Big Tooth Aspen, an aspen species that tends to favor somewhat drier soils than Trembling (aka Quaking) Aspen.

Admittedly, the Big Tooth Aspen trunks do not stand out in this photograph. The bark of older trees tends to get dark and furrowed, losing the lighter, dusted green that characterizes the bark of many aspen. White Birch is however evident as are the White Pine. All are “early successional trees” and mark this forest as one that came in after the land was opened.

Their bark may not stand out in my photos, but there is no mistaking Big Tooth Aspen’s oval, coarsely toothed leaves, scattered on the ground amongst the Red Oak leaves.

Venturing farther into D, the White Pine are evidently older. The field may have not reverted to forest in abrupt entirety, and these trees may have been the earlier invaders. Note how many of these are multi-trunked. While such trunks would suggest logging in some, stump-sprouting species, these are actually low splits in the trunk rather than multiple stems. Apparently, this might be the damage of White Pine Weevil – a native insects that kills the leaders of open-growing White Pines. When the leader dies, side branches take over the upward growth and, when more than one side branch heads skyward, multiple trunks can result. The abundance of multiple trunked White Pine here suggests that these trees grew up in an open field.

Some parts of the forests of D section, and the adjacent parcels to the north, showed evidence of a reversion to forest from grazing: this is barberry and this ….

is a Multiflora Rose tangle. The presence of such thorny shrubs together with Red Cedar (not shown here) suggest that woody plants initially were entering a field with active grazers. Grazers tend to avoid such spiney fare and so give such plants footholds in the early forest.

This ground shot hints at another fact about this part of the forest: it had wet spots and even patches of standing water. Red Maple leaves are common in this image and, while this species occupies a broad ecological range, it is often found in wooded wetlands.

Photo Location E: What these woods used to look like – open field. These may have been the better soiled or logistically more favorable fields, and so were kept open. In part however their continued openness also reflects ownership patterns – these fields were part of Nat Snare’s Kamefield Farm, an active farm in Devoe’s time. During the rest of our jaunt, we had stayed in the well-storied, little-worked Devoe property.

This field has probably been through cultivation, pasturing and, now at least, haying. We are looking west.

“As I sit facing the open side to the east, I can see a dozen farms and far away to a low lying ridge of wooded hills. It is a panorama of rolling pasture land, dotted with darker green patches that are orchards and checkered by the boundary lines of ancient stone walls. The sunlight lies upon it all, burnishing the shocks of new-cut rye, sweetening the heavy-hanging apples on a thousand trees, distilling the smell of dew-wet meadows.”

-Alan Devoe, Phudd Hill, pp. 75-76.

Walking back west from the field, a look down suggests a new character has entered our play – those deeply incised oak leaves look a lot like the leaves of Scarlet Oak.

We now cross to the west side of the ravine. At this point, the ravine’s creek is a gentle meander out of a small wetland.

Photo Location G: The Phudd Hill erratic (star of a previous blog). Devoe knew of this rock, and, apparently, in his day it was still in an old pasture opening.

“On the summit of a mountain [Phudd], in an open clearing which was once pasture land for sheep, there is a great rock…Generations of farmers have made efforts to blast the rock, but have succeeded only hollowing holes and cavities in it. It is these recesses, some of them more than a yard deep, where the drill went in to make a dynamiting place, which are the homesites of the [Screech] owls. In late April and early May they make their nests, lining the rock cavities with dried grass and soft feathers and bits of straw.”

– Alan Devoe, Down to Earth, pp. 120-121.

Otter looks down from the top of this 15′ high boulder. In the cleft at the picture center is a cavity that may have once held an owl nest.

The forest around the erratic is a thicket of White Pine and, suggestive of past grazing, Red Cedar (the first trunk in from the right-hand margin)

Another hint of a pastured past is this spreading tree along the fence row – it clearly was allowed to grow up in a wide-open situation. One reason farmers allowed such trees to persist was because they provided shade and shelter to the livestock. As pointed out in that earlier blog, this tree might have a lightening scar… one hopes nothing was sheltered below it at the time.

Photo Location H: If you look at the aerial images that lead off this section, the presence of White Pine at point H should come as no surprise. This field did not come back to a uniform stand, rather it is a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees. Perhaps a particular “mother” pine was scattering its seeds over a limited shadow, and other species sent in their colonizers as well. This field was beginning to shrink by 1960, and the White Pines here may date from that period.

This wall may have delimited a pasture, especially if it were topped by wooden rails. Wire fencing is scattered in this forest as well.

The dry soil on this hillside invited in a new forest tree for our walk – those elongate leaves with the rounded teeth are Chestnut Oak. As the scarcity of their leaves suggests, they weren’t the dominant tree of the unpined sections of field H; Red Oak was much more common.

Time waits for no wall or tree. This wall is slowly shrugging to the ground, but it’s also worth noting the evidence of biological decay – the fallen limbs and standing dead saplings. The forest as a whole is not necessarily ailing but one generation – that of the early successional trees which first colonized the open land – is giving way to another kind of forest. That transition involves the death and gradual replacement of the original first comers. If most of these trees germinated at around the same time (likely if the field were suddenly abandoned), then most are now of the same age and will tend to begin senescing somewhat simultaneously.

Photo Location I: The very south end of Phudd Hill – a dry, rocky plateau laced with determined stonewalls. This appears to be the oldest ‘new’ forest of our circuit. It already seems to be at least shrubbed over in our earliest (1948) aerial photograph, although the 1933 map suggests it was more field than forest at that time. This is dry, thin soil with abundant rock outcrops. Despite its relatively long history of reforestation, it was however probably notably more open in Devoe’s time.

Moss, grass and few trees suggest bedrock near the surface. Perhaps the millenia after glaciation built enough soil to allow for eventual forestation of this spot. However, the subsequent clearing and pasturing (accompanied by erosion, soil compaction and nutrient removal) may have stymied that progress.

“Cottontails make their nests in all sorts of places. Most often, we have found them in our open fields or meadows, frequently in the thin-soiled rocky fields on the slope of the hill…the one that we were able to watch most closely…was on the abrupt slope, overgrown with maple saplings and briers, that rises back of our old house beyond the edge of the garden…I climb this back-of-the-garden hill a good deal just to sit in the hot sun and smell the sun-baked leaves and earth and stare out over the Catskills… Our valley lies winding away below me – old farmhouses and red barns, checkered hayfields and cornlots and rolling pasture, the shining line of the brook as it twists its down the valley with willows along its borders.”

– Alan Devoe and Mary Berry Devoe, Our Animal Neighbors. pp181-182.

The silver snake of creek winding through the distance is still visible from the hilltop, even if the forest is now thicker.

On our way back to the house a few steps takes one across boundaries that mark not only new soils but new histories. We are now looking back at our starting point, the young and Sugar Maplely A field.

And finally, midst the large trees that mark the edge of the steeper ravine, the rising wood smoke of the Devoe/Dufault home.

“I am not a person who likes large views; my preference is for little ones. I am never so much awed by tremendous panoramas of earth and water and sky as I am, for instance, by a luna moth cocoon, jigging and rattling on its walnut twig in the bitter January wind, or by a solitary red-tailed hawk, sailing on rigid wings over the hemlocks behind my house, or by the slow and sinuous progress of a garter snake along the sun-warmed rocks of our old stone wall. That is the kind of view that I like. That is the kind of view I can look at by the hour, and never be tired of. And that, I suppose, is why I live at the bottom of a hill instead of on top of it….”

– Alan Devoe, Down to Earth, p. 139.


Posted by on November 28, 2011 in Agriculture, Nature


The Story of a Forest Stand.

Sorry to lead with a family snapshot, but there’s a story behind it. That’s me, around 1970, walking through the Red Pine plantation behind our house.

We moved to Canaan (NY) in 1970 and, as a young boy, one of my most vivid memories is of walking through a Red Pine plantation in the woods behind our house. The tall, straight, light-barked trees aligned in regular rows lorded over a clean and cushy covering of pine needles. The combination of surprising, all-encompassing symmetry and a feeling akin to walking on a water mattress made the experience other-worldly.

I did not at the time ask myself where that plantation came from nor where it might be going. Neither my parents nor I had any inkling of a ‘what should we do with it?’ sort of question. And yet, encapsulated in the history of that stand are the histories of many stands throughout the County and perhaps the region – the story of the forgotten tree plantation.


Land Classification Map from the 1941 “Columbia County Agricultural Survey”. The classification was apparently based on a tour of the County. Regions in “Land Class III and higher” were still in active, profitable farming; Land Class IIR was apparently borderline in terms of its farms; most farms in Land Class IR were abandoned or obviously declining. The green dot indicates the location of the Red Pine plantation mentioned in the text.


This map of the extent of agricultural decline across New York comes from Vaughan’s 1928, “Abandoned Farm Areas in New York”, Bulletin 490 of the Cornell Ag. Experiment Station. In most areas, the peak of farmland was around 1880.


Abandoned farmland reverts spontaneously to forest on a Gallatin (Columbia County) hillside in this 1935 image by Rogers McVaugh. Most of the County’s former farmland has returned to forest on its own.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, New York State land use visionaries, especially those in the eastern half of the State, had a quandary. For a variety of reasons (including the opening up of the fertile Midwest and a large-scale conversion to corn-based dairy), many former farm fields were being abandoned. For example, in 1925 it was estimated by Vaughan that New York had 4,500,000 acres less farmland than in 1880, the approximate peak of agricultural clearing. That amounted to about 15% of the State’s land cover, an area roughly equal to that of Columbia, Greene, Rensselaer, Dutchess, Ulster, Orange, Sullivan, Putnam and Rockland counties combined. In Columbia County alone, we estimate that improved farmland dropped by around 100,000 acres or more than 25% during the same period.

Reforestation was one way to fill this void. As Vaughan also put it, “The vast areas of idle land in the State are not only non-productive but they have a very depressing influence on agriculture and on the State as a whole…. In order that such land be kept from [unprofitable] agricultural production and still not remain idle and unproductive, reforestation has been suggested as the logical remedy.”

Perhaps inspired in part by German forestry, creating plantations became a focus of reforestation efforts. But what to plant? For several reasons, conifers seemed the logical answer: for example, White Pine was an eager old field volunteer, reflecting the ability of pines to grow on open land; pines tended to grow tall and straight in plantations; and the oft-erroneous vision of the primal pine forest perhaps helped to convince foresters of the long-term appropriateness and ease of growing such species. The State grew and planted millions of conifer seedlings. Between 1909 and 1952, over 790,000,000 trees were reportedly distributed. The vast majority of these were conifers, with White Pine, Red Pine, Scotch Pine and Norway Spruce prominent amongst them. Eventually, Red Pine was apparently favored over White Pine because it seemed more resistant to the pests and diseases that killed or, at least, distorted White Pine thereby reducing its timber value.


The distribution of seedlings as part of NYS reforestation efforts from the Atlas of Forestry of New York (1958?) by Neil Stout. A larger circle indicates a larger proportion of seedlings distributed.


European Larch is one conifer sometimes found in plantations. Unlike our other conifers, larch are completely deciduous and drop all of their needles every winter making them resemble dead snags.


Norway Spruce, a relatively common plantation tree, are distinguished by the characteristic drooping of the branches evident in this photo of an open-grown individual.


The White Pines lining this horizon could be those of a plantation, however, closer inspection would reveal that, in this case, they are probably old-field White Pine which spontaneously grew up in a former farm field. Both spontaneous and planted stands of White Pine are common in Columbia County.


Red Pine plantations can be identified by the red-barked trees evident in the first photo of this posting and the long needles grouped in clusters of two. Scotch Pine, another conifer sometimes found in our plantations, also has paired needles and red bark, but its needles are shorter and twisted.


Although pine plantations can be relatively low in diversity, some wildlife do like to use them for shelter, as evidenced by this string of deer beds.


While some of these plantations were on public land, many trees were distributed free to private land owners and plantations sprang up on farm fields throughout the region. However, as one prescient former DEC employee noted in 1959,

as every plantation owner knows (including the State of New York), with the trees in the ground the work has just begun. .. These plantations have got to be thinned out, just as you would thin out a row of radishes, if you want a good crop at harvesttime. … The problem – and it’s a very big one- is how to pay for these operations…. I can’t help wondering at times if reforestation, as an economic proposition, hasn’t been oversold, or at least misleadingly advertised to the general public. I’ve seen too many plantations, all over the Northeast, put in with a burst of enthusiasm, patriotism, and great expectations-and then left to take care of themselves when the time comes for somebody else to take care of them.

– Pieter W. Fosburgh, 1959, The Natural Thing: The Land and its Citizens.

Indeed, our landscape is now scattered with forgotten, decaying plantations. As the series of images below illustrate, my magical backyard Red Pine stand was no exception.


A 1942 aerial photograph, showing the future Red Pine plantation (circled) still as field.


In 1942 (above), the future location of that ‘home’ Red Pine stand was clearly open field, one of many in this well-worked landscape. Its microtopography suggests that, at least at some point, it was ploughed ground, not just hayfield or pasture.


By the time of this 1952 aerial, the plantation had been planted.


A landscape shot, probably from the early ’50s, with the young Red Pine plantation outlined.


By 1952 (above), however, the field had been planted to Red Pine, probably with funding from New York’s Forest Practice Act of 1946. The thick ‘head’ of trees suggest the seedlings had already been in the ground for a few years when that photograph was taken. An oblique view taken around the same time emphasizes how densely the trees were planted.

These trees continued to mature, and, by 1971 (below), they had formed a well-developed stand. The initial photo in this posting was taken at about this time.


A 1971 aerial of the stand at about the same time that the first photo of this posting was taken from within the stand.


In 1981, the plantation appears to have been generally intact, although a few holes are evident in the pine canopy.


A decade later (above), much of the stand was still intact, although holes had begun to appear. During the 1990s, a storm or storms tore apart the stand, breaking off many trunks. I don’t recall the exact meteorology but I do recall that, over a relatively short period of time, the stand collapsed, a startling glimpse of landscape mortality. By 1995 (below), most of the inner pines had evidently died, resulting in a configuration very similar to today’s.


A false-color image from 1995; the loss of mature trees from the core of the plantation is evident.


This 2017 image, taken during leaf-off, clearly shows that much of the former plantation is now composed of deciduous trees.


The mere ring of remaining pines in today’s stand (above) outlines a deciduous core. This too was a surprise to me. I had come think that pines begat pines, because their needles so acidified the soil as to rule out other sequences. However, if I were to have looked around me while walking through that 1970s stand, I should have grown suspicious – there were, in fact, no young Red Pines waiting to take their place in the slow-motion relay race of tree generations. Once the adult pines began to topple and light reached the ground, a flurry of deciduous trees started to stretch skyward. Today if one looks into the same stand where the initial photograph was taken (below), it requires imagination to believe it was ever a pine stand. True, a few incongruously tall and skinny Red Pines remain, but they are rapidly being enveloped by Sugar Maple and Black Cherry, together with lesser amounts American Beech, Red Maple, Hop Hornbeam, White and Red Oak, White Ash, and a couple of Hickory species.


A photo taken in the Red Pine plantation in early 2018. The main ingredient is no longer Red Pine, although a few of the edge trees are visible in the distance.


This should not have been a surprise. Red Pine is not a common tree in our area; McVaugh’s flora (digitized version courtesy of the NYS Museum), researched during the 1930s, described it as ‘rare’. It is a tree of dry sandy or gravelly soils, not of the loamy soils typical of our Canaan forest. As is true of many plants, that doesn’t mean that, given a head start as this plantation was, Red Pine can’t briefly prosper on a site, but it does mean that, without further human intervention, it will soon lose out to other species which are better able to persist. As a result, barring many new plantings, it is likely that Red Pine, despite its massive inoculation into our flora, will fade away over the coming decades. In fact, we are not sure we have ever found natural Red Pine in Columbia County, although, with a native species like Red Pine, distinguishing natural from planted is not always easy. Not all plantations are set in tidy rows that declare their origins. Aside from checking the soil beneath your feet (is it sandy/gravelly?), a glance at the ground cover may give a hint – according to Fergus (in Trees of New England: A Natural History), a plantation has the typical, pine-needles-only ground cover, whereas a natural stand will likely have populations of acid-tolerant plants such as Star-flower, Blueberry, and Canada Mayflower.

Many stand biographies similar to that outlined here likely exist in the County. We regularly come across fading plantations. They are bittersweet – on the one hand, a dilapidated plantation represents a plan and work that went unrealized; on the other hand, the determination of wild forest to dominate and slowly erase some of our handiwork is encouraging. The mixed forest that emerges will probably be home to a greater diversity of plants and animals than the mono-culture plantation.

And yet, we continue to use wood for paper, fuel and timber. Where should that wood come from?

While it is inconspicuous in some of the above aerials because of its deciduous trees, the plantation lot is bordered to the east by a much older forest that might help inform those questions (below). That adjacent stand had mature trees in the 1942 aerial, and its topography and botany suggest it was never completely cleared. A rocky creek runs through it, springing into being where a gentle dip in the field above it meets the forest land. This is an example of what we call ancient forest – forest that, while some of its individual trees were likely logged, was probably never completely cleared by humans.


A grove of mature trees is evident just to the east of the future location of the pine plantation in this 1942 image. That area remains in forest up to the present day.


A LiDAR image of the topography of the plantation and the adjacent forest. Note how the rocky stream bed ’emerges suddenly’ from the ploughed field north of it. Perhaps such a stream bed once wove all the way down the hillside but was erased by farming.


Looking up the rocky creek just east of the plantation; the ploughed field is visible in the background.

Ancient forests can contain relatively rare soil conditions and an unusual ground flora (although, to be honest, the narrow patch beside the plantation has few documented rarities). Although they are now embedded inconspicuously in a matrix of young, post-agricultural forest regrowth (below), such ancient forests deserve to be identified and given conservation preference. In our region, few if any ancient forest stands are primary or old growth forest, indeed many owe their persistence in the landscape to their role as farm woodlots. As such, some careful, continued use might be appropriate, although especial care should be taken to minimize soil disturbance and avoid the introduction of invasive species. However, the primary focus of wood production should be elsewhere in the landscape.


The greater landscape of the Red Pine plantation in 1942. Note the patches of mature forest (together with some evidently young forest).


The same landscape in 2015 – finding ancient forest fragments in such an extensively reforested landscape can be a challenge.


We believe that logging should be directed towards areas of post-agricultural regrowth and away from ancient forests and other ecologically sensitive areas. Today, plantation planting is relatively rare, and most timber management focuses on guiding natural regrowth. Managed timber stands are, by selective cutting, often shifted towards the production of high-quality Red Oak. Whether from plantation or managed stand, local timber production can help satisfy our demand for lumber and fuelwood, a demand that would otherwise require cutting elsewhere. However, this urge to be globally responsible (and, perhaps, to profit from our forests) should not be an excuse for ignoring the land’s history and ecology. In this context, I now regret that, while that Red Pine plantation was still healthy, we did not ask how it might be managed or harvested.

As illustrated by the story of this particular forest stand, we believe a community vision is needed for our land use. Without it, we can neither accomplish the local production that goes with being responsible for our own needs nor take the integrated, landscape-scale approach that is necessary for successful conservation. We cannot build the long-term commitment which forest management requires. The current composition of our landscape – its productive areas and conservation resources – is a largely accidental pattern, the product, in many cases, of individual hard work but not of an overall vision. There are important exceptions: the State and Federal governments make plans for the management of their lands and, to some extent, for their acquisition; some local municipalities having zoning statutes that reflect a basic vision of their communities; and land trusts like CLC and Scenic Hudson actively try to be strategic in the use of their resources relative to nature conservation, productive lands, and recreation. While such state and federal land purchases, land trust holdings, and zoning regulations all have an important role to play in shaping our landscape, the use of much land remains outside of the direct influence of these actions.

Alternatives exist for motivating (rather than enforcing) coordinated actions on private properties. For example, the New England Wildlands & Woodlands program, with its regional conservation partnerships (including one that encompasses Columbia County), seeks to encourage the formation of a regional vision and the orchestration of its fulfillment. More focused initiatives, such as the Bobolink Project, strive to link those physically capable of fulfilling a particular aspect of a vision (in this case, farmers managing grassland bird habitat) with those capable of incentivizing it. Such approaches may or may not have value here, but they illustrate the type of creative thinking and community-wide connections that could produce an effective approach.

The roughly 3.5 acres that encompassed both my magical childhood plantation and the adjacent area we came to realize was ancient forest are trivial in terms of their individual contribution to any larger vision as are my personal ties to the haunts of my youth. And yet, it may only be by gluing together actions across many such small lots and by helping individual land owners link their own memories and dreams with larger aspirations that we can assume greater responsibility for our own needs and for the conservation of the nature with whom we share this space.


Posted by on February 7, 2018 in Uncategorized


‘When did Swallows First Arrive to Kinderhook, NY in 1835?’: Why You Might Care & Why You Can Now Know.


from The New England Farmer by Samuel Deane, 1822.

Weather forecasting and climate study have changed not only how we plan our days but also, I think, how we envision our lives. Most of us regularly consult the weather forecast as we decide what we will do or wear during the next day or even week. Imagine, for a moment, what it would mean to your logistics and psyche if you were informed that it was going to rain more or less solidly for the next five days.

fuertes barn swallow
For a Then & Now exploration of Barn Swallow arrival dates, CLICK ON THE ABOVE IMAGE.

That thought experiment might help illustrate one of the primary initial motivations behind the development of the science of meteorology in North America: agronomy. Given our current dry spell, if you’re a farmer, the thought of a good soaking rain might be a relief, and might inform whether or not you decide to plant now or wait until next week. Our modern ability to make those predictions is clearly of use to gardeners of all ilks.

However, despite the advances we have made in short-term weather forecasting, our abilities to predict weather at the larger scale remains sketchy. The National Weather Service dares to make predictions nearly a week in advance, but, in my experience, that seems to be pushing the envelope, and two or three days out seems to be the usual limit of reliability. Despite centuries of efforts, the Farmers’ Almanac year-long forecast may pique one’s curiosity but rarely alters one’s plans.

Two hundred years ago, when access to food grown elsewhere was more limited, knowledge of what the growing season would bring, even a couple of weeks ahead of time, was even more crucial. This was especially true in Spring, when an earlier planting might mean quicker crops but a greater risk of frost.

In a similar vein, while local experience can give us important insight into when to plant familiar crops, what happens when you need to know when, or even if, to plant a novel crop? Plant hardiness maps and growing-degree-day models give the modern planter some hints, but what was a St. Lawrence County farmer of 1830 to do if a cousin on Long Island sent along some new but highly recommended seeds? If that cousin were to say ‘plant these around the 25th of April’, that advice might, given the wide difference between these two NY climates, be worse than useless. If, on the other hand, the cousin were to say something like, plant these ‘when you plant your corn’, or ‘a week after your cherries bloom’, or even, ‘round about when your Martins arrive’, then the advice would be more usable.

For ‘state of the Spring’ exploration of the historical data, CLICK ON THE ABOVE IMAGE.

It was apparently this desire to facilitate the sharing of agronomic advice that prompted the New York State Regents to begin their three-decade long exploration of the State’s climates and seasons. As Simeon De Witt, the man who some 30 or more years later was to initiate the Regents’ work, put it in 1792,

as the state of vegetation is very different in different climates at the same time, without knowing what allowances are to be made on this account, the farmer, in one climate, will not be able to apply in his practice the experiments on husbandry made in another.

He continued that such work will necessitate,

besides common observations on the weather, observations on the annual commencement, progress and maturity and decay of vegetation, made in various parts, for a number of years; the averages whereof may be taken for standards by which to exhibit a comparison of climates… The remarks on the vegetation should commence with the first appearance of it in the Spring, and be made on grass [a more encompassing term historically] in general, the budding of trees, the flowering of plants, the maturity of the several kinds of winter grain and fruit, and the falling of leaves, and other symptoms of decay in the fall.


In the early 1800s, the New York States Regents supervised, amongst other educational institutions, some fifty or so ‘academies’. Academies were apparently public/private hybrids that were the combined high schools and prep schools of their era. They offered additional instruction beyond the traditional “3 R’s” of the basic public schools. Aside from advanced courses in reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmitic, students were taught topics such as classical languages, rhetoric, surveying, philosophy, botany and astronomy. Graduates of academies might hope to continue to college or to enter business, the clergy or education. As market forces probably dictated, academies were scattered across the State. What better network of facilities and able minds for beginning to unravel the mystery of the State’s climatic topography?

Like yellow? For an exploration of why the yellow of Forsythia (left) was missing in our historical data and of the flowering and leafing out patterns of Maple’s (right), CLICK ON THE ABOVE IMAGE.


Thus on 1 March 1825, the Regents approved De Witt’s proposed meteorological project. Participating academies received a New Lebanon-made Kendall thermometer and rain gauge; however, it was a BYOWV (Bring Your Own Wind Vain) affair. They also received instructions not only on how to collect and report their measurements but also on how to make a variety of additional observations, from notes on the ‘progress of the seasons’ to descriptions of celestial events such as Aurora and distinctive clouds or solar phenomena.

The effort was maintained until the Civil War, bolstered after 1850, by a nationwide project undertaken by the Smithsonian Institute and modeled substantially on the NY enterprise. There are a wealth of data. By the time we have finished entering the phenological (i.e., the seasonal events) information, we expect to have over 12,000 individual records of when certain plants flowered, when frogs called, when birds arrived, and when farmers planted or harvested.

These data are a trip back in time, a geographically-specific glimpse of human and natural history that starts almost 190 years ago. One can find arrival times for Passenger Pigeons, flowering times for bygone hedge plants, and a diary of farm activities. However, this collection is not meant just as a portrait of the past, but also as a perspective on the present.

currants plate
We used the ‘Progress of the Seasons’ data to explore patterns mid-19th century fruit growing in NYS. If you’re curious, CLICK ON THE ABOVE IMAGE.

In these days of changing climate, the records can give us a valuable historical baseline for charting change, in much the same way as work with Thoreau’s journals has helped spur climate change understanding in Massachusetts (see link below). Furthermore, what a story and suite of activities to motivate the creation of a school-based phenology network! The fact is that finding equivalent modern information for comparison with these historical records is not so easy (although links below will lead you to some valuable modern initiatives). A multi-school program could thus not only provide useful data, but also involve students in a diverse combination of historical, biological and analytical activities.

The search for immediate weather and climate understanding has largely become the realm of complex models and highly developed measurement technologies such as weather satellites. Perhaps this has long since antiquated the application of the Regents records to the questions for which they were originally intended. And yet, in ways probably not dreamt of by those who gathered the information, these data have become even more pertinent to our understanding of climate and change, not at the scale of days, weeks or years but at the scale of decades and centuries.

Our goal with the first phase of the Progress of the Seasons Project is to try to highlight this relevance by digitizing the data and sharing it in easily accessible and stimulating forms. If this sparks interest, then we can think of developing ways of bringing the Project into classrooms in future years.


We looked at Frog calling date as a way of predicting Apple and Cherry bloom; and also at how Frog calling and Apple flowering dates varied between two sites. To explore our conclusions, CLICK ON THE ABOVE IMAGE.


The work is on-going. We have been presenting weekday summaries in the form of “this date in phenological history” postings to our Progress of the Seasons blog (which has provided some of the examples included above) and have created a New York State Phenological History Browser. Want to know when those Swallows arrived in Kinderhook in 1835? Just use our browser to look it up! (And thank some forward-thinking 19th century scientists for your ability to do so.)


More Useful Links

Our Background Page – More information on the Regents’ project, including a map and list of participating sites

Field Guide to the Seasons – Local author Janice Goldfrank’s nifty ibook guiding you through 19 seasons in the year, from Icicle Season through Blueberry Season and on into Oak Season.

The National Phenology Network – engrossing displays and reports on data nationwide; we may submit any regional records we gather to them for inclusion in the larger data set.

The New York Phenology Project – a New York State affiliate of the national network; has some dandy resources for following the phenology of particular species.

Journey North – a live tracking of bird and butterfly migrations and various other seasonal events, great maps.

Project BudBurst – A plant phenology project with lots of materials for teachers.

The Phenology of Walden Pond – Richard Primack’s Boston University web page and blog; Dr. Primack has been comparing  Thoreau’s phenology data with those of the modern day. A great side-by-side comparison for New York.


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Posted by on May 7, 2015 in Uncategorized