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Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England

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An intrepid sleuth and articulate tutor, Wessels teaches us to read a landscape the way we might solve a mystery. What exactly is the meaning of all those stone walls in the middle of the forest? Why do beech and birch trees have smooth bark when the bark of all other northern species is rough? How do you tell the age of a beaver pond and determine if beavers still live th An intrepid sleuth and articulate tutor, Wessels teaches us to read a landscape the way we might solve a mystery. What exactly is the meaning of all those stone walls in the middle of the forest? Why do beech and birch trees have smooth bark when the bark of all other northern species is rough? How do you tell the age of a beaver pond and determine if beavers still live there? Why are pine trees dominant in one patch of forest and maples in another? What happened to the American chestnut? Turn to this book for the answers, and no walk in the woods will ever be the same.


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An intrepid sleuth and articulate tutor, Wessels teaches us to read a landscape the way we might solve a mystery. What exactly is the meaning of all those stone walls in the middle of the forest? Why do beech and birch trees have smooth bark when the bark of all other northern species is rough? How do you tell the age of a beaver pond and determine if beavers still live th An intrepid sleuth and articulate tutor, Wessels teaches us to read a landscape the way we might solve a mystery. What exactly is the meaning of all those stone walls in the middle of the forest? Why do beech and birch trees have smooth bark when the bark of all other northern species is rough? How do you tell the age of a beaver pond and determine if beavers still live there? Why are pine trees dominant in one patch of forest and maples in another? What happened to the American chestnut? Turn to this book for the answers, and no walk in the woods will ever be the same.

30 review for Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England

  1. 4 out of 5

    Connie G

    Ecologist Tom Wessels is a master sleuth who investigates the changes in the forests of New England. Fires, logging, pasturing, beavers, insects, fungus, weather, topography and substrate all leave a stamp on the forest picture. Etchings by Brian D. Cohen illustrate the forest scenes discussed. Most chapters also have "a look back" section where interesting facts about glaciers, Native Americans, colonial history, historic hurricanes, and more are featured. The last chapter tells of Wessels' con Ecologist Tom Wessels is a master sleuth who investigates the changes in the forests of New England. Fires, logging, pasturing, beavers, insects, fungus, weather, topography and substrate all leave a stamp on the forest picture. Etchings by Brian D. Cohen illustrate the forest scenes discussed. Most chapters also have "a look back" section where interesting facts about glaciers, Native Americans, colonial history, historic hurricanes, and more are featured. The last chapter tells of Wessels' concerns about the effects of global warming, and atmospheric deposition of acids, heavy metals, ozones, and pesticides. This fascinating book will help me look at the forest with new eyes. Highly recommended!

  2. 4 out of 5

    billyskye

    I’ve read some great books over the years. Books that have entertained me. Books that have informed me. Books that have moved me. Some to high orders of magnitude. Yet, elusive has been the experience of which I can claim – entirely absent of effusive smarm – to have witnessed, almost in real-time, a distinct reorganization of the foundational manner in which I approach a subject. That rare piece of writing which adds some semblance of grounding to all those exhausted phrases: “mind bending,” “l I’ve read some great books over the years. Books that have entertained me. Books that have informed me. Books that have moved me. Some to high orders of magnitude. Yet, elusive has been the experience of which I can claim – entirely absent of effusive smarm – to have witnessed, almost in real-time, a distinct reorganization of the foundational manner in which I approach a subject. That rare piece of writing which adds some semblance of grounding to all those exhausted phrases: “mind bending,” “life changing,” etc. James Ferguson’s work always comes to mind in this regard. Maybe Richard Wright’s Native Son too. For anyone who has spent any amount of time in or around woodlands, Reading the Forested Landscape is sure to induce a similar sense of awe. Through incredibly accessible and economized text, Tom Wessels manages to transform the natural biome of New England from a piecemeal collection of largely overlooked organisms and structures into a breathtaking tapestry full of motion and history. Each chapter begins with the etching of a particular “scene” and then does marvelous work in giving the reader the adequate mindset, tools, and context needed to begin learning how to interact with the land and sleuth through the subtle patterns engraved in the natural world to uncover the mysteries of the forest. Mr. Wessels’ says the ultimate goal of his project is to leave the reader with “reverence, respect, a sense of inclusion, and accountability” regarding the landscape of the areas they call home. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who came away from this book not feeling just so. Five stars.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Karima

    I don't live in New England and, being an urban dweller and disinclined to take long car rides to get to a forest, spend little time in the woods. However, reading this book has significantly altered how I perceive/interact with the world around me. So much history is available to us in trees, vegetation and the land itself. This book guides us through/into it. It is generous with very well-executed, simple etchings accompanied by clear explanations of what is depicted. If one were to give this bo I don't live in New England and, being an urban dweller and disinclined to take long car rides to get to a forest, spend little time in the woods. However, reading this book has significantly altered how I perceive/interact with the world around me. So much history is available to us in trees, vegetation and the land itself. This book guides us through/into it. It is generous with very well-executed, simple etchings accompanied by clear explanations of what is depicted. If one were to give this book a theme, it would be "Connectedness". Connecting pieces and patterns, giving us a broader and deeper understanding of our earth, its history, and perhaps, its future.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    What an absolute gem of a read, jam packed with wonderful pearls of knowledge in so many areas.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Reiner

    This had been sitting on my bookshelf for almost a year and was first on my list of books to read once I graduated college. Tom Wessels paints an intimate portrait of New England’s forests while still managing to inject enough scientific rigor into his analyses of forest scenes to render this publication firmly in the realm of academia. Each chapter focuses on a specific type of disturbance (fire, logging, blowdowns, etc.), the telltale signs for deciphering one from another, and concludes with h This had been sitting on my bookshelf for almost a year and was first on my list of books to read once I graduated college. Tom Wessels paints an intimate portrait of New England’s forests while still managing to inject enough scientific rigor into his analyses of forest scenes to render this publication firmly in the realm of academia. Each chapter focuses on a specific type of disturbance (fire, logging, blowdowns, etc.), the telltale signs for deciphering one from another, and concludes with historical insight that led to the forest conditions we get to enjoy today. The actual layout of the book is set up methodically and he manages to paint in, with broad strokes, the importance of our forests while leaving us with much to contemplate facing the loss of these natural treasures. What he says is poignant, crucial, and still applicable 20+ years on; it’s certainly given me a lot to talk about on hikes with friends.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ethan Vannata

    Insightful

  7. 5 out of 5

    Carol

    This was a fascinating book, lent to me by my friend Fred (thanks Fred!). As I read it I kept thinking "now where was this book when I was in my ecology classes in college?" We often take the countryside and forest flora for granted when we walk through them. Not in the sense that we don't appreciate them, but we don't stop to ask ourselves "why these particular plants here?" That's the question I've asked myself since taking Bill Niering's classes all those years ago. Reading Wessels' book has This was a fascinating book, lent to me by my friend Fred (thanks Fred!). As I read it I kept thinking "now where was this book when I was in my ecology classes in college?" We often take the countryside and forest flora for granted when we walk through them. Not in the sense that we don't appreciate them, but we don't stop to ask ourselves "why these particular plants here?" That's the question I've asked myself since taking Bill Niering's classes all those years ago. Reading Wessels' book has provided me with a refresher course, as well as giving me several new tips and tricks. I knew about such things as "cradles and pillows" (depressions and mounds on the forest floor indicating past tree blowdowns, the depressions being created as the root mass is pulled from the ground, and the mounds formed later as all that organic matter decays), and "wolf trees" (large openly branched trees next to stone walls, which once served as shade trees to browsing livestock in adjacent pastureland). New to me was information about how to read basal tree scars - evidence of fire when on the uphill side of a slope (the side on which leaf litter collects, thus providing fuel for a hotter fire), and evidence of logging when found on facing tree trunks (log skidders scarring the trees as they pass by). The format of the book is unique, and extremely well-suited to its purpose. Wessels begins each cryptically named chapter with an etching of a forest scene (by Brain Cohen), some of which portray actual sites, some of which are idealized. He then leads the reader through the process of sussing out what factors are most likely responsible for these trees and shrubs in this location. Finally, he rounds out the chapter with a historical discussion of the particular disturbance factor (fire, wind storms, human interaction, etc.) under discussion. Wessels has since written an associated field guide (Forest Forensics), complete with dichotomous key, even! (Those of a certain age may remember "Choose Your Own Adventure" books - if you want "x" to happen, turn to page 22; if you want "Z" to happen, turn to page 47. At the end of that page you are presented with another choice - etc., etc. That's how a dichotomous key works). This way, the next time you're walking in the woods, you can whip out your field guide and try to figure out on your own the history of the forest you're walking through. I've already ordered myself a copy! Note: Even though Wessels has written the book specifically for central New England and the species that typically grow there, much of the information is pertinent for southern and northern New England as well - though of course I would love it if there were a similar volume for CT and RI!)

  8. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

    I am so excited about this book. First of all, it directly applies to where I live- on the Maine coast, at the northern extreme of the map at the front of the book. As I sit at my dinner table, I view 180 degrees of such a forested landscape. The book is ingenious. It introduces the idea of forest "disturbance histories", such as fires, logging, diseases, and the climatic changes in this area for the past several thousand years. Each of the 7 chapters focuses on a single type of disturbance I am so excited about this book. First of all, it directly applies to where I live- on the Maine coast, at the northern extreme of the map at the front of the book. As I sit at my dinner table, I view 180 degrees of such a forested landscape. The book is ingenious. It introduces the idea of forest "disturbance histories", such as fires, logging, diseases, and the climatic changes in this area for the past several thousand years. Each of the 7 chapters focuses on a single type of disturbance history. The first page of each chapter is a black and white hand drawn illustration by artist Brian Cohen that depicts the specific type of disturbance ( e.g., beaver activity). The author then selects specific visual features from the picture and then frames them as successive clues that assist the reader in identifying the history of the landscape. The "Abandonment" chapter lays out the natural history of the beaver against the backdrop of European discover in the early 1600's in masterful form, in just 12 pages. It made me want to walk to a nearby beaver dam to verify the clues that would date the age of that mammal habitat. I can't wait to go out for a walk today and play "forest Columbo", and deepen my understanding of these forests that are a part of me. I already bought my own copy, and I haven't purchased any books in months.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kayla

    This is a must-read for anyone who spends time in the forest. The book teaches you how to be a forest sleuth and ascertain the history....logging, glacial, blight, etc of a particular stand of trees. The author writes in a style that is engaging and informative. In the end, you realize that you want to morally sign up to be a warden of New England's greatest resources: "I am not just a tourist passing through, but a part of the landscape--a partner in its dialogue. Through this relationship I con This is a must-read for anyone who spends time in the forest. The book teaches you how to be a forest sleuth and ascertain the history....logging, glacial, blight, etc of a particular stand of trees. The author writes in a style that is engaging and informative. In the end, you realize that you want to morally sign up to be a warden of New England's greatest resources: "I am not just a tourist passing through, but a part of the landscape--a partner in its dialogue. Through this relationship I continue to gain respect and reverence for the land, its history, its changes, and its well-being." Amazing book!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Carl Williams

    This is a wonderful book; it contains much of the information that your grandfather would tell you if you were out tromping in the woods with him. Each chapter begins with an illustration of a typical scene in the woods in this part of the world and than dissects it, explaining what happened or might have happened to make it so. It's language is a bit abstract for the ninth graders I look at it with, but it brims with content. Good stuff. This is a wonderful book; it contains much of the information that your grandfather would tell you if you were out tromping in the woods with him. Each chapter begins with an illustration of a typical scene in the woods in this part of the world and than dissects it, explaining what happened or might have happened to make it so. It's language is a bit abstract for the ninth graders I look at it with, but it brims with content. Good stuff.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Curt

    Curious about the minutiae of local patch of woods? This book is for you. Part Sherlock Holmes, part Bill McKibben, part Center for Land Use Interpretation. Learn how much of New England's rural landscape was shaped by thirty years of "sheep fever" from 1810-1840. Curious about the minutiae of local patch of woods? This book is for you. Part Sherlock Holmes, part Bill McKibben, part Center for Land Use Interpretation. Learn how much of New England's rural landscape was shaped by thirty years of "sheep fever" from 1810-1840.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Alan Mills

    This Spring, we spent a week in the Great Smokie Mountain National Park. As we hiked the ought he woods, I had repeated questions about the ecology: how long does it take for a fallen tree to decompose? We're trees with elevated roots avoiding wet soil, or did their up used to be something under them? Why were so many trees down is a particular area? This book seeks to answer these sorts of questions. It uses a series of etchings of forests to lead the reader though the various disruptions that s This Spring, we spent a week in the Great Smokie Mountain National Park. As we hiked the ought he woods, I had repeated questions about the ecology: how long does it take for a fallen tree to decompose? We're trees with elevated roots avoiding wet soil, or did their up used to be something under them? Why were so many trees down is a particular area? This book seeks to answer these sorts of questions. It uses a series of etchings of forests to lead the reader though the various disruptions that shape forests: man is responsible for two: logging, and clearance for pastures; beavers ALS dramatically impact their environment, both by creating lakes, and by cutting down good tasting trees to build their dams. In addition, fire, insects/fungus, and wind storms have all had huge impacts. The book focuses on the central New England forests...but many of the concepts apply to US forests more generally. What I found particularly fascinating is how limited our perspective is. We think of "virgin forests," but there really is nothing of the sort. Of the last 100,000 years, much of the time much of the northern US was covered by huge glaciers. Until 12,000 years ago, virtually all of New England (and all of Illinois) were covered in thousands of feet of ice. It wasn't until about 5,000 years ago that trees began to repopulate the area....and there is evidence that starting then, indigenous people began to actively manage the forests, largely through controlled burns. It wasn't until 3,000 years ago that the mix of trees we see today had populated the region. Then in the 1700's, the British started cutting large straight pines, for ship masts, and by the early 1800's, huge numbers of sheep had been introduced (which is why most of the stone walls you see remnants of today were built). The sheep were give by the late 1800's, and trees began to recolonize the pastures. Then in the early 1900's, hemlock and then, a little later, elm became decimated by disease. In sum, the idea that there is some static state in which the nation's forests could be termed "virgin" is mythical. Fascinating read for anyone who wants to look more deeply into the forests they are walking through.

  13. 4 out of 5

    James

    This is one of several books that I have sometimes assigned in my class on land protection, along with the more management-oriented Thoreau's Country by David Foster. Elegant drawings and clear prose guide Wessels' reader to understand the sticks, stones, soils, and streams encountered during any hike in New England woods. When I first read the book, in fact, I recognized many of the lessons from walks in the Vermont woods that I had taken with a National Park Service ranger who had studied with This is one of several books that I have sometimes assigned in my class on land protection, along with the more management-oriented Thoreau's Country by David Foster. Elegant drawings and clear prose guide Wessels' reader to understand the sticks, stones, soils, and streams encountered during any hike in New England woods. When I first read the book, in fact, I recognized many of the lessons from walks in the Vermont woods that I had taken with a National Park Service ranger who had studied with Wessels. Despite the loss of forest to suburban sprawl in some parts of New England, the region overall has several times more forest than it did in the 19th Century. Throughout New England, we find forests that look at first like remnants that somehow avoided being used by humans. Wessels describes how to interpret clues to a much more complex history of human interaction with the land.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Louise

    This was a very interesting book, and set up a little differently than I expected. By using several black and white etchings, the author made a "how-to" book on recognizing forest disturbances. I really liked the arrangement as well, with each chapter focusing on a different type of disturbance and then delving into the history of that disturbance in the New England forest (e.g. fire). The history piece might not be as interesting to people with no interest in New England forests, but the princi This was a very interesting book, and set up a little differently than I expected. By using several black and white etchings, the author made a "how-to" book on recognizing forest disturbances. I really liked the arrangement as well, with each chapter focusing on a different type of disturbance and then delving into the history of that disturbance in the New England forest (e.g. fire). The history piece might not be as interesting to people with no interest in New England forests, but the principles would apply to any forest. I would recommend this book to anyone who's interested in what they can learn through a walk through the forest -- even people who aren't generally knowledgable about plants.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bill Ibelle

    "Fascinating read if you want to understand understand the forest you're hiking through on your way to those mountaintop views. Wessels approaches his task like a forensic scientist, searching for clues the forest disturbances and evolution that way a criminal pathologist searches for clues at a crime scene. There is an abundance of fun facts about forest evolution, environmental threats, and the way forests have evolved in the face of human management and abuse. My favorite parts were the histo "Fascinating read if you want to understand understand the forest you're hiking through on your way to those mountaintop views. Wessels approaches his task like a forensic scientist, searching for clues the forest disturbances and evolution that way a criminal pathologist searches for clues at a crime scene. There is an abundance of fun facts about forest evolution, environmental threats, and the way forests have evolved in the face of human management and abuse. My favorite parts were the historical sections at the end of each chapter. In all, it was a terrific read for anyone who spends time in the woods.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Winnett

    This book is a gem. It talks about why things are and what to look for and what those details are saying. As a novice naturalist, this is stuff you could pick up after years of observations, but I like getting a boost of knowledge to speed things up. These lessons should be in some in person classes (they probably are). I'm in the PNW so much of this information doesn't work for me, but it was still eye opening about what certain things I see in a forest might mean. It gives me clues and tools t This book is a gem. It talks about why things are and what to look for and what those details are saying. As a novice naturalist, this is stuff you could pick up after years of observations, but I like getting a boost of knowledge to speed things up. These lessons should be in some in person classes (they probably are). I'm in the PNW so much of this information doesn't work for me, but it was still eye opening about what certain things I see in a forest might mean. It gives me clues and tools to convert to my own forests. Truly a treasure.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Peter Henne

    This is an excellent book for anyone interested in learning more about the world around them. The author presents a wealth of knowledge on New England forests, but in an interesting format. He discusses a variety of ways that forests were disrupted by human or natural occurrences, provides tips on how to identify this disruption (and thus the background of a forest), and presents the relevant history of the region. It will make you appreciate the complex history of the woods you walk through.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Laurel

    Simple, straightforward teaching in this book. It is amazing how much I learned and how easy it is to apply the author’s ideas in real life. I now find myself looking out the window driving through New Hampshire, searching for stone walls, field thrown stones, pillows and hammocks, wolf trees, and beaver dams. This is above and beyond 5 stars for anyone who enjoys spending time in the woods of New England.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jeff DeRosa

    Interesting perspective and insight on how to read the central New England landscape. However, I found the natural history part of this book to be most interesting. The writing itself is not as fun some other Naturalists I've read. Nevertheless, this is an excellent book for learning about New England's forests. Interesting perspective and insight on how to read the central New England landscape. However, I found the natural history part of this book to be most interesting. The writing itself is not as fun some other Naturalists I've read. Nevertheless, this is an excellent book for learning about New England's forests.

  20. 5 out of 5

    David Robertson

    A classic--and only 25 years old! Reading this is a "must" for anyone interested in the natural history of central New England specifically and in the eastern deciduous forest in general. I'm a retired forest ecologist who worked in Mid-Atlantic forests and I still learned things; I should have read this book when it was first published! A classic--and only 25 years old! Reading this is a "must" for anyone interested in the natural history of central New England specifically and in the eastern deciduous forest in general. I'm a retired forest ecologist who worked in Mid-Atlantic forests and I still learned things; I should have read this book when it was first published!

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ellen Parker

    If you're interested in learning why a forest looks the way it does. A forest or any natural landscape is not a fixed environment. It looked like something different a few hundred years ago, and it will look totally different a few hundred years from now. The major processes are succession and disturbance. If you're interested in learning why a forest looks the way it does. A forest or any natural landscape is not a fixed environment. It looked like something different a few hundred years ago, and it will look totally different a few hundred years from now. The major processes are succession and disturbance.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Geoff

    A very clear well written book that provides the tools to understand the structure of a present day landscape. While specific to central New England, these tools can be used to see the landscape anywhere and learn to understand what causes things to happen. Really remarkable and thoughtful.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jerrid Kruse

    The author makes the inconspicuous into full-fledged scientific investigations. With connections to all aspects of environmental science and the history of the US (including accurate portrayals of colonialism and native peoples), this book will change the way you look at forests.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    An easy little read with many practical tips for understanding the history of a forest from what you see about you. I look forward to taking these ideas into the woods with me next hike and trying to read the forest.

  25. 4 out of 5

    David

    A very thought-provoking book, useful for interpreting the past and current woodland and also a warning about the results of human activity: introduction of foreign blights, acid rain, air pollution and global warming. Although published in 1997, it is still relevant today.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Betsey

    Such a fun book to take along on walks through the woods - it answers so many questions about how our landscape became what we see and experience! And not to be missed is Tom Wessels' The Granite Landscape - about granite domes from Acadia to Yosemite. Such a fun book to take along on walks through the woods - it answers so many questions about how our landscape became what we see and experience! And not to be missed is Tom Wessels' The Granite Landscape - about granite domes from Acadia to Yosemite.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    I couldn't put this book down. A fascinating forensic tour through the history of New England. forests. Not technical; highly recommended. I couldn't put this book down. A fascinating forensic tour through the history of New England. forests. Not technical; highly recommended.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Shannon

    What a great inspiration to go take a deeper look at our forests!

  29. 5 out of 5

    David Blake

    A must read for anyone who walks the woods -- I'll keep it close and reference it many times! A must read for anyone who walks the woods -- I'll keep it close and reference it many times!

  30. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Miller

    A fascinating and educational read. Learned so much about reading landscapes and their individual elements. Opened up a whole new area of interest!

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