TOWNSEND -- It might seem farfetched, but in 1840, there was much more open ground than there is now. Only 20 percent of the acreage in New England was wooded, the rest was pastures, hay fields and crops fields.
The region was in the grip of "sheep fever." Newly introduced Merino sheep were a good cash crop for thrifty farmers thanks to wars in Europe and the invention of the power loom.
Today, the sheep are gone and the forest has returned, but not in exactly its original condition.
Between 1810 and 1840, farmers built125,000 miles of stone walls with an unwanted "crop." Stones rose to the surface as the ground, stripped of root cover, froze and thawed.
The region has made a remarkable recovery, Tom Wessels, professor emeritus at Anticoch University in Keene, N.H. told the Friends of Willard Brook.
The author of "Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England" spoke at the annual meeting held June 23 at the Townsend Meeting Hall.
Wessels shared information on how to interpret clues left by the trees, walls and ground found out in the woods.
An overgrazed pasture will first produce low-growing plants that animals cannot graze. The small bare spots that start to develop will soon sprout coarse weeds that are unpalatable or spiny like milkweed and thistle.
Next come berry producing shrubs which serve as a nursery for trees, which if they germinated out in the open would get browsed out of existence, Wessels
Once the forest returned, it may have been logged more than once. Some types of tree stumps rot from the outside in and others all at once, giving clues to the species.
The stone walls can give clues to land use too. If there are lots of small stones, the land was repeatedly plowed. As the topsoil eroded and smaller rocks were forced to the surface, they were used in surrounding walls.
"You can imagine the dismay as rock came pouring out of the fields," Wessels said.
With no other choice, the New Englanders used the stone. "The walls always had a functionality," Wessels said.
"The most powerful political position was fence warden," he said. Fines for substandard fencing were high.
Fences had to reach a minimum height to prevent livestock from plundering neighboring fields. "They could devastate crop fields in minutes," Wessels said.
After the presentation, Wessels led a walk in the woods behind the Squannacook School, so the over 50 people in attendance could see some of the things he talked about.
He pointed out stumps, wind-damaged trees, some that had been crowded out by a high canopy and even issued a warning about making your own birch beer.
After drinking birch beer he made from a naturalist's recipe, Wessels ended up at the hospital. Too much of the wintergreen smelling bark turns out to be poisonous.