“Succession” is a term used by environmental scientists to describe the stages that may happen to a natural environment; for example, a forest may be cleared to make way for agriculture, then later abandoned and slowly return to a forest, albeit a different forest. These stages are described as the succession from forest to field to forest.
I used three tools to determine the natural history of my study area: old photos and drawings that volunteers Stephanie and Bob Johnston found for me at the Strafford Historical Society; an interview with Phil Coburn, whose family has been in the area since the 1800s and who has been involved with the land as a logger and sugar-maker most of his sixty-plus years; and finally by hiking and examining the lay of the land and the flora that grows there.
Much of the land around Strafford was clear-cut for farming in the 1800s, however some of my study area seems to have been spared because of the steepness of the hills, the south facing rock outcroppings, and the mesic nature of the land. There is a large swath of tall pines that follow the edge of woods and remaining fields; this is understandable, for white pine is a fast growing pioneer species. However there is also another band of pine that traverses through the woods, parallel to the road down below. Old photos from the early 1900s show that that area was a cleared corridor connecting two fields; this corridor grew up in pines after the fields were abandoned. When I asked Phil about the huge pine stumps cut off at 3 feet high and 3 feet across, lining up perfectly, along a rock wall, he told me yes, that was an old fencerow. But he also added that those giant pines were planted by Justin Smith Morrill—our well-loved Vermont senator, author of the Land Grant College Act, on whose land I now hiked. And, he added with a bit of folklore, that there was a half of a dead horse under each one!!!!! Phil harvested three of the pines himself, building a barn and flooring his house with the boards. Morrill died in 1898, so the pines must have been over 100 years old. The old pines reseeded the corridor after it was abandoned.
Some of the old fields have been maintained, mowed or hayed occasionally, but the families who own them no longer run sheep or cows. They might work for the road crew or be a carpenter, run the general store, or have made a living in the city and hope to retire to pastoral Strafford. Much of the very steep, mesic forest is hemlock and yellow and white birch. Phil told me that various areas of the forest have been logged just in the last thirty years, hardwood areas logged for maple, birch, beech, and ash, being careful to leave the large sugar maples, and with selected hemlock harvested for pulp, At the height of the land lies a sugar shack (where the porcupine now lives and growls at me when I ski by).
When I hike the forest, I see areas of young yellow and white birch, beech, ash and maple along with white pine, hemlock and red spruce. I see some small elm and cherry too. I see large hardwood trees that were left behind to help with reseeding. In the mesic areas I see thick, dark hemlock forests that are cool and un-penetrable except to the deer, turkey, and fox whose tracks I see in the snow. Most of these recently logged hardwood areas are young and thin. I predict they will continue to grow and fill out their canopy over the next few decades, shading the undergrowth, until they are logged again. Since there is three feet of snow on the ground now, I am trying hard to remember if there are fern, trillium, hobblebush, sarsaparilla, trout lily, violets and Indian pipes….and my memory is yes, I have seen them all up here.
Today, when I go for a ski I might see golden crowned kinglets in the hemlocks, foraging with chickadees, downy and hairy woodpeckers, nuthatches, and titmice. In the summer, I’ll track the rose-breasted grosbeak, veery, and scarlet tanager; ovenbirds, vireos and restarts will be common; in the evenings, I’ll hear the hermit or wood thrush and in the mornings, the tapping of yellow bellied sapsuckers who will find a mate and nest in the old, rotting trees high snags in the woods.Presently this land is used for a small amount of sugaring and logging, hayfields, hunting, conservation of wild flora and fauna, preservation of water shed, and aesthetics.
The first photo from 1904 shows the village, which is the beginning of my study area. Both fields are much smaller now with tall hedgerows of pine and sugar maple.
Second and third photos shows the corridor running from left to tight connecting two fields, that is now pine; the 3’ pines with the dead horses underneath would be on the downhill edge of this corridor, and much smaller.
The last image is of a drawing of the right section of my study area; this is the right field that was connected by the corridor. This Stickney area was more heavily cleared and is to this day an area for sheep and horses, although many of the fields have succeeded to young forests, the steep areas to brush, and the hedgerows are thicker and taller. When I first moved to Strafford I worked as a farm hand for Roz and Jim Finn on this hilltop sheep farm, so I have mowed and built fences on many of these fields in a never-ending attempt to keep sheep where they are meant to be and to keep the old fields from once again becoming mixed hardwood northern forests.