It’s a still, misty afternoon in Westminster, Vermont, and low-angled sun rays are piercing the water droplets, making everything seem preternaturally bright. Tom Wessels pulls on his boots in the doorway of his scribe-fit log home, made from white pine harvested from the property. He and his wife began building the cabin more than 30 years ago. “It’s still not quite done,” he says.
While Wessels is officially an ecologist and a teacher, naturalists around New England know him as a detective who solves historical woodland mysteries. His books highlight commonplace objects in the forest that a normal person might overlook – scraped bark, twisted trees, vague shapes in the earth – that can be used to piece together the land’s history. Once a person learns about basal scars, weird apples, cellar holes, or pillows and cradles (the humps and hollows caused by large, wind toppled trees), these features are hard to ignore.
As Wessels leads a tour of the woods near his home, he points out some of these clues.
“The first thing I look at is the ground – whether it is smooth and even or pillowed and cradled,” he says. Smooth ground often indicates that it’s a former crop field or hayfield, while dramatic pillows and cradles tell you the land hasn’t ever been plowed. “See how smooth the ground is?” he says. “A lot of soil has been moved here.” He then points out an old plow trough, now just a subtle indentation in the soil next to a stone wall.
Passing a stone-lined cellar hole on his land, he mentions it was probably abandoned in the 1840s (because 1850s-era maps don’t show the building). He points to a wind-tipped white pine, bent by the hurricane of 1938. The pine came in after the pasture was abandoned, he says, and from the number of whorls on the original leader, he knows it was about 20 years old when it was tipped. That helps him date pasture abandonment of much of his land to 1920 or so. Wessels has been generating and testing similar hypotheses about land use history for about 35 years.
Wessels is founding director of the master’s degree program in conservation biology at Antioch University New England in Keene, New Hampshire. His former students use words like “never hurried,” “clear,” “straightforward,” and “calm” to describe him. He’s good at sorting out what’s important, they say. He’s grounded.
As a generalist, Wessels is a bit unusual in academia, where narrow areas of expertise are usually required. How did he manage to carve out such an holistic area of study for his career in ecology? “Luck,” he says, and “serendipity.” He has strong opinions about how science should be taught. He sees the “piecemeal, linear, reductionist” nature of traditional science education as a failure of the educational system, arguing that “unless we take the pieces and put them back together, it’s not very functional or useful.”
Wessels grew up in the 1950s in a suburban home on Long Island Sound and spent much of his boyhood in a small patch of woods in the neighborhood, playing cowboys and Indians and building tree forts. When he took dendrology as an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire, he realized that although he hadn’t known their names as a boy, he could identify different forest types in that woodland and could already discern the different tree species by their bark.
He intended to be a wildlife biologist, but his ecological career still had several twists and turns in store. He recounts how, while on a trip to Acadia during his senior year in college, he saw a geology class on a sunrise tour and knew at that instant that he wanted to teach field classes at a small college. He ran over to talk with the instructor, Bill Drury from the College of the Atlantic, about how to get there. Drury advised him that it’s good to know about a lot of different areas if you’re going to be at a small school, and soon Wessels was heading to the University of Colorado to study plant ecology. It was there he confirmed that his heart was in teaching, and there that John Marr introduced him to the idea of reading landscapes.
He returned to New England with a master’s degree and began reading landscapes with his classes at several schools around the region. After a few years, he found his way to Antioch and today is comfortably settled as a member of the core faculty.
His students once told him, “You ought to put this stuff in a book.” Thus were born Reading the Forested Landscape (1997) and The Granite Landscape (2001). His wide-ranging interests also led him to write The Myth of Progress (2006) and collaborate on several other books.
He says that he picked up the information in Reading the Forested Landscape here and there, mentioning author Neil Jorgensen, for example, as his source for “pillows and cradles.” But he estimates that he’s about 50 percent self taught. “I spent a lot of time investigating diaries, deeds, and tax records,” he says. As he correlated what he found in these records with what he observed on the ground, he amassed a huge set of data that he now carries around in his head. His eyes flash with enthusiasm as he discusses the usefulness of old tax records, unexciting as they may sound to the uninitiated: “They’ll tell you exactly what was produced at a farm and for what years!”
In response to people telling him they loved Reading the Forested Landscape but had difficulty keeping all the information straight when they went out into the woods, he published Forest Forensics last fall, a field guide with a simple dichotomous key and more than 80 color photos to help readers distinguish between, say, plow terraces and road cuts, or tip-ups and deadfall. Collectively, his books have now sold more than 50,000 copies.
To those readers who despair that they will never reach a point where they stop feeling like they’re making things up, Wessels offers this reassurance: “Don’t worry, just go out and look and make hypotheses and test them. It probably took me about 10 years to feel like I knew what I was doing.”
Even today, Wessels doesn’t claim to have all the answers. For the longest time, he says, he didn’t see the signs pointing to grain production on his own land; he thought it had been pasture. He still wonders why there is a tiny patch of never plowed pillowed and cradled land in the middle of his acreage, and why there is a clump of old-growth pine stumps that must have been left uncut for an unusually long time.
Ultimately, the answers aren’t as important as the study itself. The simple act of closely observing the forested landscape allows one to become more intimate with the woods. “Developing intimacy with the land is like developing intimacy with a person,” Wessels says. “You need to know what shaped them, their stories.”
Heather Fitzgerald has taught ecology and natural history using Reading the Forested Landscape since 2002.