W. Wyatt Oswald sheds light on the environmental history of a lost landscape.

For those of us who walk in New England’s woods, we are rewarded by the regular rhythms of the seasons—the comings and goings of autumn leaves, springtime blossoms, birds migrating in formation— and, if we pay attention, by the occasional, wonderful surprise. I walk most days in the woods of the Middlesex Fells Reservation, a nearly 2300-acre piece of public conservation land spanning parts of the towns of Malden, Medford, Melrose, Stoneham, and Winchester, just north of Boston. I get exercise, I greet friendly dogs and people, and with each outing I become more familiar with the trails, trees, rocks, wetlands, and wildlife of the Fells. And because I’m an ecologist with a focus on past environments, while I’m walking I can’t help but read the landscape for clues about its history. The composition of the forest, the growth forms of individual trees, fire-scarred tree trunks, and dilapidated stone walls all hint at past land use or other ecological disturbances.

The trailhead closest to where I live is at North Reservoir, one of three reservoirs that form part of the water-supply system for the town of Winchester, on the west side of the Fells. The North Reservoir dam, built in 1875, has been in need of repair for years, and so this past spring the reservoir was partially drained so that the dam could be reconstructed, a major project featuring all manner of pumps, trucks, and earth-moving equipment. And with the water level several feet lower than normal, a large area of the floor of the reservoir has been exposed.

This fall I decided to circumnavigate North Reservoir and explore the exposed shoreline, figuring I might find a few treasures, like lost fishing tackle or antique beer bottles. I walked along the dry lake bottom, and as I neared the southern end of the reservoir I was surprised to come upon a stone wall. It ran downhill from the upland forest, crossed the mud flats in front of me, dropped below water for a short stretch in what remained of the reservoir, then continued across the opposite shoreline, back into the woods. Stone walls aren’t as common or prominent in the Fells as in some other parts of New England, and in thick vegetation they may be hard to pick out, but this wall was laid bare, a straight line of piled rocks ranging in size from bread loaves to car tires. The wall was a clear sign that, prior to the creation of North Reservoir, this area had been farmed.

I stepped over the stone wall. A few feet beyond it was a tree stump, rooted in the mud flats and approximately two feet in diameter. It appeared that the bark was gone and the exposed wood was gray, caked with mud in places. The tree had been felled with a “scarf” cut, horizontal cuts on opposite sides of the tree, one slightly higher than the other to determine the direction in which the tree would fall.

I looked up from the stump and was amazed to see dozens of others, spread across an area of the lake bottom the size of a soccer field. It then hit me: I was standing amid a group of trees that had been salvage logged, presumably just before the filling of North Reservoir in 1875. I wandered from stump to stump, observing a range of diameters, from six inches to two feet across. Many of the stumps had decayed, but some were in good enough shape that I could see annual rings on parts of the cut surface. The rings were quite wide, and with some back-of-the-envelope extrapolation I figured the largest trees may have been forty or fifty years old when they were felled. And if the North Reservoir dam was built in 1875, that puts the establishment of those trees at around 1830.

The stumps that remained were frozen in time by the rising water of the new reservoir

I eventually left the stumps, delighted by my discovery. As I walked towards home, I thought about what had happened at that place in the century or so before it was flooded by North Reservoir, and I started to piece together its ecological and land-use history. During the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century, the land may have been a woodlot, as was the case in parts of what’s now the Fells, but more likely it was pasture for sheep or cows, or perhaps farmed for grains, which would have been processed at one of the area’s water-powered mills. Once the open field was abandoned, a cohort of trees, probably fast-growing white pines, would have been able to establish in the high-light environment. Henry David Thoreau, who lived at the same time as these trees, observed this phenomenon in nearby Concord: “How suddenly, after all, pines seem to shoot up and fill the pastures!” Over the next few decades, as some of the pioneering white pines succumbed to competition from their neighbors, other trees, perhaps oaks, were afforded opportunities to establish in the understory. Of course none of those trees lived beyond the 1870s, when they fell to a cross-cut saw, their wood milled for lumber or burned to heat homes. And the stumps that remained were frozen in time by the rising water of the new reservoir.

I arrived home with a new understanding of, and appreciation for, the New England woods where I take my walks. I pulled off my boots, still coated with lake-bottom mud, then went to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. I smiled to myself upon realizing that the water in which the tea bag was steeping may have flowed through a logged stand of mid-nineteenth-century white pines at the bottom of North Reservoir.

W. Wyatt Oswald in an environmental scientist and professor in the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College.

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