Nature and Culture in the Northern Forest: Region, Heritage, and Environment in the Rural Northeast

Nature and Culture in the Northern Forest: Region, Heritage, and Environment in the Rural Northeast

by Pavel Cenkl

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Nearly 30 million acres of the Northern Forest stretch across New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Within this broad area live roughly a million residents whose lives are intimately associated with the forest ecosystem and whose individual stories are closely linked to the region’s cultural and environmental history. The fourteen engaging essays in


Nearly 30 million acres of the Northern Forest stretch across New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Within this broad area live roughly a million residents whose lives are intimately associated with the forest ecosystem and whose individual stories are closely linked to the region’s cultural and environmental history. The fourteen engaging essays in Nature and Culture in the Northern Forest effectively explore the relationships among place, work, and community in this complex landscape. Together they serve as a stimulating introduction to the interdisciplinary study of this unique region.
      Each of the four sections views through a different lens the interconnections between place and people. The essayists in “Encounters” have their hiking boots on as they focus on personal encounters with flora and fauna of the region. The energizing accounts in “Teaching and Learning” question our assumptions about education and scholarship by proposing invigorating collaborations between teachers and students in ways determined by the land itself, not by the abstractions of pedagogy. With the freshness of Thoreau’s irreverence, the authors in “Rethinking Place” look at key figures in the forest’s literary and cultural development to help us think about the affiliations between place and citizenship. In “Nature as Commodity,” three essayists consider the ways that writers from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries thought about nature as a product and, thus, how their conclusions bear on the contemporary retailing of place.
     The writers in Nature and Culture in the Northern Forest reveal the rich affinities between a specific place and the literature, thought, and other cultural expressions it has nurtured. Their insightful and stimulating connections exemplify adventurous bioregional thinking that encompasses both natural and cultural realities while staying rooted in the particular landscape of some of the Northeast’s wildest forests and oldest settlements.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“How good to see sharp thinkers engaging the mysteries and possibilities of one of the world’s most interesting and hopeful corners, the mountains and woods of the northeast. This book will start many gears turning in your head!”—Bill McKibben, author, Wandering Home

Nature and Culture in the Northern Forest celebrates the beauty and dynamism of a long-settled area that also holds one of the major forests of the earth. It exemplifies a venturesome and inventive moment in the unfurling of environmental studies. And it articulates a more vividly integrated vision of education and conservation alike.”—from the foreword by John Elder

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University of Iowa Press
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American Land & Life
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Nature and Culture in the Northern Forest

Region, Heritage, and Environment in the Rural Northeast

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2010 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-856-1

Chapter One

Reading Place in the Northern Forest


As I write this in early spring, outside the door of our home in northern Vermont the ground in the yard has started to give a little underfoot, and the snow has begun to recede up the mountain slopes, leaving visible some of the secrets it has kept since late fall. Alongside the misplaced garden tools, dog toys, and flowerpots that are slowly reappearing after months of absence, more subtle contours of our neighborhood's earlier history also become apparent as they lose their winter mantle.

Squaring off fields, shoring up slopes, and helping to guide our road through fields and woods, miles of stone walls frame the narrative of this landscape. Although many of the walls near us appear thrown together only haphazardly, as though a farmer tossed stones over his shoulder and left them where they fell, in their heyday many of the walls stood straight and square and helped to determine a farm's success or failure. In the century and a half since the majority of the region's walls were built, annual cycles of freeze and thaw, the insistent push of tree roots, denning animals, and curious or mischievous visitors have all taken their toll-as Robert Frost writes,"something there is that doesn't love a wall." The pasture across the road, now a tangle of matted yellow grass and clover, punctuated here and there by an errant poplar sapling, nonetheless remains girded by walls of granite stones covered in the mossy vestments of age.

The walls that define the landscape in Vermont, neighboring New Hampshire, and throughout the Northern Forest are veritable stories of our region's history as they run from fields, through woods, and across unlikely stretches of hardscrabble hillside. According to one estimate, there are more than 250,000 miles of walls in New England and New York. Written in granite, schist, lichen, and moss, these occasionally improbable lines of stony verse indelibly trace the history of our place even as they inevitably succumb to the soft earth's invitation to tumble down.

The writer and wall builder Kevin Gardner has made a craft of mixing metaphor with manufacture in the deliberate and meditative practice of building stone walls today. For him, the work is about cat caves, cigars, cantaloupes, puddle caps, snouts, and cheap seducers. Building a stone wall seems almost as much like writing as writing sometimes feels like precariously stacking stones in a wall. In the glossary to Gardner's book The Granite Kiss, he defines the "granite kiss" of the book's title as a euphemism to describe fingers pinched between two rocks. I like to think of the term as more descriptive of rocks that fit tightly together, each dependent upon the other's stability to keep the wall standing straight, but Gardner offers terms for these rocks as well-through-stones, which pass the width of a wall, and thrufters, which add strength by reaching into the depths of a wall. Of course, the stones themselves are fragments of the region's geologic record, their composition hinting at which northern ledges glaciers bore them from thousands of years before. Weaving in and out of woodlots, coursing beside roads, skirting the edges of fallow fields, these walls piece together stories of the land, its people, and the history of their encounters. What the language of the walls tells us is the relationship between people and the place they inhabit; it isn't only strength that a wall's larger stones provide, but interdependence. If a frost heave dislodges a thrufter, the wall will not stand long.

THE ENVIRONMENTAL and cultural stories that interweave the nearly 30 million acres of the Northern Forest are an uncountable array of stones, all fitting closely together. The Northern Forest, stretching across New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, is part of the larger boreal forest that reaches north into Canada and west across the Great Lakes. In the Northeast the forest is a zone of transition between the broadleaf forests of central and southern New England and the spruce-fir forest that stretches toward the Arctic Circle. Within this broad area live roughly a million year-round residents, many of whose lives are intimately associated with the forest ecosystem and whose individual stories are closely linked to the region's cultural and environmental history.

In the story of the area's early settlement and development, environmental, industrial, and cultural narratives have been inextricably connected. Early residents turned acres of forest into potash and charcoal to support local mining industries, while others denuded hillsides in Vermont and New Hampshire for farming. Henry David Thoreau, during an 1858 visit to New Hampshire's White Mountains, described the view from Franconia's Mount Lafayette as encompassing a "leopard-spotted land" of patchwork clear-cuts, farmland, and forest. Many towns rose from the Northeast's challenging hilly terrain in the 1820s and 1830s and, in one of the region's greater historical ironies, disappeared with equal rapidity as more fertile and less rocky farmland was settled to the west. The farmhouse foundations, millraces, and miles of stone walls they left behind remain as stories for willing, patient readers. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the proliferation of large-scale logging throughout the Northeast, and the inevitable accompanying fires and silt-laden streams led the native Vermont conservationist George Perkins Marsh to chastise North Country logging as an example of the "terrible destructiveness of man." Marsh's seminal 1864 book, Man and Nature, motivated other conservation advocates, including Joseph B. Walker and John E. Johnson to declare toward the end of the century that without intervention the Northern Forest would become a "blackened, hideous, howling wilderness."

As preservation- and conservation-minded opponents to unchecked logging and development in the region grew more vocal toward the end of the nineteenth century, forest protections were gradually written into state and federal legislation. After a quarter-century-long debate between industrial leaders and conservationists, in 1885 New York Governor David Hill signed a bill designating nearly three quarters of a million acres in the Adirondacks as a forest preserve. In New Hampshire, after the passage of the pivotal Weeks Act in 1911, the path was open to set aside federally protected national forests, and many local and regional activists shepherded the creation of the White Mountain National Forest in the same year. Twenty years afterward, Maine Governor Percival Baxter proclaimed the region surrounding Mount Katahdin a recreational preserve for the people of Maine. In 1932, after almost three decades of appeals to state and federal governments, Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest was set aside as a 102,000-acre conservation area, an area which would more than double three years later. These four major preserves, three of which are within a day's drive of approximately 70 million people, include nearly 4.5 million acres of forestland. Bridging the land between these areas, surrounding them, and often within their boundaries is a patchwork of federal, state, local, and private land holdings, the last of which account for nearly 85 percent of total land ownership in the Northern Forest as a whole.

It is this mix of ownership, as well as the region's accessibility for a variety of recreational, developmental, and industrial uses, that largely defines the complex and occasionally contentious narrative of the Northern Forest. The last quarter of the twentieth century saw a series of significant land sales, principally from defunct or consolidating paper and lumber operations to developers. Public outcry at the apparent loss of public access to these lands, the loss of jobs that accompanied their sale, and the considerable cost to northeastern states to purchase many of these properties for conservation purposes has been vocal and effective. The land sales of the 1980s and 1990s have been catalysts that have helped to shape continuing discussions and affect policy decisions that attempt to balance local environmental, economic, and cultural concerns with the pressures of outside interests. The 1994 Northern Forest Lands Council report, for example, was an attempt to use a variety of lenses to index the Northern Forest as a unique place and to suggest some possible directions for its future development and preservation. Dozens of nonprofit organizations across the Northeast, in growing collaboration, advocate for a variety of initiatives to preserve both the Northern Forest's cultural and environmental heritage. In only one example of the kind of innovative collaboration that current land use demands, in response to the 2001 proposed sale of 171,000 acres in northern New Hampshire by International Paper in October 2003, a diversity of conservation, forestry, and recreation organizations, with the help of New Hampshire state officials and federal Forest Legacy and Wetlands Conservation grants, successfully purchased and protected from development what is now known as the Connecticut Headwaters region. Nonprofit organizations such as the Northern Forest Center have worked to consolidate and focus regional resources to work toward a sustainable environmental, economic, and cultural future for forest.

THE DYNAMIC, shifting economic and environmental landscape of the Northern Forest is reflected as much in the writing that the region precipitates as in the ties of the people to the land. Thickets of meaning-and of saplings-abound in the New England and New York woods. There are stories everywhere in the Northern Forest; residents know well that one cannot walk far in these woods without stumbling on some artifact of the logging, farming, mining, or tourist industry. At the center of this collection is the notion that one does not need to go far at all to find a landscape rich with stories; one just needs to know how to look.

In many ways, the intimate wildness of the Northeast has strengthened residents' connection to the land they live on-the thick undergrowth, forested mountainsides, hidden ponds and streams insist upon thorough knowledge and close reading of the stories written in the layers of forest duff. As early as the 1880s, essayists such as Bradford Torrey and Frank Bolles sought to retell the stories hidden in derelict barns and fallow fields and orchards across New Hampshire's White Mountains. Today's writers follow their footsteps through now trackless woods to trace what John Elder has called "the natural, historical, and aesthetic thickness of the landscape." As much as contemporary discourse about the Northern Forest largely centers on conservation easements, sustainable timber harvesting, and the future of a rural economy, it also considers the story of the region as a unique place. The intent of this book is to define the region as broadly as possible, geographically, ecologically, and culturally, in order to most effectively explore the layering of cultural and natural history in the Northern Forest's often-contested terrain.

IN AN ATTEMPT to turn a critical eye upon the many layers of this varied and diverse landscape, a pair of symposia convened more than 150 scholars, artists, writers, community members, teachers, and students to help define what is meant by terms like Northern Forest or northern New England's Rural Heritage. For one event, held in June 2004 at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Highland Center Lodge at the height of Crawford Notch in the White Mountains, more than 100 participants celebrated the environmental and cultural heritage of the forest at the Nature and Culture in the Northern Forest Symposium. The event, sponsored principally by the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), along with the Appalachian Mountain Club, Plymouth State University, and a number of regional nonprofit organizations, sought to implement an interdisciplinary approach to Northern Forest studies and to foster dialogue among diverse voices about the intersection of environmental and cultural concerns across the region. Held on three remarkably cloud- and black-fly-free days in early June, the symposium brought together an international group of scholars, educators, forestry and recreation professionals, artists, and writers. Organized partly to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Northern Forest Lands Study, the symposium generated many questions about how to define the Northern Forest as well as how we might constructively rethink the region's boundaries. What arose from the symposium were perhaps more questions than answers, but also ideas about how to think more broadly about the interconnections between place and people and between the literary history of the region and its contemporary cultural, political, economic, and environmental concerns.

A second symposium, the Rural Heritage Institute, was held in the summer of 2008 at Sterling College in Vermont to provide a venue for discussing and exploring firsthand the relationships between place, work, and community across the Northeast. The 2008 institute's theme was "The Place of Work in Rural Communities," and over the course of four days in June, participants balanced scholarly discussions with field trips to local farms, historical societies, and archeological sites as well as having firsthand experience with draft horses, oxen, and the farm chores integral to an emergent sustainable regional foodshed. As a complement to the 2004 Northern Forest symposium, this regional institute challenged participants to engage the realities of rural life in the Northern Forest region-not as nostalgia but rather as a complex layering of tradition, community, work, and contemporary economic and social pressures.

The fields of Northern Forest and New England studies effectively combine a diversity of disciplines by integrating literary, historical, cultural, and environmental perspectives on the unique cultural and ecological transition zone along the northern tier of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. In recent years, a variety of book-length studies of the region have helped to shape the discourse about this transitional and occasionally contested landscape. David Dobbs and Richard Ober's anecdotal account of people's relationships with the land in The Northern Forest, Christopher McGrory Klyza's Wilderness Comes Home: Rewilding the Northeast, Klyza and Stephen Trombulak's The Future of the Northern Forest, Kent Ryden's study of the intersections of cultural and natural landscapes in rural New England in Landscape with Figures, Dona Brown's discussion of the "Currency of Scenery" in Inventing New England, Eric Purchase's study of early White Mountain tourism in Out of Nowhere, and Christopher Johnson's This Grand and Magnificent Place: The Wilderness Heritage of the White Mountains all serve to illustrate that Northern Forest studies is a fertile and growing field.

WHAT FOLLOWS in this volume is a selection of essays that either expand upon or were inspired by the many fruitful discussions that took place during the symposia at both Crawford Notch in 2004 and Sterling College in 2008. The essays are presented here as an introduction to the study of the Northern Forest as a unique and complex region; the diversity of voices that were part of the conversation resonate in these 14 essays, which bring to bear questions from cultural studies, the natural sciences, literary criticism, and ecocriticism. As the history and contemporary cultural and environmental legacy of the Northern Forest make clear, the stories of relationships between people and place that make up the region's narrative present a difficult text, but also a rich and rewarding one for the willing reader. Much like tracing the voices of early settlers in the fitted blocks of a stone wall, understanding the narratives of the Northern Forest demands patient, careful reading and an intimate knowledge of the many layers that make up the story of a place. It is this story, finally, that is at the heart of these essays.


Excerpted from Nature and Culture in the Northern Forest Copyright © 2010 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Pavel Cenkl is dean of academics and a professor of humanities and regional studies at Sterling College in Vermont. He is the author of This Vast Book of Nature: Writing the Landscape of New Hampshire's White Mountains, 1784–1911 (Iowa, 2006). Pa

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