A strange and painful decline
Nature's Notebook - Tim Abbott
June, 25, 2009
I came upon an 1885 History of Berkshire County and discovered a passage that happened to relate to farming in New Marlborough, Mass., but is just as applicable elsewhere in the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills during the late 19th century:
“Agriculture just now, especially in the eastern portion of the town, is suffering a strange and painful decline. Many homesteads have been sold for far less than the cost of their buildings, and others, the dwelling, the outbuildings and most of the fences virtually abandoned, are being used as large pasture tracts....
“Many hundred acres formerly yielding fine crops of hay cannot now be mowed, much less plowed. As a consequence of this, and perhaps also because of the exhaustion of certain elements of the soil, there appeared, about 40 years ago, a shrubby growth known as hard hack (Potentilla fruticosa) and steeple top (Spirea tomentosa), the two growing together, and this growth now covers entire farms, destroying even much of the pasture.”
The author of the New Marlborough chapter of “The History of Berkshire County,” Professor S. T. Frost, was a keen observer who recognized many of the patterns and processes — both natural and social — that affected the landscape of his day. Some of the rural communities of western New England lost more than half their populations in the decades after the Civil War, as the availability of more fertile western lands and urban migration combined with the collapse of the local iron industry and decline of agriculture in a proverbial “perfect storm” of cultural, economic and ecological disturbance.
The plants he describes as invading the abandoned farmlands are actually native to our region rather than introduced exotics, but behaved invasively in the absence of competition in the wet meadows that were no longer farmed. Potentilla fruticosa, more commonly known today as shrubby cinquefoil, is a calcium-loving wetland indicator species in the marble valleys of the Housatonic watershed.
Spirea tomentosa usually occurs in our wetlands as well. Neither species provides good grazing (even today, deer avoid browsing cinquefoil), so in addition to the factors mentioned for their spread, the use of former cropland as pasture might have encouraged the growth of these species until they out-competed the available forage. Although he would not have thought to use this term, Prof. Frost describes the impact of a lack of stewardship on the condition of previously managed lands.
Pasture pines invading abandoned fields became a regular feature of the changing New England landscape throughout the 20th century. Anytime I find myself walking through a stand of mature white pine, I am certain that they grew to maturity as a plantation or in an open field.
The forest that reclaimed these previously managed lands is different in species composition and structure, the attributes of its soil and the habitat it provides, than the old woodlands that had been previously cleared for settlement.
Some of the bird species that would have been abundant during the height of agriculture in our region — meadowlarks, bobolinks and a host of other grassland birds — are in a parabolic decline as the land reforests. Others, like the wild turkey that would have been rare in Prof. Frost’s day, are now thriving and expanding their numbers.
The very next passage in this history anticipates the state of real estate affairs in the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills 125 years later:
“This present unfortunate condition of New Marlboro agriculture must be temporary. When the best portions of the West, now being taken up so rapidly, are occupied, these deserted lands must become valuable, both for their locality and their producing power.”
Proximity to major metropolitan centers in New York, and to a lesser degree Hartford, has made our land valuable as residential real estate. A renewed interest in locally produced food and concern about the loss of our remaining farmland to nonagricultural uses runs up against the hard fact that the land is worth more in a developed state than as farmland, and is too expensive for new farmers to obtain.
Meanwhile, Berkshire County is losing population. Connecticut is losing young people at one of the highest rates in the nation.
We have saved many significant lands from development but are unable to maintain them in a condition that will ensure that the very qualities that made them special will persist over time. Without the resources to care for and steward our fields and forests, they are vulnerable to fresh degradation from invasive species and to loss of ecological productivity.
We should expect more changes in this altered landscape, not all of it for the worse. Frost reports that “the fox and the raccoon are the largest game that now survive civilization.” Today we share our backyards with bears.
Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com.
© Copyright 2009 by TCExtra.com
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