Beyond the Forest
Tom Wessels teaches us about much more than trees
By Marc Chalufour
AMC Outdoors, March/April 2012
Rain drips through the canopy of pine needles and yellowing sumac and bounces off the brim of Tom Wessels's green felt hat. He's standing on a narrow, leaf-strewn trail in Keene, N.H., declaring the pile of rocks at his feet to be the eighth wonder of the world. "It's a very dramatic story," he insists to the 16 students fanned out around him. A hint of a smile emerges from behind his large, unruly white beard.
Wessels, a professor at nearby Antioch University New England since 1978, likes to say that every forest has a story. He's certainly uncovered many during a lifetime exploring New England, and he's devoted his life to helping others see them as well.
Here at Goose Pond, a few miles from campus, the jumble of rocks inspires a story about sheep. Reacting to the demand for wool, 19th-century New Englanders felled 75 percent of their forests to create sheep pastures, Wessels explains. With their source of wood fencing gone, farmers laboriously built 125,000 miles of stone walls to protect their flocks. Those stones represent seven times the mass of the great pyramids. Dramatic, indeed.
But that's just one chapter. Wessels leads the group deeper into the forest, where clues hide in plain sight. Smooth ground south of the wall suggests repeated plowing, a crop field. A terrace on the downhill edge, where years of plowed dirt collected, confirms this. Then Wessels points out a pine tree that shows evidence of a weevil attack. Weevils focus on pines in sunny, open areas, suggesting this was one of the first trees to grow after the field was abandoned. The class counts its annual limb whorls. It's about 30 years old, suggesting that this was open field as recently as 1980.
We climb through the brush to the other side of the wall. A series of mounds and depressions, like mossy ski moguls, hints at a different past. Years ago a great force knocked living trees down. Their roots pulled giant bulbs of soil from the ground, leaving depressions called cradles. The roots then decomposed, leaving mounds of dirt, called pillows. Their orientation, all pointing northwest, creates a pattern evident to an observant eye.
From his historical research, Wessels knows that the Hurricane of 1938 leveled New Hampshire forests with vicious winds traveling in that direction. From the size of the mounds, he estimates the age of the trees when they fell and, counting backward, decides these trees began growing in an abandoned open field around 1900. In a few simple steps he's led the class back more than a century.
In describing the scene, Wessels uses the basic building blocks of the method he details in his classic book, Reading the Forested Landscape. Walls and contours of the forest floor quickly tell a rough story. Looking more closely reveals even greater detail.
Wessels talks about the "blur of trees" that can overpower the eye of a beginner. But as he points out new clues, the blur comes into focus.
In January 1973, Wessels and some classmates from the University of New Hampshire took a road trip to Maine. One frigid morning, with winds whipping off the Atlantic and slamming into their camp on Cadillac Mountain, they noticed some people in the distance. The hikers crested Dorr Mountain and slowly trudged up Cadillac.
Wessels remembers the moment vividly. He approached the group's leader and began talking to him. The man taught at the College of the Atlantic. The students now exploring the summit were his class. "I could do what this guy is doing," thought Wessels, who was one semester from earning a degree in wildlife biology. "I could teach classes out in the field!"
The events of that blustery Maine morning steered him to graduate school at the University of Colorado. There he learned the methods of reading the landscape. "Up to that point, my interest in natural history was very focused on identifying species," Wessels says. He'd carry a satchel stuffed with field guides, binoculars, and his hand lens. But then, he says, "I started seeing these larger patterns and landscapes, and identifying landscape patterns. I got hooked." He'd found his path.
He's been teaching since, first at Windham College and then at Antioch and the Putney School. He was terrible at first, he claims. But he listened to his students and his style evolved. The outcome has influenced generations of teachers, naturalists, and conservationists.
"I regularly mention Tom when I'm teaching," says Michael Wojtech, a writer, teacher, and Antioch alum. "And I can see from their faces who has spent time with Tom in the woods, because they get a little higher in their seats. They get more energy in their faces."
Before studying with Wessels, "I knew all my trees in the White Mountains. I pretty much knew all the songbirds," says Michael Gaige, a natural history consultant and former caretaker at Zealand Falls Hut and teacher for AMC's A Mountain Classroom. "But it never occurred to me that any spot in the woods that I hiked had a story. Now there's no way for me to go into the woods and not try to look back in time."
One week after visiting Goose Pond, Wessels leads his Ecological Dynamics of Landscapes class to a seemingly unremarkable hemlock stand in Vernon, Vt. It's one of the most fascinating forests he's ever found.
Wessels introduces the class to the American chestnut tree. Blight all but wiped out the species a century ago. He points out a rotted stump, covered in green lichen. It's identifiable because chestnut trees rot from the inside out, leaving a donut of spongy wood until they fall apart. He emphasizes that blight-stricken chestnut were salvaged here in 1915. The date, which Wessels found in Vernon's tax records, is a benchmark critical to unlocking this forest's story.
The students scatter to examine the area on their own.
"That looks like a small dead chestnut."
"Noooo! It's a small woody shrubby thing. It's alive.
"My hunch is that maybe this was a chestnut forest."
"The wind was coming this way."
Relevant clues start to mesh while red herrings are cast aside. After half an hour, the group gathers around Wessels. They've pieced together the thunderstorm and timber harvests that he expected them to discover. But they missed one more disturbance. He points to a rotting chestnut stump. "Can you see that it's growing on something?" he asks. Beneath the stump is a subtle mound—a pillow, with accompanying cradle. Wessels estimates the chestnut was cut around 1870, at an age of 300 years. Allowing 70 years for the pillow to form a suitable spot for the chestnut to germinate, Wessels has taken the class back to the turn of the 16th century.
An old-growth chestnut stand surviving to 1870 was rare. Logging and then blight have since eliminated them. Wessels points out several similar mounds nearby. "You start to get the sense they were growing very close together as big trees, which is very unusual," he says, a tone of wonderment building in his voice. "I don't know what that looks like. I've never seen anything like that."
Within the next decade, Wessels expects evidence of the chestnut stand to vanish from Vernon. Reading the history of that rare forest community won't be possible once the stumps rot away.
In the meantime, modern disturbances are silently altering this and all other forests in dramatic ways. Back at Goose Pond, we saw dead birch trees littering the ground. Birch has adapted to severe cold, but temperature fluctuations around the freezing point can cause fatal tissue damage. Wessels expects birch to be the first species eliminated from our forests by climate change, probably within our lifetimes. Forest fragmentation, blight, and invasive insects pose further threats to these complex ecosystems.
After more than 30 years of teaching, Wessels doesn't even bring notes to class. He speaks from memory and relies heavily on anecdotes, collected over decades exploring and researching these woods. "People remember stories," he says. "We're hardwired for that—storytelling is our oldest means of communicating."
His expertise has also given him the confidence to leave the comfort of ecology and apply his theories to the complexities of society. "If you understand ecosystems, they become wonderful models for how we should create our own human systems," Wessels says. He's talking big picture here: political systems, economic systems, social systems. "Ecosystems have had millions and millions of years to figure out how to do things," he says.
Wessels's class just scratched the surface. Beneath those pillows and cradles hid an infinitely complex and highly refined system. Energy enters and exits a forest in equal measure. Each organism serves a function and benefits, one fueled by the waste of another. They form a community, reliant on each other. If the system becomes overly homogenized or a disturbance shifts its balance, it becomes dangerously vulnerable.
In his recent book The Myth of Progress, Wessels offers a surprisingly simple message: The scientific principles governing the forest also govern us. With populations expanding and energy use growing even faster, our social systems are dangerously out of balance. "It's not a matter of whether this current economic system will fail," he writes. "It is simply a matter of when it will fail." An economy reliant on a few dominant corporations, like a forest dominated by a few species, is particularly susceptible to disturbance. The book was published in 2006, shortly before the global economy crashed.
Wessels is now working on a related project, exploring ways to self-organize the economy in a sustainable manner. The book follows in the vein of the writings of Bill McKibben, the environmentalist and activist. But, as Wessels's background suggests, his work comes "from a very foundational scientific standpoint."
And that's just one of the books he's currently writing. Another will tell the natural and cultural story of Mount Desert Island, a place he's visited many times since that serendipitous camping trip to Cadillac Mountain. And finally, he's embracing the genre he compares to reading the landscape: He recently completed a draft of a mystery for teens, tentatively titled A Pillow, A Cradle, and a Cross.
Though Wessels is retiring this spring at age 61, he still has stories to tell. He can't stop teaching. Michael Gaige recently hiked Mount Cardigan with his former professor. They were walking up the western slope, looking at animal tracks and lichen, when Wessels stopped suddenly and pointed toward a tree with an unusual bark pattern. "Here's one for you," he said, challenging his former student to identify it.
"The class hadn't ended," Gaige says.