Detective Work: Reading the Landscape

Detective Work: Reading the Landscape

Katherine Bagley
Published: 05/16/2011
Photo courtesy of SteveHager/Flickr Creative Commons

What kid doesn't like a good mystery? Of nature's puzzles, deciphering the history of a landscape is one your child can tackle. Too often, people view nature in a fragmented way, focusing on specific plants or animals instead of studying the landscape as an intricately woven whole. But ecosystems form through a series of disturbances and interactions—both natural, such as wildfires, and human-caused, such as logging—that leave distinct marks on the land. Investigating a sudden change in soil, for instance, together with other environmental features can help kids discover, and appreciate, why their surroundings appear the way they do. "Children get really excited about it," says Tom Wessels, an ecologist at Antioch University New England and author of two books on eco-history.

Whether you're exploring forests, prairies, deserts, coasts, or mountainous terrain, the principles for learning what shaped a place are similar. The key is sharp eyes and a basic understanding of what clues to look for.

*Learn the basics. Reading the Landscape of America, 2nd edition, by May Theilgaard Watts (Nature Study Guide Publishers, 1975) is almost like a travelogue and probes more ecosystems than any landscape history resource available. Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape, by Tom Wessels (Countryman Press. 2010) is kid-friendly and lightweight. Questions and detailed images take readers step by step through identifying historical clues.
*Choose a site. It doesn't have to be a large tract of land—just someplace accessible (especially for young children). State parks and preservations are good starting points.
*Know the background. Find out how people earned a living around your site, which will provide context. For example, was it once an industrial town?
*Get your bearings. Are the trees slanting in a certain way? Different types of storms tend to approach an area from a particular direction. A compass can help reveal what kind of wind shifted the trunks—not to mention, keep your family oriented.
*Hone in. Many features may not be visible from a trail, so don't be afraid to take a few steps off the path every once and while for a closer look.

Case Study: What happened in your forest?
America's forests have gone through many changes in the past five centuries due to farming, logging, flooding, and development, as well as natural disturbances such as fires and storms. To solve how your family's woods were formed, start by examining the ground. If it's bumpy, the area has probably been forested for a while. When wind or other natural phenomena knock down trees, their roots pull up pockets of earth, leaving pits. Mounds form as soil builds on top of decomposing trees.

A smooth ground, on the other hand, suggests that livestock wore down the terrain or farmers removed rocks to make way for crops, piling them off to the side to form a wall. If you see one, inspect the stones' sizes. Numerous fist-sized rocks scattered along the edge or top of the wall indicate that the land was ploughed annually for crops, a practice that would have turned up small, leftover stones overlooked during the field's initial conversion into farmland. If the wall contains only larger rocks, it was most likely a hayfield, requiring sporadic ploughing less likely to uncover finer rocks. The boundaries of a site that was previously farmed should be evident by a sudden change in tree age, tree density, or forest composition.