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Harvard Forest Symposium Abstract 2008

  • Title: The Harvard Forest stone walls: Legacies of labor, memories of landscape
  • Primary Author: Elisabeth Almgren (University of Uppsala)
  • Abstract:

    The open farm landscape that dominated New England in the 18th and 19th Cent. was a cultural landscape, produced and maintained by early European settlers. Their agricultural system was based on a set of interdependent farming units, pastures, hay meadows, and tilled fields, which all combined to create a wide range of grassland habitats. The different disturbance regimes created by mowing, tilling, burning, and grazing in close proximity to each other, also contributed to high species diversity, typical of traditionally mowed and grazed land.

    Although this culturally created landscape was in use only for a couple of hundred years and abandoned already in the mid-19th Cent., the allocation of land to different functions within the farm is still partly visible in the present New England landscape. The numerous stone walls that run across the present-day deciduous forests, once protected the future harvest of hay and crops by keeping the cattle from straying into the valuable land. Although wooden enclosures were probably used as well, stone walls were common in New England. Frost heaving continuously brought up stones to the surface in the tilled fields, and gave farmers the endless chore of clearing the fields in the spring and adding stones to the existing walls. The stone walls are therefore not only markers of old boundaries, but also a lasting legacy of generations of manual labor, tending the land according to an old European agricultural system.

    As the land and farms were abandoned, reforestation set in, but the stone walls have persisted in many locations, especially in New England. The early protection of the land at Harvard Forest has helped to preserve numerous stone walls within the property and the present project takes advantage of their presence and the extensive land-use history research that has been done at Harvard Forest. Buried beneath the stone walls are a large and wide-spread surface from the previous open farm landscape with its diversity of herbs, grasses, and crops. By analyzing seeds and pollen from the buried soil, more details of the past flora may emerge and add to the historical land-use record of Harvard Forest.

    Several locations were investigated, but the depth of the walls under the present soil surface sometimes extended down to 0.6 m and prevented good uncontaminated soil sampling. Six sites proved possible to sample adequately and the analysis has recently begun.

    I use flotation as the first step to separate organic material from the inorganic component and to retrieve seeds and other macrofossils. Approximately 1 l soil is mixed with water and stirred vigorously. Seeds and other organic material float to the surface and the soil/water mixture is then sieved repeatedly through a set of three sieves with mesh sizes between 2 mm and 0.5 mm. The residue on the sieves is dried and examined under microscope for seeds, plant and insect remains, and large charcoal pieces.

    Seeds and/or other macrofossils from the following taxa have been found to date: Picea, Betula, Prunus, Vitis, Rumex, Medicago, Urtica, Rubus, Vaccinium, Poaceae, as well as many yet unidentified seeds and other plant remains. Identification to species level is still under way, using the HF herbarium and American and European seed atlases, and with the constant help of the newly finished The Harvard Forest Flora I by Jenkins, Motzkin and Ward. Pollen analysis of the same soil samples is planned to begin later in the spring.

  • Research Category: Historical and Retrospective Studies

  • Figures:
  • C:Documents and Settingsullard.HFMy DocumentsHF Meeting March 18HF Abstract photosFall Stone wall 117.jpg
    C:Documents and Settingsullard.HFMy DocumentsHF Meeting March 18HF Abstract photosWinter Stone wall 160.jpg
    C:Documents and Settingsullard.HFMy DocumentsHF Meeting March 18HF Abstract photosTrench stone wall.jpg
    C:Documents and Settingsullard.HFMy DocumentsHF Meeting March 18HF Abstract photosVitis aestivalis or V labrusca c 5 mm.jpg