Forests and Frontiers Transcript

May 23, 2024

Back to Forests and Frontiers episode.

David Paganelli: Our forests relative to the forests that are depicted on this map, which. Which might have been 200 years old or 300 years old from our forests. Seldom are that old. Or forests from an old forest today in Vermont is 120 years old.

Amanda Gustin: This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Humanities.

Amanda: Every episode, we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

Amanda: The objects that we’re looking at for these episodes are maps. Each one represents a different moment in Vermont with questions that spiral out and persists to our present day.

Amanda: Today’s map comes to us through a slightly circuitous route. We’ll let Marjorie Strong, Assistant Librarian at the Vermont Historical Society, describe it to us to start off.

Marjorie Strong: That map really was a shock. mostly because I was actually working in a completely different area of cataloging. I was cataloging what I thought were books. and books do have maps in them, but, this particular book, I guess you could say was odd because it’s manuscript book.

Amanda: The book was a collection of documents copied over by a man named James Phelps. He was, in Marjorie’s words, obsessed with early Vermont history.

Marjorie Strong: In the middle of the 19th century, he started copying over as many early documents as he could find. But in the midst of this is a tracing of this gorgeous map showing the timber rights that the up for the King of England, along the Connecticut River valley. And I stared at the map for a long time. I’m like, what is this? but it’s beautifully done in color. He was meticulous.

Amanda: And in doing so, he preserved them for us today.

Marjorie: The original appears to be lost. it’s not appearing in any other, institution. Major institution. So we’re left with this mysterious map. but it has a lot of information, which I think is fascinating.

Amanda: It really is a beautiful map. It shows a portion of the Connecticut River Valley in what is today’s towns of Windsor and Wethersfield. The surveyors identified on the map as Timothy Ruggles and Francis Mills were working on behalf of the British Royal Navy to identify forest resources in the area. In particular, they were interested in white pine.

Amanda: This map isn’t dated, but it probably comes from the early to middle part of the 18th century, before American independence, when the King of England considered all of this land his property. What they used to do is they would do these surveys, find areas that had climbed that were dominated by white pine. That was thrifty.

Amanda: It shows a certain way of looking at the land, strictly as a resource to be exploited.

David: So tall, straight, clean trees that were healthy. And then they would take the the best trees, cut them down, load them on. a big barge and bring them to England to be used as masks for the King’s Navy.

David: I’m David Paganelli. I’m a state employee. I work for the Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation as the Orange County Forester.

Amanda: David has an incredible perspective on this map. As someone who is passionate about history and about Vermont’s forests.

David: The area that’s surveyed, the three areas that are surveyed are in the Wethersfield Windsor area. And they are, right next to the Connecticut River. So that would mean it’s a flat floodplain, essentially, that has deep, fine sandy loam, typically called Agawam soils.

David: They extend all the way down to Long Island Sound along the river in that place. And those are perfect soils for white pine. So they’re they’re well drained. They would never get flooded. They would have a mix of dry site species like oak and beech and hemlock. And in that mix, white pine tends to grow really well.

Amanda: I think a lot of us learned in a basic American history class that New England forests were used for Britain’s navy. But until I talked to David, I didn’t have any idea what that really meant and how tall the trees had to be.

David: That’s why England was a powerful country, because they had a powerful navy, and you couldn’t have, a big sailing ship without a without a tall mast.

David: The massive ships in that day were dependent on the size of the trees you could harvest. And, tall trees were in short supply. In fact, it was. They probably were not prevalent in Great Britain at all. I mean, they probably couldn’t really get any serious mass trees from their. And when when they came to North America, they saw pine trees and they thought, that, that those were pretty desirable.

David: Wouldn’t have been unusual to have trees in the original forest here that would have been 40in in diameter and 150ft tall, or maybe even taller. And a tree like that would provide them, if it was a straight tree with fairly small branches, would provide a mass that might be 130ft tall, and that would have been pretty good for the day.

David: But they wanted they wanted taller masts, but they were happy to take those. And on this map there are two that are marked. I don’t know if you saw that there are two 36 inch diameter mass trees that are marked specifically.

Amanda: This map, though, isn’t just a straightforward description of natural resources and a plan for exploitation. It’s also a political statement.

Kevin Graffagnino: I’m Kevin Graffagnino, Vermont historian, past director of the VHS, etc., written and edited a number of books on Vermont history and, have some expertise in early Vermont maps, having published a book about, almost 40 years ago.

Kevin: Maps can give you a good sense of what did the early settlers and speculators and government officials know? In many cases? How little did they know? You can give you a very nice sense of their political motivation. Some of the maps that we have here for 18th century Vermont are absolutely political statements. New York owns this territory. New Hampshire owns this territory.

Kevin: Vermont is an independent state and deserves to exist as an independent entity. They’re not just to transmit geographic knowledge. They’re to make a point as well, and that you can easily glean from them if you look for it. If you say, why did they do this? And, not just the what, but the so what?

Kevin: A map might be the only source of information for somebody in England or in South Carolina, or anywhere else outside of the Vermont area about what is happening in Vermont. And if those people are decision makers who are going to have some say in national and international affairs, planting a seed in their mind about our side wants you to believe this can be a very valuable thing.

Kevin: I’ve used maps in teaching. Others certainly have. a map is much more than just tell me where this is in relationship to that.

Amanda: That’s definitely true for this map in particular. It was made for the purposes of an institution, the Royal Navy, that was thousands of miles away. But the information is incredibly precise. Nevertheless, alongside the map drawing is a description down to individual surveying points of what kinds of trees can be found, where beech, hemlock, maple, hazel, oak, birch, and more.

Amanda: And the trees weren’t just resources to map. They were also used to define the boundaries of the mapped areas.

David: Well, ultimately, the, the way that you would define a forest would be based on the soils that underlay the forest. So, I mean, you know, this these were very similar soils in all three blocks. And what they were doing was just basically following that upper terrace, and walking the edge of what was pine.

David: So there would have been other areas. they make a note of one area where the timber was destroyed by a hurricane, and there would be other areas where, you know, the forest was a mix of oak and hemlock and red maple, which would not have been of interest to them. so what I’m sure what they did was they they just went until along the river, until they saw tall, straight pine. And they went to that area and they just drew a perimeter around it.

Amanda: This map really highlights how thinking about the landscape around us changed when European settlers arrived to what we call Vermont, and it gives us a chance to reflect on how that thinking has changed.

David: So, you know, obviously our property tax maps are the, you know, the main layer because that’s we’re only mapping what the client that we’re working with owns.

David: So we we start with the tax map. And then we have we have an overlay that that they did not have when they did this map. And that is land use history.

Amanda: As David points out, our land use history here in Vermont is complicated today. When you look on a satellite map, these forested areas are mostly agricultural.

Amanda: One of the mapped forests is now downtown Windsor, another where the pines were described as thrifty and where the surveyors identified one potential mast tree is now all open fields.

David: Early management was just about going out and finding trees that had value and harvesting them. Now we see the forest as as you know, the trees are the dominant vegetation.

David: But, you know, there are animals and there are birds and they’re insects and, you know, mosses and lichens and microbes in the soil. And it’s a complex web of life. And that’s the forest. And and we see that now. So we didn’t always see that, but now we see it. And and not everybody today sees that.

David: The ones that do see it that way try to grow complex forest ecosystems with all the parts, you know, all the species, and create complex structures that would that would be similar to how a natural forest would develop. You know, our, our forests, they’re fairly young relative to the forests that are depicted on this map, which, which might have been 200 years old or 300 years old.

David: Our forests seldom are that old. Are forests from an old forest. Today in Vermont is 120 years old. And that doesn’t mean that there aren’t remnant forests that are older, but there aren’t many. And they very big. You know, as far as the area that they take up. So I think there is a there is a recognition that that’s missing in our, in our forested ecosystem, and we’re trying to be more conservative in our management and trying to include all of the natural structures that would occur in a in a naturally developing forest.

Amanda: The map we talked about today was only recently rediscovered in the Vermont Historical Society’s collections. It is, as Marjorie said before, totally unique. VHS is working hard every day to make these collections more accessible to researchers, but it’s slow work. So the story of this map isn’t just in what it shows. It’s in its very existence.

Marjorie: I guess the the one thing is, I think our map collection is very, underutilized. I am amazed sometimes when you just lay out a whole sequence of maps, what you can find out about just how people are thinking about the world a little bit. so I’m hoping that that if we can express more what we have in our collection that that we can get, the people who are really interested in this side of, of, research to come and view some of our maps because I think we have a pretty deep collection.

Marjorie: I’m, I’m always surprised when I look at how many maps are not cataloged already. I mean, in our collection that I was saying to some of my colleagues, just about every, three out of five maps I’m doing are now original cataloging that. That’s a lot that’s going up right now. And I’m hoping that that, you know, researchers will start to use them more. If you catalog it, will they come? We hope so.

Amanda: Kevin Graffagnino agrees.

Kevin: Well, I hope people who see listen to the podcast take the initiative to go to some of the great collections. You can’t be more than about 25 to 50 miles away from excellent Vermont history collections if you’re living in the state, whether it’s Bennington Museum in the southwest, Sheldon Museum in Middlebury, the VHS here in Barrie, UVM Special Collections in, in Burlington, extraordinary resources that are open to anyone who wants to come in and use them maps, photographs, books, diaries, all these institutions have been collecting in some cases for almost two centuries.

Kevin: And they have the heritage of your state. Come and see it. Come and look at it.

Amanda: Before Your Time is presented by Vermont Humanities and the Vermont Historical Society. This episode was produced by Amanda K Gustin, Ryan Newswire, and Noel Clarke. Thanks to our guests Marjorie Strong, David Pegg, Kelly and Kevin Graf, and Nina. Special thanks for the support of this limited series goes to the Lake Champlain Basin Program and their Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership Corridor of Commerce and Granting program.

Amanda: Visit our website before your to find a scan of the map and other images and sources related to this episode. And if you like what you hear, please tell your friends about the podcast. Thanks for listening.