I happened upon an 1885 History of Berkshire County and discovered a passage relating to farming in New Marlboro, but 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 for 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. The famous saying that the first settlers feared that they could not find enough stone for building purposes, now when boulders covers o large part of the surface, seems incomprehensible. Perhaps these stones were regarded as unsuitable for building, or more probably they were then covered with vegetable mold and have since been heaved to the surface by frosts which strike deeper than when the earth was protected by forests. 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 forty 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. This is one of the most discouraging features of New Marlboro farming, since to clear the land of boulders and hard hack would cost more than its present, or subsequent value. Much of this land, moreover, would require to be underdrained. nature is providing some compensation in covering much of this land with a growth of pine, which destroys the hard hack and may soon become valuable for timber.
The author of the New Marlboro chapter of the History of Berkshire County, Professor S. T. Frost, is a keen observer who recognizes 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 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. Steeplebush (Hardhack) usually occurs in 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 though to use this term, Professor Frost is describing 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. Anytime I find myself walking through a stand of mature white pine and nothing else, 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 that which had been first 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 parabolic decline as the land reforests. Others like the wild turkey that would have been rare in Professor 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 centersin 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 non-agricultural 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 and Connecticut is hemorrhaging an exodus of 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 which 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 survives civilization." Today we share our backyards with bears.