"Sharp, quirky, and occasionally nettlesome", Walking the Berkshires is my personal blog, an eclectic weaving of human narrative, natural history, and other personal passions with the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills as both its backdrop and point of departure. I am interested in how land and people, past and present manifest in the broader landscape and social fabric of our communities. The opinions I express here are mine alone. Never had ads, never will.
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.
I adore the blog Strange Maps, precisely for posts like this one. From "The Atlas of True Names " translated into English from the original German version produced by cartographers Stephan Hormes and Silke Preust: The Land of the Great Tatooed!
I drove along the Housatonic in the piercing cold of the New Year. The steam rising from the river glazed the trees on either bank in glistening sheaths of ice. They call this phenomenon “sea smoke” in the Gulf of Maine, and it arises when water that is cold enough to kill an unprotected swimmer is still warm by comparison to the arctic January air.
The cold streams and rivers of the Berkshires and Litchfield Hills can look like the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. At such times they reveal their kinship both to the urban vapors that rise from sidewalk grates when it’s Christmastime in the city, and to the midsummer wisps that settle in cool fens and seepage wetlands.
The Housatonic certainly seemed to be smoking as I drove past the paper mills on my way north. Not so many years ago, you could tell what color paper they were making by the stain of the water below the discharge from the mill. Massachusetts has some of the most progressive wetlands and river protection laws in the Northeast, but for most of our history we have treated the waters as sewers for the excretions of industry and as convenient dumping grounds for the effluvia of human enterprise...."
These are the best of times and the worst of times for land protection. On the one hand, real estate values have started to come down. On the other, landowner expectations have not fully made that adjustment, and with credit tight and conservation dollars even more limited, we still do not have the resources we need to take more advantage of these conservation opportunities. There are some bargains to be had if conservation investors have the liquidity to buy and hold land now to protect later, but many potential conservation buyers have seen their world erupt in flames and are still trying to get a handle on what to do with their remaining assets. While there is another year left to run on the Conservation Tax Incentives passed by Congress in 2006, many folks have lost more than they can recoup even with these attractive deductions.
What to do?
Conservation development is an idea that has gained traction in some quarters, particularly in hot real estate markets where saving land through the development process is the only feasible means to keep what limited open space remains open. Around the Litchfield Hills, it is generally recognized that there is far more land we need to conserve across this landscape than we can possibly protect using conventional means. Whether through a buy / divide / restrict / resell approach or through actually working with developers to ensure that more than just the scraps get saved, we need to maximize the conservation options at our disposal to have a realistic shot at saving the farms, forests and watershed lands that support this region's ecology and the rural quality of life we value.
This is by no means a simple proposition. In a soft market, making the numbers work with limited development on the development side can more difficult, yet no one wants a large number of unsold lots or houses in their inventories either. Conservationists need a process to determine what aspects of a property can and should be saved, and which properties are appropriate and feasible to conserve with limited development. The hardest conservation values to protect with limited development are those that have to do with historic or scenic character, though even here I believe there are cases when it can and should be possible. It may prove, as Disney discovered with wetland mitigation in Florida, that it makes better sense for large developers to underwrite the conservation of large tracts of undeveloped land to offset what they build as a huge, one-time offset. In an ongoing discussion over at Civil War Memory, I made the observation that Wal-Mart might be convinced to follow a similar approach to its pending development at a site within the (no-longer) Wilderness battlefield.
It may be impossible for the goals of historic preservation to coexist with a Wal-Mart superstore. But maybe they do not have to try and occupy the same space. If Wal-Mart is going to hold this ground, perhaps it and others like it could be motivated to secure other valuable territory to conserve the Battlefield, as well as adopt design features that address noise, traffic, screening and other green practices. Preservation doesn't need to become another Lost Cause.
I've been enjoying Alexander Rose's Washington's Spies; The Story of America's First Spy Ring, not only for the solid writing and his excellent detective work piecing together the inner workings of Patriot espionage in and around New York, but also because it contains a trove of period details you won't find in the D.A.R. archives or in your ancestor's Society of the Cincinnati biography.
Rose memorably describes New York during this period as "A bustling mercantile metropolis descended into a mare'snest, the leading red-light district in North America, the black market capital of the Revolution." A third of it gutted by fire, the city was a brimming caldera of Tory refugees, smugglers, soldiers of the British empire and prisoners of war rotting away in floating hulks and packed on land in noisome hells where they died in appalling numbers.
More than 500 prostitutes worked the notorious "Holy Ground" - then owned by the Church of England - at the site of today's "Ground Zero". During the American occupation of the City in 1776, many a militiaman became "hors de combat" with the clap, and it was no different when New York became the main British garrison of the war.
Loyalist privateers based in New York captured thousands of prizes during the war, and this fact reminds me that I am long overdue for a post on the remarkable career of Connecticut privateer and very distant relation Gideon Olmsted. We shall remedy that situation early in this new year, as well as get back to the half finished series of posts I started last Summer on Knyphausen's Raid which left off after the Battle of Connecticut Farms.
As to the spy ring that is central to Rose's story, it is a gripping tale with invisible in and ciphers aplenty, but it also includes insights from recent scholarship that shed new light on old controversies. Rose reveals that it is now known that the great fire that swept through the western third of the city as the patriots retreated from MManhattan may later have been encouraged by ad hoc arsonists, but was initially sparked by careless British camp followers hunkered down in a storehouse near Whitehall-dock. They "procured from an adjacent yard a number of pine boards, the ends of which they places in the chimney [with] their opposite points resting on the cedar floor of the apartment" and subsequently left their fire unattended.
I also had not been aware that the discredited Major Robert Rogers of French and Indian War fame had a central role in the discovery and capture of American spy Nathan Hale. In 2000, a manuscript was donated to the Library of Congress that was written by Connecticut Tory Consider Tiffany and had been kept by his family for many generations. Tiffany's account describes how Roger's suspected a spy had been smuggled across the Sound, and later not only spotted hale but through a ruse of friendship got him to betray himself in front of witnesses. A British diary by an officer of the 40th foot confirms that Rogers was the spycatcher, recording that "Nathan Hales, a Captain in the Rebel Army & a spy was taken by Majr. Rogers..."
Aside from these juicy details, I believe I may know a descendant of Washington's spy-master, Benjamin Tallmadge, and am going to put the question to my friend when I return to work tomorrow. Both he and Benjamin Tallmadge share the same last name and come from the same part of Long Island. Tallmadge retired just down the road from me in Litchfield, Connecticut, and his portrait at right of is in the collection of the Litchfield Historical Society.
Not only that, I discovered yet another mention of my ancestor Matthias Ogden in Washington's Spies, who not only concocted a plan to kidnap the heir to the British throne but also managed his own intelligence network while commanding the 1st New Jersey Continentals. Just last month, in fact, I received a message from a descendant of one of his officers - Captain Daniel Baldwin, who lost lost a leg at Germantown - asking if I had any information about his later work as a spy in Newark's "Neutral Ground" reporting to Matthias Ogden. Such are the joys of geneablogging!
I am utterly astonished and delighted to learn today that I have been awarded a 2008 Cliopatria Award for Best Series of Posts. It is a rare honor to be in the company of some of the finest history writers in the blogosphere.
The examination of Jonathan Trumbull's famous painting The Death of General Montgomery in Attack on Quebec, December 31 1775 over five posts at Tim Abbott's Walking the Berkshires is good scholarly writing and engaging analysis. Abbott raises intriguing questions about historical memory, as he guides his readers through the examination of historical records.
Tim Abbott is a conservation professional.
History News Network's Cliopatria Awards are the premiere recognition of excellence in history blogging, and no one does more to promote high quality history writing by amateur and professional historians who blog than HNN and its Cliopatrians.
At the American History Association's annual meeting in New York, a panel of distinguished history bloggers announced their selections for the best blogs and blog posts in several categories. There are some truly exceptional history blogs represented in the awards this year, including: