He Suspects Mr. Moose in the Forest With Incisors
Posted October 4, 2018 1:08 p.m. EDT
The tendrils of Tom Wessels’ white beard quiver when he grows animated while prowling forests and meadows. He does this for a living. Throughout his native New England, Wessels, an ecologist, tells current stewards of the land how previous users corralled livestock, hauled rocks out of plows’ way and harvested timber and crops. He estimates the dates of insect infestations on saplings that have recovered, and hurricanes that toppled tree trunks now carpeted in ferns.
“Forest forensics,” he calls his practice. “The evidence is clearly there, if you know how to read it.” he said during a July visit to Woodlawn Museum, Gardens & Park in Ellsworth, Maine, a few miles inland from Acadia National Park.
Woodlawn was built in the 1820s for the family of Col. John Black, whose fortune arose from Maine timber. Bumpy paths course through 180 trail-filled acres around a brick main house, trimmed in classical balustrades. In July, Wessels, 67, spent a steamy afternoon forensically studying the site. He had consulted no antique property maps beforehand.
“I like doing it sight unseen like that, it’s more interesting,” he said. He wore a navy T-shirt, khaki shorts and sneakers, unfazed by possible onslaughts from mosquitoes, poison ivy and ticks. He pointed out how much nature has shrugged off traces of the loggers and cowherds who had mined the terrain to profit the Blacks.
Wessels is a professor emeritus of environmental studies at Antioch University New England in Keene, New Hampshire. He and his wife, Marcia, who serves as his business manager, divide their time between homes in Alstead, New Hampshire, and Somesville, Maine, at the edge of Acadia National Park. A reporter at Woodlawn struggled to keep up with him without tripping over roots, pine cones and chunks of a striated local stone called Ellsworth schist.
Tom Wessels’ rapid pace shows that he has “forest feet well honed,” said Jorn Ake, a poet in Manhattan, who has hired Wessels to analyze a planned site for Ake’s country house in Hillsdale, New York. (Wessels typically charges a few hundred dollars for homeowner commissions of that nature.) Wessels informed Ake and his wife, Claudia Salomon, a law firm partner, about where sheep may have grazed alongside mossy stone walls, and which gnarled sugar maples were nearing the two-century mark. Ake said the Wessels tour alerted him to venerable features needing protection during construction and supplied “a nice language to have, to decipher what happened on your land.”
At Woodlawn (where Wessels was working pro bono), the reporter acquired some rudiments of forensic forestry speak. Wessels led her in a mini-entourage with Todd Little-Siebold, a history professor at the College of the Atlantic who serves as a Woodlawn trustee, and the museum’s executive director, Joshua Campbell Torrance. On the path, Wessels’ pale blue eyes peered into the undergrowth. Torrance, who has pored through the Blacks’ archives, divulged no secrets along the way about how the family had actually worked the land. (Jokes were made about a stony-faced museum director staying silent about stone walls.)
“The walls right here are very instructive,” Wessels said, at the trailhead. Fist-size jagged rocks were piled between outer layers of large, lichen-coated stones — the walls resembled elongated sandwiches, a few feet tall. They had originally separated crop fields from pastures, he said. Every spring, the thawing earth would have pushed more rocks to the surface, for farmers and oxen to drag away to the periphery. It would have seemed almost as if the rocks were breeding in wintertime, Wessels said: “That kind of farming generated stone and necessitated the removal of it.” He added, “children did a lot of this work.”
Woodlawn’s walled-in areas, smoothed long ago for crops and then largely abandoned, have remained relatively flat despite decades of unbridled tree growth. Horse chestnuts shade the Blacks’ gabled stone mausoleum, crowned in an obelisk finial.
Much of the rest of the land “has been a functional working woodlot since the property was settled,” Wessels said. Left unplowed and scarcely logged, it undulated with what he called “pillows and cradles.” Pillows are hummocks, earthen mounds formed by the upended root balls of trees that collapsed. Cradles are the adjacent deep indentations, where the roots had been. The sculptural ghosts can linger for centuries.
The angles of the fallen trunks show the origins of lethal winds: nor’easters and hurricanes from the east, thunderstorms from the west. When tree seedlings sprout on the stumps and felled trunks, sometimes the roots flare around the rotting wood as it vanishes and preserve its contorted outlines in midair. Wessels explained other ways that trees bear records of bad and good experiences. Logging equipment and moose teeth leave eye-level scars. On “weevil-hit pines,” he said, the trunks split into dramatic Y formations a few feet off the ground — weevils at some point had eaten away the central top shoots. Trunks bent downward by nonfatal storms can form cantilevers and hairpins, while they recover their balance and head skyward again.
“They’re constantly taking in cues and adjusting to what’s going on,” Wessels said.
He snapped off a yellow birch sprig, which gave off a whiff of wintergreen. The smell, he said, “is a browse deterrent;” animals know the plant will give them indigestion. (Wessels once made himself violently sick with an accidental wintergreen overdose, after following a homemade beer recipe suggested by naturalist Euell Gibbons.)
For a teachable moment about interspecies cooperation, he paused at a maple swathed in lungwort lichens, which looked like grayish moose antlers. Lichens clinging to trees have access to nutrients from low passing clouds, and the tree roots in turn benefit from fog runoffs down the trunks. “It’s a fun party trick” to toss water on the lichens, Wessels said; they briefly turn emerald green.
As the trail looped back to the brick house, he spotted trees nearly 200 years old with fissured bark, and a few fairly recent stumps left by foresters. Overall, he concluded, the grounds had a well-managed medley of hardwoods and softwoods. “It has a lot of structural diversity,” with only a few Japanese knotweeds to battle, he said.
In the house’s meeting room, Torrance unfurled some of the Black family maps. “Here you go, confirming everything to a T,” he said. Wessels had been correct about where the Blacks put crops and animals. The maps had labels as detailed as “wall between field and pasture.” Torrance said the museum will incorporate Wessels’ eye-opening findings about the local ecosystem into new educational materials for visitors.
Wessels has been studying forests since he was a child in Greenwich, Connecticut. His father, Arthur, a metals expert for Union Carbide, frequently traveled overseas. His mother, Barbara, suffered from bouts of mental illness. Wessels often roamed the neighborhood unsupervised.
In his youthful explorations, he studied a glacial pothole by a busy roadside that historians had long mistaken for a well dug by American Indians. He also ventured into megalithic stone tunnels, which had been mislabeled as Underground Railroad outposts. (Greenwich officials have since protected parts of the tunnels in a nature preserve.) He has been told that navigating woodlands served as a “coping skill” in response to his mother’s poor health, he said. He and Marcia met as teenagers and married a few years later. He began teaching at Antioch in the 1970s, after earning degrees from the University of New Hampshire and the University of Colorado Boulder. The couple raised their daughter, Kelsey (who now runs programs for at-risk youth in western Massachusetts), in a log house in Westminster, Vermont, set on about 30 wooded acres. Grain was farmed there until the 1910s or so. “It’s all smooth and even everywhere,” he said. He meticulously cleared branches and pine cones from the paths, and he nurtured beds of wildflowers like fringed gentians and pink lady’s slippers. During long meditative hikes, he said, “I’d walk with my eyes closed and feel the trail.”
In 2014, the Wessels moved to Alstead, where their house overlooks grassy bobolink habitats, and they acquired the Maine property. When he revisited Westminster a year or so ago, his formerly manicured trails were already hard to find. “The forest was coming back on its own, and I think that’s right — the woods don’t want paths,” he said.
His clients over the years have included little-known rural institutions, such as Connecticut’s Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust, and urban attractions like Longwood Gardens at the Philadelphia outskirts. He has written half a dozen books — the most recent is “Granite, Fire and Fog: The Natural and Cultural History of Acadia” (2017) — and he stars in a new YouTube series about his forensic trade (posted at neforests.com).
He had expected his practice to catch on among other experts, he said, but hardly anyone else offers similar services. Among the exceptions is Robert Thorson, a geology professor who runs the Stone Wall Initiative at the University of Connecticut. He has written books about agricultural walls and occasionally analyzes terrain for private and institutional owners.
Historical insights in the field are hard to come by, Thorson said, partly because the people who originally piled stones alongside their croplands and pastures wrote down almost nothing about their techniques. Many 20th-century owners bulldozed farm contours and sold off rocks from snaking walls, some of which had been built by slaves, prisoners and American Indians.
“We don’t know half as much about them as we should,” Thorson said.
Terminology, at least, has been established for varied construction methods. Thorson helps people differentiate between walls made of dumped, pitched or stacked stones and walls with foresightedly layered and embellished stones. He paraphrased an observation from Aldous Huxley, to explain how language can make landscapes more intelligible: “Words are the channels through which thought flows.” Around the Wessels’ house in Maine, which was built about 1850, stubs of stone walls crop up at the edges of the lawn and an adjacent streambed. Archaeological finds have turned up on site, including a Maine license plate from the 1920s, and a healed wound on a backyard maple shows that it survived a fire about 20 years ago. Marcia Wessels is responsible for the intermittent stone wall. She loves mowing the lawn, she said, and the walls amount to “just a convenient place to put the rocks so they don’t break the lawn mower.”
Tom Wessels said their Maine stonework will evolve unpredictably in coming years. As the thawing soil heaves in springtime, rocks may arise, to be hauled away from the lawn mower’s path.