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How to Read the Forested Landscape

I just finished reading an incredible book called Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, authored by Tom Wessels, an ecologist and environmental biologist who teaches at the Antioch New England Graduate School in New Hampshire.

This book teaches the reader how to look at a forest and deduce its history by observing disturbance patterns amongst its trees. Wessels describes six forms of forest disturbances common in New England, a region that was nearly clear cut by colonizing settlers and sheep herders. Each chapter focuses on a single form of disturbance, and reads like a detective mystery, drawing you into the observational and deductive methodology for reading forests invented by Wessels.

The six most common forms of these disturbances include fire, pasturing, logging, blights, beavers, and blowdowns. Wessels provides readers with clues about how to recognize each of these disturbance patterns by observing defects in the bark or branching of trees, woodland species diversity, patterns of stump decay, and soil topography.

For example, it’s possible to deduce the effect of fire on a forest by observing the following clues:

  1. Standing dead snags: Conifers and oaks made rot resistent by high heat that kills the tree, giving it a silvery appearance.
  2. Discontinuity in tree ages: Fires often leaves large tress but kill medium sized ones. If a forest contains large trees and many small trees, it is likely that a fire has occurred sometime in the past.
  3. Basal fire scars: Triangular scars at the base of trees. This is where fuel pockets form.
  4. Multiple-trunked trees:  Many broad-leaved trees and pitch-pine grow stump-sprouts after they have been killed by heat.

After reading this book, I will never look at a forest the same way again. It’s helped me understand the way in which natural processes and human intervention can affect the character of a forest and I plan on referring back to it as I further develop my own observational skills for reading forests.

Disclosure: The author owns this product and purchased it using their own funds.


  1. Read this wonderful book sitting on a lake in the Adirondaks this summer. Perhaps its best lesson is that the forest has been changed by us, the European settlers, the Native Americans, and even earlier by geologic forces. The final chapter deals with evidence of where the New England landscape is headed. That change is inevitable and we are here to witness, to marvel, and to read its path in our travels.

    • This book forever changed the way that I look at a forest. I see so much more – ranging species diversity to evidence of fire and disease. truly a wonderful guide to reading the forest and as you say, our impact on it. Just take a walk through Massachusetts or Vermont forest sometime and you can see the impact of agriculture and animal husbandry everywhere. I’m glad you enjoyed it to.

  2. I really need to read this, and his later books. My girlfriend is a grad student at Antioch, and took the last class he taught before he retired. The two of us went on a hike in the Whites with him last month that was pretty cool. He’s such a fountain of knowledge, and every funny-looking tree we passed on the hike, he could tell a pretty good story about how it came to be as it was. Pretty cool guy. (PS: Antioch New England is in Keene, NH, not Vermont, although it’s close enough)

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