The Once and Future Landscape of New England

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When Dr. Mitch Wagener came to Connecticut from Missouri (by way of Alaska) he was intrigued by the stone walls winding through the forest. “We don’t have them in Alaska or Missouri. It seemed like the remnants of a past civilization,” he said. Dr. Wagener, who teaches in the Department of Biology & Environmental Sciences at WCSU, began to study the walls, both from a historical perspective and from his perspective as a soil ecologist. How have these ubiquitous man-made structures affected the ecology of New England?

Apart from his work with stone walls, Dr. Wagener is also a climate change educator. He became interested in climate change while living in Alaska. “In Alaska you have a very cold environment. So, any small increment in heat is a big deal. You have permafrost, a short growing season, and all the animals are very connected to the environment,” he said. Although changes in Connecticut may not be as quick as those happening in Alaska, climate change will have negative consequences for New England in the future.

But back to the past, stone walls were created by farmers trying to clear New England’s famously rocky soil. “I love them. Where they came from is part of the story of New England and most people don’t know that,” he said. Dr. Wagener has given numerous public talks about stone walls. “In Connecticut, the walls are made of rounded-off pieces of granite. Those rounded chunks of granite are stones that were eroded from the White and Green Mountains by four episodes of ice ages. Before the most recent round of ice ages, the White and Green Mountains were the size the Himalayas are now,” he said.

For early New Englanders, the abundant stones provided handy material to create fences, especially after wood supplies started running low around the time of the Revolutionary War. “When they ran out of wood, they had rocks and they used them to build fences to keep cows and goats out of the wheat,” said Dr. Wagener. “You can read a wall and get an impression of whether that field which is circumscribed by it was a pasture or a hay field. If it was a pasture, the farmers didn’t need to be as fastidious in placing the stones. But any area that was cultivated or hayed, where they had to run a reaping machine, they had to get the stones out of there. In those fields you’ll get a wall which is more or less vertical on one face and kind of a sloped wall that was made of chucked rocks on the other face,” he said.

The walls have seemingly changed very little over time. An estimation of the total length of stone walls in Connecticut done by Dr. Wagener a few years ago closely matches one done by the Department of Agriculture in the late 19th century. According to both estimates, if the stone walls in Connecticut were stretched end to end they could encompass 80% of the world’s circumference at the equator.

Ultimately, these stone walls led to the decline of agriculture in the region. “The McCormick Reaper, this big machine, needed large areas to operate. And the small fields circumscribed by stone walls were just not big enough. So in order to compete with farmers elsewhere, they had to either get rid of the stone walls or say the hell with it, give up, and move into town to work in a factory or move out to the Ohio River to farm,” he said.

Stone walls didn’t just kill agriculture in Southern New England; they changed the soil itself. Leaf litter tends to congregate and pile up around stone walls, creating a “hot spot” for earthworms. “Because of the worm activity there is an increase in the amount of turnover in nutrients from leaf litter.” Stone walls may have helped earthworms, which were initially an invasive species, spread across New England. “Any native earthworms were squished by thousands of years of glaciation. The ones we have were introduced when people brought in nursery stock,” he said.

Some years ago, Dr. Wagener worked on a project with undergraduate students on Candlewood Lake. The islands in Candlewood Lake were originally hills, before the man-made lake was constructed. “There are islands [in the lake] that were not farmed. Because of that, there wasn’t the disturbance of soil worms like. And there aren’t many earthworms on that island. Now that may be because the worms were introduced after 1927 [when the lake was created],” he said.

As part of his work as an ecologist, Dr. Wagener also warns people about the changes to come due to global warming. “My standard reason for existence is climate change education and teaching my students,” he said. “Climate change is the great story of our time. It isn’t going away. I really wish it was, but it isn’t and it is going to be catastrophic. It would be nice to think we would develop the political will and do stuff now so it won’t be so bad later on, but that doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen. So we are going to have to figure out how to live with it,” he said.

Dr. Wagener has spoken widely about climate change and has taught courses on the subject. “I’ve given talks to local civic groups like the Danbury Men’s Club, to groups at a synagogue. I’ll give guest lectures in various courses here and there. I’ll even drive to Maine. I’ll go anywhere,” he said.

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