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Plowing the Woods

Tina Hartell

The Vermont woods are littered with evidence of past human disturbance. Many of the stone walls that criss-cross the woods and lines our roads were made in the late 1700s/early 1800s as European settlers deforested and plowed the land for crops. Every time their plow came across a rock in the ground they would stop, pick it up, and carry it to the side of their field - an arduous task as the glaciers dumped horrible amounts of rock during their retreat 10,000 years ago. Stone walls are often nothing more than stone dumps. While some of them do delineate old (and current) property lines, many of them just separate different fields.

In this photo, the forest floor on the left side of the wall comes up higher - almost to the top of the wall - whereas the right side drops down. This is called a plow terrace, and is further evidence of plowing, as repeated turns of the plow caused soil to be pushed down hill until it hung up against the stones. 

A plow terrace on the left of the stone wall

A plow terrace on the left of the stone wall

On either side of the wall, you can also see that plowing over 150 years ago has smoothed out the natural irregularities of the forest floor making the ground fairly smooth and even, a trait that doesn’t exist on unplowed land.

Much of this cultivated land was turned over to pasture land when sheep were introduced to Vermont in the mid-1800s, and then much of it returned to forest between 1900-1950. Vermont has young forests - but aggressive as hell as it is a fight to keep land open. Trees are an unstoppable force.