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Landscape History of Central New England

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Seven of the Harvard Forest dioramas form a historical series that depicts changes in the New England landscape over the past 300 years at one location. The scene was designed to depict all the important transformations of the landscape in the upland area of central Massachusetts since the pre-European-settlement period.

The ecological and historical interpretation of the details and significance of these transformations has changed little since Fisher and his colleagues designed the dioramas in the 1920s and 1930s. Importantly, the concepts presented in the dioramas provide the basis for much current understanding and research ecology, conservation biology, and forest management at the Harvard Forest and beyond.

One of the major lessons that emerges from the dioramas is that in order to understand our forests today we need to become deeply knowledgeable about their particular history. This historical perspective shows us that our forests have always been characterized by change and carry a strong cultural legacy of past human activity. This understanding should inform our predictions of future forest development, as well as our attempts to conserve and manage them. 

1700 A.D.
In the pre-settlement forest, natural variation across sites and ongoing natural and human disturbance processes led to differences in age, density, size, and species of trees across a wide range of sites. Notice the large trees and large fallen trunks on the right in the diorama. Compare them with... Read More >
1740 A.D.
For most of the New England region, European settlement occurred largely during the 18th century. Through forest clearing, hunting, and trapping, the abundance of many species changed rapidly and the wilderness was gradually transformed into a domesticated rural landscape.  Read More >
1830 A.D.
The peak of deforestation and agricultural activity across most of New England occurred from 1830 to 1880. Across much of New England, 60 to 80 percent of the land was cleared for pasture, tillage, orchards and buildings. Small remaining areas of woodland were subjected to frequent cuttings for... Read More >
1850 A.D.
Beginning in the mid-1800s and continuing for more than a century, farming declined on a broad scale across New England. Abandoned pastures and fields rapidly developed into forests. In central Massachusetts and across much of central New England these forests were dominated by white pines.  Read More >
1910 A.D.
As the "old-field" stands of white pine reached middle age, it became evident that they contained a valuable and rapidly growing crop of second-growth timber. As this white pine became marketable portable sawmills appeared across central New England. One of the most common and valuable uses of... Read More >
1915 A.D.
Clear-cutting of the "old-field" white pines led to the succession of mixed hardwoods across much of the landscape. The inability of white pine to sprout after being cut, in contrast to the prolific sprouting of our hardwood species, facilitated this succession. Patterns of succession enhanced the... Read More >
1930 A.D.
One of the characteristic features of the hardwood forest that developed after the clear-cutting of the "old-field" white pines is the predominance of multi-stemmed sprout clumps. Fast-growing species that sprout prolifically -- red oak, red maple, white ash, birches, and black cherry -- are... Read More >
In the period since the dioramas were constructed, the trends in forest development illustrated in the 1930 model have continued. Remarkable expanses of maturing forest extend across a densely populated landscape in the northeastern United States.As these forests grow and mature and as dead and... Read More >