As I’ve wandered around painting recently, residents have talked to me about eastern spruce dwarf mistletoe and what it’s done to their trees. I was surprised to read that it is native to New York as well as Maine, since I’ve never seen those characteristic “witches’ brooms” on trees in my natal state.
I browsed through Fitz Henry Lane’s paintings of Penobscot Bay with the idea that they might give me some idea of how the landscape has changed in 150 years. He painted, drew and sketched the lovely town of Castine many times. What he recorded was a bald shoreline. Modern Castine is much more tree-covered today than it was in Lane’s day.
This fits with a picture of the Northeast, in general, as a place that went from forest to farm and back again. Farming here peaked in about 1850, when settlers realized that the pickings to the west were better. By 1925, coal was a cheaper alternative to charcoal for fuel. Logging went into decline: between 1900 and 1950 the Massachusetts timber product industry declined by two-thirds. And then there’s paper: there are fewer than half the number of mills in Maine as there were in 1980.
Along with changing industrial demand, environmental conservation movements began throughout the 1880s and continue today. Maine ranks second in the nation in land protected by land trusts with 2,485,000 acres. Maine has more land trusts per capita than any state.
Today, much of the previously deforested land has once again grown over and many of our cities are essentially urban forests. However, the forest never returns exactly to its prior state. Massive change alters ecosystems, and human change is no exception.
The land-use history of Monhegan provides a snapshot of this. It was dominated by a spruce-fir forest until the late 18th century, when settlers began to aggressively clear land for settlement. By the early 20th century, little of the original forest remained. As Monhegan’s economy shifted toward tourism, the forest began to grow back, but it’s smaller and less diverse than the original forest. Nor can fire keep parasites in check in a densely occupied area.
Painters tend to think of the landscape as immutable. However, that’s not true, as Lane’s landscapes vividly demonstrate. I doubt the shoreline spruces will disappear in my lifetime, but knowing that they’re vulnerable is a reminder to treasure them.