We ask naturalist Tom Wessels …How do you see the forest for the trees?
Tom Wessels believes that every landscape has a story to tell; we need only to “open our eyes and see it.” And for more than 30 years, he’s been helping people to do just that—teaching at Vermont’s Putney School and new hampshire’s Antioch University new England, where he’s now Professor Emeritus, as well as authoring two books on the subject: Reading The Forested Landscape and its companion field guide, Forest Forensics. We took a walk with Tom on the land around his home in Alstead, New Hampshire.
“My relationship [with nature] started when I was 4. I would venture into this woodland across the street from my house on my own. Part of this is due to the fact that my mom had mental-illness problems, and she’d have psychotic events; I was just home alone with her because my siblings were off at school, and I’d freak out and take off.I think she understood that it was probably safer for me to be down there than to be with her at those times. So I got very comfortable just taking off into the woods and found that I had this natural ability to navigate and not get lost. I always knew where I was. I could identify the different sections of the woods by different forest types, even though I didn’t know the names of the trees. One of my colleagues at Antioch said that when young children really have to cope, they can develop amazing observational skills and navigational skills, and I thought, Well, gee, that’s really interesting, because I just thought it was sort of innate. It was a great gift for me from my mom. It really molded who I was going to be.”
“I went to UNH to study wildlife biology, and there I fell in love with natural history. But once I got to the University of Colorado [graduate school] and was introduced to the notion of reading landscapes, I was hooked right away, and my interest in just identifying species sort of waned. The solving of mysteries intrigued me—the fact that you could infer what had happened in the past by looking at evidence that could be found in the land. In natural history, you’re really just focused on species—what they are, where they are, when they’re active. But in ecology, you’re looking at a much larger scale of pattern and process. And the questions are very different. Instead of asking what is it, where is it, when is it active, you’re asking why are these things happening, how does this work—they’re much bigger process questions, and I just was very intrigued by that. It got me thinking of a much more intimate relationship with the forest than anything else, because now I was looking at the whole thing and not just in a piecemeal way.”“If you want to be intimate with another person, you have to know their history. You have to know what shaped and molded them. It’s the same thing with this beautiful part of the world that we live in. I think many people can appreciate its beauty, which is wonderful, but I think once you start seeing the history that’s there, all of a sudden that experience is greatly enriched.” “These areas where we live have real history and it’s all there; it can be seen. Around New England, if you’re interested in history … it’s etched in 80 percent of this landscape. You can go out in any woodland around here today and you can tell if it was once open for agricultural activity or if it was pasture, hayfield, or crop field used to grow grains. You can tell if a forest has been impacted by really severe storms, and whether they were thunderstorms or tornadoes or hurricanes. You can tell if a forest has been logged or subjected to fire. And it gives you an idea not only of their stories, but how dynamic these systems are, how resilient they are. So I do think what I do is really about helping people connect to place.”
“I believe we’re hard-wired to need connections to the natural world. Our species has been around for about 200,000 years, and for most of that time, people had really intimate connections with their place. It’s going to become more challenging as people get more involved in a digital experience of the world. When we … get isolated from our place, it shows up in various ways in society, like increasing rates of depression and anxiety. So I think parents and teachers need to help children to find ways to connect with nature.”