Popular Science Monthly/Volume 75/October 1909/The Atlantic Forest Region of North America

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A Study of Influences


RATZEL in his illuminating work on "The History of Mankind," remarking upon the influence of the ocean on the life of primitive peoples, says:

The wide gap which the Atlantic Ocean opens in the zone of habitation has the effect of producing "fringe"-lands. Although a brisk intercourse from north to south, together with thickly-peopled regions at the back, and more favorable climates, have rendered these far less ethnographically destitute than the regions towards the poles, we still find that in Africa the highest development has been reached on the east coast, in America on the west, that is, on the inner sides or those farthest from the Atlantic.

In contrast with this "gap in the belt of human habitation" the island-dotted Pacific, with its narrowing shore lines to the north, is a habitable area. Its island clusters have ever been the homes of men, and its watery waste the highway of primitive navigators. Dwellers on the fringe-lands of the continents looked out upon the Atlantic as upon a great void, and it was not until the first thousand years of the present era had passed that Scandinavian peoples penetrated its gloomy mists and founded colonies in Iceland and the Faroes. This movement of the Northmen was an expression of that migratory impulse that earlier had brought the rude peoples of Europe to the confines of the land. Five hundred years passed before the "wide gap" was again crossed.

Such a forbidding "fringe," on the farther verge of the known world, was the landfall of the first voyagers, who, steering westward, solved the mystery of the western ocean. In their wake followed successive waves of migrating peoples from the shores of Europe, who sought to found colonies on these strange coasts. Whatever fanciful Eldorados they may have pictured were rudely dispelled by the wild solitudes of an unknown forest that, sphinx-like, stretched its front along the indented coast from the St. Lawrence to Florida. Between these peoples and the world of civilization lay the dissociating Atlantic. Once landed, they had set foot on the threshold of a new home. To the natural features of this threshold—forest, mountain, river, shore-line and climate—and its aboriginal life, we must look for those influences that went so largely to the making of a new type of civilized men.


The natural condition of eastern North America is that of a forest-covered land. Wherever the primeval woodland has been cleared there springs up, unless thwarted by persistent tillage, a sturdy "second growth" which in time, and if allowed to spread, would restore the face of the country to something of its former appearance. We are familiar enough with such tracts, abandoned by men as unprofitable for cultivation and left to the genial influence of birds and winds and the chemistry of humus soils—nature's way of getting back to original conditions. These delectable places are the "woods," scattered in patches of greater or less extent throughout the farming districts, covering the slopes of hills and the windings of valley streams—places of little value in the economic eye save for a few cords of firewood or as a trifling source of timber, but rich withal in youthful associations.

The primitive Atlantic forest was, for a space of three hundred years after the discovery, a dominant feature in the history of the country. For a long period its impenetrable solitudes limited the spread of settlement to a narrow seaboard margin; only the more intrepid of the newcomers plunged into its depths to meet with strange adventures. The valleys of the larger rivers formed natural highways into the interior of this forest region and the broad tracts of rich bottom-land gradually became, in favorable situations, the sites of settlement, widely scattered at first, but advancing farther and farther inland as population increased.

It is hard for us, dwelling in the long-settled land, to appreciate the attitude of the early colonists toward the forest. Fear mingled with curiosity was undoubtedly the chief state of mind of the first comers. Clearing the land had a twofold purpose—for planting ("plantation" was the word used in all early writings concerning the colonies) and to satisfy a feeling of domesticity that was ingrained in the European mind—an inherited instinct to civilize. To these people the forest was a dreadful reality (some early writers speak of it as a "Desert"), full of unknown terrors, and, especially to the Puritan and Jesuit, a haunt of the Powers of Darkness. On the whole the French settlers took more kindly to the forest than did the Anglo-Saxon peoples, who from the outset evinced a ruthless determination to clear the land. The ancient wood steadily receded, slowly at first, then rapidly as the planted country widened its borders, forest everywhere giving way to field, and with it vanished much that was aboriginal.


"Pine-tree State" and "Pine-tree Shilling" were terms of no empty meaning in the region where they originated. In northern New England the white pine is still the most characteristic tree over wide areas of unimproved land, and a well-defined "pine belt" reaches from the coast westward to beyond the Great Lakes. A goodly number of other trees mingle with the pines in this northern portion of the Atlantic forest—basswood, elm, birch, sugar maple and ash among the broad-leaved species, and the black spruce, hemlock and cedar among conifers, but the pine everywhere gives the broadest and most pronounced feature to the woodland. This northern pine forest follows the highest ridges of the Alleghanies quite to their southern limits, conspicuous in the mountain landscape as an evergreen belt—the hemlock (or what is left of its once grand forests after the axe of the lumberman and "bark-peeler") predominating in certain districts.

Somewhere in the mid-New England region, and in New York along the watershed of the St. Lawrence, one who travels with an eye for trees will notice the ever-increasing number and variety of broad-leaved species toward the south. Among the scattered pines appears the massy leafage of oaks, hickories, chestnuts, beeches and other hardwoods, which denotes a borderland in tree life—the northern edge of that vast deciduous forest the summer canopy of which, in aboriginal times, covered the Ohio and Mississippi basins and the Piedmont land of the Atlantic seaboard to beyond the valley of the Delaware. Even to-day there are wide areas still covered by remnants of this magnificent interior forest of the continent. And what a wealth of species! Nowhere in the temperate zone may we find such an assemblage of splendid tree forms save possibly in eastern Asia. The tall tulip tree with its gorgeous blossoms and broad leaves of shining green; the array of magnolias, rivaled in beauty and variety only in the Chinese region; the gums (both tupelos and liquidambar); the flowering dogwood; the buckeyes, locusts, catalpas, beeches, plane trees, chestnuts, ashes, elms, cherries, a great variety of hawthorns, the hackberry, persimmon and sassafras; the hickories, walnuts and butternuts; the basswood, maple and sourwood; the hornbeams, and upwards of twenty species of oaks, not to mention a host of other less familiar trees and underwoods. This is the forest that nature would spread over the land again should the white man cease in his toilsome civilization. Those of us born with a love for the woods can only regret the loss and cling the more tenaciously to every woodland tract that happily we may still have the right to protect.

On the coast plain of the southern Atlantic region another form of tree-life gives character to the forest. Here the long-leaf pine and other allied species find a congenial home, the monotonous "piney woods" covering wide tracts of level, sandy country. From the earliest times tar and turpentine have given local color to the commerce of the region where this pine abounds. In low-lying swamp districts and along river shores the bald cypress, with its curious "knees" lifted above the submerging flood, is a conspicuous tree in the landscape and entirely peculiar to this Atlantic coast region.

The existence of a forest on the Atlantic side of North America is a result of several natural conditions, chief among which is a copious rainfall. The average yearly precipitation east of the Mississippi Valley amounts to some fifty or sixty inches, increasing towards the coast and the Gulf border. This insures an abundant water supply in the subsoil—the stratum into which the roots of forest trees delve in their search for moisture. Soils, too, play their part in the foresting of a land. An underlying layer of clay holds the water, which collects above it in the permeable sands and loam of the subsoil where the tree roots interlace in a vast network. The varied nature of soils over wide regions determines, within certain limits of temperature, the character of tree growth. This explains in part the preponderance of pines on a sandy soil where the water passes more or less rapidly through the root area. Pines are physiologically dry trees as compared with the broad-leaved, deciduous species; their tough and narrow needle-like leaves do not so readily favor the transpiration process—the freeing of the water which has ascended through their vessels from the roots. What ground water enters the transpiration current is, therefore, not too easily lost to the tree through its leaves. The case of the broad-leaved trees is different, for their roots tap soils more or less constantly moist and the ascending transpiration current is quickly relieved by the broad expanse of leafage which they present to the air.

Temperature is unquestionably the controlling feature in the northward and southward distribution of trees. Along the Atlantic seaboard the effective temperatures in tree dispersal are related, in a general way, to the "lay of the land." In the same latitude various species belonging to a more northern habitat appear in the highland districts, while many southern forms are more or less abundant in the lowlands. Along its inland border the coastal plain, in many places, ends in a low rise of land, or "upland terrace," from the top of which one sees the flat expanse of the plain over many miles. Back of the observer lies the rolling country of the Piedmont district (the "uplands" of the early settlers and farming people), a landscape of hills and valleys stretching away to the eastern border of the Blue Ridge. South of the valley of the Delaware this terrace feature marks, in a very general way, the limits of certain northern and southern trees. The sweet gum or liquidambar of the southern region is abundant on the coastal plain in southeastern Pennsylvania, but is of rare occurrence on the uplands. The sheltered nature and rich alluvial soils of river bottoms extend the ranges of some of the more southern trees beyond this limit, and the same sweet gum is found growing in the valley of the Connecticut. In like manner the valleys of the Hudson, the Delaware and the Susquehanna are each tinged with a more southern tree life than are the surrounding uplands along their course. As a reverse of this picture, certain trees of a more northerly distribution, like the hemlock, are found growing along the higher land and in cool ravines as far south as the Lower Delaware Valley.

The more familiar trees, however, mingle over a wide area of country—southern New England and the Middle Atlantic district—a transition region that lies between the northern coniferous forest and the broad-leaved, summer-green forest of the great interior valley and south Atlantic slope.

Something besides temperature appears to control the distribution of certain trees. Since the settlement of the country numerous species, the natural habitats of which are far to the south, have been planted and grown successfully in more northern localities. The catalpa, the sourwood and the several species of magnolia are illustrations of this. Just what is the determining factor in preventing such trees from spreading northward (or others from spreading southward) it is difficult to say. Possibly some subtle condition in the balance of nature—some item in the struggle for existence, has helped or hindered the spread of certain trees, excluding some from localities already occupied by others. It is well known that where pines have been cut off certain species of oaks will spring up and occupy the land. The oak seedlings must have been abundantly scattered over the soil for a long period of time. Only a comparatively few species are enabled to hold their own through some superior advantage in adaptation and grow up to form a forest. A vast number must of necessity lie dormant in the soil for centuries. In Denmark, since glacial times, there has evidently been a succession of forests—oak following fir and beech following oak through a period of many thousands of years. The varied relations of the different species of trees to light, heat, moisture and soils, to animals, and to other trees and plants, are involved in slow, deep-seated processes, the expression of which is the forest as we see it. Our point of view, however, is but momentary in the vast events of nature—a fleeting glimpse, merely, of one picture in an endless biograph.

The question of the succession of forests suggests another question—that of the origin of the present Atlantic forest and its relation to other forests in different parts of the world. In a general survey of the forest trees of eastern North America there appears a large number of types which are common also to Europe. With the exception of the bald cypress and the hemlocks all the other coniferous types—pines, spruces, firs and larches—are represented in Europe by closely allied species. This is true also of a number of the deciduous trees—the oak, beech, chestnut, elm, willow, birch, aspen, walnut, ash, maple, plane tree, linden or basswood, and others are represented on both sides of the Atlantic by more or less nearly related forms. This is not surprising when we come to consider that all of the above-named trees are decidedly northern in their distribution, and exist under very similar climatic conditions. This is especially true of the coniferous trees and the birches which form a characteristic boreal forest zone of similar features throughout the entire land area of the cold temperate region from Kamschatka to Alaska. Farther south, as the land masses diverge, the forest types show a decreasing likeness—yet the broad-leaved woodlands of oak, beech and others are readily recognized as such in both the old and the new worlds.

A number of American trees, however, and these characteristic of the more southern portion of the Atlantic forest, have no European counterparts. We look in vain through the forests of Europe for such familiar forms as the hemlock, the hickories, the tulip tree, the magnolias, the sassafras, the tupelo gums, the witchhazel, the Kentucky coffee tree, the yellow-wood, the locusts, the catalpa and the liquidambar. Strange as it may appear, nearly all of these eastern American forms occur nowhere else in the world save in eastern Asia, in the more temperate parts of China and Japan, where the same or very nearly related species are to be found. What is even still more striking is the contrast between the Atlantic and Pacific sides of North America. Excepting along the mountain crests where the more or less world-wide boreal plants find a congenial environment, the vegetation of the California region is related mainly to the dry plateau lands of Mexico and South America. So far as the trees are concerned a native of the eastern United States would find himself in much more homelike surroundings in the woodlands of temperate China and Japan than on the Pacific slope of his own country. A tulip tree, very similar to the one at home, almost if not the identical species of sassafras, numerous closely related magnolias, a near relative of the southern yellow-wood, the liquidambar, the catalpa, the coffee tree, the hemlock, and other forms appear as familiar trees in the landscape of China and Japan. This likeness between the two widely separated regions is not confined to the trees alone. The flora at large presents many features in common. The fox grape, the poison ivy, the hydrangeas, the wistaria, the blue cohosh, the may-apple, the twinleaf, the trailing arbutus or may-flower, and the creeping snowberry have each a more or less closely related form in eastern North America and eastern Asia, but are found in no other part of the world.

This likeness between the forest types of eastern North America and eastern Asia dates from a period far back in the history of northern lands. The tertiary deposits of Greenland and Spitzbergen have yielded numerous fossil remains of trees, among them a magnolia, a tulip tree, a sassafras and a liquidambar, quite similar, if not, in some cases, identical with the species now living. Besides these forms that are peculiar to the regions above named, the remains of other trees of more wide-spread distribution have been found in Greenland—a basswood, a plane tree, a persimmon, also several kinds of beeches, birches, poplars and oaks—all of which are nearly related to the modern types.[1]

This ancient circumpolar forest flourished at a time when the climate of the Arctic regions was almost warm temperate in its character and capable of supporting a rich and varied tree-life throughout an immensely long period of time. Toward the close of this period the increasing cold which culminated in a glacial epoch caused a gradual change in the forest conditions. The more northerly portion of this wide-spread forest was not able to survive the change, its species were forced out of the region, finding more suitable conditions in lands farther to the south, where some, undoubtedly, had already established themselves. A large number of species, like the oaks and beeches and some of the conifers easily adapted themselves to a varied environment and spread widely around the north temperate zone. Others, however, found suitable conditions of life only in certain localities, often widely apart, but with similar climatic features. Here we have a solution of the similarity of tree forms in forests so widely separated geographically as those of eastern North America and eastern Asia. In every other portion of the wide region into which the trees of this polar forest migrated a certain number of species failed to occupy the soil through some adverse conditions in climate or life relations. Cut off from their center of development in the polar area, they spread to the south, but only in two localities did they succeed in establishing themselves—on the eastern side of the two great northern land masses, where almost similar climatic influences prevail.

It is of more than passing interest to thus trace back the history of our forests. As with men so with trees. Countless generations succeed one another, occupying the soil in which the remains of older generations lie buried, each new generation springing from the one before it and bearing the marks of an inheritance that allies its individual members with other men and trees in far distant lands, and that carries them back through a seemingly endless chain of life to a remote antiquity.

With the retreat of the ice at the close of the last glacial epoch, and the gradual assumption of the present climate and physical features of eastern North America, the more hardy coniferous trees, and some of the broad-leaved species that had adapted themselves to low temperatures along the edge of the ice sheet, began to occupy the newly uncovered land as a northern belt of pine forest. This expansion of tree life toward the north must have relieved the long overcrowded southern area and permitted a fuller development of the summer-green, broad-leaved forest with its great variety of forms. The deciduous habit of this summer-green forest is clearly an adaptation to a low winter temperature, the falling away of the leaves temporarily drying out the tree by checking the transpiration current and thus preventing the disastrous effects of freezing. Along the warmer Gulf borders certain deciduous types, as the live oaks, have either never acquired the habit or have lost it since glacial times.


A glamour of romance brooded over this forest land and cast its spell on the mind of western Europe. From Raleigh, dreaming of colonies beyond the sea, down to the days of the great exodus of European peoples there was a pervading sense of wonder concerning the new country. History has dealt at length with the motives that prompted whole bodies of people to leave a long-familiar and civilized homeland for an unknown and untried wilderness. No matter what the varied motives may have been—whether from religious or political oppression, or for the betterment of home and fortune—each and all were expressions of that migratory impulse that from a remote period had been working out the destiny of the race.

The English stock that colonized the Atlantic slope of North America was made up of two strains of blood that had mingled to some extent in the mother country, but which was destined to a far wider and more complete fusion in the new world. From an ethnological point of view the Welsh, the Irish and the Highland Scot or Gael have come to be regarded as the modern representatives of an ancient Celtic people that once occupied Britain and that were driven into remote corners of the land by the invading Angle and his allies. As applied to this people and its speech and literature the word "Celtic" has come to stand for a certain kind of temperament—imaginative and emotional in its nature, poetic and inclined to mysticism, a man on the edge of things, elated or cast down, and capable of great bursts of energy. The reverse of this picture is called up by the word "Teutonic "—the opposite strain of blood that has mingled so largely with the Celtic element in the moulding of an American type. In point of fact the Teutonic is the dominant strain in most of us to-day; the Celtic being more of a local infusion here and there, like the occasional brook flowing into the main stream of a river. The New England Puritans were almost wholly English Teutons and the same was true of the Virginia colonists. The Teutonic Swede and Hollander held for a time the middle region—the Hudson and the lower valley of the Delaware—and left an infusion of their blood in the dominant English population which may still be traced in certain family names. The Quakers that settled Pennsylvania were, like the Puritans, of Teutonic English stock. The Scotch-Irish peoples, likewise largely Teutonic, settled the Carolina seaboard. The main German migration spread through the middle region—in the Delaware and Susquehanna watersheds—and together with the Scotch-Irish settled the frontier valleys of the Blue Ridge. These were the peoples—Teutonic with a Celtic infusion—that traversed the wide gap of the Atlantic and planted a civilization on its farther fringe.

It was what these people brought with them, as qualities of mind, traditions and habits of life, and the way they looked at things, that interest us most. There could be no adaptation to a wilderness life like that of the aboriginal inhabitants of this fringe-land. Here were men and women, the product of centuries of civilization, suddenly confronted with the bare fact of existence on the edge of an inhospitable and unknown forest. This transit of civilized peoples is one of the amazing events of history. Tillers of the land for generations, they brought with them the old-world grains and food plants, their household goods, farm implements and cattle, and with these a bundle of curious ideas and superstitions which had a deep and widespread rootage in the ancestral soil of Europe. The forest held nothing for them save fuel and material for shelter. Fish, flesh and fowl were to be had in abundance, but of the wild food-plants that were indigenous to the soil and which the native peoples had used for ages these immigrants from civilization knew little or nothing. Dependent from a remote antiquity upon agriculture, it is scarcely to be wondered at that the first comers to the new land were at times sorely put to it for food, as the early records relate.

The effect of this fringe-land upon its native inhabitants was apparent in the low state of their culture. The aboriginal Atlantic tribes were unacquainted with the use of iron, which, as Ratzel has remarked, is a characteristic of all fringe-land peoples. Their agriculture was of the rudest sort—the planting of maize, squashes and tobacco, with little or no tillage, hunting and fishing producing their chief food supply. The very primitive condition of these Indian peoples was further evinced by such customs as mother-right and other ancient forms of the social state. The Atlantic fringe-land as a whole was thinly populated. Where many millions of Europeans now dwell on a sound basis of agriculture, the aboriginal population seemed barely able to hold its own, living as it were from hand to mouth. This failure to advance culturally and increase numerically through intelligent use of the soil is the underlying fact in all backward peoples, and their backwardness is, in large measure, the result of environment. Undoubtedly one of the factors in this environment is isolation, through many generations, in a forest region, though we must also remember those inherent racial traits that tend to depress whole bodies of people, relegating them to the less desirable regions—overwhelming forests, unfertile tracts and fringe-lands. A non-agricultural people can not wrest a civilization out of the wilderness. It can only be accomplished by agricultural peoples with a well developed instinct to clear the land. The forest and the ocean set limitations to the aboriginal American. The Atlantic once crossed by the agricultural Europeans, though it served to hold them to their new home, became their highway of communication with the world. To them it was no longer "a gap in the belt of human habitation."

The Teutonic blood evinced its trait of dogged persistence in the settlement of the land. Acre after acre of the primeval woodland was cleared and planted. Of the species indigenous to the new country only maize and tobacco became rivals of the old-world culture plants. We can picture to ourselves the rude farm lands of the first period of settlement, with stumps scattered through the fields, charred and blackened in many places by the firing of the fallen growth, with the maize and the English grain springing up; the kitchen-garden of old-world vegetables and herbs; the dooryard blooms—wallflower, daffodil, marigold, larkspur, and other sweet, homely flowers brought from across the sea; the young orchards with their seedling fruit trees or newly set-out transplantings of peach, apple, plum and pear. Most of the houses at this period were built of rough-hewn logs or sawed planks, while some of the more pretentious were of stone or brick. Peter Kalm, the Swedish traveler, has left us a picture of the countryside about the Delaware in the middle of the eighteenth century, after three quarters of a century of settlement. Speaking of the farms near Philadelphia, he says in one place:

As we went on in the wood, we continually saw at moderate distances little fields, which had been cleared of the wood. Each of these was a farm. These farms were commonly very pretty, and a walk of trees frequently led from them to the highroad. The houses were all built of brick, or of the stone which is here everywhere to be met with. Every countryman, even though he were the poorest peasant, had an orchard with apples, peaches, chestnuts, walnuts, cherries, quinces and such fruits, and sometimes we saw the vines climbing along them. The valleys were frequently provided with little brooks which contained a crystal stream. The corn on the sides of the road, was almost all mown, and no other grain besides maize and buckwheat was standing. The former was to be met with near each farm, in greater or lesser quantities; it grew very well and to a great length, the stalks being from six to ten feet high, and covered with fine green leaves. Buckwheat likewise was not very uncommon, and in some places the people were beginning to reap it.

A month later (in October) he writes:

Wheat was now sown everywhere. In some places it was already green, having been sown four weeks before. The wheat fields were made in the English manner, having no ditches in them, but numerous furrows for draining the water, at the distance of four or six feet from one another. Great stumps of the trees which had been cut down, are everywhere seen on the fields, and this shews that the country has been but lately cultivated.

The "worm fence" appears to have been a feature of the farm lands in Kalm's time, at least in the middle and southern regions. He comments at some length on the wastefulness of wood in the construction of these worm fences.

Considering how much more wood the worm fences require (since they run in bendings) than other inclosures which go in straight lines, and that they are so soon useless, one may imagine how the forests will be consumed, and what sort of an appearance the country will have forty or fifty years hence, in case no alteration is made; especially as wood is really squandered away in immense quantities, day and night all the winter, or nearly one-half of the year, for fewel.

These rude forefathers of ours evidently had small concern for future posterity. Wood they had in abundance and they burned it without stint. The smell of the hearth smoke must have gone deep into their veins and its subtle influence still evokes a sense of homeliness in those of us who perchance have inherited some ancestral response that makes for happiness quite as much as acres of standing timber.

In New England the mantle of drift, that had been strewn over the land by the melting of an ancient glacier, afforded abundant material for the building of "stone fences." These old walls, beset with weeds and briars, became the retreat of many of the smaller wild animals that had been driven from their forest stronghold by the clearing of the land. The fox still finds a friendly road in the cover of these boundaries, and the woodchuck, ensconced within some sheltering cranny, whistles his shrill note of defiance against the harassing boy and dog.

The surroundings of a homestead very often reflect certain local conditions. The picturesque "well-sweep" still survives here and there in rural New England and its origin may possibly be traced to the long pine pole of the region. The well-sweep also appears in the pine wood tracts of the coastal plain in Delaware, and probably elsewhere. In the middle Atlantic region the "spring-house" was an early adjunct of the dairy. Many old spring-houses still linger throughout this land, with crumbling roofs and weathered walls falling slowly into decay while the rill trickles through, reminiscent of a time when pans of creamy milk and bowls of yellow butter stood cooling in its water. Ofttimes, in near-by spots, these rills and springs are choked with a growth of the pungent water-cress. Modern separator machinery has dispossessed the spring-house—only on some remote farm does it still do service. Its passing is not altogether to be regretted, for many women-folk fell early victims to the crippling rheumatism that its damp walls engendered. Occasionally some poor family makes a home in one of these abandoned structures, and this recalls a still more interesting abode which one now and then happens upon in some out-of-the-way district—an old log-house that has lingered on through the changing years, a quaint reminder of the past. I know of several such houses not many miles from Philadelphia. The spring-house appears to be altogether local in its origin; the abundant springs and rills along the hillside borders of wide meadow pastures inviting the building of such contrivances for keeping dairy products through the hot spells of summer.

Many curious old-world customs and beliefs, into which various natural objects entered, took root in the new soils though in a somewhat altered form to suit the changed conditions. Much of folk-lore has always been concerned with the weather. Besides the ember-days there was Candlemas with its superstition regarding the sunshine on that day as a prognostication of the remainder of winter. In Germany, if the badger saw his shadow it was an old belief that hard weather would follow for some time. No badger appearing on the Atlantic slope, the rôle of weather prophet was conferred upon the ubiquitous woodchuck or ground-hog whose honors are still fairly even with the weather bureau. So prominent a bird in European folk-lore as the cuckoo appears to have had no representative in this country to take its place, though we might regard the term "rain-crow," bestowed upon its American congener, as a somewhat vague recognition of kindred qualities. The art of the divining-rod in locating underground water migrated across the sea with these early settlers, and for this purpose a forked branch of the witch-hazel was used with as sure results, when held by a gifted hand, as that of the elm, the hazel or the willow of the old world. Unfortunately we can not trace the "witch" part of the name back to any certain source in the craft of the broomstick, and "hazel" is but a borrowed title. The shrub has much about it that is peculiar. Among our American underwoods its late autumnal bloom, at the fall of the leaf, and the ripening of its fruit in the next summer are conspicuous and may have appealed to the mystery-loving mind of the seventeenth century.

Superstition gathered about the strange whippoorwill and its weird twilight call. The Indian peoples, too, seem to have regarded this bird as one of omen and Catesby in his "Natural History of Carolina" quotes a piece of aboriginal folk-lore to the effect that the bird was unknown to them until after a certain battle when a great many of their people were slain by the Europeans, and that now the birds heard calling in the dusk are the souls of their ancestors. Many fragments of nature folk-lore sprang up in the new world from an old-world transplanting, as to the belief that swallows spent the winter in the mud of ponds and river, and other beliefs quite as curious which have gone into the limbo of the forgotten past.

In parts of the country, notably in the middle Atlantic region, the planting of plane trees (the sycamore or button wood) in the immediate vicinity of farm houses appears to have been a wide-spread custom under the belief that the tree warded off lightning. Whatever may have been the reason for its planting, this tree, with its huge bowl uplifting a crown of branches, and the striking color of its bark—white, brown and gray in streaks and blotches—is one of the most conspicuous features about the grounds of many old homesteads.


Adventurous men who wandered beyond the Appalachian Mountains into the Ohio country found, west of the Wabash River, the forest giving place to open grassland or "prairies." These were great meadows with little or no tree growth, save along the bottomlands of rivers. The edge of the broad-leaved forest along this prairie border thinned out into those scattered, open woods known to the early pioneers as "oak openings." It may have been that this prairie country was at one time more extensively wooded and its later deforested condition a result of the persistent burning of the undergrowth by the hunting tribes of Indians to increase the pasture area for the vast herds of bison that roamed over the grass country of the Mississippi Basin. The late Professor Shaler advanced this view some years ago, stating that it was his belief that had the discovery of the continent been delayed for another five centuries much of the original forest to the east would probably have been burnt off in this way and the land changed into a prairie country. This burning of the woods seems to have been a wide-spread custom in aboriginal times. William Wood, in his "New England's Prospects," speaks of it as follows:

For the Indians burning it [the ground] to suppresse the Underwood, which else would grow all over the Countrey, the Snow falling not long after, keepes the ground wanne, and with his melting conveighs the ashes into the pores of the earth, which doth fatten it.

Mention is also made of this custom by numerous writers at a later period. Richard Smith,[2] of Burlington, New Jersey, who made a survey about the headwaters of the Susquehanna and the Delaware, in the spring of 1769, speaks of the appearance of these burnt tracts, and I have been told on reliable authority that in the lower Delaware region the Indians burned the tops and slopes of the hills, leaving the land along the river bottoms" untouched.

The clearing of land in the progress of settlement had the same effect as the burning off of the forest—it virtually converted a wide area of primitive forest-covered country into prairie, though interspersed with tracts of woodland. Our pastures are in reality prairies so far, at least, as their faunal and floral features are concerned. This fact suggests a very interesting question. When the country was almost entirely forest-covered, as in the period before settlement, what was the manner of life of such plants and animals as now inhabit our fields and meadow pastures? Were they originally forest-dwellers which have altered their habits to meet the new conditions, or are they migrants from the western prairie country? In the case of certain birds I think that the last view embodies what has actually taken place. A large number of plant species, however, which are characteristic of our pastures and fallow fields, involves another point of view as to their former distribution.

The aboriginal flora of the Atlantic slope was unquestionably composed of shade-loving species. Kalm, in a very interesting and suggestive paragraph in his "Travels," noted this fact as early as the year 1748. Save along the river marshes and seacoast, or in widely scattered glades and beaver meadows throughout the forest region, there was little encouragement to the growth of meadow plants as we know them to-day. A striking fact in the distribution of our eastern flora is the comparatively large numbers of species that have found their way across the ocean from the shores of Europe and have become naturalized in our fields. These immigrants are for the most part "weeds" which everywhere find congenial surroundings throughout our cultivated lands, and like the human immigrants thrive apace. They are rank growers of great fecundity and have gained an ill reputation among the farmers. Some of them, as the big white daisy and the buttercups, in out-of-the-way districts where the standard of farming is low, form the chief hay crop, and the daisy is said, by way of extenuation, to possess milk-making qualities. The names of these instruders are familiar to most of us, possibly more familiar to many than those of native growth. Daisy, buttercup, toad-flax, mullein, burdock, cockle-bur, dandelion, the common St. John's wort, self-heal, lamb's quarters, field-sorrel, smartweed, and many more are among the throng that early made a new home for themselves in the cleared land. It is hardly likely that these same plants would have gained a foothold had the land remained in its primitive forest-covered state, for they are all light-loving species, thriving in the open expanse of fields. Many indigenous species, as the Joe-Pye weeds or thoroughworts and the tickseeds and others of more or less moist habitats have undoubtedly greatly increased their range since the days of settlement, spreading out from river borders into the low meadow lands. One interesting plant is unquestionably a rather recent migrant from the prairie country. This is the Black-eyed Susan or cone flower which has found its way into eastern fields with clover seed brought from the west. Doubtless it was in some such manner that the host of European species that now adorn this land found a means of transit, for much grass seed and grain was brought over by the colonists. Nearly all the grasses of our fields belong to European species that have become naturalized. The native grasses appear, for the most part, to have been annual species that grew in the woods, at least in certain districts. Kalm has an interesting observation on this point. While staying with the Swedes at their village on the Delaware in the autumn of 1748 one of the old inhabitants told Kalm that in his youth "there was grass in the woods which grew very close, and was everywhere two feet high," but being an annual it was rapidly destroyed by the cattle, that were turned into the woods by the settlers, before it had time to seed itself. Kalm further remarks:

However careful economists have got seeds of perennial grasses from England, and other European, States and sowed it in their meadows, where they seem to thrive exceedingly well.

From the same writer it appears that the woods about this Delaware region originally had a scant undergrowth, for he speaks of their open character—" so that one could ride on horseback without inconvenience . . . and even with a cart in most places."

It is a significant fact that most of the native wild flowers of our Atlantic region, excepting those that grow along the river banks and in wet meadows, are woodland species. We go to the woods to find our early spring flowers—hepatica, bloodroot, the anemones, the mayflower, dogstooth violet, saxifrage, bluets and spring-beauty. These species probably acquired the habit of vernal blooming as a necessity imposed by their forest life—unfolding their blossoms in the sunshine of bare woods before the leafage cast its heavy shade. It is possible also that the habit may be, in part, an inheritance from the glacial time, the then short summer period of vegetative activity corresponding with our present spring.[3] In certain groups of plants which are eminently characteristic of eastern North America the larger number of species are of woodland distribution. This is the case with the golden-rods and asters. In glancing over these two groups one is struck by the preponderance of species that are found in woods or along wood borders. Those that grow in the more open lands, as in fields, are for the most part either of northern or western distribution or are inhabitants of moist soil districts, such as meadows and swampy glades.

Every boy who has indulged a natural propensity to haunt the wild and delectable spots of his neighborhood, to pursue shy birds and pry into the secrets of their nests, knows that there are some birds that dwell in the woods and others that make their homes in the fields. A student of ornithology, likewise, soon learns that certain species of birds are peculiar either to the woods or to the fields, and that the structure and habits of life in each are in accordance with the nature of the surroundings. Among eastern North American birds there are several species of sparrows, as the vesper sparrow or grass finch, the savanna and grasshopper sparrows, that are strictly grassland birds. The same is also true of the meadow lark, the bob-white, the cowbird, the redwinged blackbird, and the bobolink. These are all birds of open grassland country.[4]

The question naturally arises—When the region was one unbroken forest, as in aboriginal times, where were the birds that to-day are found only in our fields? Two answers appear possible to this question. There may have been a radical change in the habits of these birds since the first clearing of the land, or they may have come from the western prairie region. This latter view, is, I think, the more probable from the fact that all of the above-mentioned birds are found throughout the prairies and on the Great Plains, or are represented there by varieties which differ only in slight shades of color. The three sparrows are widely distributed over the country, though the savanna sparrow in its choice of localities is not so entirely an upland bird as are the other two species, haunting marshes along the coasts and river valleys as well as the higher open country. The familiar meadow lark of our eastern fields is abundant throughout the prairie region and is replaced on the drier western plains by a closely related form. The cowbird is another species that is widely spread over the continent and its habit of associating with cattle for the purpose of feeding upon the flies that swarm about them suggests the question—whether this habit was acquired since the settlement of the country, or did these birds haunt the bison herds on the plains and begin to straggle eastward after the cattle were introduced. The bobolink may have been a bird of the river marshes throughout the Atlantic region long before the discoverer set foot upon these shores, though from its wide range over the interior valleys and prairie lands we might infer that it had come east after the opening of the country. Similar conclusions could be adduced concerning the red-winged blackbird, but it is a bird more of marshland than of upland fields. Certain shore birds seem also to have taken advantage of the clearing of the country, as the killdeer and the grass plover, both being frequenters of plowed and fallow land.

A remarkably interesting case is that of the black-throated bunting or dicksissel. This bird is an abundant species in the glasslands of the middle prairie region. In the time of the ornithologist Wilson, and as late as the year 1880, it was not uncommon in certain localities in the east. Since this latter date it seems to have entirely disappeared from the Atlantic seaboard. For several years previous to that time I knew of a few pairs of these birds which nested each spring in certain fields of timothy and clover in the vicinity of Philadelphia. Their disappearance from these localities was remarkably sudden and apparently without reason, unless, as was suggested, it was due to the mowing of the fields and the destruction of nests and young birds. The evidence seems clear, however, that a part of the dicksissel population spread early into the newly opened fields of the east and abandoned them later, returning to their original prairie home.

In old, settled lands, as in England and the countries of western Europe, bird life has in large measure adapted itself to the human population. Its background is the domestic landscape—village, hedgerow and park; no wide tracts of uncultivated land or of wilderness to lure birds away. In America vast numbers of birds still sequester themselves in wilderness solitudes undisturbed by men, and even in the settled districts many of the more shy species find congenial haunts in the depths of undergrowth some distance from habitations. On the other hand, there are some like the grackle or crow blackbird, the robin and the bluebird, the catbird, the chipping and song sparrows that seem to prefer to dwell about the homes of men. Indeed, it is quite true, that many of our native birds have found a certain advantage in this affiliation with the human population, at least so far as the food problem is concerned. The blackbird flocks that swarm over the corn lands in early autumn have certainly not diminished, rather have they increased, since the first days of settlement. The bobolink has probably widened its range with the increased area of cultivation. The crow, though a wary tenant of the farm lands, nesting and roosting away from the haunts of men, is still a prominent figure in the landscape of agricultural districts. Many sparrows are gleaners in the shorn fields and pastures, and about the barns and door-yards. Orchards have become a favorite resort, affording an abundance of food for numerous bird families. Great numbers of migrating birds, especially wood warblers, follow the bloom of the fruit trees from south to north in the spring to feed on the insects that infest the buds and blossoms. Not so many years ago, before the larger cities had entirely outgrown their earlier village character, the Baltimore oriole wove its hanging nest here and there in some shade tree along a busy street or in some city square or old town garden. Its rich warble and brilliant color were truly a refreshing sound and sight in the June days, a touch of the woodland life now rarely if ever to be met with in the great overgrown centers of trade.

In England one is impressed with the abundance of individuals among birds which have become dependent upon man and his work. In America a process of adjustment is going on which will unquestionably bring about a similar status in the bird population as more and more of the wild land is cleared and cultivated. In the human history of progress and discovery many delicately adjusted points in the balance of nature are disturbed, entailing often complex and widespread changes in the life and habits of the native fauna. Such changes as we have pictured are small fragments in the history of a country, but they possess great interest as showing how remotely and by what strange means causes and effects operate. Man appears in a new land, clears its face of timber and builds his home. By and by birds from the distant prairie lands find their way into his fields. The swift forsakes the hollow tree to build in the settler's chimney, and the swallow leaves the overhanging tree-trunk and rocky ledge for the shelter of the eaves and barn. The robin nests within handreach of the door-sill, and the wren and martin, leaving their old homes in the forest to some woodpecker more lazy than his fellows, scold and quarrel for the possession of any hole or box so long as it is near the dwelling places of men.

The effect of forest clearing and settlement on the larger wild animals of the region was even more striking, since it caused their rapid disappearance from the vicinity of cultivated land. The wild animal life of the larger sort is always in inverse proportion to the increase of an agricultural population. The indigenous fauna increases in a land of aboriginal hunting folk of low culture, but decreases swiftly and surely in contact with civilized men. Aboriginal man is part of the fauna of a region. As a species he has struck a balance with other indigenous species of animals and as such is a "natural race." Like the lower animals the native man also vanishes from the region of settlement. Of the lower mammals which inhabited the Atlantic forest region in aboriginal times the gray timber wolf was conspicuous, as all early records relate. It has not entirely disappeared from the wilder tracts, especially in the remote northern forest, even at this late day. The bear still lingers in more or less security on the outskirts of settlement, his vegetarian tendencies rendering him a far less formidable animal than some of his former neighbors. Of these last the cougar, variously known as puma, panther or "painter," was a desperate character and has been hunted out even from the more remote wilderness. His relative, the bay lynx or wild cat, may still be met with in deep mountain woods. Of the deer tribe, the common or Virginian deer ("buck" in the colloquial tongue) is fairly numerous in many parts of the wild country, largely as a result of protection. The case of the wapiti or "elk," however, is different. This great deer at one time dwelt along the wooded ranges of the Appalachians, probably in some parts extending its migrations to tide-water (upper Chesapeake Rivers) as witnessed by various local place names. The deep wilderness of coniferous forest to the north, remote and little disturbed by European invasion, is inhabited by two species of deer—the moose and the caribou—which are still fairly numerous. A difference in habits, as well as in aboriginal distribution, may account for the persistence of these two deer, as compared with the elk, in the Atlantic region. The elk is gregarious by nature and in the early history of the country was found in large herds, sometimes a hundred or more individuals, frequenting the open beaver meadows and the timber of river bottoms throughout the Appalachians. The moose and the caribou, on the other hand, rarely associate in any considerable numbers and frequent more inaccessible places, as tamarack thickets and the heavy growth of spruce and birch woods.

At the time of the discovery, and possibly long before, the bison or buffalo had extended its range eastward into the region about the headstreams of the Ohio and Tennessee and there is evidence that an occasional straggler had even reached the upper valleys of streams flowing into the Atlantic. Remains of the animal found in caves and deposits in several localities testify to this eastward extension of its range in pre-Columbian times. The word "buffalo," occurring as it does in certain place-names of an early date throughout the middle Atlantic region, offers further evidence as to the one time presence of the animal in these localities, and there is at least one well-authenticated notice of its having been killed in central Pennsylvania as late as 1790.[5]

Of the smaller animals many, like the beaver and the otter, have disappeared, though the latter animal is still rarely seen here and there on remote streams, even in the settled districts. The beaver formerly built its dams and lodges in many of the streams throughout the forest region and traces of its occupancy may still be found in certain woodland meadows as well as in various place-names. Other species seem to have suffered little if any diminution, as the fox, skunk, mink, woodchuck, musk-rat, the raccoon and opossum, while rabbits and squirrels multiply apace. These have all in part adjusted themselves to the new conditions, many of them thriving at the expense of the agriculturist.


A tract published in London in the year 1634 under the title "New England's Prospects," by William Wood, contains among other interesting and curious observations the following concerning the American weather:

The North-West wind coming over the Land is a cause of extreme cold weather. . . . But as it is an Axiome in Nature, Nullum violent um est perpetuum, No extremes lasting long, so this cold winde blowes seldome above three days together, after which the weather is more tolerable, the Aire being nothing so sharpe, but peradventure in foure or five dayes after this cold messenger will blow afresh, commanding every man to his house, forbidding any to outface him without prejudice to their noses.

This is a capital description of the average winter climate of eastern North America, dominated as it is by the constant succession of high and low pressure areas moving eastward across the country. William Penn in like manner writing from Pennsylvania says—"the weather often changeth without notice, and is constant almost in its inconstancy"—which, as John Fiske remarks, is "an excellent description of nearly all weather in the United States, except on the coast of California."

Many of these early tracts on the colonies were what might be styled in the slang of to-day "land boomers." "New England's Prospects" was one of these, and it drew a comparison at the expense of the Virginia region with the hope, no doubt, of inducing families to come over and settle. Wood says:

Virginia having no winter to speak of, but extreame hot Summers, hath dried up much English bloud, and by pestiferous diseases swept away many lusty bodies changing their complexion, not into swarthiness, but into palenesse: so that when as they come for trading into our parts, wee can know many of them by their faces. . . . In New England both men and women keepe their natural complexions, insomuch as seamen wonder when they arrive in those parts, to see their country-men so fresh and ruddy.

In another place the same writer says:

The hard Winters are commonly the fore-runners of pleasant Spring-times and fertile Summers, being judged likewise to make much for the health of our English bodies.

There has been considerable speculation on the subject of climatic influence in the moulding of an "American type." The moist climate of England presents a marked contrast with the drier continental winds of the region east of the Rocky Mountains, and a certain change in the physical type, since the settlement of the country is undoubtedly a fact. Unfortunately, however, there are no exact data and we are still left in the lurch with only our theories. No doubt the American atmosphere by virtue of the "cold wave" possesses a higher electrical potential and a more drying effect upon the tissues than does the atmosphere of Great Britain and western Europe. This may increase nerve tension, though it is by no means clear in just what way the American climate has altered the European type. The different effect of landscape, which is largely a matter of atmosphere, must have influenced the European mind in some degree, at least in accentuating the idea of greater expanse. The contrast between the sky of England and that of America assuredly is most striking. The English sky has the appearance of being less wind-swept, and the sunshine has the quality of having been sifted through cloudy vapors much more obviously than the sky in America. This has the effect of softening or toning down the outlines of the typical English landscape, at the same time making the sky seem more imminent. In the American sky there is less of this apparent nearness; more of what Lowell would call the "emancipating spaces." These landscape and sky effects, at the same time exist largely in the eye of the beholder. It seems to be a habit of mind to interpret the facts of nature in terms of one's own sense impressions—to see things, as it were, through temperamental glasses.

The early settlers found spring invading this new land—creeping up river valleys, touching the meadows and woods with its young green—and the farmer still finds spring invading this homeland of the Atlantic slope through the valleys of the Susquehanna, Delaware, Hudson and Connecticut. Spring is always appreciably earlier in such places. It spreads later over the uplands. We are apt to think of our rivers as flowing eastward to the ocean, when in reality they flow almost directly southward. This is true, at least, of the more northerly rivers—the Connecticut, Hudson, Delaware and Susquehanna, and of the larger rivers flowing into the Gulf of Maine, as the Kennebec and the Penobscot. South of the Chesapeake the rivers do come more directly from the west.

The physical basis of this advent of spring is the northward movement of a definite line of heat (the isotherm of 43.8 degrees F.) that calls into germinal life the slumbering forces of vegetation, awakens the hibernating animal and urges the migratory bird to seek its northern nesting place. An expanding zone of green marks this creeping of the vanguard of spring up river valleys, over hill country and along mountain slopes until all the land is invaded and the frost giant driven back to his hyperborean realm. In woods almost the first touch of spring is seen when the branches of the spice-bush break out in yellow blossoms. In fields, at this time, the plow is turning over the fallow and the air is redolent of earthy smells. In gardens the sod-breaking crocus and daffodil appear along the squalid, unkempt borders. From meadow pools comes the piping chorus of cricket frogs. Crows are brooding in remote woodlands, and the grackle flocks and robins have returned. This is spring as we know it on the Atlantic slope to-day and as our fathers knew it after the first planting of the wilderness.

Spring waxes into summer and summer wanes into autumn and after the gorgeous pageant of the leaf has passed there steals over this land a time of strange stillness. A haze, like the farthest waftings of some distant forest smoke, broods over the landscape, veiling its features and filling the responsive mind with a vague sense of mystery. There is a mellowness of sight and sound; all that was harsh and discordant seems now blended into one harmonious tone by the enchanted haze. All too soon these few delightful days are dispelled and we stand upon the threshold of winter. This charming period, coming in November, has been called the Indian Summer. The reason for its name is not obvious. It suggests remoteness, like some old Celtic tale, and there are those of us who would fain think of it as a heritage from the aboriginal past. Students who have investigated the matter will scarcely credit such vain imaginings, but however the name may have come, it is surely most happily associated with a dreamy spell of weather in the late days of the American autumn.[6]


The influence which this threshold of the new land had upon the mind and character of the people is perhaps more apparent than are its purely physical effects upon the tissues. It is reflected in many characteristics. As a matter mainly of feeling it finds expression in literature; as a motor response, in the working out of ideals and in material progress.

A sense of spaciousness, of being untrammelled by close-set boundaries, had worked upon the imagination of the people. More than anything else was the idea of expanse in the vast extent of territory that lay to the west. The motor response to this feeling found expression in that great westward movement of population into the rich bottomlands and fertile prairies of the Mississippi Basin. Men had caught the inspiration on the threshold, amid the homely farm-lands and clearings, and in the growing towns with their semblance of European culture. Here on the threshold they felt the stir of a new life and moved under its impulse. Daniel Boone, standing on the bluff edge of Muldraugh's Hill and gazing out over the vast primeval forest that lay at his feet, is the prophetic figure of that time; a figure with its face ever turned toward the west.

The earliest feeling for the natural objects and scenery of the American land that found expression in literature appears in the stories, essay and verse of such writers as Cooper, Irving, Bryant and Thoreau, and in the journals of travelers and naturalists. In the "Episodes" which Audubon interspersed through his "Ornithological Biography," and often, indeed, in the descriptions of various birds, we find portrayed many scenes of the early American background. Thoreau was steeped in the natural features of New England and the fascination of his books is largely in the local color which he reflects through his peculiar personality. To a less extent both Emerson and Lowell have reflected this home environment of the Atlantic slope. Cooper's "Novels" emphasize the frontier life as it existed on the western edge of the threshold—the typical "backwoods" period in central New York and the northern Appalachian region. Washington Irving, for all his indebtedness to a long residence in England and to Addisonian sources, found the inspiration for much of his best work in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills. English poets and writers had set the nightingale, the skylark and the cuckoo forever singing in the hearts of men. Irving, harking back to his boyhood days, immortalized the bobolink, "the happiest bird of our spring." William Cullen Bryant, in like manner, gave literary value to many objects of native growth. To lovers of that English literature that found expression in the new homeland the "Fringed Gentian" and the "Yellow Violet" will hold an equal place in the heart with the "rathe primrose" and "daffodils that come before the swallow dares." Bryant was under the spell of the aboriginal spirit of the land, and the haunting mood of the ancient wilderness appears in many of his verses. In his poem, "The Prairies," he has given voice to that sense of distance, of vast stretches that lay "twice twenty leagues beyond remotest smoke of hunter's camp," far beyond those prairies that he was traversing and where he found the bison's "ancient footprints stamped beside the pool." Whittier, too, has left us pictures of the land—the farm life of a New England winter in "Snow Bound," and the bracing air of an upland road with its late summer bloom of golden-rod in "Among the Hills."

The most sympathetic verse of our native poets is in these touches of nature; that nature that wrought upon their childhood on hillside farms, in the woods and fields, and by the streams of the land that their fathers first set foot upon—the threshold of a new home.

  1. "The Relations of North American to North East Asian and Tertiary Vegetation"—being portion of an address by Dr. Asa Gray, published as Article V. in "Darwiniana."
  2. "Journal of Richard Smith," edited by F. W. Halsey.
  3. "The Origin of our Vernal Flora," Harshberger. Science, Vol. I., p. 92. New Series.
  4. These remarks on the origin of our field birds appeared in an article by the present writer under the title "Birds of the Grasslands," in the Popular Science Monthly, February, 1893.
  5. Rhoads, "The Mammals of Pennsylvania and New Jersey," page 47. Also Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1895, p. 224; and 1897, p. 207.
  6. "The Term Indian Summer," a pamphlet by Albert Matthews, Boston.