Difficult terrain

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I spent yesterday's garden time in a somewhat different style, reading an article in the April 1999 issue of New York History called "Farm to Forest," by Sally McMurry, a professor at Penn State.

I'd been looking for this article for a while, and finally found the issue kind of buried in a bookcase. It looks at the detailed diaries of Theobald D'Allarmi's farm in the northeast corner of Oneida County, on the edge of the Adirondacks. D'Allarmi, a wealthy immigrant from Bavaria, moved to this spot and set up a farm. His diaries include descriptions of what grew and where, as well as detailed maps. (He didn't, unfortunately, report much on the people he employed.)

D'Allarmi's story is interesting to me for a lot of reasons. First, of course, I'm jealous of his ability to create maps and keep track of what he was doing from season to season. That's something I definitely need to work on.

What I'm most interested in, though, is his focus on a piece of land that we would today consider marginal at best. At the time, though, it seemed attractive enough:

the United States in the mid-nineteenth century was an agrarian nation whose population placed few limits on the future of agriculture. It was generally accepted, for example, that forest cover alone was no reason to judge land unfit for cultivation. On the contrary, people believed that tree cover indicated fertile land; thus the prairies were for a time thought to be barren. In forested areas, oak, chestnut, walnut, and hickory were thought to signify good soil. Otsego County promoter William Cooper, author of A Guide in the Wilderness, regarded bass, butternut, maple, elm, red beech, and hemlock as signifying "good soil for both grain and grass," but warned prospective emigrants to avoid land with a preponderance of "mossy-beech", pitch pine, birch, and black or white oak.

Neither was a hilly location regarded as a great impediment to successful farming. Early settlers on the hill farms of New England, for example, had many reasons to prefer upland farm sites. Forested hillsides were not impenetrable as was the dense lowland cover, and drainage was better on the slopes. Some people believed that high sites were healthier. Hill country trees furnished fuel, charcoal, potash, maple sugar and syrup, and mast for roving hogs. In the early nineteenth century, irregular topography was not the liability it would become later, since hand tools did not present major problems on slopes. In an agrarian system not yet fully market-integrated, neither was access to transport as critical as it would later become. (125-6)

Even just looking around about Dryden, this is important on a number levels. The early pioneers saw this "dense forest mostly of hemlock and hard wood timber, liberally sprinkled with large trees of white pine" as a place of opportunity, and they weren't just logging here - they were farming as well.

Today it seems easy to look at where the forests are as a sign of land with problems, but that's substantially the result of human activity. We didn't try to sustain the original forests - we chopped them down and replaced them with pastures, and when the stumps finally disappeared the soil flowed downhill. The pocket of relatively good Class III soil that I'm sitting on lost its top 4-6 inches of soil earlier, and knowing that the steep forest behind me used to be an open pasture makes me wonder just how much water used to pour off of it. We used up the land and then let the trees come back to it.

At the same time, though, while I can't share my predecessors enthusiasm for clearcutting everything to create open spaces, I can't help but share their interest in working on land that clearly isn't perfect. D'Allarmi came to his land from a place that was reasonably similar:

This site possessed the same fundamental characteristics as the place where D'Allarmi was born and raised, the little Bavarian village of Bernried am Starnberger See, about forty-five miles southwest of Munich. There, too, the settlement practically spills into the lake; there, too, it occupies a slope leading up and away from the water. Bernried's elevation of 1,960 feet and latitude of 47 degrees 52 minutes are not too different from Round Lake's 1,400 feet and 48 degrees 20 minutes.... In 1857, he had little reason to think that his selection of land was a poor choice. (127)

Of course, his land turned out not to be ideal for the kind of crop-farming he wanted to do, and his reporting gets bleaker about his crops while his interests turn to more successful reforesting, making it look more like Bavaria, and to hosting visitors. He wasn't alone in this:

This discouraging experience was widely shared all over the Northeast, and indeed many up-country farms were being abandoned. The very attributes which had made hill farms attractive in the settlement period became liabilities in the age of railroads, mechanized farming, and capitalist methods. Remote from markets and unsuited to mechanization, many hill farms reverted to forest and the people migrated to cities, to valley farms, or westward. (133)

There's a lot to think about here. On the one hand, the story this tells is a common one, a warning not to try to grow food on hillsides. On the other hand, looking at D'Allarmi's maps of neat fields, I think it's reasonable to wonder if much of his problem was trying to grow crops in a way that was very different from what the land had supported previously. I'd be interested to see his diaries to see if he paid much attention to soil, whose eventual collapse is noted in the article. He did have kind of an advantage for a while, though, in not really needing to be connected to broader markets that demanded mechanized efficiencies that his farm couldn't support.

Sometimes there just isn't a clear message. I guess we'll find out how this story compares to the story of my smaller plot when we find out how my story finishes.

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This page contains a single entry by Simon St.Laurent published on February 5, 2008 6:24 PM.

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