How to Be a Woodland Gumshoe

As goes that age-old mystery, if a tree falls in the forest when no one is around, does it make a sound?

I’m here to tell you that it does. But don’t take my word for it. Take the forest’s. And the birds’ and deer’s. Remember, nature isn’t apart from earth’s so-called “events” that we like to take credit for knowing about—say, before the big snowstorm (“s’posed to dump ten inches”) hits. Nature invented them. And nature knows loads more about its history than we do, more than we see or hear on a daily basis.

Which isn’t to say we can’t uncover our natural environment’s colorful past. It takes an empathic pair of eyes, a nose for the peculiar lays of the land, and of course the expert guidance of someone who’s been at it for quite some time. I’m talking about Tom Wessels, the man who 10 years ago first showed us how truly to see the forest for the trees, when we published his Reading the Forested Landscape.

Wessels’ panorama of the forest picks up and analyzes clues that can explain the many, often dramatic changes the landscape experiences over tens, hundreds, even thousands of years. How to tell if a fire once swept through these woods? Was it once open farmland? How to know whether a blight took hold of species and brought it down? What, O, whatever happened to the American chestnut?

Reading the Forested Landscape is an excellent read (hearthside, with a tumbler of oak-y bourbon?), but not the kind of thing you’d stow in the satchel as you head out for some sleuthing of your own. So Wessels wrote the field guide. Forest Forensics fits in the back pocket, full of color photos to aid your research, a glossary of terms, and quick-reference charts.

Let’s have a look at the evidence, shall we?

(L) To bear the scars of a forest fire, and live to tell about it. (R) What remains of the great American chestnut, blighted by fungus.

If a late-autumn, Novembered woods is anything, it’s perfect for letting lots of light in. So get out into it. You might solve a mystery as old as the dirt itself.

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