By Dave Anderson
There’s something about the rural November landscape that whispers. It conveys a feeling of antiquity, a kind of sepia-toned memory as if the land itself remembers and projects a younger self-portrait; a time well before we called them “selfies.”
After the colorful leaves are gone, torn by wind and rain and blown into hollows to rot, the forests are muted to dull oak brown and dark green hemlock, the last colors before the monochrome black and white of winter. New Hampshire’s rocky rib cage begins to show underneath the skin. It’s easier to see hidden contours of brooks, stone walls and pastures dotted with cows or strewn with boulders. November’s complex natural beauty after the gaudy, colorful leafy curtain has fallen provides more visual penetration across open fields and deeper into the surrounding woods.
The sense of antiquity in November recalls how tens of thousands of rural acres of pasture and fallow hay fields reverted to woods of white pine and white birch “way back in the 1900s” (as one youngster said to me). The 1930s and early 1940s were an era of rural poverty and a creeping, benign neglect of once-productive farmlands.
The Depression and dark days of early World War II first sapped jobs and then both men and resources from the homefront nationwide. Fewer living residents still recall New Hampshire in that time before the post-war housing boom and baby boom — social and economic changes that ushered in prosperous postwar years and converted flat, well-drained agricultural land to what is now “real estate” beginning in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. Some rural New Hampshire towns did not equal or eclipse their 1840s population peak again until the 1970s.
Remaining vestiges of a rural landscape present a tableau of old and new:
Along Route 28 from Epsom and Chichester to Pittsfield and Barnstead, pastoral scenery is interspersed with businesses and homes. The parking lot of a coffee and doughnut franchise opens to a view across a field of corn stubble. The field and its woodland edges are a good place to watch for deer at dusk and geese in spring. How many drivers even see that while hurtling past farms and fields?
Along Route 4 just west of Concord is a 15-year-old clear-cut crowded with a thicket of white birch, gray birch, poplar, pin cherry and pine. These “pioneer” sun-loving trees inhabit a scraggly Dogpatch forest like those that once dominated Southern New Hampshire prior to the 1950s, when knotty second-growth pine cleared during the “boxboard boom” of the early 1900s regenerated to third-growth forests.
Watch for signs proclaiming “Commercial Land Available For Sale” where a fallow decade has allowed birch and pines to grow back. This forest is like the ones our predecessors inhabited, where young trees sprang up on abandoned pastures and hayfields. Now these young trees often mark failed commercial real estate ventures, empty lots not yet built upon.
Old-timers lament change. An older gentleman once told me that fabled deer, partridge (grouse) and rabbit hunting of yore had “gone all to hell.” He remembered the empty acres of his youth, marked by thickets of young trees preferred by these game species.
In reality, the deer hunting is likely better than ever before. Rifle season opens statewide on Wednesday, and there are plenty of deer: 100,000 by Fish and Game population estimates. In southeast and Seacoast communities, where browsing by deer limits hardwood seedling regeneration, a visible browse-line in the understory reveals deer densities are too high. (Ironically, many of these locations also have the highest human population densities.) Hunters may purchase additional deer tags to take an additional doe in the Wildlife Management Units where Fish and Game deer biologists seek to reduce the herd.
Perhaps that “old-timer’s lament” is more nostalgia for remembered open landscapes and thickets of young forest now grown up or developed; a landscape of memory and paradise lost.
There IS some kind of recurring annual November nostalgia.
Nostalgia for the ramshackle farmhouses, tilted swayback barns and rusty old tractors.
Nostalgia for deep-woods deer camps and empty fields of corn stubble.
Nostalgia for night skies full of stars undimmed by the collective reflected metallic glow of halide streetlights now safely illuminating roads, parking lots and tens of thousands of acres of relatively recent human habitats.