FOREST FORENSICS: Clues in the Woods to History

By Chris Bolgiano

“Good fences make good neighbors,” wrote Robert Frost in his poem, “Mending Wall.” He was being ironic, because the point of his poem was to question building walls between neighbors – except where cattle were concerned. Most old fences in the woods mean one thing: livestock. But were animals fenced in, or out? European settlers brought the ancient tradition of access to forests by common people, regardless of what aristocrat owned the land. Firewood, small game, and forage were essential, and rights to them were codified in England’s Forest Charter of 1217.

The forests that settlers found in the Appalachian Mountains were much more productive than in Europe. As farmers cleared valley bottoms, they turned out cattle and pigs to forage across the mountainsides. American chestnut trees and a variety of acorn-producing oak species, plus the diverse array of edible understory plants, provided high quality nutrition. Farmers set out salt blocks to keep the animals relatively close to home, remembered today in places named “Lick.” They used rot-resistant American chestnut rails to make zig zag “worm” fences that kept livestock out of gardens and crops.

Shortly after we bought our forested acreage in the early 1980s, we brought our elderly farmer friend Claude Hummel of Singers Glen, born in 1912, out for a walk. We asked him about the odd-looking fence sloping down a steep wooded hill into North Creek. The slats were axed by hand out of American chestnut wood and wired together at the top and bottom.

“Looks like a pig fence,” Claude said. Pigs, being hardy and hefty, were basic to the food economy in the mountains not so long ago. Oak trees growing on the slope and ridge near the pig fence are roughly 80 to 120 years old. So the hillside was logged around a century ago, and it was then common practice to graze livestock on logged land growing up in brush. Maybe whoever owned the pigs was being a good neighbor by fencing his pigs in on his own land.

And maybe he would have had to pay a fine if he didn’t. Because by the time Frost’s poem was published, in 1914, most counties had passed ordinances requiring farmers to fence in their livestock. Barbed wire was patented in the 1870s, and by the 1920s was being nailed to living oaks as an estimated four billion American chestnut trees died from an imported fungus. Absence of this most productive tree in the forest for both humans and wildlife is an invisible clue to disaster.

Rail fences moldering in remote places can still be found, as can oaks in the process of digesting barbed wire. Old fences make good history lessons.