Painting a picture through time

This summer, I completed several baseline inventories of new nature reserve properties. A baseline inventory is an initial report about the features of a property. The process includes making a list of all the species found, with a particular focus on invasive species and species at risk, and visiting every vegetation community to understand the stewardship needs of the property. I also record any anthropogenic or built features, including buildings, fences, signage, etc. Finally, I interview the previous landowner, any recreational users, and/or neighbours to learn a bit about the history of the land.
Many of the former landowners I interview don’t know a lot about the history of their property because they simply haven’t owned it that long. However, by examining both natural and anthropogenic features, I can begin to paint a picture of what a property looked like in the past. Understanding the past helps me understand why the property looks the way it does in the present and plan out important stewardship work for the future.


Fences are one of the most common features that tell us something about the history of a property. Today, people may install a fence around their yard for purely aesthetic reasons, but in the past, that wouldn’t have made sense, because installing a fence uses a lot of resources. The fences from the past (mainly cedar rail) had a purpose, and most often it was to keep something inside. Grazing cattle are the most common reason to put a fence in place, but horses and sheep are also possibilities. Sometimes, instead of fence panels, all I find is old barbed wire mostly buried under layers of leaf litter. This barbed wire is another good indication that someone was trying to keep something from getting away. Stone walls are another clue that land was used to pasture animals, but they suggest the land was likely abandoned before the mid-1860s when other types of fencing became more common.


Rock piles are a clear sign of former agricultural use. When trying to plant a garden or dig a hole, there is nothing worse than hitting a rock. This was no different for farmers trying to grow crops to support their families and livestock in the past. Rocks had to be removed to ensure the plants had the room they needed to expand their roots and thrive. These rocks would be moved into a pile, usually towards the edge of the ploughed area, and left there. Many of the properties I encounter have these rock piles and I can only imagine the hours of grueling work that went into creating them. Troughs in the soil can also be the result of past agriculture. If you’ve ever seen a freshly tilled/ploughed field, you will know what this looks like (see the photo below)– uneven ground that is a recipe for a broken ankle. Some abandoned fields were left this way after their last use, and you can still see the plough troughs today, even though the land is now fully vegetated.

Plough troughs in a freshly ploughed field. Now imagine this vegetated.


Trees can also be excellent tools for painting a picture of the past. Fallen trees and the resulting stumps can certainly be the result of windfall (trees that fell due to wind) but can also indicate fire or logging. Wind fallen trees usually have a fallen tree trunk beside them and look like they “broke off” at the stump. Flat stumps generally indicate logging; however, many signs of the earliest logging in Ontario have disappeared as the stumps have rotted and disappeared. But multiple-trunked trees can also provide a hint of former logging, as they may have grown back that way in response to being cut. The presence of old growth trees (older than 150 years) but a lot of gaps in age otherwise (that is, missing middle-aged and younger trees) is a good sign of fire: while the oldest trees probably survived the fire, the younger ones did not.


This list is only a few of the ways you can paint a picture of the past by looking at the landscape. From fallen trees, to rock piles and fences, you can learn so much about an area just by exploring. I love doing these baseline inventories because they give me a glimpse into simpler and yet often more challenging times and remind me of those who used the land before. And even more importantly, painting a picture of a land’s past informs my plans for its future and helps me to steward, restore, and care for it appropriately.

Note: I learned a lot of great information about this topic from those who trained me but also from a book called Forest Forensics by Tom Wessels.

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