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Thursday, October 11, 2012

When Were the Good Old Days That Our Land Conservation Ethic Idealizes?

As I was preparing for an Outdoor Open House that I coordinated last week at one of my township’s open space properties, an 86-acre, historic farm, I marveled at the farm’s appearance in a faded photo probably, at the latest, from the very early 20th century.  This photo was what the good old days looked like in this neck of the woods.  Or so myself and most other folks around here might have assumed.  But the first thing that seemed a bit odd to me was how few trees were present in that 100-plus year old photo.

Undated photo courtesy of Lower Macungie Township Historical Society, with
the springhouse in the center of the photo.  The barn, which is still standing,
can be seen behind the trees in the center of the shot.  The 1-1/2 story farm-
house is on the right and was replaced by a modern dwelling in the latter half
of the 20th century.    
I’ve read in local history books that, by the early 19th century, the farmers had felled nearly every large tree that was in sight, except for a few nut trees that provided an addition source of protein in the Fall.  Those original-growth trees were needed for lumber to build log cabins, barns, and outbuildings.  Eventually, shade trees were something that grew primarily on property lines where farmers could not plow and plant.

I wasn’t really surprised that the photo showed there was no riparian buffer, so the meadows were probably grazed right up to and into the creek.  The springhouse sits prominently in the center of the photo, adjacent to the creek.  I was glad to see the springhouse, because it would have protected that seep of fresh, cold water springing out of the ground from getting fouled by ever-present animal manure.

Lithographic printmaking company Currier and Ives were based in New York City from 1834 to 1907 and were self-described "Publishers of Cheap and Popular Prints."  When I was very young, my family had some dinner plates with Currier & Ives prints of idyllic scenes of 19th century country life.  recall eating whatever a picky five-year old would have eaten from those plates and marveling at the scenes on them.  Farm fields being plowed by a team of workhorses, cattle grazing in a stream, a horse and sled standing on an ice pond.  Now that I think a little more critically about some of those Currier and Ives scenes, I realize just how screwed up the good old days of 19th century farm life were from the perspective of 21st century conservation standards.

There are lots of Currier and Ives scenes with cattle standing in steams.  If a farmer let his herd do that now, he’d have any downstream user of that surface water reporting him to the County Soil Conservation District or Health Department for fouling the stream with sediment and fecal coliform.  And there were many prints that showed a bucolic old mill with the adjacent river dammed to provide hydropower to the mill’s water wheel.  Two hundred years ago, millers didn’t concern themselves with the floods that would ensue from them altering the surrounding floodplains by damming the river.

There is even a Currier and Ives print titled, “Home from the Brook,” which shows two, well-dressed, 19th century anglers who have each brought home a bushel basket full of trout.  Back in the good old days, before those overbearing government regulators invented daily creel limits.

I guess ignorance really is bliss.

Looks like stormwater runoff passing right through the middle of this barn yard.  Who wants to guess how high the fecal coliform counts are in whatever body of surface water is receiving THAT runoff? 
Fortunately, by the latter third of the 20th century, we began to acknowledge and employ better land management practices than they had in the good old days.  Fewer farmers planted their fields right up to streams.  Refrigeration replaced the need to harvest ice from ponds – ice that may or may not have been tainted by horse manure.  We eventually realized that strategically placed trees can keep our houses (and springhouses) cooler in summer.  Stormwater runoff is now at least partially regulated.

Looking at the same farm as in the undated photo above, taken from

adjacent to the modern bridge that now spans the creek.  Lots more

trees in 2012 than there were 100 or more years ago.
By the way, the location of the old springhouse is now an overgrown, one-foot high pile of limestone blocks that appears to have collapsed into itself sometime in the past 50 years.  The structure’s debris may have sealed off the spring that was there, but the groundwater surely has found its way to the surface to create another seep or two somewhere nearby.  Just as the trees have also returned. Nature always wins like that.  I'm guessing that if we could ask Nature herself when the good old days really were, she would probably say prior to 1492.

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