When the first people of European stock arrived in this area of deep valleys and wooded hills a long and very distinctive change to the natural environment was about to begin. The natural landscape in these mountains, long eroded by time and glaciers, would become a place it had never been before. People from European culture have a tradition of turning forest into field, habitat into agriculture, and streams into working machines. Change is inevitable whether it be caused by natural disaster, evolution, or human intervention. I find it tremendously ironic that humans are a species that creates huge change in such a matter-of-fact way but on the other hand are the most resistant to change when their perceived world is interrupted or altered.
Those first Europeans likely witnessed the natural world in a different way than the Native Americans that wandered these lands before them. They possibly saw the strange wild landscape as a threat and a challenge. It could even be said that they saw these wild lands as a place that needed to be conquered and civilized; quite a contrast with aboriginal cultures that saw the forests and rivers as a routine and integral part of their life that provided food, shelter, and security. There is little question that these woods filled with craggy bedrock, steep slopes, and unpredictable rivers provided ample resistance to even the most subtle act of control. In fact, for these very reasons, this beautiful area of wonder and mystery remains just that in the most reclusive regions: a land that is both awesome and holds enigmatic qualities to those who dare to wander into the inaccessible areas where humans have had little impact.
This is not to say that this place filled with hills and dales, which would eventually become known as Heath, Massachusetts, did not undergo significant changes to both landscape and character. In fact the land was changed to such a degree that it would probably not be recognized by the Native Americans who had witnessed this area in its natural condition.
The first settlers probably found the land here as cold and unfriendly; a difficult place to grow crops, tillage made nearly impossible by rocks and boulders, and a place where livestock fell prey to a plethora of predators. This magnificent countryside did have water in more than ample amounts. Streamlets flowed freely from bedrock springs and joined other streamlets to form brooks and rivers. After thousands of years the rivers had engorged themselves into deep channels unlike the sinuous flow patterns found in the nearby river valley. These streams were full of energy and it took little time for the first Europeans to put these streams to work. Dams were built, mills were constructed, grist was ground, and sawmills operated all off the power of flowing water. No doubt it played a very significant role in the early economy of our earliest settlers.
In the early years of European influence the only significant economy for frontier settlers was the strength of local transactions between settlers and the few businesses established. Men and women depended upon their own skills to survive from day to day. In these modern times we would classify life back then as subsistence living. In those days it was known simply as survival. Men, women, and children worked all day to make ends meet. In those times that simply meant a roof over their heads, food on the table, and, perhaps a laugh at the end of the day with a loving family. If there were any extra commodities they could be traded between neighbors to help meet the essential needs in life.
Land was cleared in abundance. Sheep and cattle were held in place by stone walls fashioned from the landscape’s greatest and most plentiful resource-rocks and boulders. Crops for livestock and table fare were planted in generally poor soils in an area with a short growing season. There were no plant hybrids available then. Many of the common vegetables were severely challenged by the three month period that was frost free.
The town of Heath’s rising population did not last long. The opportunity of great, open lands further to the west drew people in search of a better life. Called to areas thought to be fertile and without bounds, Heathans moved west like water draining off these great hills. Only those that truly loved this remote and rugged terrain remained. Slowly, ever so slowly, the population dissipated from a high of 1500 or so in the mid 1800’s down to a few hundred during the second World War. With the loss of population came the loss of the acres and acres of cleared land and pasture. Land left fallow quickly reverts to its natural condition. Forests found their way back onto our landscape. In the period of two centuries this place we call Heath went from something close to 90% forested to 20% forested, back to the 80% forest cover that we have today. Like it or not, we are witnessing a healing process. The land, in the long term, is always the winner. Geology and it’s influence on the natural world will outlive human impacts at any place and in any given amount of time; a bit incongruous given we perceive ourselves to be the master of this great domain we call earth.
What we have left now, the evidence of those that inhabited these parts for the last 250 years, is without a doubt worth remembering, understanding, and preserving. When we look at remnants of the past we can see dreams that were fulfilled and dreams that failed. We can see the almost endless work, enduring fortitude, and unyielding spirit of those that preceded us. Our forests are full of artifacts. Stonewalls that marked the edge of pastures and often served as property boundaries, ancient free stone cellar holes, old rock lined wells, and even mines where minerals were found and human lives were lost all rest quietly in the woods waiting to be rediscovered. Just the mere recognition of these entities is a great step forward for our community. It is the beginning of an understanding as to who we were and where our community came from. It is the beginning of an understanding of who we are and where we might be going.
Our heritage is a part of life that we cannot afford to neglect. It is deeply held and reflected in our heritage landscapes. Without a better understanding of our history, our place in the natural world, and our relationship to our community, both past and present, our lives will be incomplete.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in March 2010.