NATURE
by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent

Ask anyone familiar with the South Shore what our most common tree is and they will answer “pine,”… or if they know a little bit about botany, perhaps “white pine.” And it’s true. White pine is, by far, the predominant tree in our upland forests.

What’s interesting to me is that when the European colonists first arrived here in the 1600s, white pine was considerably less common. Instead, on the uplands, there were oak trees in three varieties – black, red and white. There was an abundance of cherry, chestnut and hickory, plus some hemlock. And yes, there was white pine, but it was scattered here and there – a very different landscape from what we have today.

A great number of trees were felled in the development of the colonies. Lots more went down to supply the shipbuilding industry. But eventually the woods grew back. While pre-colonial forests were comprised of a variety of species in different stages of life, secondary growth was often dominated by fast-growing, sun-loving types. The result is that now we have lots of white pine. And because the trees that repopulated any given cleared field all sprouted at the same time, they are all the same age. The diversity that was present in old growth forests is gone.

I recently took a walk at Whiton Woods, a 32-acre conservation property located on Temple Street in Duxbury, where there is an abundance of white pine. While there is oak too, and even some holly, pine is the dominant feature. Because of a brutal storm last March, many of these pines are now either snapped in half or lying flat on the forest floor. That alone made the walk worthwhile. It’s fascinating to see the impact a storm can have on a woodland.

Lately I’ve become fascinated with the history of the landscape. What did it look like 100, 200, 400 years ago? Colonists in Duxbury settled first along the shoreline, beginning in 1627 when the original land grants were established. This began at the mouth of the Jones River, proceeding north around Kingston Bay and Standish Shores, but also inland up Island Creek. A freeman typically was given 20 acres, but if he was married, he received 20 more, plus an additional 20 for each family member. Within a short amount of time, much of Duxbury’s southern shoreline, extending inland approximately to today’s Route 3A, was parceled out. The next set of grants were distributed in a similar fashion, but farther inland.

Each family was expected to sustain itself. Nearly all the food – whether for humans or for livestock — was grown at home. Clothing, furniture and farm equipment were home-made too, although it was common for neighbors to share their skills. Everyone had a right of way to the shore; everyone had a right to hunt or fish. Duxbury’s Common Lands, located inland of today’s Route 3A and including much of Pembroke (which became its own town in 1712), were open to all, as wood lots.

Whiton Woods is located in North Duxbury, a village sometimes known as the Crooked Lane neighborhood, because of the winding road that once connected each of the homes there. Settlers – often the sons and grandsons of Duxbury’s original grantees – began to arrive in 1685. Samuel Delano received an early land grant at Temple Hill, between Enterprise and Temple Streets. Isaac Simmons built a home farther north on Temple, just before Laurel Street, and Joseph Peterson’s farm was even farther north.

Additional settlers arrived in North Duxbury around 1700, with a number of 30-acre grants at the intersections of Lincoln, Franklin and Temple Streets. But even though well-established paths led to other parts of Duxbury, settlers in this area tended to be more connected to Marshfield. They attended church there, and also did their milling, and patronized Marshfield’s stores. North Duxbury once petitioned the General Court to be annexed to Marshfield, but the petition failed.

North Duxbury was largely a farming community. While in other parts of town, dams were constructed on brooks to power mills and factories, the village’s primary waterway, Harlow Brook, remained a quiet stream flowing west through lowlands and eventually into the South River. Some of those swamps and shallow ponds produced bog iron ore, which could be raked up and forged into functional metal.

There is no official trail map for Whiton Woods, so visiting this property requires a bit of guesswork. However the trails are well-established, and they are blazed either with paint or with plastic markers. The question is, how do you know when you’ve crossed onto private property?

During my visit, I tracked my progress on a fitness app. Even though I stayed on marked trails, I discovered, upon consulting the resulting map, that I’d inadvertently gone off course several times. Some private lands are marked, and one should respect those boundaries; otherwise, a simple guideline might be just to avoid anything that looks like a cranberry bog or a golf course.

Along the way, there is plenty to see – old stone walls, bubbling streams, at least one wooden footbridge, large outcroppings of rocks, swampy lowlands, even a vernal pool or two. A short loop walk around the blue trail might take 20 minutes. One could easily spend an hour investigating various spur trails. Parking is available on Temple Street, and the trailhead is marked with a wooden Duxbury Conservation sign.

Sources:

  • Settlement and Growth of Duxbury 1628-1870 by Dorothy Wentworth.
  • Changes in the Land by William Cronon

Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to protecting our waters. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 20 years of nature columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com