The Line Storm by William Gibson (from Pastoral Days, 1882). Habitat along a split rail fence – place for Bobwhite, Regal Fritillary and Goldenrod.
Preconceptions are a challenge in historical ecology. After all, doesn’t the word ‘forest’ or ‘field’, even if written more than 150 years ago, conjure up some clear images in your mind? However, both culture and ecology can muddy this apparent clarity. The definition of a word can change with time and society. For example, medieval English references to ‘woods’ meant something other than what it does here and now. And even if there were general agreement on what was meant, changes in landscape ecology over time may mean that exact botanical equivalence is very unlikely.
The changing nature of our forests, while still only partially understood, has been widely described. Forest succession and other forms of forest change have been recognized and attempts made to document them. While not completely ignored by historical ecologists, the evolving identity of fields is less well understood and so is meat for further exploration.
This display, although far from comprehensive, asks ‘what did our 19th century fields look like botanically and zoologically?’ We will explore that question through illustrations and narratives appearing in 19th century books and will profile three organisms: Bobwhite Quail, Regal Fritillary, and Goldenrods (Goldenrods are actually several species which we won’t tease apart here).
In part, the motivation for this work is simple ‘natural historyitis’ – the affliction of some human beings for knowing what there is to know about the creatures and land around them, be that current ecologies or past lives. While not conclusively predictive, history can help us better understand an organisms’ current ecology and at least be alert to the potential outcomes of our intentional or unintentional interventions.
One final word – it is easy looking at these old books to imagine stodgy old men, bent over candle light, carefully turning their browned and brittle pages. This is, of course, far from true. These were once crisp, new, hot-off-the-press publications eagerly awaited by aspiring field naturalists. While it is true that not everybody was able to afford the more ornate works, the widespread interest from people who spent much of their lives surrounded by nature is demonstrated by the presence of economy editions meant to satisfy that market.
Listening for the Bobwhite.
The Bobwhite Quail was perhaps the flagship bird of 19th century fields. De Kay, in the same 1843 book that contains Hill’s illustration, wrote, that it “occurs in every part of the State, where it breeds and is a constant resident”; Edward Forbush, harkening back to a Massachusetts childhood during the second half of the 1800s noted, “During my boyhood the cheery, heartening call of the Quail was one of the most common and welcome sounds of spring and summer. The plowman resting his team gave ear to the gladdening sound and it mingled with the ring of the whetstone on the scythe.” Others spoke of Quail feeding with chickens in the barnyard. In fact, it was such a common character that its call, now transcribed as “More Wet, More Wet“, entered the lexicon of folk weather forecasting. Even in the early 1900s, it was described as a fairly common resident breeding bird of Columbia County.
Today it is rarely seen (or heard) and may effectively be extinct in New York State, with scattered sightings probably representing game farm escapees or releases. What happened? There may be no single answer. Instead, as is often the case, a maelstrom of factors may have caused its demise, these likely included the following:
- The Decline and Sanitization of Farm Fields. These birds consumed the seeds of many openland weeds and grasses and also relied on insects, especially for their young. At the same time they needed nearby cover in the form of shrubby fencerows and edges. As year-around residents at the northern margin of their range, thick winter cover was especially important. Look at the farmland in the background of Hill’s painting or in Gibson’s A Corner of the Farm. Today, not only is the total extent of farm fields much less but few have the openland habitat diversity occasioned by premechanization haying, pasturing and fence cleaning. One author even placed some of the blame for the Bobwhite’s demise on the arrival of wire fencing and the evaporation of scraggly rock and rail fencing.
- Weather and Reintroduction. There are many accounts of Bobwhite Quail being hit hard by severe winters, especially when ice followed snow and the birds, who apparently sheltered together on the ground, were entombed. Perhaps this was always a bird of more modest climes, which, in our region, only ventured away from the warmer coastal plain as upland farming spread. In this scenario, winter survival was perhaps always a crapshoot. However, human reintroduction attempts may have worsened this. By repeatedly reintroducing southern birds as northern birds declined, sportsmen may have brought in quail strains which were less well adapted to winter weather and thereby hastened the species’ regional demise.
- Hunting/Trapping. There appears to be little doubt that harvesting heavily impacted this species. Edwin Kent, recollecting late-19th century life in Dutchess County, describes the Bobwhite’s near extirpation of from at least the southern portion of that county, and he attributes it largely to on-farm market trapping, which took advantage of the already-mentioned willingness of quail to enter the barnyard in search of late-season food. The bird’s social ways meant that multiple birds could be trapped at a time. Alexander Wilson, writing American Ornithology during the first decades of the 1800s, also recounts market trapping and describes the farmyard traps in detail. Shooting is also described as a major decimating factor, especially when hunters with dogs ‘cleaned up’ the few surviving birds after a hard winter.
From the Bobwhite’s perspective 19th century fields, at least during the first half of the century, seemed to have been a place of bounty. Relatively loose field management ensured both food and shelter, while abundant barnyards probably served as emergency food lots. Today, our incessant drive for efficiency and our relatively new-found mechanical prowess means what few fields are left tend to be much neater than their predecessors. Because of this (not to mention the booming house cat population), even were they to be re-introduced, Bobwhite would probably be hard-pressed to survive in our modern landscape.
Bobwhite Quail, two illustrations by J.W.Hill (from DeKay’s Zoology of New York, part II: Birds, 1843, and a reproduction of his 1867 Hanging Trophies from The New Path, 1985, Brooklyn Museum ). John William Hill was both an illustrator (perhaps most notably of several animal volumes in the Natural History of New York series), and, later, an artist of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The Natural History was a mammoth, multi-decade undertaking by New York State. It produced volumes not only on various plants and animals, but also on agriculture, paleontology and geology. While other states likewise produced their own natural histories, none were so grandiose.
Bobwhite Quail by William L. Baily (from Our Own Birds, published posthumously in 1863) I have found little information on William Baily. He was apparently a writer and artist who died young. Judging by the book’s preface, he seemed to feel that popular, inexpensive children’s books on nature were important. Strangely, a few examples of this small book have some finely-colored illustrations – hardly a cost-cutting addition.
A Corner of the Farm by William Gibson (from Pastoral Days, 1882). Gibson was a wondrous illustrator whose works are worth exploring. In his day, he was widely respected as an artist-naturalist. The theme of this small image is, according to the text, a backwoods tramp gunning for Bobwhite.
Hedge Removal in Game Survey of the North Central States by Aldo Leopold (1931). Although this is not a 19th century work, Leopold was witnessing some of the same trends in land use (e.g., intensification) and Bobwhite populations (downward) as his East-Coast colleagues had some decades earlier, albeit with tractors to now drive the process. Leopold went on to write one of the first textbooks on game management and various of his essays were collected in the posthumous Sand County Almanac.
Regal Fritillary in Print and Life.
At about the same time that Bobwhite were winking out in New York State, Regal Fritillary was also waning. It is difficult to know how common this butterfly ever was in our region. Many more youth ventured Bobwhite hunting or trapping than took the time to note the abundance of particular butterflies, as a result, our glimpse into the butterfly past gets foggier faster. Historical records of this species exist from throughout southeastern NYS, including Columbia County. Scudder, a great 19th century lepidopterist based in Boston, described it as ‘tolerably common’ in adjacent Berkshire County, MA.
The past of the Regal Fritillary is almost as mysterious as its present: it was reported to favor wet meadows and yet apparently relied on dry field plants; it was widespread and yet rarely common; and its abundance apparently fluctuated dramatically meaning that its presence was sporadic at best. Today, its range has retracted dramatically for reasons still unclear. Once found throughout much of the East Coast, it is now gone from all but one site in the region – a Pennsylvania National Guard training area. One of the last confirmed NY sightings was in 1975. Another subspecies is still moderately common in parts of the Midwest.
Such uncertainty might be more understandable (although not necessarily excusable) were the Regal Fritillary a small, inconspicuous creature, but, at least by butterfly standards, it is not. Indeed, it is one of our physically most impressive butterflies with its relatively large size and dramatic, contrasting markings. “Fine” is how several 19th century lepidopterists appreciatively described it.
Its apparently conflicting ties to both wet and dry habitats can perhaps be reconciled if one supposes that, at least late in the season, the adults sought nectar sources that can be especially abundant in wetter meadows while nonetheless requiring drier land plants for caterpillar food. As a species of tall-grass prairies and their eastern analogies, Regal Fritillary caterpillars consume violets and some of their favored species are those of dry fields. There also seems to be a connection to native bunch grasses such as Little Bluestem, perhaps because they provide important shelter for overwintering caterpillars.
The East Coast demise of this species may yet be shown to relate to some species-specific disease, parasite or pesticide sensitivity, but more likely it was the result of a more straightforward, yet equally challenging force – habitat loss. The sporadic occurrence mentioned earlier hints at a life history based upon wide mobility and taking advantage of conditions that are patchy in time and space. This worked, so long as a sufficient number of patches appeared often enough. However, as agriculture declined and industrialization gathered momentum in the East, the species eventually fell over a demographic cliff – those populations that winked out were not subsequently repopulated and that, in turn, further reduced the repopulation pool.
Native warm-season bunch grasses are typical of dry, low-productivity pastures and hayfields. These were among the first fields to be abandoned as agriculture shrank in the East Coast. Wet meadows have probably also declined, first due to beaver extirpation and then due to draining for agriculture or excavation for ponds. As a result, except in perhaps a few special circumstances, it seems unlikely that the Regal Fritillary will again return to our landscape.
Regal Fritillary by C.J. Maynard (from Butterflies of New England, 1886). This book includes, so far as I can tell, relatively basic, hand-colored engravings, long a staple of natural history illustration. A black and white plate was created and then painted according to the lead artist’s instructions. The results were as impressive as the care of the painter made them. These illustrations are effective but not stunning. This is not a critique – Maynard was a wide-ranging, self-taught naturalist who circulated largely outside of natural history’s higher echelons and his goal was apparently, in part, to produce something that was more or less widely accessible. More detailed and time-consuming hand coloring would have upped the book’s price.
Regal Fritillary (center and lower right, together with several other fritillaries) from Samuel Scudder’s The Butterflies of the Eastern United States and Canada (1889). Samuel Scudder was one of the preeminent 19th century lepidopterists, and this was his life’s tome. To create the color illustrations for his three-volume masterwork, he resorted to technique that might be called the pinnacle of color lithography. These images were not hand painted, instead they were the result of an extremely precise, multi-stone printing process involving, in some cases, up to 15 separately colored and imprinted stones. The precise registry and multi-layer printing gives the illustrations almost a three-dimensional presence. So far as I know, Scudder’s work was the first our butterfly books to include range maps; his map for the Regal Fritillary shows it spreading from the Midwest, through Pennsylvania and into southern New York and New England. Compare that map to the species’ current distribution as reflected on inaturalist.
Regal Fritillary (center) and relatives from W.J. Holland’s The Butterfly Book (1898). This book was published just as color photography was entering popular publishing. Holland was an energetic individual who, aside from being a lepidopterist, was a priest, paleontologist, Chancellor of Carnegie University, and director of the Carnegie Museum. Somewhat like Maynard, but now armed with new technology, he set out to create an affordable, if weighty, butterfly field guide including photographically reproduced color illustrations. He succeeded. His book sold well, inspired many, and was reprinted numerous times. Even if the illustrations lack the vivacity of Scudders’ or the hand-made touch of Maynard’s, they did their work.
A Lively Account of the Regal Fritillary from John Henry Comstock and Anna Botsford Comstock’s How to Know the Butterflies (1904). While actually falling slightly outside of our 19th century purview, the account is almost assuredly based on 19th century observations. Note the reference to Goldenrod, the topic of the next section. Anna Botsford Comstock was a key mover and shaker in the Nature Studies Movement, a widespread and influential turn-of-the-century educational undertaking to promote the direct study of nature. The illustration accompanying this was a color specimen photograph similar to Holland’s; the book was dedicated to Scudder.
(For more on the 19th century world of North American lepidopterists, we would recommend Butterfly People, by William Leach, a spirited tale of that era’s ecology and society.)
From Road Crew to Field Crew.
Picture an ‘old field’. Likely as not your image includes a rough display of Blackberries and other brambles, Grey Dogwood, Multiflora Rose, Goldenrod and late-season asters. Yours is a rough and scruffy place that nonetheless produces ample wild flowers in the right seasons. It is probably an abandoned agricultural field of some sort – crop field, hay field or pasture – that has been left to its own devices for several years, perhaps even a decade or two. It is heading, faster or slower, towards forest.
Nineteenth century botanists did use the term ‘old field’, and it’s tempting to assume that they had the same conceptualization of it, but they apparently did not. To them, ‘old field’ seems to have meant something more akin to what we would call a fallow field. That is, a crop field that intentionally or not has laid fallow for a year or two, and sports an exuberance of crop field weeds. The long-abandoned farm field that we associate with ‘old fields’ was probably not a common component of the 19th century landscape, at least for its first 75 years or so. During that time, farmers were more likely to be opening new land rather forgetting old acres.
This does not mean that Goldenrod and its companions were not present in the landscape, but they were apparently largely elsewhere – lining roadsides and enveloping walls and wood fences (helping to provide, one might add, ample Bobwhite cover). The technology to mow (or spray) road edges or weed-whack fence lines was yet to come. Thus, ‘rough and scruff’ was more a habitat of edges than of whole fields. That said, hand-cut hay fields and lightly grazed pastures were no doubt more patchy than modern ones, and accounts do mention Goldenrod in some of those as well.
Solidago (Goldenrod’s scientific name) derived from Elizabeth Colden’s botanic manuscript in the British Museum, unpublished,1740s and 50s. Elizabeth Colden was the daughter Cadwallader Colden, a prominent colonial administrator and a some-time botanist. She began assembling (but never finished) a Flora of New York. She described and created uncolored pen & ink drawings of each species, sometimes including notes on use or habitat. She profiles several Goldenrod species. Many of her specimens probably came from around her family estate in Orange County.
Description of Goldenrod’s Medicinal Value, from Formulae for Making Tinctures, Infusions, Syrups, Wines, Mixtures, Pills, etc., published 1875 by Tilden and Company, New Lebanon. The Tilden Company, which evolved out of Shaker industries, used plants, both native and imported, as ingredients in one of the nation’s first large-scale pharmaceutical industries. Goldenrod was one of their ingredients. As they note, Goldenrods (there are several species) were common at that time but more strongly associated with fencerows than ‘old fields’.
Willow Leaved Golden Rod from Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours, 1851. Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of the author James Fenimore Cooper, wrote this journal describing the natural history and society around her home in Cooperstown. She was an acute observer and the pages are filled with intriguing natural history. This illustrated edition used the same lithographer who produced The Natural History of New York State series, and some of the same plates, including this one, appear in this work. Her 6 Sept entry notes that Goldenrods are “lining all the fences”.
Pictures of Roads from Picturesque Berkshire, 1893. Most 19th century photographs are of people or single buildings rather than landscapes. While this book contains its fair share of those, it also includes many photos of roadsides and fields. The landscape is late-19th century with wire beginning to replace rock walls and split rail fences, but the landscape still contains many earlier traces, and the photographs of roadsides on this page, although they do not clearly show Goldenrods, likely show where you could have found them. Note that both hayfield and pasture are rougher lands than their current incarnations and probably left more space for diversity.
Taken together, Bobwhite, Regal Fritillary and Goldenrod hint at a landscape that is both familiar and foreign. Bobwhites sheltered in thickets that no doubt look somewhat like those along certain of today’s back roads, only such tangles were more common. Regal Fritillaries glided above fields perhaps similar to those one can still find on a few drier hillsides, only such fields were more numerous. Goldenrods, perhaps as common today as in the 19th century, have become flags of modern “old fields”, and are perhaps now less common – although certainly not unseen – along our roadsides and farm field edges. We are, I believe, moving from a landscape of messy gradations towards one of either/or, from one of either forest or tidy farm field, lawn and development. Certain forest creatures have benefited from the wood’s return, and that is worth celebrating. Less encouraging is the neat control of our open areas. I wonder if, in another 50-100 years, field Goldenrods (there are also a few woodland species) won’t be rarer organisms, not, perhaps, gone the way of the Bobwhite and Regal Fritillary, but nonetheless fading into memory.