Solving the mysteries of the outdoors: A book review

5 Jan

stone wall image via virginia trails at WordPress

This Christmas, my sister gave me a copy of an interesting dichotomous key called Forest Forensics by Tom Wessels. Of course, I read it immediately in service of my ongoing quest to know everything. Then, I typed up this post, saved it as a draft and promptly forgot about it.

So, from the dusty annals of last week, I present: my not-so-long-lost review! And I promise it will be much less intense than my last one. Read on, dear readers, without fear of alienation or boredom!

I have never even heard of a book like this one. For the uninitiated, a dichotomous key is a manual that uses sets of two questions in sequence to narrow down the identification of an unknown thing. A very simple example might be that you have a key to mammals and an unknown critter to ID. The first question might ask whether the animal is smooth-skinned or not; if it is, you’ve just ruled out everything with fur. The idea is that only one answer can be true, so you can pare down the options until you know exactly what you have.

I’ve used all sorts of dichotomous keys: to families, regions, fruits, classes of trees — but never a key to landscape. Turns out it’s pretty ingenious, and despite being intended for use in the Northeast, I found it both fascinating and useful.

The author begins by telling the story of how he determined the history of some strange stone structures found on Forest Service land. He refers back to this story to illustrate how to use a dichotomous key in the first place, which was a quick, ingenious way to introduce he process to beginners.

pillow and cradle image via wildgardeners at Blogspot

The key continues in the usual question-pair fashion, but it’s also followed by corresponding sets of numbered color photos reminiscent of Dale Bevers’ Northwest Conifers: A Photographic Key. If you don’t understand the questions or the difference between them, just flip to the photo plates and you can see it. My mind was officially blown. I’m sure my classmates would agree that supporting photos would have greatly simplified the massive Gilkey & Dennis key we used in Botany!

There are also evidence sections that correspond to each step in the key to clarify terminology and explain processes. For example, his first key question asks whether ground is flat or pillowed-and-cradled. Pillows and cradles are mounds and depressions caused by trees falling over after rotting naturally: as the tree falls, the root bundle is pulled out of the ground leaving a cradle, and as the roots disintegrate, excess soil drops to the ground to form pillows. This tells whether land was ever cleared for farming, even if it’s currently forested.

He also includes primer sections that give you the basics of complex topics. For instance, in the agriculture section, he teaches readers how to stand in the middle of the woods and find the boundary between a stand that has always been forested, and a stand that used to be a grain field or a pasture. Then, you learn how to find white pines and determine their age based on weevil damage to figure out exactly when the pasture was abandoned.  This is just one of many examples, as he goes over old growth, fire damaged sites and more.

One drawback is that the information is often limited to the Northeast — the white pine you comb for weevil damage may not exist in our neck of the woods, so aging trees may not be possible with this manual alone.  But Wessels makes up for this with other more universal stuff, like information on soil types or what different breakage points can tell you about how a tree died.  I learned how to tell the difference between logged and naturally-fallen trees even if the stump has been decaying for 40 years. I’m excited to try his method of using basal scars on hemlock stumps to determine when an area was last logged.

So nerdy. So awesome.

There are also a few reference charts in the back and a glossary. If figuring this stuff out sounds cool, you will dig this book, regardless of your level of previous experience with this sort of thing.

4 Responses to “Solving the mysteries of the outdoors: A book review”

  1. xylem_up January 6, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    Coming soon — an interview with the author!

    • James D. January 6, 2012 at 11:21 pm #

      Very cool. It will be interesting to hear about how he developed this key. It must be difficult trying to draw boundaries around information, and make it fit within a working system.

  2. Dori January 7, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    It sounds very cool!


  1. Interview with the author of “Forest Forensics” « Xylem Up - January 23, 2012

    […] reading and reviewing Forest Forensics recently, I had many questions; I was particularly curious about the procedure one […]

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