Interview with the author of “Forest Forensics”

23 Jan

Image via Glenn Winshall at NMH School

After reading and reviewing Forest Forensics recently, I had many questions; I was particularly curious about the procedure one might use to write such a book, and how a person becomes an expert landscape reader in the first place. So, I tracked down author Tom Wessels for an interview, which I have here to share with you.

Q: First off, how do you go about writing a really great dichotomous key, especially on something like landscape? What steps did you take to develop and organize it? What gave you the idea in the first place?

The idea came up when I heard from lots of people who like my first book, Reading the  Forested Landscape, that they loved the idea but couldn’t keep all the evidence straight while in the field. To make a field guide work, a key was the best approach.

Since I have constructed them for plant ID, it was pretty easy to apply the same process to the evidence used in interpreting landscape histories. To develop the key I started with the most major form of disturbance in our northeastern forest which was agricultural use in the 19th Century and subsequent abandonment. From there I just broke it down staring with smooth even land versus pillowed and cradled and worked it stepwise from there.

Q: How did you figure out how best to make your key friendly to novices?

I have been teaching this material for over three decades and have learned how to present the material in ways that anyone can understand. The important thing was to  keep the key simple and expand on what the evidence implies in greater detail in another section of the book.

Q: What informed the design for key itself in the published version of the book?

The layout of the book was problematic since there are three sections — the key, the photos, and the description of the evidence — which makes people thumb back and forth in the book. We needed to start with the key and tried all sorts of ways of laying out the other sections and eventually couldn’t find any approach that would eliminate thumbing through the book. However, anyone using the guide will find that their need to thumb through the book becomes less and less as they become familiar with what the evidence looks like and how it can be used.

Q: Is your landscape reading a hobby that you use occasionally, or is it something you’ve used often throughout your career?

I have taught this material at the secondary through graduate levels since the 1970s and do lots of consulting on interpreting forested landscape histories for land trusts, historical societies, on archeological teams, and  for landowners.

Colorado Meadows
Colorado image by QualityFrog via Flickr

Q: How did you learn and develop your landscape forensics skills? How did you translate that into becoming an expert on the subject?

I was first exposed to this approach when I TA’d a plant communities course at the University of Colorado where I was doing my graduate work in plant ecology. I  was very much intrigued by the approach and when I returned to New England to teach at Windham College in Vermont, I incorporated it in my plant community class there and have taught it every  year since — mostly at Antioch University New England where I have taught since 1978.

Of course interpreting forest disturbance histories out in Colorado was a piece of cake compared to the much more complex disturbance history of the Northeast. So most of the evidence I use has been self-taught over the past 30-some years.

He makes a great case for the importance of self-teaching, don’t you think?

3 Responses to “Interview with the author of “Forest Forensics””

  1. theevolutionofeating January 23, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

    Nice interview. It’s I like hearing how he broke the book in to sections to develop ideas in a way that was as straightforward and quick as possible.

    • xylem_up January 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

      I think you’d like this book for the design aspect even if you didn’t care about the content!

  2. rainyleaf January 25, 2012 at 6:57 am #

    It’s always interesting to hear from authors. It adds depth to their words when we know where they are coming from and how they got where they are. Thanks for doing this interview, I’m looking forward to reading Forest Forensics and trying it out in the Pacific Northwest.

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