Stepping into our land’s time machine

Last modified: 1/12/2016 10:15:53 AM
If you want to see how our forests have changed over the past 300 years, just drive down to Petersham, Massachusetts, 30 minutes south of Rindge.

The Fisher Museum looks like a small, simple academic building, just off Route 32, at the edge of Harvard University’s sprawling research forest.

Inside you’ll see an amazing display of nearly two dozen dioramas depicting our changing landscape and forest use, all well-lit and bristling with details.

Some dioramas show wildlife habitat and fire on the landscape. Another series shows forest management.

But the real highlight is a series of seven dioramas. They show the same location over the past 300 years, starting with the pre-settlement old-growth forest of 1700 and ending in 1930, around when the dioramas were made.

The scene is ostensibly in or around Petersham, a small town just north and east of the Quabbin Reservoir. But each of the dioramas are based on real places throughout the area, as studied and interpreted by Richard T. Fisher, who was founding director of the Harvard Forest from 1907 to 1934.

For example, that first diorama — the primeval forest — is based on the Harvard Forest’s in-holding tract at Pisgah State Forest, a much-studied old-growth forest.

Seeing is understanding

Fisher believed that the key to understanding New England’s forest ecology was deciphering its complex history. These are ancient forests cleared by settlers, largely denuded of trees, then slowly abandoned after the 1850s and gradually returning to forests again. And while you can see places in different stages of forest growth, Fisher knew that if students could see one place over time, in 3D, they would really grasp the dynamic nature of man’s touch on the landscape and our forests’ resilience.

Harvard commissioned the Cambridge art studio of Samuel Guernsey and Theodore Pitman to build the dioramas, starting in 1931. They were completed 10 years later, using untold amounts of copper wire and gesso, which is kind of a 3D base.

The result is a beautiful blend of art, science and history. The scenes are incredibly lifelike, including people shown as settlers, loggers and farmers. The 3D effect is so good you have to really look hard to see where model meets backdrop.

While the dioramas could easily look like any place around here in the Monadnock region, a few details might be different, according to John O’Keefe, retired director of the Fisher Museum. For one, the diorama showing a settler clearing a field in 1740 would have been two decades or so later if they were depicted here. Also, the diorama showing “height of agriculture, 1830,” would have shown sheep if it were based here. Farmers at that time in north-central Massachusetts were focused on raising beef, whereas many farmers in southwestern New Hampshire were raising sheep.

From old fields 
to pine stands

But the scene showing farm abandonment in 1850 is like stepping into mid-19th century virtually anywhere around here. Especially the many hilltop farms that were the first to be settled and first to be abandoned in the mid-1800s. Creeping in from the sides of the long-gone settler’s fields, near his one-time woodlot, are scores of little white pines that set the stage for the forest’s next era. In the background you see the settler’s sad, old home, falling into itself. It becomes a cellar hole in future scenes.

Knowing that the Harvard Forest has been researching New England’s forests for decades, I asked O’Keefe how the dioramas would look different if they were built today.

“Not that much would change,” he said. “They did a remarkable job of getting it right.”

Even the old-growth forest scene is probably how Europeans actually saw it when they arrived, O’Keefe said.

Our ever-changing forests

New England’s forests are constantly dynamic. They’re ever-changing over time, sometimes because of the way people have managed (or used) the land, and sometimes on the forests’ own course. So they’ve continued to change since 1930, when the dioramas were completed.

If he could, O’Keefe would create two more dioramas for the landscape history series.

One would show the forest around 1970, a maturing northern hardwood forest about the time that New England saw its peak percentage of land in forest cover.

The next would be around 2005, showing houses being built on the old road where the settler lived. The still-maturing forest would be pushed back by those new backyards. That scene, O’Keefe said, would show the impact that housing growth has had upon southern New England’s forests and the new households’ interaction with wildlife.

Personally, I’d offer a few other dioramas to add to the collection, going back in time. I’d show a scene from the height of the last Ice Age, with the lands buried under a mile-thick sheet of ice. Don’t know how that would work in a diorama, but the artists could figure it out. The glaciers would be scouring the bedrock in some places, building sand and gravel deposits in others as they retreat.

I’d show another scene some 10,000 or 11,000 years ago. The glaciers have retreated and the landscape is scrubby and barren, carpeted with lichen and brush. In the foreground, a group of paleo-Indians sharpens spear-points and watches caribou. Another group builds a weir to catch migrating fish in the stream.

While there are no plans to build more dioramas, the Fisher Museum is still a virtual time machine, letting visitors see and understand the huge changes that our forests have undergone.

You can go through the whole museum in 30 to 60 minutes. When you’re done, check out the Harvard Forest’s miles of trails.

And keep in mind, the Harvard Forest’s Petersham campus is the base for all sorts of research, from projects studying the impacts of climate change and a forest’s ability to store carbon to wildlife and soil studies.

For more information, visit

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock. He can be reached at


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