When most people stroll Runnal’s Hill on the Colby campus, they see fields and woods. Abby Pearson sees the undeniable outline of an old road that crossed Mayflower Hill when it was farmland, almost a century ago.
Road To Nowhere
Let Pearson, an instructor in the Environmental Studies Program, lead you around the campus and you’ll see grapevines that graced the dooryard of a long-gone farmhouse, the almost invisible granite-block foundation of a dairy barn that burned in the 1930s, forest-bound stone walls that once kept sheep from straying from their pasture.
“You might think, ‘Oh, there’s a rock wall,’” Pearson said. “But that can tell you a lot. It’s not just this totally unknown mystery out in the woods.”
Past and Present
She solves these mysteries for Colby students, pointing out the vestiges of the past that hover behind the striking campus of the present. This 3-D vision isn’t the subject of a single Environmental Studies course but instead finds its way into various courses where land-use history is relevant. Introduction to Ecology. Forest Ecosystems. The only way to consider a forest is to know how long it’s been there and what was there before.
Pearson, whose graduate work was in salt marsh ecology, has been picking up on the clues to landscapes’ pasts for decades. To piece them together, she uses both science and history, peeling back the layers that nature lays down to reveal bygone uses by people who extracted a living from the same land a century or two ago. (She points out that her research doesn’t extend to the use of the land by native peoples who lived in the region.)
To be unaware of the landscape’s past “is like studying politics without any history,” she said.
Continued change on the Colby campus is shown in the above photographs. In the blaxk and white photograph, the campus is shown before development east of Mayflower Drive. In the color photo, preparation is underway for the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts, in the foreground. The Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Center is in the background.
What They Left Behind
When she is teaching this perspective to her students, she focuses on three main topics. One is the idea of succession, the way forests change over time. An abandoned field becomes forest in stages, which is why much of the wooded parts of Mayflower Hill are relatively young.
Next is ecological restoration, which she points out should be looked at as an opportunity to create a new future for a site, rather than trying to fully restore ecosystems of the past. The third is landscape planning to meet future goals, whether they be carbon storage or species restoration.
Supplementing the actual exploration are Colby’s Special Collections, old census reports, even ancestry.com. Pearson’s students also realize that they’re seeing more than they ever did before—and that it takes practice to become proficient at seeing and interpreting clues. Those apple trees? They were part of a hillside orchard. Why so many tumbling stone walls? In the 1830s there was a boom in sheep farming because there were trade restrictions on wool from Britain. What did they grow on Mayflower Hill? Corn, potatoes, barley, apples, and grapes.
And where at Colby can you find the oldest trees? Some are in Perkins Arboretum, where there are towering stands of hemlocks. Big oaks near the lower parking lot of the old athletic center. And some are right in front of us. “The big pines,” Pearson said, “up by the Alfond Apartments.”
Abby Pearson, instructor in the Environmental Studies Program
Abby Pearson, environmental studies laboratory instructor, is an expert in land-use history, natural history, salt marsh ecology, and macroinvertebrate taxonomy. Her knowledge of the landscape history of Mayflower Hill for the past two centuries is woven into her teaching in multiple courses.
New Data Science Major Sets the College Apart
The fast-growing field of data science gives people the tools to find patterns and make predictions from the torrent of data that surrounds us
Diplomat Makes the Case for Saving Democracies
Robert Gelbard ’64 returns to campus to remind students, and others, that democracy should not be taken for granted
Colby Welcomes Class of 2027
608 first-year students arrive prepared to meet the unique challenges of a Colby education