The Past All Around Us

On Mayflower Hill, biologist Abby Pearson reveals ways the land has been shaped by human hand

Environmental Studies Laboratory Instructor II Abby Pearson explores the landscape history of Mayflower Hill and Colby College’s campus.
By Gerry Boyle '78Photography by Gabe Souza
December 11, 2020

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

The path of a road that once crossed Mayflower Hill, when it was used for farming, is evident despite decades of tree growth.

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

Within sight of the Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Center, in the background, massive stones remain from a foundation for a barn or house.

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

Generations of farmers and their families worked the land that is now the Colby campus. Their presence is shown in documents and in the landscape.

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 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.