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Website a Treasure Trove for Teaching, Research

By Tom Weaver Article published February 12, 2004

Randolph Center
This 1915 shot of a couple in front of their house in Randolph is one of approximately 2,000 photos on the Vermont Landscape Change Program website, a rich digital resource that Geology Professor Paul Bierman launched with a $70,000 pilot grant from the National Science Foundation.

Paul Bierman swivels his PowerBook around to offer a window on Vermont’s evolving landscape, specifically the village of Vershire in 1897. The stark photo on the geology professor’s computer screen is one of his favorites, a hardscrabble New England hill farm that in Bierman’s eyes stands out for its illustration of human impact on landscape change. It’s a great teaching tool and ever-the teacher, Bierman points out the stone walls, the roads, the sawmill, the dam, and the steep slope in the back pasture where clear cutting has been followed by inevitable landslide.

The Vershire photo is one of many on the Vermont Landscape Change Program website, a rich digital resource that recently has taken a significant step forward. With approximately 2,000 easily accessed images depicting much of the state, anyone interested in Vermont history, landscape, geology,or just interesting old photos could click away hours on the site.

Beyond mere diversion, the archive is a significant resource for teaching and research. Bierman initially saw the potential five years ago while pouring over thousands of UVM Special Collections images as he prepared a presentation on human-landscape interaction. A $70,000 pilot grant from the National Science Foundation helped get the project started. Laura Mallard G ’00, then a graduate student in geology, coordinated the initial effort by involving high school students in seeking out historic photos and shooting their own contemporary views of matching sites. Some 400 pairs of images from that beginning form the core of the landscape archive.

With an unusual second round of NSF pilot funding, Bierman has worked with Jens Hilke G’03, a recent graduate of UVM’s Field Naturalist Program, to continue deepening the collection. Bierman says they’ve gone to a community-driven effort, hoping to draw people to not only view the site but also to contribute to it. “It’s the richest way for us to work on this, to mine all of those local town halls, historical societies,and grandparents’ attics that are full of photos,” he says.

The landscape project may have impact beyond Vermont, Bierman notes. Scientists from other states have approached him with interest in starting something similar, and Bierman is hopeful that the software and methods created at UVM could one day foster archives elsewhere. But for now, the focus is to continue the potentially infinite growth of the Vermont site as more Vermonters discover these pictures of home and add their own.

To view the Landscape Change Program digital archive, go to Landscape. Links to several of Paul Bierman’s favorite photos, along with his descriptions follow.

Vershire, 1897 I think this image says it all about landscape change. It's from Vershire, Vermont, 1897. There are cleared fields. There is a dam. We know that sediment is moving off the fields, into the stream and collecting behind the dam. Most likely, given all the cut wood stacked along the road and by the mill, this is a saw mill - intimately tied to the cleared slopes beyond and the source of material for the wood fence and perhaps the house and barns? There are dirt roads and the transportation system of the day (oxen).

Burlington Suburbs c1900 This is what the Burlington suburbs looked like more than a century ago. This log school house is clearly the product of deforestation, shown so clearly by the bare hillslopes studded with stumps just beyond the building. Mount Mansfield's ridgeline is just visible in the background. Life and the landscape sure were different then.

Missisquoi River Here again are multiple, intertwined elements of landscape change. This view of the Missisquoi River shows cleared fields and wooden buildings, but the foreground is the most fascinating. Here you see a field without a traditional fence but rather a fence of stumps. Great reuse of otherwise waste materials but the removal of the stumps from the ground has geologic implications. Indeed, it's the tree roots that in sandy soils of the Champlain lowland hold the hillslopes together. When the trees are cut and the stumps are pulled before new trees can grow up, the slopes are weakened and the stage is set for landslides.

Clear Cutting Isn't this great...sitting on what must be an old growth stump, this fellow is admiring the clear cut and the landslides on the steep, now-denuded, hillslopes in the background. This photo is all about the linkage between clear cutting and erosion -- caught in the act more than a century ago.

Ely Copper Mine This is NOT what we imagine Vermont to look like. One can count perhaps a dozen trees in this picture of the Ely copper mine. The slopes are barren. There are piles of waste rock, perhaps a little grass. Not the Green Mountain State today.

Mt. Mansfield Late 1800s Well, it's just not the same hiking in bonnets and fancy hats as with the Goretex of today. This image, from UVM Special Collections is undated but likely late 1800s. It shows the upper slopes of Mansfield largely vegetated at the time. I just love the expressions!