Fisher Museum to host lecture on ‘Ecology of Towns and Villages’

  • Aerial view (1992) of the Millers River running through the town of Orange, Massachusetts. Fernandes, Alaina—David Foster

  • Aerial view (1992) of the Millers River running through the town of Orange, Massachusetts. David R. Foster

Published: 9/8/2019 12:42:07 PM

PETERSHAM — Most of what is known about the natural world has been learned by scientists studying remote ecosystems, far from the confounding bustle of cities. Cities are now defined as ecosystems, too, and many scientists work within their cacophony to understand the physical, biological, and yes, human dynamics that make them tick. But nearly half of the earth’s land surface is neither rural nor urban, escaping the eye of ecologists until recently.

On Sept. 17, Harvard professor emeritus Richard Forman, widely considered a father of the field of landscape ecology, will travel to Petersham to give a public lecture about the unique ecology of towns and villages.

Forman’s new book, “Towns, Ecology, and the Land” (Cambridge University Press), describes towns and villages as important, dynamic environmental hotspots. Speaking ecologically, “towns are not just small cities,” says Forman. Unlike cities, they often preserve rather than bury their streams, he says, and they exude far less heat. He notes the unique dynamics of wildlife: at edges, you see a “rain of species” from surrounding rural areas — drawn by scattered bright lights, ample water, and diverse plant life.

Forman has analyzed towns and villages the world over, and still considers New England unique. In our region, glacial silt and sand made widespread colonial agriculture possible, but today many of those towns are transformed by rich forests. Despite differences in history, though, common characteristics emerge in small towns across the globe, such as orchards, fields, small family forests, and livestock close to houses. Trails radiate through the land, small-scale irrigation is common, and bird feeders attract forest birds (and bears). There are downsides, too: dogs and cats degrade wildlife habitat or populations, road salt pollutes wells.

Although simply understanding the land of towns and villages was Forman’s goal for the book, he has included ideas for making better towns, and better land. Imagine widespread solar panels on buildings, he says, and busy town centers with rich vegetation, strategic wildlife crossings, less flooding (even in extreme storms), and no traffic.

“Opening the town ecology frontier catalyzes research for both nature and us,” says Forman. With a better understanding of how these landscapes function and change over time, he suggests, residents and professionals can step forward to mold better towns for the future.

Forman’s Sept. 17 lecture, held at 7 p.m. in the Harvard Forest Fisher Museum, 324 North Main St., is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be served.

Forman will sign books at the conclusion of the event. Direct questions about the event to Clarisse Hart, 978-756-6157, hart3@fas.harvard.edu.


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