Aaron Ahlstrom

Aaron Ahlstron

Ph.D. Candidate
Boston University
American & New England Studies Program


Term: Winter 2019-20

Contact: ahlstrom@bu.edu


I spent my Grey Towers residency researching how foresters, landscape architects, and regional planners shaped the development and design of Massachusetts state forests and parks during the 1920s and 1930s. My work combines cultural landscape studies and environmental history to illuminate the intertwined relationships between cultural processes, political power, and environmental realities in these public lands. Though geographically small, Massachusetts was early one of the most densely populated, ethnically diverse, and heavily industrialized states. Thus, the story of how its forests returned following nineteenth-century deforestation offers a more nuanced understanding of how forestry shaped the American landscape.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Massachusetts state foresters sought to revitalize rural communities by educating landowners about scientific forestry and establishing sustainable, scientifically-managed timber plantations. The State Forest Commission was established in 1915 to purchase cheap, cut-over lands for restoration and by 1915 had created five state forests.

In the 1920s the number and size of state forests grew as their role in the state changed. While foresters continued to create rational timber plantations, the public increasingly utilized these publicly-owned forests as recreational sites. Foresters eventually built picnic areas, parking lots, and camp sites to accommodate the rising popularity of outdoor recreation in the state. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps continued to expand and augment recreational facilities in state forests and parks while also conducting a range of forest improvement and pest suppression operations. A new vision for these landscapes called the “Massachusetts Plan” incorporated forestry with wildlife protection and recreational developments. During this period, landscape architects and planners began working with foresters to reimagine and reshape how state forests and parks functioned in Massachusetts’ changing society.

By analyzing the long-term evolution of individual state forests and parks, I hope to demonstrate how new scientific understandings of forests, shifting cultural attitudes towards nature, and new political apparatuses materialized in specific landscape transformations that were in turn structured by the topographical and environmental conditions of each site. Additionally, working at Grey Towers inspired me to dig deeper into how Gifford Pinchot influenced state-level forestry. While known for his work in founding the United States Forest Service, Pinchot also chaired Pennsylvania Forest Commission during the 1920s. The Yale Forest School, which Pinchot’s father founded, trained many of the Massachusetts’s own foresters. The ties between Grey Towers’ history and Massachusetts’s state forestry programs and policies are numerous.



“The Grey Towers Scholar-in-Residence Program provided a perfect opportunity to focus on my work in an inspiring place. Every morning I walked from the beautifully renovated gatehouse up the hill to the Pinchots’ house. I loved strolling through the diverse array of cedars, hemlocks, and pines lining the path and will especially miss the impressive copper beeches, the Sakhalin spruce, and the old cherry tree that greeted me at the beginning and end of my workdays. The serene tower office with its views over the grounds was the ideal place to concentrate on my research and writing. After each day’s work the comfortable gatehouse with its nearby babbling brook offered a peaceful spot to rest and think. Throughout my residency the Grey Towers staff was immensely welcoming and taught me so much about the Pinchots and the area.”