Want to go on a quick walk from New Hampshire to New York City? You’ll start at The Fells gatehouse, go down to the Woods Trail, and turn left. If it’s been raining, or the snow has been melting, you’ll start to hear the rushing waters of Beech Brook. When you reach a wide planked bridge, stop.
What you see is replicated exactly within a diorama at the American Museum of Natural History.
A boulder, left by a glacier more than 14,000 years ago, stands about the height of a person, adorned with snow or green moss, depending on the time of the year. Beech Brook curves under the rock, drops in two small chutes and winds out of sight towards Lake Sunapee. One tall hemlock, two yellow birches and several young pine trees frame the scene.
Clarence Hay (1884-1969) used to bring his son John Hay (1915-2011) to this brook and proclaimed it the purest water in New Hampshire. Clarence was an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, and he chose this spot (now part of the John Hay Wildlife Refuge) to be depicted in a diorama there. When John became a nature writer, the brook and its story found its way into his writing.
In his autobiography, John wrote of the dioramas he encountered in the halls of the American Museum as a boy. To him, they were “like windows, open to unending possibilities.” About this diorama, he wrote, “One familiar exhibit was of our forest brook in New Hampshire that used to provide us with the purest of waters. Its centerpiece was a great rock I had passed by many times.”
As part of our work at The Fells and the John Hay Ecology Center, we are studying how the forests of the Fells may look in the future, given various scenarios for local land use management and larger-scale environmental shifts, such as climate change. It is clear the diorama may provide a unique window back in time to help inform our project.
Though no one at The Fells is certain of its exact age, we suspect the diorama dates back to the 1920s. The diorama is said to be life size; each plant and rock fissure reproduced with painstaking care, along with an added blue jay, mink, and grouse. The boulder and surrounding scene is forever frozen in time – an ecological time capsule – while our own forest continues to evolve.
The discovery of this diorama prompts closer observation at The Fells as trees grow, branches fall, logs decay, and wildlife comes and goes. We invite artists, ecologists and photographers to help us document the many facets of this part of the Hay estate. We encourage the American Museum of Natural History to explore our shared landscape, with an eye to its research and education potential.
The next time you’re in New York or New Hampshire, stop by our boulder and drop us a line!