Forest Bells Restoration

The Bells are Back!

George Brackett and bell “rider” during installation. Can you spot him?

Visitors to the Forest Bells on the GCT’s Blackman Field and Woods property know that three of the bells have been missing since last fall. They were removed for repairs, and we’re happy to report that all six bells are up and making wonderful music again.

The Forest Bells were created by local artist and craftsman Paul Matisse in 1995, commissioned by the inaugural Artist’s Valentine project, and installed on land owned by Arthur and Camilla Blackman.  The Blackmans donated the land to the GCT in 2000, and the Trust has been the steward of the land and bells since then.

Like any piece of outdoor engineering, the Bells require attention and maintenance.  Paul and his staff have been both attentive and generous in helping to keep the Bells in good working order.  Over the years, we’ve discovered that the main spring at the top of each bell is prone to failure.  When this spring breaks the hammer rests against the bell, making it impossible to ring.  We’ve also found that the arm and hammer assembly can dent and damage the bells as they swing around.

Local arborist and bell-hanging wizard George Brackett provides the expertise to both install and remove the Bells.  Last fall he took down the three non-working Bells and they were delivered to Paul’s shop in Groton.  Paul’s staff analyzed the failures and found solutions.  Modifications were made to the arm and hammer to prevent further damage, and a wholly new spring design was installed.  The bells were also re-coated with Nyalic a transparent protective coating.

But there were still three Bells in the forest without these improvements.

Ken and Joseph installing a new spring.

Ken and Joseph installing a new spring.

Paul, George and Ken and Joseph from Paul’s staff set out on June 19th to set up a field repair shop in the woods to complete the job.  The three repaired bells were re-installed, and then each of the three remaining bells was taken down.  All modifications were installed and each was re-coated with Nyalic.  The completely refurbished Bells were then rehung in their proper locations.

Paul has since re-visited the site and reports they are again ready to make beautiful music in their hemlock grove.  All they need are visitors to explore, discover, and ring them!

To find the Forest Bells, take Old Ayer Road south toward Ayer from Main Street near the Mobil Station.  Then, turn left onto Indian Hill Road and go all the way to the end.  Park cars, but not near the house at the end.  Walk back to the end and bear left up a dirt road into the trees.  Continue along this road, passing at one point under power lines and continuing down into forest.  At the next obvious fork, with the main path going up to the right, turn sharp left on to the side road.  About 50 yards later there are a group of fallen trees barring an old road leading uphill to the right.  Walking over or around the fallen trees, follow that road up the hill.  Continue until you find yourself in a grove of hemlocks, quite different from the pines and oaks all around.  You are at the Forest Bells.

Joseph and Ken repairing the Hammer Mount.

Joseph and Ken repairing the Hammer Mount.

Paul Matisse and George setting up.

Paul Matisse and George setting up.

George is ready for the last installation.

George is ready for the last installation.


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Reading the Landscape of Groton with Tom Wessels by Olivia Box

Tom Wessels is a terrestrial ecologist and professor emeritus at Antioch University New England. Photo by GCT staff Katy Coburn

I scraped back the young, thin bark of a black birch sapling, sticking my nose to the green wood. It smelled fresh, with a sharp hint of mint that I hadn’t smelled in the forest before.

 “What does it smell like?” prompted Tom Wessels, calling out his question to the audience of the OptOutside walk, hosted by the Groton Conservation Trust (GCT) on Friday, November 29th. “Wintergreen!” shouted someone in the group of about forty people who joined Wessels and the GCT on a balmy winter day.

 “Yes!” Wessels nodded with a smile and continued to detail where the smell came from; methyl salicylate, a chemical compound that is a defense against herbivorous insects.  I’ve seen countless black birch during my fieldwork as a master’s student in forest ecology, and never once have I thought about the intricacies that lay below the bark. Black birch will never be the same tree.

The group passed around pieces of black birch saplings to one another before continuing their walk and natural history lesson on the Skitapet land.

This is the fourth time Tom Wessels, an ecologist and educator, joined GCT to lead a community walk. These OptOutside events, inspired by the REI campaign, have been hosted by GCT for the past five years. This is the fourth time Tom Wessels, an ecologist and educator, joined GCT to lead a community walk. 

Walking and interpreting the landscape is something Wessels does well. Tom Wessels is known for his close attention to detail and history of the New England forested landscape. The author of several books about the environment, he is most well-known for his 1997 classic, Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England

Our next stop led us to a small stump, about two feet high and covered in a lush, green moss. The flat top of the stump indicated it had been cut at one point for logging or trail maintenance, and not broken in a windstorm. The stump, despite being cut likely twenty years ago, was very much alive, as evidenced by the callused bark growing over the cut, in a slow attempt to heal and grow on.

Wessels explained the stump was root grafting, relying on water and nutrient from the roots of the living pines nearby. The stump existed in the shadows of these pines, covered in fallen leaves and moss. Blink and you would likely pass this stump by on your normal walk in the woods.

Tom Wessels with activist Marion Stoddart at the November 29, 2019 #OptOutside walk hosted by Groton Conservation Trust. Photo by GCT member Steve Lieman

Our backyards often become familiar to us. A theme in Wessel’s work is attentiveness, which he suggests brings a deeper relationship with landscape. “The story of a place comes forth as the landscape reveals its experience through our careful attention,” writes Wessels in Forest Forensics, A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape

One of our last stops was at a small white birch tree, one of my favorite species for its iconic brightness in our gray northeastern hardwood forests. “That color serves a purpose,” Wessels said, once more illuminating the details of the forest. The white color reflects light, keeping the internal tree temperature stable in the fluctuating winter temperatures of northern latitudes. 

With increased temperatures becoming more common during winter due to climate change, the birch may be in trouble, Wessels shared. Massachusetts may become too warm, and the birch will likely disappear from the lower part of New England. After this there was the briefest moment of silence. I imagine we were all thinking something along the same line: what would our New England forests be without white birch?

A week after the walk, I stumbled across a quote from Doug Duren, a conservationist and consultant from the Midwest: “It is not ours, but our turn”.  My mind immediately returned to the walk with Wessels and town members. The Skitapet land was donated in 1983 by Jeanne and Joseph Skinner. They, along with the Taplin and Peterson families, used to share the land as a camping retreat from the city. Before that, the abundance of white pine led Wessels to believe it was once agricultural land. 

Now, the land is shared by the town and holds a handful of trails that take you through a white pine stand and a hardwood forest dominated by red oak trees. Each passerby adds to the value of the land. To observe, is to know the land more deeply. To observe together, is to build community. 

When I next see a black birch sapling, I will scratch the bark again to get that sweet wintergreen smell, remembering Wessel’s stories about the tree. And of course, I will also think of Groton.

Olivia Box is a freelance science writer. This essay also appeared in The Groton Herald on December 13, 2019.