Forest Forensics

Ghosts on the Landscape

Use the clues in your local woods to understand what has happened in Michigan’s past

This educational series hosted by Michigan State University Extension, Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy, and the Leelanau Conservation District will teach you how to read history in the landscape around you. Walking through Michigan’s forests can lead to seeing many mysterious sightings: humps, bumps, pits, and valleys are all common features. If you look close, you might also see crooked trees, or random boulders, or old fence posts in the middle of nowhere. But what do all these features mean? The forests we see in Michigan today have been influenced in many ways by what has happened in the past, and clues to whether those unique features are natural or human-caused can be found if you know how to look for them!

This three-part series features Tom Wessels, the author of the book “Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape” for an hour-long webinar to help interpret historical events in our own forests. He will use highlighted examples from the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy to show what past climactic, geologic, and human influences actually look like “in the field.”

The two “prequel” webinars feature Randy Swaty, Cynthia Ricks, Hillary Pine, and Jim Renn, regional experts on climatic and geological events that have shaped what is now Michigan, and on the significant landscape impacts created by Native Americans and the influx of more recent populations. 

Each webinar is accompanied by a worksheet that you, or the learners you’re helping, can use to follow along. After the webinar, head out to the woods near you and discover the history under your feet!

This three part series was recorded on Thursday evenings from 7:00-8:00pm on October 22, October 29, and November 5 2020.

Session 1: Ecosystem Explorers: Historical climactic and geological influence on forests

Our first session was presented on 10/22/2020 by Randy Swaty, LANDFIRE ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, and Cynthia Ricks, Geology Educator Emeritus. Watch the recording below!

To access the ‘Michigan Ecosystems – past and present’ dashboard that Randy made, click here, and for the worksheet, click here.

Session 2: Past and present human influence on landscapes

Historians James Renn and Hillary Pine presented on Michigan’s human history and the impact humans left on the landscape that we can still see today.

To learn which tribes historically and currently occupy the land you’re on, visit

This session was recorded on 10/29/2020. Here is the worksheet!

Session 3: Forest Forensics with Tom Wessels

The final session features Tom Wessels, Professor Emeritus of Antioch University and author of Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Natural Landscape. Tom talked us through the clues to the history of the landscape and used photo examples to discuss and describe his methods.

Access the recording below and download this worksheet. This time, the worksheet is a collection of photo examples that we discussed at the end of the presentation. Follow along and see if you can guess the story behind the photo before we discuss it! After the presentation, head out to your favorite nature-space to look for examples like this and let us know what you find!

Big thanks to Georgia Peterson, Julie Crick, and Rob Wiener of MSU-E for their partnership in creating this series; and to Randy Swaty, Cynthia Ricks, James Renn and Hillary Pine for their volunteer efforts, and of course a hug thanks to Tom Wessels for his assistance, inspiration, and presentation.

If you found this educational program helpful, please donate $5 now using the button below to support this and other nature-based educational opportunities. Thank you!