Thomas D. Lee

Excellence in Teaching

Associate Professor of Forest Ecology
College of Life Sciences and Agriculture

Studying the patterns of the forest


Thomas D. Lee

To anyone walking by, it is a group of students with their professor and his dog sitting on the ground on the side of a hill. In fact, this class is reporting out on a particular forest community on the southeastern slope of North Mountain in Pawtuckaway State Park. Remarkably, in a small area, the 12 students report there are 11 species of trees—including sugar maple and basswood, both indicators of a relatively rich soil—and 17 species of shrubs and herbs with intriguing names like arrowwood, rice grass, and wild licorice. We learn that above the monzonite bedrock is a thin mantle of glacial till. The slope is 19 degrees. The dog is Daisy. The professor is Tom Lee.

The class is as diverse as the plant life, ranging from the usual suspects of undergraduates studying in the environmental conservation program to a 33-year-old graduate student in the fiction writing program. After teaching high school English for nine years, Tim Horvath returned to college to pursue a master's degree. This class he is taking with Tom Lee will inform his writing, he says. When he first approached Lee and told him of his interdisciplinary interest, Lee didn't blink. "He gave me background material on soil types and told me to learn my trees," says Horvath. "He's truly interested in helping me, and it's okay that I'm not in the environmental conservation program."

Lee grew up in Queens and Long Island, but spent weekends hiking with his father. "It was never about how fast we could bag summits," he says. "We always stopped along the way and talked about the patterns in the forest. The closer you look, the more it draws you in."

It was his love for the woods, coupled with wanting to get away from the social turmoil of the 1960s, that drove Lee to pursue his studies in ecology and natural resources. What he loves about New Hampshire is the number of diverse forest communities, and that he can not just lecture about characteristics of a forest, but he can take students there. From pine barrens and oak woods to peatlands, maple swamps and treeline, students learn up close why a forest is the way it is, where it has been, and where it is going.

On North Mountain, before the class breaks into teams to study trees, record physiographic measurements, and look for disturbances such as fire or logging activity, they sit clustered around him as he talks about where we are. "About 345 million years ago," he starts out, and effortlessly he is spinning a story about plates crashing together at the Earth's surface, magma bubbling up, but cooling before it could form a volcano, plutons forming.

"A few million years later," he goes on, and we learn how dioritic rock formed in Pawtuckaway, and later still, more magma welling up and cooling to form what is called a ring dike that today are part of the Pawtuckaway range.

Millions of years ago should not be so fascinating. It basically should be about fire and blobs of things. But when Lee talks about millions of years ago, it does matter because it created geology and topography which, in turn, inuenced the development of these forest communities which sustain plant and animal life, and these students: from Mac Griffin, the undergraduate studying environmental conservation and who stunningly IDs trees as if they were pets, to Tim Horvath, who will one day write a short story or a novel, some of its elements based on what he is learning today from Tom Lee.


—Kim Billings