Many casual drivers, passing through Scarborough Marsh on Route One have no doubt noted rough circles of decaying wooden posts and wondered at their origin. Admirers of 19th-century American art, especially the paintings of Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) will know that these are the remains of cribs for piling “salt hay,” once cut from the marshes as fodder, above the tide mark.

The same observers likely do not know that these disappearing landmarks are known as “staddles” (unless they grew up near a saltwater farm or have steeped themselves in agricultural tracts or community histories from Maine to Newport, Rhode Island).

“Reading Rural Landscapes: A Field Guide to New England’s Past” by University of Southern Maine professor Robert M. Sanford proves a remarkable tool-box of a book. It quickly identifies and explains in understandable terms such man-made marks on the land, and it provides solid context. Think a bird, insect or tree guide for the study of the human presence. “Reading Rural Landscapes,” augmented by the precise line drawings of Portland artist Michael Shaughnessy, opens a new window on the changing topography of our region.

Using “staddles” as a case in point, the guide opens a new portal on the saltwater hay industry that characterized this and other tidal marshes from Colonial days through World War II. Other physical signs from the past range from stones walls and fences to foundations for homes, mills and outbuildings, to the arrangement of trees that once identified dooryards, pastures and even Native American quarries.

Interested in cemeteries, flumes, curbing or French drains? Looking for canal towpaths, footings for ferry crossings or burrow pits? You will likely find images and explanations in this book.

There is a first-rate glossary, as well as dynamic text that runs through each chapter and brings all the specific landmarks into a cohesive whole, from the days of ancient forests, to a time when much of New England was cleared land, to the return of forests following the decline of farming. It is remarkable how the look of the land has changed in 350 years or so.

Supporting Sanford’s keen observational skills is an ever-growing repository of scholarly research. His stellar bibliography begins with Henry David Thoreau’s “The Maine Woods” (1864) and includes the best contemporaries in related fields, such as Dean B. Bennett’s “The Forgotten Nature of New England” (1996); William C. Lipke and Philip N. Grime’s “Vermont Landscape Images” (1976); W.H. Bunting’s two volumes, titled “A Day’s Work” (2000); and Donna Garvin’s “Historical New Hampshire” (2006).

My only addition to Sanford’s bibliography would be John S. Springer’s peerless “Forest Life and Forest Trees” (1851), a practical logger’s view of the environment and change.

One could continue singing praises of this publication for its section on “Stewardship and Protection,” with listings of various environmental and historical organizations and careful annotations. But I will conclude by simply saying what fun it is to read. Consider this under “Animal Pounds”: “The farmer’s hog pen would have to be of heavy stone or boards. These animals would destroy rail fences and plow through wire fences. They could chew up the boards and get their noses in between to pry them up, too, if they were not properly fed and entertained.”

Ah, the notion of having to entertain pigs! This is a superb read and a solid guide.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.