Clues from Forests Past

Many thanks to GCT friend Mary Metzger for this lovely celebration of Henry David Thoreau.  Enjoy!

Here’s something I wrote on this 200th anniversary birth year of our first ecologist.
by Mary J Metzger

Tom Wessels returns to lead an #Optoutside walk for Groton Conservation Trust, Friday, November 24, 1-3 pm at Throne Hill. Wessels, author of Reading the Forested Landscape, has a gift for understanding the clues to our woodlands’ past. Grounded on years of natural history study and experience, his work continues the legacy of another New England naturalist, Henry David Thoreau, who was born 200 years ago this year.
Thoreau coined the concept “The Succession of Forest Trees” in a talk he gave to the Middlesex Agricultural Society’s Fair in Concord, September, 1860. Well received, the address “so plain and practical” was praised by the President of the Society, then former governor of Massachusetts, Groton resident George S. Boutwell.  “If (farmers) would exhibit a little of the spirit shown by Mr. Thoreau in his experiments and researches, they could greatly benefit themselves and the whole community.”

Thoreau’s place in his community was not always so appreciated. He had come out of Harvard at the height of the 1837 financial panic, returned to Concord to work diligently in his father’s pencil factory, tried a short stint at teaching, yet never seemed to amount to much. There was that living and writing in a cabin for two years and aligning himself with the Transcendentalists, something he joked about at the beginning of the talk, “Every man is entitled to come to Cattle-show, even a transcendentalist.”

He could be cantankerous, unsocial, and quite eager to share his odd opinions. And there was all that walking in the woods. “I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements,” Thoreau wrote in his journal.

Even the esteemed Emerson, his friend, and mentor was disappointed. “He will not stick… I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he has no ambition…Instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.”

In the year before the cattle show talk, Thoreau had also gotten quite caught up in the John Brown affair. Thoreau’s family were early abolitionists. His mother and sisters helped form the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society. The family home was a secure stop on the Underground Railroad. Thoreau, himself, drove fugitive slaves in a wagon to West Fitchburg to catch trains to freedom in Canada. He encouraged activism in his writings and on July 4, 1854 spoke these words, “A government which deliberately enacts injustice, and persists in it, will at length ever become the laughing-stock of the world.”
John Brown came twice to Concord to raise funds for arming his prairie troops fighting for a Free Kansas. Thoreau, like other abolitionists in Concord, saw the charismatic figure as a hero for acting on his principles. In October, 1859, John Brown attempted to provoke a slave uprising by attacking the Federal Armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He failed, and his capture, trial, and death sentence pushed Thoreau into radical activism.

Without Town leaders’ permission, even ringing the town bells himself, he gave a passionate speech on John Brown’s character and actions to the Concord community, defending Brown’s use of violence to achieve his ends. He repeated the address two days later before 3,000 people in Boston, filling in for Frederick Douglas, who had fled the country. He helped one of John Brown’s Secret Six conspirators escape and on December 2, the day of the execution, he celebrated John Brown as a martyr equal to Christ. But, though the whole country was caught up in an increasing rancorous debate over slavery and disunion, the abolitionist viewpoint was hardly mainstream, even in Concord.
Yet the Concord Farmers Club had invited Thoreau to speak at the fair the next fall, because as Laura Dassow Walls writes in her wonderful new biography, Thoreau, A Life, “local farmers who once remarked on Thoreau as an oddity came to admire his deep knowledge of their land.”

Thoreau had traipsed across their land by invitation, when he was hired as a surveyor (one of the ways he made a living.) Often, he had just showed up, whether they were aware of it or not, taking a “naturalist’s liberty” to learn about their properties. He joked of this in his talk. “I have several times shown the proprietor the shortest way out of his wood-lot.”
Concord farmers wanted information on how to manage their deteriorating wood-lots. More than three-fourths of New England’s forests had been converted to pastures by the 1840’s in what Wessels has described as “sheep fever.” The smuggled introduction of Merino sheep had led to a lucrative agricultural bubble which had left the land denuded.
How do you make a forest regrow? Especially in New England where oaks often followed pines, or vice versa? No one could look across generations to see how a forest was made. Prevailing common and academic thought proposed that some life could spring up spontaneously, a mystical act of the Creator in every little pond and field. But Thoreau thought his observations pointed to a definite natural mechanism that always involved seeds. He found verification of his conclusions from a new source.

On New Year’s Day, 1860, a month after John Brown’s execution, Thoreau had met with three friends, one of which brought along a new book to discuss. It was Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Of those attending the dinner party, “Henry David Thoreau would be the most powerfully affected,” writes Randall Fuller in his new book The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation. “He worked his way through (the Origin’s) examples and premises and began to apply them to his own research in the forests of his native Massachusetts.”

For Thoreau, it turns out, had not been just the aimless walking poet. He had also become a scientist, filling thousands of notebook pages with observations of natural phenomena, creating lists of all kinds of natural schedules. He was the nation’s first ecologist, looking at the parts of nature to understand its whole.

At the fair, Thoreau used these empirical insights to proclaim to listeners that all forest life came from seeds. Large acorns were distributed by animals and small white pine seed by the wind, in ways nature had been using forever, “a sort of constant new creation.”
Though he didn’t believe in these new ideas, Horace Greeley printed Thoreau’s address in the New-York Weekly Tribune. It became the most published piece of Thoreau’s writings in his lifetime, and furnished further debate on an unsettling idea derived from Darwin’s book. If all life came from life before, then all human races must be related, a concept even many abolitionists could not countenance at the time.In the months after the talk, Thoreau was busy expanding his research in the woods, trying to find further evidence for material he was hoping to work into a new book The Dispersion of Seeds . On December 3 he was out in the rain measuring old tree stumps, the forest’s own record of its past.

The day before, he had met with Bronson Alcott, who had a cold, to help plan a memorial service for John Brown. Thoreau caught the cold which was probably influenza, and the dormant tuberculosis that he had carried his whole adult life began to take its final hold.
There was no walking or journal writing for him that bedfast winter. By February 1861, seven southern states had seceded. Thoreau decided to try the common 19th century travel cure to restore his health. He went West with Horace Mann, Jr to Minnesota, fulfilling a life-long dream to see the area. But when he returned, his cough was no better. The nation had moved on to Civil War.

From the descriptions of those around him, Thoreau’s last months were filled with calm, grace and gratitude. His sister, Sophia, helped him work on organizing his lists and manuscripts. He was optimistic to the end. Here is a passage from Walking, a talk he had honed on the Lyceum circuit for a decade, some of his last writing, which was published posthumously in 1862:

“We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow, the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold gray day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest, brightest morning sunlight fell on the dry grass and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon and on the leaves of the shrub-oaks on the hillside, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the only motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined before, and the air also was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow, When we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again but that it would happen forever and ever an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still.”

Domestic terrorism, civil conflict, racism, economic uncertainty, the acceptance of science, finding a balance to preserve the woods for nature and our own needs: the challenges in Thoreau’s world continue today. Walk off that Thanksgiving feast and find a group at #Optoutside. Join up with those still trying to enjoy, understand, and save a piece of our natural heritage.

This writing may be freely shared, and is used with permission. Copyright retained by Mary J. Metzger