Essay 1: On Forests

In the Green litany of environmentalist ecohype, hyperbole about forests must shade even ‘global warming’ in the stakes for a root and branch hatchet job. If all the ‘football-fields-of-ancient-forests-lost-per-day’ claimed for the chainsaw massacre of the last thirty years were added together, not a tree would be left standing. Yet, according to the Washington, DC-based Conservation International, 46% of the world still constitutes ‘wilderness’, including vast regions of forest, and to qualify as ‘wilderness’ an area must have 70% or more of its original vegetation intact and occupy at least 10,000 square kilometres (3,860 square miles). 

This comes as no surprise. Various United Nations’ estimates have indicated for some time that between 25% to 33% of the land surface of the earth remains wooded, while recent satellite figures for the Amazon show that rain forest covers 87% of its 1950’s footprint. Moreover, in parts of North America, forest is even returning. The pioneer environmentalist of Walden, Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), would be shocked. In his time, the woodland cover of New England was less than 35%. Today, woodland, through normal economic processes, has reclaimed nearly 90% of the central Massachusetts’ countryside. Forests come and go – and the world does not collapse.

12,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, there were no forests in New England, but, as the climate warmed, woodlands waxed and waned, moulded by Atlantic hurricanes, fire, and indigenous peoples. From the 1630s onwards, Puritans, fleeing the England of Charles I, began to clear the trees for God, striving to produce John Winthrop’s ‘City upon a Hill’. Boston grew rich, and, by the 1830s, 70% of the land was under plough or pasture.

Then the western spread of the railroad, the lure of Californian gold, and the American Civil War emptied the countryside. White pines soon re-colonised abandoned fields, creating a new timber industry for boxes, matchsticks, and toys. Following clear-cutting, the landscape seemed devastated, and you could just imagine the outcry in newspapers like The Guardian and The Independent, or on the ‘Today’ programme, had these existed then.

But, from stored seed nurtured beneath the pines, there blossomed the old hardwoods, red and white oak, white ash, black cherry, and maples. These, in turn, became valuable economic assets. And today? Now you can sit on a rough stone wall that once surrounded a C17th farmstead and watch Bostonians taking a stroll through their ‘ancient’ woods. The tale will surely be the same for the Amazon.

Change is all, and for every change there will be a new mix of economics and ecology. The deforestation of the English Midlands produced an agricultural and industrial powerhouse in the heart of our small island; it also caused erosion that helped to form the dark black soils of the eastern Fenlands, some of the richest agricultural land in Europe and a natural defence against our ever-aggressive sea. The clearance of woodland from the Downs created the deeper agricultural soils of the lower chalk bench and, through sheep and rabbit, honed one of the most treasure

d of ‘natural’ habitats, chalk grassland, with its orchids that so fascinated Charles Darwin and blue butterflies flitting on a hazy summer’s day. But the idea of ‘forests’ has hegemony, enframed by all manner of pseudo-scientific 

and New Age nonsense. Ecology and environmentalism were born out of C19th German romantic philosophy, especially from the Ur-Wald, the brooding forest landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich and the hunting horns of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischutz, the latter now sounding throughout the world in a neo-colonial crescendo.Yet, deforestation has given rise to glorious civilizations – to India, Venice, and New England. The ‘campos’ and ‘campaniles’ of Venice rest on millions of tree trunks

, all cut from the pinewoods of Dalmatia and then plunged into the soft mud of the swampy lagoon to ground on the solid caranto, the compressed clay at the base. And when I sit in a cafe, taking un’ ombra by the shimmering waters and reading Donna Leon’s latest Commissario Brunetti novel, I raise my glass to the men who cut the trees. “Salute!”But, of course, as Venice sinks, the trees may flourish once again in Dalmatia.

[Loosely adapted from my ‘Thunderer’ column first published in The Timesin 2002]

Essay 2: ‘Harvard Forest’

He visited – still flitting –
Then like a timid Man
Again, He tapped – ’twas flurriedly –
And I became alone –

(Emily Dickinson, c. 1862)I

The wind was high in the red oaks and white pine as I walked the silica paths of Harvard Forest – alone. All was soft, with rain and sand, needle and leaf. Dull clouds scudded in from the south over rounded hills; the air was chill, and maples would soon mirror the sunset in their leaves. I strode on, briskly, past smaller forests of green clubmoss and fern, on by dark stone walls where shrews flattened their bodies in crevice and crack, and on again through plantations of red pines, hunched from the hurricanes of former years. I saw no deer, no porcupine, no salamanders, nor any other form of life, save only the wind in the tall trees, in the hemlock, in the grey birch, and in the smooth-rind beech.

The path I was following divided suddenly, a left-hand turn descending in gentle curves to a damper, quieter valley. The main track forged ahead, through a closed barrier gate, into denser woods on higher ground, where the way was stony and littered with large acorn cups. I pressed on, round the gate and upwards, breathing heavily as I reached the lonely crest; now the wind howled and sighed yet more, calling me to halt. A little below the hill, where a dank pool filled a hollow by the path, I stopped and climbed the outer boulders of a broken wall, and there I sat, listening, my eyes closed, to the sounds of wood and wind, and to the stories they might tell. How long I sat, huddled on that ancient wall, I cannot recall, but the tales I heard are with me forever.



My mind was lost in the flurries of the wind, and pictures formed of long ago, hazy, violet, as if seen through the famous lilac glass of Beacon Hill. I witnessed a grove of saplings, each striving to become a tree, but each then dying before its time. Again the shoots came up, and yet again they fell, their bark riven by some dreadful blight, vile red and orange. Once more the saplings came and went, and, as they faded finally from my mind, I saw one chestnut tree, majestic and bold, grow like a memory. Memory?

Then all went dark, and the equinoctial wind blew fiercer and fiercer still, until the noise was deafening in my head. I cried out, and, as the image cleared, I saw great trees thrown in swathes across the path, and others bent and bowed before the storm. The seething landscape became an ever-changing sea of gale-gaps and writhing trunks, tossed and turning in the Atlantic ocean of the sky. Lightning forked to earth, stripping the bark from stricken trees, while the north was burnished with fire. A searing heat passed quickly by, branding each bole as it went, until the wind fell, and from the blackened earth there came new growth, weedy and weak, of pin cherry, popple, and scrub oak, which flared again, grew once more, and vanished into peace. Peace?

A new light broke in the east. Shafts touched first the tops of thin oaks, then white pines, and the hum of a sawmill filled the air, as “Bumble bee of June”; the scent was sweet indeed! But slowly, in shifting dioramas of the mind, my sense of forest, of shade and dapple, of canopy and crown, was lost completely, revealing instead curved, undressed hills, with white clapboard houses in their folds, and orange pumpkins stacked by neat stone walls. All so well-tended and so-well tamed! So very human! Human?

The houses then grew smaller, becoming little log cabins, until at length, smoke rose from a single tiny sod roof; one brown field, stark and clean, hemmed in by rough boulders, lay in the foreground of my thoughts. A man was building a wall, a cow grazed, and a dog barked. And the trees once more clothed the hills behind the working scene, though they too, I could discern, knew of wind and fire, storm and fury. And then, last of all, I heard the echo-sounds of an older people, faint and far, lost forever.



The wind, a falling acorn, or a branch, tapped lightly on my shoulder, and I caught the sound of axe on wood. A man was busy among the trees.

“Good afternoon”, I called. He turned, straightened His back, and then drew nearer to the wall.

“Goodman”, He said. “The Wind blows gay today. The Landscape of the Spirit requires a lung, but no Tongue.”

I asked His story.

His only constant was the black gum in the swamps. For Him, the rest was new, and on His fields too, although He did recall the older forests, a different mix of pine, hemlock, and oak. But that was long ago. Yet, He remembered – hard pioneering times. He was sad to see the stone walls so collapsed and ill-kept, but He knew that change was life, and, after all, there is no need for a wall in a wood. His house had survived, He said, the burial ground and all, consecrated. Continuity and change. Why fear it? Old men regret the past, but older still full circle come, and then accept – in Heaven, or in cold Earth. He must back to the grave, the gift of men, there to feed the new Land.

“Your name, Sir?” I begged.

“Sanderson, Sir. Good Day.”

I should have known. “Good Day, Sir!” But not forevermore.



I awoke, stiff and cold, still sitting on the broken wall. I shivered. The wood was darker now as light faded overhead. Dusk was falling. The wind was biting, sharper still.

I jumped down, and started to retrace my steps, a slight urgency in my tread lest I should lose the path. Soon I had passed the barrier gate, and I was once again on the main forest road, soft and friendly to the feet. I felt renewed inside, the eyes less heavy, the body not quite so weary; I was regenerated for people, – for company, – for a time. I met two walkers, urban clean and eager, with cameras on wide coloured straps. What irony! Bostonians in their ‘native’ woods, or so they think! Like Thoreau by his pond, Concord-close and sister-safe, with Sunday lunch so close on hand.

I went on my way, smiling at our folly. ‘Global change’. Why worry? Change is all, was all, will be all. ‘Global stasis’ – now that really would be a shock! Forests come and forests go. We can not stop them. I think I may meet Goodman Sanderson again – in an Amazonian wood? Different, of course – a hundred years hence?

His house, by the way, is on the right – just over there – full of earnest young scientists who worry a lot. But I think I’m ready for “the worst”. Nothing is relevant. All is a prank – 

“What if the poles should frisk about
And stand upon their heads!”

(Emily Dickinson, c.1859)

They have, and will too! Transcendentally – (Emerson or Kant?). And Verena went off with her man.


P.S. The author does not know how Sanderson could quote Emily Dickinson on “The Landscape of the Spirit…”; perhaps He has encountered Mrs J. G. Holland, for whom it was written in a letter of early March, 1866. (See, for pedantry’s sake: T. H. Johnson and T. Ward (eds), The Letters of Emily Dickinson, 3 vols, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 1958: II, Letter 315, p. 450.)

[This essay, here slightly adapted, was first published in: Global Ecology and Biogeography Letters, Vol.1(4), July 1991, pp. 99 – 101. Copyright Blackwell Science 1991 and Philip Stott 2005]

Essay 3: On Rain Forests

‘Tropical rain forests’ were invented in 1898, although they had been pre-figured in the writings of the German naturalist and polymath, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). As the historian, David Arnold, argues, Humboldt, through hisPersonal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the Americas (1824-25), “helped invent the tropics both as a field for systematic scientific enquiry and a realm of aesthetic appreciation.” However, it would take nearly a century before his “Romantic belief in the fundamental unity of the natural world” (the Cosmos) and his ideas of  “organic richness” would give rise to the tropischer Regenwald, ‘tropical rain forest’, proper.By the mid-19th century, explorers, following Humboldt, were at last beginning to see ‘forests’, although the language employed remained remarkably simplistic and general. The engineer and naturalist, Thomas Belt (1832-1878), for example, in The Naturalist in Nicaragua (1874), a work that Darwin called “…the best of all natural history journals which have ever been published”, confines his descriptors to phrases such as ‘great forest’, ‘black forest’, and ‘gloomy forest’. In South America, there were also the ‘Atlantic forest’ and the selva, a word derived from Portuguese and Spanish, but originally from the Latin, silva(forest’). Yet Belt still had no precise ‘scientific’ linguistic entity to employ.

This gap was finally filled by a pioneer plant geographer and ecologist, Andreas Franz Wilhelm Schimper (1856-1901), in his founding work on synecology [the ecology of living organisms and the environment grouped together], entitledPlanzengeographie auf physiologischer Grundlage (1898; translated into English in 1903 as Plant-geography upon a physiological basis). Schimper thus at last gave a precise linguistic entity definition and content and the linguistic entity, or sign, ‘tropical rain forest, was born as: “evergreen, hygrophilous [‘water-loving’] in character, at least thirty metres high, rich in thick stemmed lianes and woody as well as herbaceous epiphytes.”

Like Humboldt, Schimper was deeply imbued with both German romanticism and a Teutonic sense of the Wald (‘forest’). He too saw the world ‘organismically’, and he sought to identify all the ‘organic entities’ that were adapted to the land and to the prevailing climate. ‘Tropical rain forest’ was such an ‘organism’, a named functioning biome, or vegetation unit. And because it was Wald, to his mind it was one of the most significant. In similar fashion, in Politische Geographie(1897), the human geographer and natural scientist, Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), regarded the political state as another type of ‘organism’ attached to the land. Such holistic ideas would eventually lead to the development in 1935, by Sir Arthur George Tansley (1871-1955), of the concept of the ‘ecosystem’, to the holistic views of Jan Smuts, and, much later, to more fanciful constructs, such as James E. Lovelock’s ‘Gaia’, in which the whole Earth is regarded as a ‘living organism’.

In terms of linguistic analysis, Schimper was already what we call a ‘segregationist’, in which communication pre-supposes signs and signs are the pre-requisites of communication. ‘Tropical rain forest’ does not exist as an unequivocally defined ‘object’ (witness the utter confusion in classification today), but from 1898 onwards, people could now learn, or be taught, what such an entity might comprise, and they were then able ‘to see’ this ‘organismic’ construction in the landscape. By stark contrast, Charles Darwin, and Columbus before him, were, in linguistic terms, ‘integrationists’, for whom signs pre-suppose communication and signs are the direct product of observation. Put more simply, in 1898 there was a marked change from ‘seeing’ a riot of individuals to ‘knowing’ or ‘learning’ an ‘organismic’ entity. 

Darwin was the quintessential observer, so much so that he was utterly befuddled by the “brilliancy” (his word) of the tropical world. The geographer, Luciana L. Martins, writing in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography(2000), captures this well when she says: “…what most puzzled Darwin was the profusion of associations that rushed into his mind. Rather than being concerned with limits and categorisation of species, Darwin sought evidence of relations and transformation. In contrast to Humboldt, Darwin’s encounter with tropical landscapes offered few possibilities for quiet contemplation.”  In essence, Darwin, like Columbus, did not see ‘tropical rain forest’, but rather a vast and perplexing diversity of nature. Similarly, he possessed Krasner’s “disordered and fragmented visual field.” Despite, therefore, Darwin’s paradigm-shifting On the origin of species (1859), in which he synthesized the revolutionary and integrating idea of ‘evolution’, during the second voyage of the Beagle – “the most important event in my life” – he still ‘saw’ the landscapes of the tropics little differently from Christopher Columbus.

The ‘organismic’ approach was not, however, only key to changing a ‘fractured view’ of the world; it was also an essential prerequisite for the development of both modern ‘scientific’ ecology and social environmentalism. Yet, when the word, ‘ecology’, was first coined in 1866 by the German zoologist and philosopher, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), he give it a distinctly autecological definition, that is, with the focus still clearly on the individual plant or animal. He thus retained the ‘fractured vision’ of Darwin, with whom he frequently corresponded. Nevertheless, by 1876, Haeckel’s definition of ‘ecology’ had changed radically under the influence of Humboldt and of German romanticism into a more ‘organismic’ and synecological construction, in which the totality of plants and animals at any given location is viewed as a whole in relationship both to the environment and to each other. The concept of ‘vegetation units’ was thus invented, and this, in turn, would lead to Schimper, to tropischer Regenwald, to the concepts of the ecosystem and of the biosphere, and ultimately to Lovelock’s ‘Gaia’.

[Adapted from my long article, ‘Jungles of the Mind’, History Today, May 2001]

Comments are closed.