Concord, Massachusetts; Town Hall
“THE SUCCESSION OF FOREST TREES”
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: The circumstances leading up to Thoreau’s 20 September 1860 address at the Middlesex Cattle Show are not known. It has been suggested, however, that Thoreau’s lecture answers many of the questions raised in a discussion at the Concord Farmers Club on 12 April 1860, following the reading of an essay on “Forest Trees” by Concordian Charles L. Heywood.1
Thoreau’s journal entry for the day of his lecture is cryptically brief. “Cattle-Show. Rainy in forenoon” he noted. The next day’s entry embellishes his weather report, but adds nothing to explain the cattle-show, “Hard rain last night. About one and seven eighths inches fallen since yesterday morning, and river rising again” (J, 14:90).
Other accounts, fortunately, are fuller, including this 20 September journal entry by Simon Brown, former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and a participant in the day’s events. He wrote:
Our annual Agricultural Festival. It began to rain at 8 o’clock and rained through most of the forenoon. No cattle were exhibited this year on account of the disease. The show of horses and Fruits was very fine. The Address was by Mr. Thoreau, President Felton of Harvard College, Levi Stockbridge of South Hadley and Mr. Hudson, of Lexington spoke well.2
The liveliest, most detailed account of the festival was provided by the above mentioned Levi Stockbridge. A member of the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture, Stockbridge wrote an official report in which he judged Thoreau and the other speakers good, the weather bad, and the exhibition itself a mitigated failure:
As a delegate from the State Board of Agriculture, I attended the sixty-eighth annual exhibition of the Middlesex Society, holden at Concord, on the 20th of September. And although I was pleased and highly entertained by some portions of the show, I was not, as a whole, very favorably impressed by it. Fears of the cattle scourge prevented the exhibition of meat stock, and the horses, though respectable in numbers, looked mean, and I doubt not looked as they felt, for being compelled to exhibit themselves in a pouring rain….A ploughing match by seven competitors, was entered into with spirit, and excellent work performed in spite of the weather; but spectators seemed to prefer shelter from the storm, rather than the excitement and instruction of the trial, and a thorough drenching….
The weather, though injurious to the interest of the society, was treated as a capital joke; the greatest good feeling and hilarity prevailed. The occasion was enlivened by Gilmore’s brass band, that gave snatches of melody in the open air during the occasional gleams of sunshine, but who, unlike the ploughmen, made a precipitous retreat to the hall when the rain clouds swept by. The society had no public dinner, but listened in large numbers and with apparent interest and satisfaction to an excellent address from one of the citizens of Concord, Mr. Thoreau. The address was an answer to the question, “Why when a pine forest is cut down, does a hard wood forest take its place?” In answering this, the speaker showed clearly the necessity of rotation of crops, the great vitality of seeds under favorable circumstances, and the means nature had provided for scattering and planting the seeds of trees and plants. President Felton, of Harvard College, made a pithy speech, contrasting the customs and methods of farming in the olden time with those of the present day, and urged a higher culture as the means of still greater advancement. Hon. Charles Hudson, of Lexington, spoke of the value and importance of agriculture to the State, and urged the necessity of its being fostered and encouraged.
At the conclusion of these exercises, the annual meeting of the society was holden; a new board of officers elected, the report of the treasurer, showing the financial affairs of the society to be prosperous, was presented and accepted, and the awards of the various examining committees made known.
As has already been intimated, the show of the Middlesex Society did not as a whole, realize my expectations; but the State bounty has not been in any means misapplied or wasted. The partial failure was owing to causes over which the society or members had no control. Rainy days, or years of pleuro-pneumonia, may again occur, but the beneficial stimulus of the State money will be seen, as this season, in the encouragement it gives to those branches of agriculture that require the year for illustration rather than the day of exhibition. This society is much more limited at the present time, in its field of operations, than during the years of its early history. The incorporation of the Middlesex North, at Lowell, and South, at Framingham, have somewhat localized it to the middle of the county, but its premium list is open to competitors within the county limits, and numbers avail themselves of the privilege….
In closing this report, I wish to call the attention of the Board to a transaction that occurred on the grounds of this society, near the closing hours of its last exhibition. An intoxicated Irishman, in a fit of drunken frenzy, with a dangerous weapon stabbed two men severely, and, as was feared at the time, fatally. For this occurrence the officers or members of the society were not culpable. General good order prevailed, and the offenders in this brawl were promptly arrested. It is a question whether our societies are sufficiently guarded and empowered by legislation, to protect themselves from scenes of a similar character. We desire these annual exhibitions to be holidays to the entire community; but good order, sobriety, and decorum should be the law of conduct. We wish our families, our wives and children to attend them; and it is imperative that they should not be made thereby the witnesses of scenes that shock the finer sensibilities, or be brought in contact with any thing contaminating to purity and morality. At such large gatherings the refuse of society are prone to congregate, with no laudable object in view, and the officers of the societies should have legal powers to prevent all drunkenness and debauchery, wantonness or rioting, on or about their exhibition grounds. If the laws are already sufficient, they should be enforced with promptness and energy; if not, we should forthwith seek the enactment of such as will accomplish the desired end.3
Other details of the event are provided in the Transactions of the Middlesex Agricultural Society for the Year 1860, which reports, in part:
The day was very stormy, and prevented many contributors and spectators from being present; the rain fell in torrents nearly all day….
At 2 o’clock, P.M., a procession was formed at the society’s hall, under the efficient direction of N. Henry Warren, Chief Marshall, and proceeded, under escort of Gilmore’s band, to the Town Hall, where the meeting was called to order by the President, who after a few remarks introduced to the audience Mr. Henry D. Thoreau, who delivered a fine address.
At the close of the address of Mr. Thoreau, Gov. Boutwell, President of the Society, congratulated the audience that they had heard an address so plain and practical, and at the same time showing such close observation, and careful study of natural phenomena. “As the orator’s subject was Trees,” said Gov. Boutwell, “I may be allowed to allude to a branch of agricultural occupation, to which, as it seems to me, too little attention is paid. I mean the accurate observation of objects and events which come within the notice of farmers. If they 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.4
George S. Boutwell, the society president who introduced Thoreau and praised his speech, was a former Governor of Massachusetts. In the year of Thoreau’s talk he was Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education. The report also notes the recruitment effort for hardscrabble New England farming offered by another speaker, Charles Hudson, who “spoke of the slovenly farming of the South and West, and of the indolence which abundance and ease of husbandry is apt to produce, and recommended the young men of New England to remain at home, rather than go West or South for easier tillage and greater crops.”5
Nine days after his lecture, Thoreau sent the following query to his old friend Horace Greeley:
Knowing your interest in whatever relates to Agriculture, I send you with this a short address delivered by me before “the Middlesex Agricultural Society,” in this town, Sep. 20, on The Succession of Forest Trees. It is part of a chapter on the Dispersion of Seeds. If you would like to print it, please accept it. If you do not wish to print it entire, return it to me at once, for it is due to the Society’s “Report” a month or 6 weeks hence[.] (C, p. 590)
Greeley accepted the address, and it was published just a week later in the 6 October New York Weekly Tribune. The lecture was subsequently printed, in whole or in part, in several other journals and reports, thus becoming the most widely circulated of Thoreau’s shorter essays during his lifetime (Days, pp. 439-40). One place it did not appear, however, was in the new Dial magazine begun in Cincinnati by Moncure Conway, despite the invitation Conway extended to Thoreau on 26 November 1860: “We are thinking of issuing the Dial next year as a Quarterly instead of a Monthly; and I wish to ask if you will be so bountiful as to let me publish therein your Agricultural Address” (C, p. 601).
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: In addition to the praise for Thoreau’s lecture included in the official reports quoted above, other responses suggest that his talk was well received at the time and aroused continuing interest, if not complete agreement. Among those responses is a diary entry for 20 September 1860 recorded by the ever-faithful Bronson Alcott:
P. M. At the town Hall and hear Henry Thoreau’s discourse before the Middlesex Agricultural Society, on Nature’s Methods of planting forest trees in nuts and seeds by Animals and wind. Admirably scientific and interesting. Speeches by B. F. Tilton and others. Ex Gov. Boutwell presides. There was a ploughing motor and a Cavalcading Horses, and a show of fruits &c.
I do not go upon the Agriculture grounds. Rains.6
On 17 November 1860, a month after the event, Isaac M. Wellington, principal of Elmira Free Academy in Elmira, New York, wrote Thoreau requesting a copy of his speech for classroom use:
The subject of the Succession of Forest Trees is greatly interesting [to] me. If I am rightly informed you not long since read a Paper on this subject before the Middlesex Agr. Soc. Would you be so kind as to inform me if your Address has been published & if so, where I may obtain?
Before trespassing further on your kindness, permit me briefly to state what we are doing. Being a native of Waltham, Mass, this present year, Elmira Free Academy is given to my charge. In carrying out a novel plan of Composition & Thinking Class Exercises, my seventy five pupils—aged from twelve to twenty—and myself are come to the above subject. Judging from past experience, I shall so enthusuize [sic] them that their letters to me, after laying the matter before them, will abound in questions & facts. I anticipate one question of the following sort. “Does not Nature sow her forests—waiving the agencies for sowing for the moment—by putting in her seed at some period long anterior to the growing?[“] Such a question will invoke research as regards the long lived vitality of seeds. I know of but little mitten upon this latter subject, & this letter is not based upon any presented facts touching the vitality of seeds. Your greater research & experience might direct me to books & facts throwing light upon this subject. Could you take this trouble you would largely aid one toiling to lead the young from many of the frivolous, to some of the useful, ways of living & confer a great favor[.]7
Almost a month later, on 13 December, Horace Greeley’s schedule relaxed enough to give him time to write a letter to Thoreau voicing his reservations about a couple of the assertions Thoreau had made in the lecture-essay Greeley had published in his newspaper over two months earlier:
FRIEND THOREAU: I have been too busy to thank you sooner for your essay on “The Propagation of Trees,” of which I trust you received a number of printed copies. I read it of course with interest, yet without absolute concurrence. I had hoped to find in it some allusion to the facts (or, if you please, allegations) with which once combated your theory, in a conversation which you have probably forgotten. Allow me to restate them:
First: In the great Pine forest which covers (or recently covered) much of Maine, New-Brunswick, &c. a long Summer drouth has sometimes been followed by a sweeping fire, which swept a district forty miles long by ten to twenty broad as with the besom of destruction. Not only is the timber entirely killed and mainly consumed, but the very soil, to a depth varying from six to thirty inches, is utterly burned to ashes, down to the very hard-pan. The very next season, up springs a new and thick growth of White Birch—a tree not before known there. Not a pine or other fir—nothing but miles on miles of deciduous trees, almost entirely White Birch. I have seen this on a small scale, and am well assured that it is true on every scale. How do you reconcile it with your theory that trees are never generated spontaneously, but always from some nut, or seed, or root, preexisting in that same locality?
Second: Here is a fact to which I cannot be mistaken: Go three days[‘] journey into a dense, dark, stately forest of Beach, Maple, Elm, &c., and cut down trees so as to clear a place from twenty to sixty feet square; roll up your logs in the middle of it, and burn them—say in June—to ashes; of course, burning up the soil also. In a month or two, that ash-bed will be covered by a thick, rank growth of fireweed—plant for which I know no other name, but with which you are doubtless familiar. The trees stand thick and tall all around, almost shutting out the sky, of which you have a bare glimpse directly over head. Winds are scarcely known there beneath the tree-tops. Fireweed was previously unknown. Do you really insist that fireweed springs uniformly from seeds of that plant? If yes, how do you account for their abundance in these widely separated firebeds, and those only?
Thoreau, who was at that time bedridden and had since the first week of the month been suffering from the illness that would eventually kill him, was not able to respond to Greeley’s letter until 30 December:
FRIEND GREELEY: I received the copies of THE TRIBUNE containing my address, for which I thank you, and I send you by the same mail with this a copy slightly amended.
Let me consider your objections:
First: You say that “in the great Pine Forest which covers (or recently covered) much of Maine, New-Brunswick, &c.” fires have sometimes completely destroyed all the timber, and all combustible matter in the soil, to the depth of “six to thirty inches,” over areas forty miles long by ten or twenty broad; and that yet, “the very next season, up springs a new and thick growth of White Birch, a tree not before known there,” and “not a pine” among them; and you ask how I can reconcile this with my “theory that trees are never generated spontaneously, but always from some seed,” or the like?
To which I reply, that this is not so much my theory as observation. Yours is pure theory, without a single example to support it. As I have said, I do not intend to discuss the question of spontaneous generation, for the burden of proof lies with those who maintain that theory.
By pine forest, you mean, of course, white pine. I assert that this never covers any large area—a township, for instance—to the entire exclusion, or anything like it, of other trees. As explorers for pine timber well know, one peculiarity of the white pine is its habit of growing in “veins” and “communities,” in the midst of the forest, greatly to their convenience, but never monopolizing a large tract, like grass. In three excursions deep into the wilderness of Maine, within the last fifteen years, I have found this comparatively a rare tree. Fir, Spruce, Arbor-vitae, Maple, Yellow Birch, &c., were much more abundant where I went.
As for White Birch (i. e. the canoe birch) not being known there before, I assert that it is almost universally, though not equally, distributed throughout the forests of Maine; one proof of which is that, though I have had occasion to make a fire out of doors there about a hundred times, in places wide apart, I do not remember that I ever failed to find birch bark at hand for kindling. It is the common kindling-stuff. The evidence for its non-existence in your burnt forest is wholly untenable. Why, it happens that I never talked with an individual in this town (Concord)—and I have talked with the most knowing—who was aware that the canoe birch grew here, though it is not a rare tree with us. It is far more common in Maine. I find indigenous in this town 44 species of trees (not shrubs), though far the greater part of the surface is cleared, and I have no doubt that some others have been exterminated. Probably half as many will, on an average, be found on an equal area in the State of Maine.
Finally, the birches bear a very fine, winged seed, and perhaps the most abundantly and regularly of any of our trees, so that a great part of New-England is dusted over with it in the Winter, and the snow discolored, though most do not notice it. I think that it would be hard to find, in March, a considerable area in the woodland of this county perfectly clear of it.
You may infer how seeds get to your burnt land, and I will leave them to sprout of themselves, without telling what extensive birch forests (of the smaller species) I see springing up every year from those seeds, especially where the ground has been burned over or plowed.
I might add, if it had any bearing on the question, that fires in the woods are commonly very superficial in their effects, not seriously injuring the roots of plants, and that they reach the depth you speak of only under peculiar circumstances and in peculiar localities.
Second: You say, “Go there three days’ journey into a dense forest, cut, burn and clear a small space in June, burning up the soil itself,” and “in a month or two” that spot “will be covered by a thick, rank growth of fireweed,” which “was previously unknown” there.
If the soil is really burned to the depths you speak of, I think that you make the fire-weed spring up too soon, though I do not know how deep its seed may lie, nor how long it may last in the earth. However, supposing that this which you state is exactly true, still I answer Yes, I do “insist that this fire-weed (and all other fire-weed of this species) springs uniformly from seeds of that plant.” I suppose you refer to the Erechthites hieracifolia, though the Epilobium angustifolium, a perennial plant, is also called fire-weed by some. However, these are not with very peculiar fitness called fire-weeds, for they spring up in the same manner on new land when it is laid bare by whatever cause hereabouts, as often after a cutting as after a burning, though I will not deny that the ashes may be a good manure for them.
Waiving the question of the tenacity of life of these seeds and their ability to resist fire, I think that I only need to say that the Erechthites hieracifolia is eminently one of those plants whose downy seeds fill the air in Autumn, as the old botanists said, “carried away by the wind,” and, so far as my observation goes, it is always to be found in and around our woodlands; and if, as you say, it “was previously unknown” in your forest, it was because your settler did not seek to make acquaintance with it, but only cursed it when it got into his clearing. They are few and puny in the dense wood, but numerous and rank in the openings. He that hath eyes let him see. The locality assigned to this plant by Gray is “moist woods.”
Millions of these seeds may be blown along the very lane in which we are walking without our seeing one of them. One writer has calculated that the fifth year’s crop from a single seed of a kind of thistle which he calls Acanthum vulgare, supposing all to grow, would amount to 7,962 trillions and upward; “a progeny,” says he “more than sufficient to stock not only the surface of the whole earth, but of all the planets in the solar system, so that no other vegetable could possibly grow, allowing but the space of one square foot for each plant.” It also spreads extensively by the roots, says this author; but I am still to be convinced that it spreads by what is called spontaneous generation beside. I know not how accurate his calculation is; but I know that the fire-weed is a plant somewhat similar in its fecundity, and I have no doubt that there are seeds enough of it produced, and that they are widely enough dispersed, to account for all that spring up; and I do not believe that they were created so abundant and volatile for no purpose.
There are several plants peculiarly fitted to reclothe the earth when laid bare by whatever cause. Those to which you have referred are conspicuous among these.
Of course, it depends on who it is who says that this or that plant was not there before. I should not be surprised if the first woodchopper whom I met, a herbarium being shown to him, should think that seven-eighths of the plants common in this neighborhood did not exist here at all. But what of that?
Greeley seems to have thought well enough of Thoreau’s response that he published both his own letter and the response in the New-York Weekly Tribune on 2 February 1861. Just eleven days later, on 13 February—almost five months after the lecture—the New England Farmer printed a response to Thoreau’s lecture as published in the Transactions of the Middlesex Agricultural Society for the Year 1860. (The New England Farmer was edited by Thoreau’s friend and fellow townsman Simon Brown, whose personal journal records his attendance at the cattle show; see “Narrative of Event” above.) Submitted by an otherwise unidentified “R. J. F.,” the response to Thoreau’s address states:
The address of Mr. Thoreau is a very interesting one, particularly that portion which explains the process of nature, by which when a decayed pine wood is cut down, oaks and other hard woods may at once take its place. In other words, how it is that, without the aid of man, a rotation of crops in the shape of trees takes place. This is done, as he truly says, by the winds, in some cases, by the birds and by animals in others. The squirrel is a great tree-planter, the oak, the walnut and the beech are mostly planted by him. They are brought long distances and are buried in the ground for winter use; some are forgotten or are not wanted and they vegetate the following spring. He is, however, mistaken in supposing the planting to be carried on annually of necessity, or that “the oldest seedlings annually die.” The plants come up and throw out from two to six leaves, and continue to do so from year to year, until pines decay or are removed, and the light and air come to them, when they at once commence a vigorous growth. I have marked within fifteen years, hundreds of oaks in their dormant state, and have never lost sight of them. There they are, just as when I first discovered them. Others I have opened to the light and air, by clearing away the pines which shadowed them, and they are vigorously taking their places. Providence has wisely made this provision for the future. These plantations are existing all around us, with no oaks within a large circuit—they have been all sacrificed years ago, yet the clearing up of a pine grove will reveal the careful providence of nature. If no oak has ever grown in a district, none will grow, for want of seed, but once planted and germinated, it is never lost.
The squirrel is equally efficient in planting pine seed as the acorn. The cone of a pine contains from thirty to sixty sound germinating seed. The squirrel, with his sharp teeth, cuts off the little flaps which hold them and pouches them, carrying them to his retreat, where they are lightly buried. A common chipmunk will take in his pouches or cheeks more than a hundred seeds at a time.
It is only the pine that acts as a sentry over the oak, preparing for its future growth by the annual decay of its spikelets. The birch, to some extent, performs the same office. If you carefuly look through what appears to be an entire birch cover, you will frequently find the young oaks beneath abiding the period of its more rapid decay.8
Also in this same issue of the New England Farmer is a detailed summary of Thoreau’s lecture.
Almost six weeks later still, on 23 March 1861, Greeley published in the New-York Weekly Tribune a letter written on 7 February by one E. G. Waters of Coventryville in Chenango County, New York. The letter is a response to Thoreau’s own earlier response to Greeley:
SIR: Sixty years ago, when this section of country was new, and the settlers had commenced clearing away the dense forests, the fire-weed you speak of in your letter to Mr, Thoreau was extremely annoying to farmers. It sometimes happened that the Summers were so wet that we could not burn a fallow after it was chopped, and it had to layover to the next season, and then, if the season permitted, it was burned early, and usually a better burn was obtained than when the fallow was burned the same season the timber was cut. In a few days after the burning, this pest of fire-weed would spring up, and by logging time, in the Fall, present a dense growth as high as a man’s head. The down, or furze, from the blossom being very fine, it was both choking and blinding to work among it, and the next year the grain would sometimes be so full of it that we had to tie a vail [sic] over the face to thresh and clean it. Now, was its growth spontaneous or from seed? If from seed, it must have been lying deep in the earth, for in all cases the deeper the earth was burned the more prolific the growth of the wood. A year or two since, I examined a plant which had just started, and found the roots did not go as deep as the land was actually burned. The truth is, the roots never strike deep; but run on and near the surface of the earth. I suppose it took its common name of fire-weed from the fact of its growing on new-burnt land. It is seldom, if ever, seen in old, improved fields. Birch is not the only timber that follows the clearing and burning of land. Wild Cherry, Poplar, and other trees, will grow where they were never known to grow before, seed or no seed.
Greeley was to have the last word on the matter; in square brackets below Waters’ letter, Greeley wrote, “We understand Mr. Thoreau to contend, not that seeds of the Fire-Weed, Birch, &c., are buried so deep in the earth that the fire does not affect them, but that they are wind-sown over the surface after the burning has taken place. Of course, our correspondent’s facts do not confute this theory. 9
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: The very brief time between Thoreau’s delivery of the lecture and his submission of the manuscript to Greeley is a fairly clear indication that the lecture and the published essay were very similar. After the essay was published, Thoreau worked it into his evolving text of The Dispersion of Seeds. Although Thoreau died before he could complete this project, Bradley P. Dean has reconstructed the “chapter” from the extant manuscripts and published it in Faith in a Seed, pp. 23-173.
2. Quoted from “Notes & Queries,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 91 (Spring 1965): 4.
3. Emphasis added. Levi Stockbridge, Report from Eighth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture (Boston: White, 1861), pp. 276-78; facsimile rpt., Walter Hesford, “The 1860 Concord Cattle-Show: An Official Account,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 132 (Summer 1975): 6-7.
4. Quoted from Hubert H. Hoeltje, “Thoreau as Lecturer,” New England Quarterly, 19 (December 1946): 492-93.
5. Quoted from Hoeltje, “Thoreau as Lecturer,” 493.
6. Alcott, MS “Diary for 1860,” entry of 20 September, MH (059M-308).
7. Quoted from a transcript at the Thoreau Textual Center, CU-SB; the MS is in the Sewall Collection, Thoreau Society Archives, MCo.
8. R. J. F., “Society Reports-Succession of Forest Trees,” New England Farmer, 13 (February 1861): 89-90; facsimile rpt., Walter Harding, “Another Forgotten Notice of Thoreau,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 143 (Spring 19(8): 6.
9. For further context on this flurry of letters, see Bradley P. Dean, “Henry D. Thoreau and Horace Greeley Exchange Letters on the ‘Spontaneous Generation of Plants,'” New England Quarterly, 66 (December 1993): 630-38.
Reprinted with permission