The Dark Side of Succession

Originally printed in the September-October 2000 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: O'Grady, John P. "The Dark Side of Succession." Quest  88.5 SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2000): pg 178-183.

By John P. O’Grady

In New England the forest first came back in the old burial grounds, places barely remembered and hardly noticed anymore, where shade was expected and even welcomed. As trees crowded in among the graves, the letters inscribed on the markers simply let go from the cold stones, fluttered down to the ground like leaves, and in this way word followed voice back into the quiet earth.

In forestry school, where they otherwise teach you a variety of nasty tricks to pull on the natural world, they redeem themselves, somewhat, by providing you with a wondrous piece of lore. Called the Story of Succession, it’s one of the few things from my forestry education that stayed with me over the years. I learned it in a course called Forest Ecology, which is really just an unacknowledged kind of metaphysics for resource managers. As I was taught it, this story comes right out of the nineteenth-century book of ideas about the balance of nature. And it goes like this.

When the first European explorers showed up in New England in the sixteenth century, everything looked like a Thomas Cole painting. When the English settlers arrived at Plymouth and Boston, they looked out upon this new world and all they could see was dark and intemperate forest, teeming with all manner of savagery. The Puritans referred to their new neighborhood as a "howling wilderness," an attitude that was passed down through the generations. You can still see it in Cotton Mather, who was writing in the early eighteenth century. "Beware the Evening Wolves," he says, "the rabid and howling Wolves of the Wilderness, which would wreak Havock among you, and not leave the Bones till morning." I heard something rather like this from my forestry professors when they talked about those people who would save the trees during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

If in addition to textbooks on silviculture and economics, my fellow forestry students and I had been exposed to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, our education might have had the necessary depth required to understand the Story of Succession. For instance, I think it no coincidence that the name "Boston" is actually a contraction for "Botulf’s Stone," which is back in Lincolnshire, England. Ironically, it’s a better rock upon which to found a myth than the one in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Botulf was a popular saint in medieval times. His calling was to hike around in the still standing forests of his day, and chase out all the "develen and gostes" that made their homes there. When these poor wood sprites realized they couldn’t scare away the earnest saint, they asked him why, since they had already been expelled from everywhere else, they could not simply remain in this quiet corner of the world, where they bothered no one. In response, the saint made the sign of the cross, and the poor "develen and gostes" were thereby forced to flee. They must have gone to North America.

Thus when it comes to Cotton Mather, you could say he was the Stephen King of his day. Long before the horror novel was invented, Mather was providing his eager readers with spine-chilling accounts of witchcraft and other forms of demonism going on in their woods. With gusto he warned them about "Droves of Devils" that cavorted in the yet unmanaged forests of New England, ready to pounce upon all but the most vigilant of Christian soldiers. The good people of New England took heed, and hacked away at their forests until, by 1800, the wolves had been exterminated and most of the landscape had been rendered into pasture.

This latest expulsion of "develen and gostes" was the first triumph of land resource management in North America. As if to commemorate this early victory over the dark forces of the natural world, the federal agency in whose care the citizens of the United States today place their forests is organized along military lines: it follows a strict chain of command, requires all who belong to it wear a uniform, maintains cadres of "rangers," and calls itself the Forest Service. They’ve even recruited a bear to their ranks, and they make him wear a hat.

Ah, but such victories are short-lived. Blame it on economics, blame it on improved technology, or blame it on other wars in other places, but by the 1830s people were abandoning New England in throngs. Better land--and lots of it--awaited them in the west, so they surged forth into the setting sun. In their wake, the forest sidled back into New England and another remarkable transformation ensued: the forest returned. The region today lies more thoroughly under shade than at any time since Cotton Mather. The wolves took a little longer to return, but they’re back now too. Perhaps you’ve not heard about this. That’s okay. It’s just a sign of how smart the wolves have become. I think it safe to assume the "develen and gostes" are here too.

A more concise version of the Story of Succession comes from my old college notes. It takes the form of a definition, the sort we were required to memorize and repeat back on countless exams: "Succession is the progressive development of vegetation toward its highest ecological expression, the climax." As suggested by the final word in this somewhat prudish, technical description, out there under cover of the wild lurks a poem. Or at the very least a boundless passion. To forestry professors and their well-heeled students, this is worrisome.

Yet even foresters have their renegades, the most famous of whom is Aldo Leopold (1887–1948). He went to forestry school at Yale, where he listened to an early version of the same Story of Succession I was told at the University of Maine seventy years later. If only the professors knew the corrupting influence this tale has had on certain students, I’m sure they would drop it from the curriculum.

In the case of Aldo Leopold, the story became the basis for his revolutionary Land Ethic, which he lays out in a book entitled A Sand County Almanac. "In short," he writes, "plant succession steered the course of history." Leopold doesn’t have much to say about the "climax" stage of succession, but he does go on at length about fertility ("the ability of soil to receive, store, and release energy") and health ("the capacity of the land for self-renewal"). He summed up this Land Ethic in what might be called the Golden Rule of environmentalism: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

One quickly discerns that all this talk about nature is in fact an allegory for how one might live the good life, in the old Platonic sense of doing the right thing. This is Leopold’s ecological Republic. Like all utopian visions, it presents an Eden or Arcadia or someplace where natural harmony prevails, much as high barometric pressure does over the West Coast in summer. Thus in terms of Utopia’s weather, every day is a good day. A Sand County Almanac was the best book I read in forestry school, but I had to discover it outside of my classes.

Of course, right from the start, the Story of Succession (not to mention any ethic derived from it) has had its critics. Among certain scientists, the Story of Succession was always already a diminished thing because, well, it’s a story. Worse, it’s less than a story—it’s a fable. They say that those who place their faith in such narrative are willfully blind to natural phenomena, choosing not to see things as they truly are but rather as they wish to see them.

Even though the Story of Succession has been roundly rejected by these people, no one has put forth a more compelling account of the mysterious workings of the universe. Some folks just don’t like stories of any kind, but they enjoy obliterating a utopia when they spot one. To all who would seek a pristine state of nature, they say: "Don’t use science to prove your myth!"

I must admit, there is some substance in what they say. As the ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan puts it: "We are often left hearing the truism, ‘Before the White Man came, North America was essentially a wilderness where the few Indian inhabitants lived in constant harmony with nature’—even though four to twelve million people speaking two hundred languages variously burned, pruned, hunted, hacked, cleared, irrigated, and planted in an astonishing diversity of habitats for centuries."

In early New England this is confirmed by Thomas Morton. He complains in 1637 that what few big trees are to be found there are located around the swamps, where the extensive broadcast fires set by the Indians each spring could not reach to do them harm. As for the rest of the region, the fires kept the woods fairly open and the trees reduced in size. Thus the forest never achieved the "climax" you hear about in the Story of Succession. "For the savages," says Morton, "by this custom of their firing the country, have spoiled all the rest, and it has continued from the beginning."

Environmental historians are fond of saying that, if ever there had been "virgin forest stable at climax" in New England, it disappeared long before the first history was ever written. Such visions of an untouched wilderness, they say, exist chiefly in the tales of other times. Thus the Story of Succession, with its ardent talk of fertility and health, with its timeworn plot that leads inevitably toward some "highest expression" of being, is consigned by more sophisticated minds to the hinterlands of myth. Yet I, for one, take comfort in knowing that there are some places not even historians can enter.

Myth is undervalued in a scientific education. To explain what I mean, I’ll turn once more to my old college notes. In a Wildlife Management class, we were informed about the "Edge Effect." My notes define it as "the interactions that take place in the transitional zone where one cover type ends and another begins." In other words, the Edge Effect is what goes on along the boundaries between different ecological communities or realms. The plants that grow where forest meets grassland, for instance, produce the perfect combination of habitat and food supply to encourage an abundance of wildlife. That’s why the New England Indians were setting all those fires—the flames generated the subsequent growth of plants that lure elk, deer, turkeys, and numerous other animals. New England, under Indian management, was one vast game farm throughout.

Myth is a kind of Edge Effect. It occurs between the human community and what is not human. In one sense, the word "myth" simply means a "telling of events," but this telling creates the proper conditions for commerce between realms. Myth is a boundary situation, placing us at the very brink of being human. It’s like standing on the edge of an open grave. Look around the next time you attend a funeral. Amid all the flowers and tears, you’ll see people casting furtive glances into that dark opening in the earth. Be assured, they are looking well past the bottom of the hole, hoping to catch a glimpse of the ferocious emptiness. Nowhere in my notes can I find a definition for this term.

Understanding of these darker matters must be sought in places that offer the proper cover. One such place is Henry Thoreau’s journal, especially in the last years of his not long life. Unfolding in those pages is the earliest version of the Story of Succession. So far as anybody knows, it was Thoreau who, in the 1850s, coined the term "forest succession." But you’ll look long and hard through the scientific literature before you find any mention of his name. Certainly it was never spoken in any forestry class I took.

A critical commonplace has it that Thoreau’s journal in the last decade of his life became less "literary" and more "scientific." So far as it goes, this is an adequate description. But as a diligent reader bushwacks through the abundance of obsessive and repetitive observations that Thoreau makes about the changes going on in the eastern Massachusetts landscape--long passages that even the most generous of readers describe as little more than unusually well written field notes—the ferocious emptiness will occasionally be seen bolting from cover. "I confess," he writes about a year and a half before his death, "that I love to be convinced of this inextinguishable vitality in Nature. I would rather that my body should be buried in a soil thus wide-awake than a mere inert and dead earth."

Another place the ferocious emptiness gives a snarl is in a story that comes from eighth-century China. The famous painter Wu Tao-tzu had just finished work on his masterpiece, a grand landscape done on a wall of the palace. It took more than a decade to complete. The only thing more far-reaching and impressive than his painting was the solitude in which the great artist pursued his work during all those years.

He kept the painting under a huge drape until it was finished. When the Emperor arrived for the unveiling, Wu Tao-tzu gave the signal and the covering dropped away to reveal an immense and awesome scene rendered in exquisite detail: there were wild mountains, pristine lakes surrounded with venerable trees, and clouds boiling off cold ridges into limitless expanses of sky. If you looked closely, you could even see numerous people at work and play throughout the spectacular landscape. The Emperor stared astonished at this fabulous country.

"Look!" the artist exclaimed pointing, "there’s a cave in the side of that mountain. Inside is a dragon. Let’s go pay a visit!" He clapped his hands and a gate suddenly flew open on the side of a mountain, revealing the entrance to the cave. Wu Tao-tzu stepped into the painting, turned around, and said to the Emperor: "Come on, it’s even better inside. I can’t put into words how lovely it is, I can only show you. Follow me!"

With that, he entered the cave. But before the Emperor could gather his wits and follow, the painting and the ten thousand things it contained—including the artist and the yet unseen dragon in the cave—began to fade away. In no time, everything had vanished. The Emperor was left staring at a blank wall.

The ferocious emptiness is something like that, but not so far away. You encounter it when you go back to a favorite spot of wilderness, some woodland haunt where you enjoyed a family picnic or spent your honeymoon camping--let’s say it’s in Idaho—only to find that the place has been "harvested" (my old college notes define this as "the removal of a crop or stand of financially or physically mature trees"). Or you return to the house you grew up in and discover the woods where you used to play are gone and in its place are a shopping center and a lot of houses that all look alike. In this case, it’s your childhood that’s been harvested. Suddenly you begin to get the picture: sooner or later everything—including you—will meet the same fate. Now that’s the ferocious emptiness.

You’ll even encounter it on the tops of mountains. An acquaintance of mine recently told me about a climb he made up Borah Peak. At 12,655 feet, it’s the highest mountain in Idaho. Technically, not a very difficult ascent, but according to one guidebook at least three people have died on it. Two were swept away by an avalanche, and the other lost control of his glissade and went soaring off a cliff edge, never to be seen again.

My acquaintance and his brother climbed this mountain in late summer, when the weather was clear and the snow for the most part gone. They had a safe trip, save for one unsettling moment, but it had nothing to do with physical danger.

After making the arduous hike that climbs 5200 vertical feet in just three and a half miles, the two young men made it to the top. Out here in the west, most of the high peaks have some kind of register on their summits, places where successful climbers can sign in. It’s a record of achievement, as good as pinning your name to a cloud.

My acquaintance located the heavy aluminum box stashed between some boulders. He opened it to take out the notebook that holds the names, but was surprised to find the box filled with dirt. "It was the weirdest dirt I’ve ever seen on a mountain," he told me. "I wondered how it could have gotten into the box. I figured it must be the wind.

"So I reach in there and feel around till I come up with the notebook and pull it out. It’s filthy, covered with all this gray dust, and so are my hands and clothes at this point. It’s even getting in my mouth. There’s no water up there so I have to live with it for a while. Anyways, I shake the book off and hand it to my brother. He opens it to the page with the last entry on it so we can sign in. He starts reading for a moment and then screams, ‘Oh, hell!’ and throws the notebook down on the ground. ‘Oh hell!’ he keeps screaming, ‘Oh hell!’

" ‘Kerry, man,’ I say to him ‘what’s wrong? What’s the matter?’ And he looks over to me and says, ‘That’s not dirt. The last entry in the notebook says it’s some guy who died a couple weeks ago and they cremated him. That’s his ashes! His son must have come up here and put them into the register. What the hell was he thinking? Oh hell, and you’ve got him all over you!’ "

I like then to picture these two young men, bounding their way down the mountain, one of them screaming "Oh hell!" and the other spitting as the dust unfurls behind him like a banner, until far below, among the sheltering trees, they find a clear stream where they might wash away this memento mori obtained at higher elevation, and thereby purge their memory of this man they never knew, and forget their sudden encounter with the ferocious emptiness.

Perhaps by now you see where this—and the Story of Succession—has been leading.

Among the pantheon of ancient Greek deities, the only one who had no altar dedicated to him was Hades, lord of the underworld. That’s because he is everywhere and requires no special place or temple to make his appearance. Your mortal body is altar enough. He just shows up, unbidden. In many ways, he is the most generous of all the gods, bestowing his blessings wherever he roams, and that’s why he acquired the nickname Pluto, which means "wealth" or "riches." Everybody loves him. Or should. In fact the running joke in ancient times was that whoever pays him a visit is so overwhelmed with his beneficence, they just can’t bear to leave. If this wasn’t so, far more people would return from his kingdom than has been the case.

"Nature loves to hide," says Heraclitus, who wrote a whole book on the subject and then hid it away in a temple. What fragments we have from this fugitive text suggest that Nature is yet another nickname for the lord of the underworld. Wisdom too may be found in the treasure house of the charitable Hades, which is why philosophy can be defined as "the practice of death."

And so we come full circle to the Story of Succession, the dark side of which is death. As in forests, so in the seral stages of life. Even speech itself has its Story of Succession, as pointed out by Augustine, in an Aldo Leopold kind of way: "Not everything grows old, but everything dies. . . . That is the way our speech is constructed by sounds which are significant. What we say would not be complete if one word did not cease to exist when it has sounded its appointed part, so that it can be succeeded by another." Meaning itself, we must conclude, is yet another of those gifts that come up from below.

Today when you ask college students what their goals in life are, they commonly respond, "Success!" The transient ground upon which they chase their dreams constantly gives way to yet further ground, similar in kind. "Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed," is Emily Dickinson’s version of this same story.

The dark side of succession, the ferocious emptiness, reveals itself in the clear air of a high granite peak, in the ultra-violet fragrance of a flower that grows only there. Or it stands forth in the green shimmer of a mountain meadow, in the icy flicker and blinding flash of a waterfall in winter, or in the quiet amazement of fields and forests all across New England as the moonlight pours down upon sleepers in warm beds. Or it’s there in the autumn, when the leaves let go one more time in the roaring cascade of years.

You see it too along the thousands of "Golden Miles" all across America, leading back to that very first dream of success, where everything becomes transparent as hunger pains in the very belly of being.


John P. O'Grady teaches literature and environmental writing at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. His latest book, Grave Goods, is forthcoming in 2001 from the University of Utah Press.


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