REFLECTIONS FROM A WOODLOT
In 1845, nature writer Henry David Thoreau (1817—1862), seeking to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life, went looking for a quiet little piece of land free from the intrusions of New England's thriving agricultural economy. Ironically, he had to settle for an old woodlot in Concord, Massachusetts, a place where farmers routinely ventured to find fuel to heat their homes. One of the nineteenth century's leading critics of progress and its impact on the natural world, Thoreau came of age in a region thoroughly transformed by human action, a place of fields and fences so devoid of forest and animal habitat that the largest mammal commonly encountered was the muskrat. 1
In Concord, near the legendary Walden Pond, Thoreau built himself a cabin and lived in it for about two years. The journal he kept while there formed the basis for his most famous book, Walden, Or Life in the Woods. “When I first paddled a boat on Walden,” he wrote, “it was completely surrounded by thick and lofty pine and oak woods.” Relishing that fond memory, he continues: “But since I left those shores the woodchoppers have still further laid them waste, and now for many a year there will be no more rambling through the aisles of the wood, with occasional vistas through which you see the water. My Muse may be excused if she is silent henceforth. How can you expect the birds to sing when their groves are cut down?” At roughly the time that Thoreau headed to Walden, some 60 percent of the New England landscape had been converted from forest into open fields, almost the exact opposite of today, where the reverse ratio of forest to open space prevails. The incessant cutting of trees to create new farmland and supply households with fuel drove Thoreau to distraction. As he put it: “Thank God, they cannot cut down the clouds.” 2
The domesticated countryside Thoreau confronted was the product of endless hours spent cutting down trees, planting fields, and tending fences, as the colonists and their descendants entered into battle with the earth and its ecosystems. In simple terms, an ecosystem is a collection of plants, animals, and nonliving things all interacting with one another in a particular locale. Left undisturbed by humankind, the New England landscape would eventually revert largely to inedible woody matter, to forest. Ecosystems in such “climax” states contain only small quantities of human food. Agriculture tries to stop nature from evolving toward this food-scarce condition and instead guides the land into yielding a supply of crops suitable for human consumption. Tillers of the soil seek to turn the landscape into an agroecosystem, a collection of domesticated plants for feeding people. Farming is always a battle with the natural world, a struggle to keep nature from doing what comes naturally.