Beyond John Sanderson’s Farm

Beyond John Sanderson’s Farm

Earlier this week I stumbled across Hugh Raup’s boat rocking essay, “The View from John Sanderson’s Farm,” published in the Journal of Forest History in 1966. Raup, a PhD botanist and geomorphologist, was director of the Harvard Forest from 1946 to 1967.

Raup’s life, Sanderson’s farm at Petersham, Massachusetts and the 3,000-acre Harvard University forest, form the intersection at which forestry, conservation and preservation are discussed and debated by their respective advocates. It is one of the oldest research forests in the nation. Founded in 1908, the forest includes the legendary farm, which dates from the early 1800s.

Raup presented his controversial essay at a 1964 natural resources conference sponsored by the Ford Foundation. That same year, the British Journal of Animal Ecology published another of Raup’s boat rockers, “Some Problems in Ecological Theory and Their Relation to Conservation.”

The two essays secured Raup’s reputation as a heretic in Harvard’s cloistered environs. “Out of all this I found that I could never again be a ‘good’ ecologist. A prominent practitioner in this field told me one time that I should not be allowed to teach,” he wrote in a 1979 letter that anchors Forests in the Here and Now, a collection of his essays assembled by Ben Stout, a PhD forest ecologist, great friend and former dean of the University of Montana School of Forestry.

Forests in the Here and Now, book cover

But even Raup’s detractors conceded that he was the foremost field botanist of his era. During his Harvard years he frequently challenged the moral and ethical underpinnings of progressive thinking concerning conservation and preservation. Frankly, I struggle with some of his conclusions but I find them worthy of rigorous discussion and debate.

Raup did his undergraduate work at Wittenberg College in Springfield, Ohio, then earned a PhD in botany at the University of Pittsburgh in 1928. He then returned to Wittenberg as an assistant professor until he was named a research assistant and associate at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum in 1932.

He advanced to a full professorship in forestry in 1938 and was named Director of the Harvard Forest in 1946, a position he held until he retired in 1967. Early in his field research, Raup began to question the underlying assumptions in Frederic Clements’ widely accepted emphasis on biological succession as a system for interpreting the history of vegetation patterns in any given spot. His work as a PhD plant ecologist at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. was based on his belief that vegetative change was best seen as a one-directional succession leading to a stable “climax” state. Old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest fit neatly in Clements thinking.

Raup tried to apply Clements’ theory in the Harvard Forest but couldn’t make it work because, as he later wrote, he knew nothing about what Petersham’s early white settlers had done with their land – or why.

Most of Raup’s early field studies occurred around Lake Athabasca, a 3,000 square mile body of water that straddles the northern reaches of Alberta and Saskatchewan that is drained by a system of 12 rivers that eventually flow into the Arctic Ocean.

His observations convinced him that plant successions, “if they occurred at all, were really short-term affairs, indeterminate at both ends, and unpredictable in terms of flora and time. I see the vegetation as a thin rind on the surface of the earth, existing at the mercy of climatic and geomorphic processes and made up of whatever kinds of plants are available from regional floras.”

In hopes of expanding his horizons, Raup buried himself in the research and writings of other botanists and geographers, most notably Edgar Anderson, a renowned geneticist who was then working at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum and Eric Hulten, a Swedish botanist and plant geographer who had done extensive field work in the Arctic. “Anderson and Hulten made me conscious of ecotypic variation within species, which has colored everything I have done since.”

Raup slowly weaned himself from Clements’ lexicon, which included words still commonly used by some forest ecologists: succession, association, competition, dominant, and assemblage.

There were plant communities, Raup wrote, but only in the way Alexander von Humboldt, a 19th century German naturalist and explorer, had described them: masses of vegetation featuring distinctive physiognomy, color or texture.

“The ecological description of boreal vegetation bristles with problems of method and concept,” Raup concluded in a 1941 paper published in Botanical Review.

In his initial boreal field studies, Raup expected to find plant associations similar to those Clements had described. Instead he was confronted by “a bewildering mixture of plants of all sorts jumbled together in seeming defiance of the principles of plant associations learned in low latitudes.”

Although Raup’s research took him to several locales – from Lake Athabasca to Honduras – his thinking was most profoundly influenced by his Ohio boyhood and his years at Harvard, which began in 1926.

The unexpected connection between his Dayton, Ohio upbringing and his years at Harvard was the construction of the Erie Canal, a 363-mile-long navigable trench hand dug by Irish laborers that joined Albany and Buffalo, New York, opening an enormously profitable trade route that ran from Ohio’s richer-than- New England soil east through the rugged Appalachian mountains and down the Mohawk and Hudson River valleys to the Northeast’s fast developing industrial epicenter.

Canal boats drawn along a towpath by horses and mules cut the travel time between Albany and Buffalo by half. The boats rose 571 feet through a system of 37 locks that terminated at Lake Erie – 571 feet being the difference in elevation between the Hudson River and the lake.

John Sanderson's house at Harvard

The trade route’s impact on the New England economy – including Petersham and John Sanderson's farm – was enormous. What had once been forest became farmland, then forest again, then farm and forestland, then farm, forestland and summer homes for families whose wealth accrued because of the Erie Canal, then fewer farms and more forest – a direct result of the presence of even wealthier permanent residents who saw great aesthetic value in New England forests.

Although it would take more than 150 years for these events to play out, Raup’s field studies and his growing up years in Dayton led him to the startling conclusion that conservationist thinking at Harvard and elsewhere in the East was “in serious conflict with reality.” He thus concluded that “the principal role of the land and forests has been that of stage and scenery. The significant figures have always been the people, and the ideas they have had about what they might do at specific points in time with the stage properties at hand.”

A respectable case can be made for the fact that Raup’s “stage and scenery” analogy is still forestry’s operating model today. As it was defined 125 years ago, the word “conservation” fit well with Gifford Pinchot’s belief that forestry could pay its own way if it was practiced as he had learned it at the French National School of Forestry after he graduated from Yale in 1889.

Yale did not then have a forestry school so his father, who had made a fortune in lumber manufacturing, encouraged him to go to France to study forestry as it was practiced in France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

Many historians still consider Pinchot to be the “father of conservation” in the United States. He was certainly influential before, during and after his time as the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, but so were many others who grew up amid great eastern wealth that blossomed from steel, oil, timber and railroads.

Today’s conservation is more closely associated with preservation than with boots-on-the-ground forestry. On the plus side, more of our nation is forested than at any time in the last 100 years. On the minus side, more of it is dying and burning, a direct result of the deplorable state of affairs in federally-owned forests that early conservationists sought to protect through Pinchot-style forestry. I wonder what Hugh Raup would tell us about this.

Ben Stout’s collection of Raup papers features six of his best essays and spans about 50 years of field study, writing and lecturing. We will summarize them in separate profiles starting next week. Thereafter, we will introduce our Evergreen audience to Brian Donahue, an associate professor and environmental historian who teaches at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

In 2007, Environmental History, a publication of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society, published a thoughtful essay Donahue wrote. “Another Look from Sanderson’s Farm” critiques Raup’s writings in a modern-day context.

We interview Donahue following our review of “Optimism,” the last essay that Raup and Stout chose for inclusion in Forests in the Here and Now, published by the University Of Montana School of Forestry in 1981.

Onward we go,

Jim Petersen, Founder and President

The non-profit Evergreen Foundation

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