John Brown and “The Succession of Forest Trees”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Author: Audrey Raden | © Audrey Raden 2016

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Maturity is one of the great themes in Thoreau, and its equivalent in nature is ripeness. From his early career to his late, Thoreau moved meanderingly from spring to autumn, morning to evening. The three natural history essays he revised while he was dying, “Walking,” “Wild Apples,” and “Autumnal Tints” treat late summer and autumn with a Keatsian sensuality, as though all of nature and all of humanity’s possibilities husband themselves for a final and infinite moment of perfect dying. Though this movement toward perfection is everywhere in nature if one is willing to experience it, in a human its existence is as miraculous as the colors of autumn would be if they occurred only once in centuries. This idea of the heroic exemplified in a truly natural man is ultimately how Thoreau viewed John Brown. Brown became his heroic logos: no longer an individual, or even human, but now the language of nature.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Why did Thoreau choose Brown as his representative of absolute heroism in dying? For Thoreau, Brown represented an idea (as he tells us several times in “A Plea for Captain John Brown”), which is why the actual politics behind the actions at Harpers Ferry ultimately didn’t matter to him. This idea was not new to Thoreau’s thinking, but he chose Brown as the one human representative of the magnificent order of creation. In the gaunt old man from Connecticut he saw not the vigilante but the scarlet oak. In his eyes, the greatest good a man can do is to die for a principle, the equivalent of dying at the proper moment of ripeness.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 This is not to say that Thoreau was indifferent to antislavery activism. On the contrary, he believed that slavery was the nation’s great moral failure, and he had long been impatient with the pusillanimity of northern abolitionists. As the scholar Philip Cafaro notes, “in defending Brown, Thoreau reiterates points made in his earliest anti-slavery pieces. Illegal acts are justified in opposing slavery. What is new is his treatment of heroism: the rare irruption of virtue in the political realm . . . By dying for their principles, Brown and his men give concrete proof that each of us may sacrifice for higher ideals.”1 In other words, like nature, heroism should be a process; the example of Brown and his men should be like good seeds planted in the earth.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Throughout “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” Thoreau refers to the abolitionist in the past tense, even though he was still alive when the writer first delivered the lecture from which the essay arose. Moreover, in none of the three related essays does Thoreau describe the hanging, though he certainly knew that Brown had shown great courage on the gallows. In the essays, Brown is everywhere and nowhere, neither alive nor dead but always in the moment of translation—immortal. “This morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung . . . He is not Old Brown anymore; he is an Angel of Light.”2 It is the same light that shines down on both the scarlet oak and the wild apple, the same light that bathes a hillside on a November afternoon.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” Thoreau says, “I am here to plead his cause with you. I plead not for his life but for his character—his immortal life.”3 Brown’s immortal life, like the immortal life of nature, is the significant organizing principle in all three essays. As Reynolds notes, “perhaps ‘the living North’ appreciated Brown, but Thoreau knew well that not all the North was living, in his sense of the word.”4 Of Brown’s raid, Thoreau writes, “This event advertises [to] me that there is such a thing as death—the possibility of a man’s dying. It seems as if no man had ever died in America before, for in order to die, you must have lived.” Like the autumn leaves, Brown and his men, “in teaching us how to die, have at the same time taught us how to live.”5 During the process of dying, Brown is the great human exemplar of life in nature.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In the essay “Martyrdom,” Thoreau addresses him: “You, Agricola, are fortunate, not only because your life was glorious, but because your death was timely.”6 Yet in “The Last Days of John Brown,” based on speech he composed six months after Brown’s death, Thoreau has come to believe that Brown never died at all. He says of himself that he “commonly attend[s] more to Nature than to man, but any affecting human event may blind our eyes to natural objects.” Yet he goes on to write that when he sees a familiar bird “still diving quietly in the river . . . it suggest[s] that this bird might continue to dive here when Concord is no more.”7 Thoreau is pointing directly to eternity: just as nature shall outlive the petty world of Concord, so Brown’s immortal heroism will outlive the disreputable time of American chattel slavery. He concludes the essay by saying, “I meet him at every turn. He is more alive than he ever was. He has earned his immortality.”8

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Immortality is the great characteristic that Brown shares with nature. Always Thoreau emphasizes their closeness. In both “A Plea for Captain John Brown” and his Journal, he mentions the close relations that Brown formed with the Native Americans. On December 3, 1859, he writes, “When I heard of John Brown and his wife weeping at length, it was as if the rocks sweated.” Thoreau is acutely aware that Brown is dying as the year is dying. On November 15 he writes about the plentiful seeds of the white pine and shagbarks, which “still hung on the trees, though most had fallen.” He makes this observation in the middle of his complaint that Massachusetts is “not taking any steps for the defense of her citizens who are likely to be carried to Virginia as witnesses, and exposed to the violence of a slaveholding mob.” On November 28, in his greatest rush of words about Brown’s heroism in the face of an unheroic and prosaic North, he pauses to say, “This has been a very pleasant month, with quite a few Indian-summer days.” The people around Thoreau are reactionaries, and the writer battles daily with impatience and rage; but Brown and nature maintain their serenity, acceptance, faith, and sanity.9

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 At the end of “The Last Days of John Brown,” Thoreau writes that Brown “is no longer working in secret. He works in public, and in the clearest light that shines on this land.”10 The paragraph says nothing about Brown’s actual death but refers to “the day of his translation.”11 Like the animals and the trees, he has been translated to a higher heaven and has earned his immortality.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 If Thoreau had lived through the Civil War, what would he have thought about Emancipation, the uptick in Union aggressions and victories, and the fact that so many Union men fought and died courageously for a principle? Would he have felt that the buried seeds of John Brown and his men had borne good fruit? Certainly Emerson believed so. But during Thoreau’s final months and the first year of the war, he remained skeptical. He wrote nothing in his Journal about the war, mentioning it only in a letter to his friend Franklin Sanborn, written from Minnesota. “I am not even so well informed as to the progress of the war as you suppose,” he tells Sanborn, saying he’d only seen one eastern paper, the abolitionist Tribune, during the past five weeks. “The people of Minnesota have seemed to me more cold—to feel less implicated in this war than the people of Massachusetts,” here exhibits a touch of pride in his home state. He does mention, however, that recently he had heard much weeping when the Union volunteers left the Minnesota town of Redwing, though he ironically notes that there was little weeping when the regulars were sent out to fight the Native Americans. The remainder of his letter describes his visit to the Lower Sioux Agency.12

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Botany predominated in Thoreau’s thoughts during the last year of his life. In a March 12, 1862, response to an admirer named Myron Benton, he declares, “If I were to live, I should have much to report on Natural History generally.”13 The only mention of Brown appears in March 30, 1862, letter to Thoreau written by his New Bedford friend Daniel Ricketson, a member of the Society of Friends: “Two young men in a buggy-wagon have just driven up the road singing in very sonorous strains the ‘John Brown’ chorus. I wish its pathetic and heart-stirring appeals could reach the inward ears of Congress and the President.”14 At this point Thoreau could no longer answer letters and depended on Sophia to write back to his correspondents. Though she was as committed an abolitionist as the Quaker Ricketson was, her letter makes no mention of Brown or his song.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In my view, however, Thoreau’s passionate feelings about Brown and his men did not simply vanish but were translated into his last great natural history passion: seeds. This enthusiasm was not new; a fascination with seeds, both actual and symbolic, is evident in much of his work—for instance, in Walden. As I have pointed out, seed imagery permeates the four nature essays I’ve discussed in this chapter as well as the three Brown essays. But by the end of his life, Thoreau’s lifelong fascination with seeds had blossomed into powerful insight and understanding. In fact, much of his writings about seeds and forest trees anticipated Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which was published in the United States in 1860.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The essay “The Succession of Forest Trees” was culled from a work that Thoreau didn’t live to complete, The Dispersion of Seeds.15 For many years, scholars did not take Thoreau’s science seriously. Thus, as the environmental historian Laura Dassow Walls explains, “the text in which he most fully negotiated the difficult passage between poetry and science [fell] between them into obscurity.”16 This situation has changed in the past few decades. The scientific accuracy of his late work is now generally accepted, and his detailed observations on flowering and leaf-out times, bird arrival dates, and ice-out dates are being used to track climate change in eastern Massachusetts. The scholar Kristen Case writes, “This reassessment of Thoreau’s late writings has been central to the emergence of the ecocritical approach to literature in the past two decades.”17 Nonetheless, though “Succession” is currently receiving attention as a work of natural history, it has not till now been grouped with Thoreau’s late prophetic essays or linked to his writings about John Brown.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 In September 1860, almost a year after Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Thoreau presented “Succession” as a lecture to the Middlesex Agricultural Society in a gathering at the Concord Town Hall. He opened by facetiously announcing, “Every man is entitled to come to Cattle-shows,” an echo of the mock-humble opening to “A Plea for Captain John Brown”: “I trust you will pardon me for being here.”18 In both instances he then moved into prophecy.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 In “Succession,” the birth of trees is predicated on the dying of forests and animals. Therefore, along with the prophet-naturalist speaker, nature is the hero of the essay. Like the Brown essays, “Succession” has a strong first-person narrator. Walls notes, “Throughout . . . he insists on foregrounding his own role as agent, both in the field and at the podium.”19 Thoreau begins with images of biblical prophecy such as the walking staff and the ram’s horn and says, “Let me lead you back into your wood-lots again.”20 Noting that the farmers in his audience may have fantastic beliefs about why pine woods spring up when hardwoods are cut down and vice versa, he tells them that he has come before them to be their eyes and truth bearer. The most obvious fact, he tells them, is the most remarkable: though slips and cuttings may be used in orchards, in nature all trees come from seeds. The role of the prophet “remains only to show how the seed is transported from where it grows to where it is planted.”21

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Thoreau begins with the pines, explaining that their seed is physically designed so that, “when committed to the wind, . . . it may transport the seed and extend the range of the species.”22 This doesn’t just anticipate Darwin, but also shows the heroic qualities of nature. Seeds are nature’s avatars and children; they fly off as bravely and cheerfully as the autumn leaves and Brown’s men do, most of them to their death. Many will be digested by animals or will fall on infertile ground; others will sprout seedlings that will be choked out in their first years. He tells the audience that acorns and other nuts, carried by birds and quadrupeds, may also sprout in pine woods. With the right kind of vision, a visitor may see the little oaks among the pines. When the pine forest is cut down—killed—what was obvious only to Thoreau will become apparent to all. This destruction recalls his descriptions in “Huckleberries.” When woods are cut down or burned, bushes spring up to feed birds and people. So humankind is made to participate in nature’s resurrection.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Only Thoreau, the prophet of nature, can interpret this parable of seeds for his audience. One species takes a risk for the sake of its own kind, while another heroically offers its life for the sake of another species. “We send a party of woodchoppers to cut down the pines, and so rescue an oak forest.”23 Nature’s creatures do similar work. “The squirrel was then engaged in accomplishing two objects, to wit, laying up a store of Winter food for itself, and planting a hickory wood for all creation.”24 The squirrel is nature’s emissary: its death can propagate an entire forest. This gives the squirrel a semi-divine autonomy so it can accomplish nature’s ends. If the squirrel is killed by an animal or human predator, a brave troop of hardwoods will spring up. Here the images in “Succession” are reminiscent of those in “Autumnal Tints” and “A Plea for Captain John Brown.” The little hardwoods planted by the martyred squirrels will also die if the pines are not cut down, but “they do better for a few years under their shelter than they would anywhere else.”25 The pines become the oaks’ nurses. The pines die after fulfilling their destiny, having given their lives for a new species.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Thoreau speaks of how the British use pine woods as a nursery for young oak trees, “merely adopting the method of Nature, which she long ago made patent to all.”26 Elsewhere he repeats the image, calling nature the “patent office at the seat of government of the universe.”27 He uses the language of agriculture prophetically. “So when we experiment in planting forests, we find ourselves at last doing as Nature does. Would it not be well to consult with Nature at the outset? for she is the most extensive and experienced planter of us all.”28

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Thoreau shares the parable of a squirrel hunter, who found a walnut tree “which bore particularly good nuts, but in going to gather them one Fall, he found that he had been anticipated by a family of a dozen red squirrels.” The tree was hollow and the hunter gathered “a bushel and three pecks . . . and they supplied him and his family for the Winter.”29 Human and squirrel become equal as they vie for the same winter store. The man may have come to kill squirrels but instead discovers they have left him a great bounty.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 After disproving the notion that acorns and other nuts can lie dormant in pine woods for an indefinite period and still maintain their vitality, Thoreau goes on to show how certain small seeds do lie dormant in the soil for centuries, germinating when they finally have the opportunity. He tells his listeners about what he found when the Hunt House in Concord was taken down. Noticing that the date 1703 was etched into the chimney, he concluded that it was left from the newer part of the house and guessed that the other section could have been up to a half century older. When the cellar was uncovered, several unknown weeds sprouted, as did tobacco, which was once cultivated in the area. “The cellar had been filled up this year, and four of those plants, including the tobacco, are now again extinct in that locality.”30 Nature, using man as her agent, operates in slow time, letting centuries lapse between dying and rebirth, but only her existence makes that rebirth a possibility.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 The essay nears its close with the anecdote of the Poitrine jaune grosse, the giant yellow squash Thoreau grew from the French seeds of a plant indigenous to America. Each squash ended up weighing hundreds of pounds, and a man who bought one of them planned to sell the seeds for ten cents apiece. Thoreau tells his listeners they grew “in that corner of my garden,” which, as we begin to understand, welcomes the prophetic seeds of nature. Eventually, the entire garden is filled with crops, representing a mystical transformation of the private garden of his mind to all of nature. Emphasizing the mysticism of nature, more incomprehensible through vigorous study and great reverence than through idle supposition, he shows us the miracle of the seed. “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed . . . Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”31 Here he echoes his expectations for John Brown, now moved from the temporal to the eternal rhythms of nature.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Case notes, “We have only fairly recently begun to realize (or perhaps remember) something that Thoreau learned in the course of his documenting his increasingly intimate relation to the natural world: that close observation is a mode of participating, that we are part of the world we would know.”32 If Thoreau’s contemporaries had been able to perceive nature in a like manner, the whole world would be recognized as the garden it is. At the end of “Succession,” he says, “Surely men love darkness better than light,” prophetic language that echoes all the late essays.33 Significantly, even though he concludes in the voice of the jeremiad, the final word in the last essay he composed is “light.” Just as the blessed in Dante’s paradise exist at the source of all light,34 a proper transcendental dying is a stepping into the light, be it the triumphant sunrise that concludes Walden,35 the light that dances with the scarlet oak leaves,36 the light the wild apple springs joyfully into,37 moonlight on a summer night,38 the “morning light” of an autumn afternoon,39 the minute blossoms of the white pine pointing toward the light of heaven,40 or the immortal John Brown working in public “in the clearest light that shines on this land.”41 The dark of the grave and of the minds of little men is the absence of light, but the pure idea, the graceful procession of the seasons, the life laid down for a principle are a yearning into the light. The audience at the Middlesex Agricultural Society, which did not recognize the heroic natural world, doomed itself to a cowardly darkness; yet they, too, could have lived fully and died heroically into nature so that others might have striven into that light.


  1. 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0
  2. Philip Cafaro, Thoreau’s Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006), 188–89.

  3. 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Henry David Thoreau, Collected Essays and Poems, ed. Elizabeth Hall Witherell (New York: Library of America, 2001), 416.

  4. 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Ibid.

  5. 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Reynolds, John Brown Abolitionist, 432.

  6. 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Thoreau, Collected, 414.

  7. 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Ibid., 420.

  8. 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Ibid., 422.

  9. 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Ibid., 428.

  10. 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Thoreau Journal, eds. Torrey and Allen, 12: 400–58.

  11. 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Thoreau, Collected, 428.

  12. 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Ibid., 428.

  13. 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Henry David Thoreau, June 25, 1861 letter to Franklin Sanborn, in The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode (New York: New York University Press, 1958), 618–19.

  14. 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Henry David Thoreau, letter to Myron Benton, March 12, 1862, in ibid., 641.

  15. 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Daniel Ricketson, letter to Henry David Thoreau, March 30, 1862, in Daniel Ricketson and His Friends, ed. Anna Ricketson and Walton Ricketson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1902), 644.

  16. 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 The manuscript is now available under the title Faith in a Seed, ed. Bradley P. Dean (1993). Henry David Thoreau, Faith in a Seed, ed. Bradley P. Dean (Washington D.C.: Island Press, 1993).

  17. 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Laura Dassow Walls, Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth Century Natural Science (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 200.

  18. 39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Kristen Case, “Thoreau’s Radical Empiricism: The Kalendar, Pragmatism, and Science,” in Specq et al., Thoreauvian Modernities, 187.

  19. 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Thoreau, Collected, 429, 396.

  20. 41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Walls, Seeing New Worlds, 203.

  21. 42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Thoreau, Collected, 430.

  22. 43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Ibid.

  23. 44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Ibid., 431.

  24. 45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Ibid., 436.

  25. 46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 Ibid., 434.

  26. 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Ibid., 435.

  27. 48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Ibid., 436.

  28. 49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Ibid., 431.

  29. 50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 Ibid., 438.

  30. 51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 Ibid., 439.

  31. 52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 Ibid., 442.

  32. 53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 Ibid.

  33. 54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 Case, “Thoreau’s Radical Empiricism,” 196.

  34. 55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 Thoreau, Collected, 443.

  35. 56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 Dante, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII: 140-45, trans. John D. Sinclair (London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1948), 485.

  36. 57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 Thoreau, Walden, 587.

  37. 58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 Thoreau, Collected, 388.

  38. 59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 Ibid., 455.

  39. 60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 PJ3: 260.

  40. 61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 Thoreau, Collected, 255.

  41. 62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 Ibid., 253.

  42. 63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 Ibid., 428.

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Source: https://commons.digitalthoreau.org/tsag2016/friday-july-8/john-brown-and-the-succession-of-forest-trees/