This is a story about the rise of ecology and our belief in the balance of nature. How the idea of the superorganism was invented, how it inspired us, and how it wasn’t even true.
Cowboys and superorganisms
In the 1890’s, an ecologist named Frederic Clements set out on horse and mule train to explore the wilderness state of Nebraska. The Indian wars had recently come to an end, opening the region to scientific study. Clements saw how the old way of life in these parts, the trails, camps and fields, abandoned because of the fighting, had been re-claimed by wild vegetation. This sparked an idea that would revolutionise the science of ecology. Clements overturned the paradigm of static, unchanging vegetation, with his theory of succession, the idea that ecological communities change over time in response to disturbance through a highly deterministic and predictable process called “succession”.
Frederic Clements, founding father of superorganismic succession
(This is part 2 of a 2-part post where a Jungian psychological approach is taken to analysing the history of the West’s relationship with the Amazon rainforest. I recommend you read part 1 if you have not already done so.)
In the late 19th century thinkers like Muir and Thoreau fused insights from Eastern philosophy, Romanticism and natural science, sparking a public interest in ecosystems as spiritual and leisurely places. President Roosevelt established the National Parks system, officially designating certain landscapes as protected wilderness. Designations were partly pragmatic decisions to conserve resources but perhaps more importantly made on a landscapes ability to ignite the feeling of awe. Yellowstone National Park was the first wilderness protected area in the world, but the model spread rapidly across the globe making its way to the Amazon. From this combination of ideas rose the applied science of biological conservation. In the same way Amazonia became the archetypal frontier to Imperial expansionists due to its size and vegetative fecundity, it became the ultimate wilderness in need of protection, in the minds of the conservationists.
Roosevelt and Muir stand on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park (1906).
Humans throughout history have dedicated immense amounts of energy to understanding forests. When we think of human-forest interactions, often cited are the direct products we take from forests, the indirect benefits environmental services and the issues of sustainability. Yet rarely mentioned is the psychological relationship we have with the forests and the potential implications on forest management. In this blog I take a mythological Jungian approach in analysing the history of Tropical Palaeoecology, so we might better understand the unique psychological link that the West shares with Amazonia. This blog is part 1 of 2. It is a briefing of my ideas and as a result touches only shallowly on the highlights of my thinking. I hope to go deeper into these thoughts in future blogs.
The way we perceive the world has been shaped by our evolutionary history within and later outside of the forest environment. In negotiating trees, we started to see in three dimensions, so we would not fall from branches. It was only when leaving the forest that we broke free of our primate shackles, stood upright and became Homo sapiens. As a result, the dualistic nature of the forest as both a nurturer and tyrant are burnt deep into our subconscious.