Climax Ecology: Learning to See the Forest for the Trees

The theory of "climax ecology" may be out of favor these days, but it's still a helpful way to understand the history of sexuality in cinema

by Tony Comstock

In the course of my education I took two graduate seminars. One was on postmodern art history, and the other was on the ecology of the Siskiyou Mountains.

I took the art history seminar because at the time I was making grid-based collages of the Cold War presidents composed of thousands of postage-stamp sized news photographs from their administrations, and one of my art professors suggested I might enjoy the class. Sadly, the only thing I really remember is that the name "Foucault" came up a lot and that I didn't like the class very much.

Mt. Ashland, 7533', the highest peak in the Siskiyou range, photo credit SusanBunny.

I took the other class because I did a lot of hunting and fishing in the Siskiyou Mountains, and I thought if I better understood the ecology of my hunting and fishing grounds, it might help me find more fish and birds.

"Ecology of the Siskiyou Mountains" was taught by Tom Atzet. At the time he was the ecologist for the Siskiyou National Forest, which straddles the western border between Oregon and California.

Climax Ecology is a theory first forwarded by ecologist Frederic Clements (1874-1945). It posits that given particulars of soil type, moisture, elevation, etc. the flora of a given area will, over time, tend towards a mature "climax state", with plants of various sizes, forms, and functions fitting together in a way most adapted to the conditions of the area. As a theory, Climax Ecology fell out of favor in the first half of the 20th century, but it enjoyed a resurgence in the '80s and '90s, and Tom Atzet was a part of that revival.

Tom identified six such ecologies in the Siskiyou Mountains, each with a particular set of conditions and elevation, and named for the dominant tree species of each ecology in its climax state: Tan Oak, Ponderosa Pine, Jeffrey Pine, Douglas Fir, Noble Fir, and Hemlock.

Now here's why I find Climax Ecology helpful in understanding sexuality in cinema, and what happened during the periods from (roughly) 1968-1975 and then again from 1999-2006.

In his course, Tom put a big emphasis on the idea that you can't know which ecology you're observing merely from a cursory glance at the flora. The reason is because at the moment of your observation, the area that you are in may not be in its climax state.

His favorite example was the high meadows of the Siskiyou, which he liked to remind us weren't actually meadows at all--they were hemlock forests that only looked like meadows because they had been cleared many decades earlier to graze sheep. Now that the sheep were gone, these meadows would revert (slowly, hemlock only grows above 6,000 feet) to the forests they once were.

Over and over again, Tom cautioned us not to confuse "clearing events"--fire, disease, sheep grazing--with wholesale changes in the ecology itself. He gave us a suite of observational tools to see through whatever the current flora might be, and apprehend the underlying ecological conditions that would determine the climax state.

And it is through this lens that I have come to understand why explicit sexuality became prominent in cinema in the late '60s and early '70s, only to be driven back to the margins; and then became prominent again in the first half of the first decade of this century, only to be driven to the margins again.

I believe that both periods can be understood as cultural "clearing events."

In a mature forest, resources of sunlight, air, water, and nutrients are apportioned in a predictable way. For example, the dominant tree species get first dibs on sunlight, while the trees, shrubs, herbs, and grasses in the understory have evolved to survive on whatever filters down through the canopy.

But after a clearing event--a fire, for example--all sorts of novel things can happen. With unrestricted access to sunlight and water, understory plants may grow faster or larger, or both. They may even come to temporarily dominate a landscape, as with the grasses in the high meadows of the Siskiyou Mountains.

But what Climax Ecology says is that this can't last. As long as the clearing event hasn't actually changed the underlying ecological conditions, then the once-dominant species will eventually become dominant again, and the understory species will be pushed back into their normal niches.

Using that point of view, I see the periods of 1968 to 1975 and 1999 to 2006 as the aftermaths of socio-economic clearing events, where the normal apportionment of the resources needed to make and market films was disrupted. This disturbance allowed, for a short time, what appeared to be novel forms of explicit sexuality in cinema to flourish.

But in fact, our underlying socio-economic ecology remained largely unchanged, and these novel forms either reverted to their normal state (and were once again relegated to small niches at the very margins of creativity, culture, and commerce,) or were denied the resources they needed to survive, and disappeared altogether.

In the next post we'll will look at what I think are important events in sex, law, and cinema leading up to the period of 1968 to 1975. If you like, think of this as leaf litter collecting on the forest floor, waiting for someone to strike a match.

Tony Comstock is a documentary filmmaker whose company, Comstock Films, specializes in erotic documentaries.