Friday, August 1, 2014

If you go to the woods today...

When is a 'wood' a 'forest'? Etymologically speaking when a wood had been put aside. It has either been put aside, in general, as a contrast with civilization or put aside for a particular purpose - a sacred haunt or, most notably, in Europe, as a site for kingly hunting where wildlife was preserved in order that it might be available to be killed.

Either way the 'forest' has stood as a mirroring of human concern - and its image has metamorphosed as those concerns - the constructs and needs of civilisation - have changed. If in 1600, the appropriately named John Manwood, can seek to define the forest in terms of a kingly prerogative (aware of its erosion) by 1800 the forest has become a utility to be preserved not for its royal, symbolic reality but for its economic value (in accounts that can eliminate all reference to its wildlife at all). An account that Manwood, if he had understood it at all, would have found monstrous.

In its turn this 'Enlightenment' utilitarian approach can be challenged by the Brothers Grimm's collection of fairytales, the vast majority of which embrace a forest within their narrative, where the forest becomes a place of preservation of the 'primitive' origins of language from which a unified German volk might emerge.

And so on and so forth...

Robert Pogue Harrison's 'Forests; The Shadow of Civilization' is a brilliant essay exploring this unfolding pattern of change in the Western tradition from the Epic of Gilgamesh through to the modern era.

It transcribes a history of loss from forests as locations of tragic encounter to forests where the dominant mode of relationship is irony (the framing is imaginatively appropriated from Vico) - from places of awe to fragile places of refreshment - and leaves as an open question whether such fragile claims could ever be a sufficient defence of the forest against human possessiveness? To which the answer must be no.

The most compelling part of the book is the recognition that we are 'necessarily' estranged from nature by our possession of language that differentiates us, and which births an ability to project ourselves beyond our place, and ultimately beyond death. This estrangement need not necessarily, however, unbalance our relationship with nature. It might be the beginning of a faithful fathoming of who we are in relationship to nature and how it might rightly teach us our boundaries and limits.

There is a wonderful exploration of Thoreau in this regard who, in this account, goes to Walden Pond not to lose himself in nature nor to displace him from civilization but as an experiment in learning how to recognise who one is in one's place - and to ground that in experience rather than speculation. He tells of how Thoreau has heard that Walden Pond is 'bottomless' (said in tones of awe) and so he sets to measuring it - and finds it unusually deep (for so small a stretch of water) at exactly 102 metres! It acts as an apt parable of his task to take nothing on faith and be instructed by an experience of place in its essentials.

That this was, and is, a road not travelled is a root of our difficulty. As to is an unwillingness to learn from nature that we are to die. We prefer to 'imagine' that we 'know' our ecology rather than learn from it; and, because we are gifted with language, our ability to fantasise a life without limits knows no limit. Ecology teaches us that we, everything, dies, within limits. It is a lesson we are noticeably unwilling to learn.

But is this account of, at best, an accommodated estrangement with a nature from which we learn our finitude enough? Enough as an account of who we might be and enough as an encouragement and discipline to live more lightly on the earth.

Sadly, I expect not and what struck me ultimately about this beautiful, thought provoking essay, was how bound it was to a particular understanding of the Western tradition - one with its roots in the very Enlightenment that it so deftly criticises. Knowing remains ultimately divorced from being - and that being is noticeably confined within the envelope of skin that is a presumed human.

In a casual sentence he gives the game away by raising the 'spectre' of mysticism only to dismiss it as any kind of solution. Now 'mysticism' comes in many guises. One, whose author would have never acknowledged it as such, comes to mind that may have much to say about not healing through estrangement but healing that very estrangement itself - namely Goethe (and I do not suppose you can get more canonically Western than him) and his science. This visionary science precisely invites you to a new way of seeing that places you within the unfolding language of nature. For it consciousness is prior of which all else is a modality and the boundaries between those modes - natural and human - are porous. That we have the capacity to be estranged is the fate of being human but the healing of that estrangement is at the root of every sacred tradition:- Goethe's enlightened paganism simply being one of them. It invites you to recognise that the classic 'enlightenment' distinction between 'subject' and 'object' is a fiction (useful but still fictive) and reality is a multi-dimensional patterning of one subject.

Thoreau is an exemplar of going to listen to nature and learning his lessons well but he would have listened more deeply yet if he had paid more attention to what it might mean to listen to and beyond himself such that his listening grew ever more porous to the language of nature (of which human language is not a part but a sub set) because in origin 'he' and 'it' were one. 

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