I'M NOT SURE WHETHER to be angry or relieved at having just now discovered Robert Pogue Harrison's book Forests: In the Shadow of Civilization. Angry because two decades have passed since it was first published. Relieved because I came across it in the course of actual research, and felt compelled to read it immediately. If I'd stumbled onto it in a more meandering frame of mind, I might have been distracted, I might have only added it to a wish list or abandoned it to one of my unread stacks. As it happens, the book arrived at my door just as I was trying very hard to understand what trees and forests mean to our culture. I inhaled it in two days.
I contacted Harrison at Stanford University, where he has been teaching since 1985, to ask if he would consider an interview because I felt Forests — a millennia-spanning literary history of deforestation — deserves a new audience in this our current era of rapid deforestation, especially among those of us who were too young or too distracted to have caught it the first time around. What follows is my conversation with Professor Harrison about forests and the unique role they have played in the Western imagination.
Ross Andersen: In your book you give an interesting psychological account of the human impulse towards deforestation, an impulse that you claim stems from our frustration with mortality. According to your account, this impulse first appears in one of the primary documents of human culture: the Epic of Gilgamesh. Can you comment?
Robert Pogue Harrison: The existence of the Epic of Gilgamesh was actually unknown for millennia, until it was discovered in the 19th century, when the bulk of Sumerian culture was first uncovered in modern-day Iraq. So I wouldn't say that the epic had a direct causal influence on our Western attitudes towards forests. But it is uncanny how much of the psychological relationship between Western culture and nature — in particular forests — is summarized by that epic. In my reading of it, the epic stands for the angst or dread we have within the walls of civilization, and the hero Gilgamesh embodies that angst in many ways. In fact, Gilgamesh's first antagonist is the forest; he sets out to slay the forest demon Humbaba, the poetic stand-in for the cedar forests of faraway lands.
If you get into the history of it, it turns out that the Sumerians originally went to nearby Elam for lumber, which is towards Persia, but they quickly deforested that region, and so to get lumber they had to go far up into the mountains of Lebanon to these cedar forests, which were fiercely defended by local tribes. A king like Gilgamesh, who was a legendary figure but also a real king, could make quite a name for himself by successfully undertaking the very dangerous expedition up to the Lebanese mountains to log those cedars, before ferrying them back on the river between the mountains and the city.
That's the economic analysis of why a forest expedition would be enticing for a king in that particular time and place, but given that the Epic of Gilgamesh is a literary work, it also probes the psychology of this king, this founder of the walls of Uruk. He confesses that he's in this state of dread because he realizes that the more he's enclosed within his civic walls, the more he's confronted with the fact of his own mortality. This actually hit home...read more