Deforestation in a Civilized World

By Ross AndersenJuly 7, 2012

Deforestation in a Civilized World

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 for him as he watched bodies floating outside the city walls, in funeral processions upon the river, much as the deforested trees floated down from Lebanon.

Gilgamesh revolts against death, and against the fact that he's not a god; at a certain point he says: "Man is not like the gods, he cannot reach the heavens; nor is he like the Earth that extends widely in a horizontal way." There's this suggestion in the epic that one of the reasons he undertakes the forest expedition is to find a way to take vengeance on the forests. There's this sense that nature takes part in this ever-renewing cycle of regeneration that human beings in their mortality are denied. And I think that if you look at the Western imagination, the forest has always represented regeneration in a way that contrasted with the mortality of humans; you can see a hint of vengeance in the way that we go about physically assaulting the resources of the earth, particularly the forests. I can't really tell you why that is, but you see it in the Amazon today where there's this wanton sort of destruction that can't be accounted for with economic motivations. The Epic of Gilgamesh, to me, probes the sources of this psychological anguish that projects itself onto nature, and in particular onto the forests.

RA: Can you explain how the Enlightenment, the birth and spread of rationality in the West that's typically regarded as a positive development, has put humanity at odds with forests?

RPH: First off, even the use of the word 'enlightenment' tells us that we're dealing with a movement that prides itself on being "in the light," or "illumination” — everything that the forest, as a place of darkness, seems to militate against. And so there would seem to be a kind of natural antagonism between the place of enlightenment, which is typically the city or the modern metropolis, and this fringe of darkness on the edge of the city. In that dark, sylvan place, the principles of reason don't really apply, because it's a place where ancient superstitions and pre-enlightenment myths and practices still persist.

One of the enlightenment thinkers that I analyze in the book is René Descartes, who, in his Discourse on the Method, makes it clear that if you're lost in the forest, the first thing you need to do is find your way out, because the exercise of reason needs a flat plane, an open space, where mathematical geometry can really flourish and thrive. The forest is always a place of confusion and error and wandering. For Descartes, who's rightly considered the founder of Western rationalism, the whole point of Discourse on the Method is to find a method of scientific research that allows you to avoid falling into error, and it's no surprise that he chose the forest as his metaphorical state of confusion. When you're in a forest, you're always going astray, and so in many ways it's natural for the Enlightenment to see the forest, at least symbolically, as a place of otherness.

RA: Your book takes a panoramic view of forests and specifically of the way forests are depicted in culture. I was surprised that film, which has become such an influential cultural medium, wasn't represented in the book, especially since it does branch out into non-textual or non-literary forms like architecture. Are there any depictions of forests in film that you see as particularly interesting?

RPH: I've been thinking about that and it strikes me that you're right; my book could have been fruitfully enhanced if there had been some consideration of the way that forests have been depicted in the history of cinema. Of course in thinking about your question, many of the movies that come to mind were released after I published my book. The forests in The Lord of The Rings, for instance, with the personification and animation of trees, with the heroic stance of the forests against the forces of evil, would have been very fruitful for me to analyze.

There are a number of other movies that deal with forests in interesting ways: The Wizard of Oz, Deliverance, and so forth. Deliverance is actually a quite stereotypical depiction of forests as a place of nature, but also a place of trial where you test your manhood — a place where you encounter evil forces or perverse forces. In that regard, it participates in a long tradition of Western stories and myths where the forest is seen as a place for the hero to test himself. Avatar is probably the most recent forest depicted in cinema, and in it we're a long way away from the forest as a place of darkness, and of the devil, and of outlaws. In Avatar the forest has, in some sense, been rehabilitated; it represents the bounty of nature, and its inhabitants represent the forces of good rather than bad.

One interesting cinematic treatment of the forest takes place in the television series “Twin Peaks,” where there's this Douglas Fir forest always lurking in the background of the narrative. David Lynch does an excellent job of bringing the forest into that movie, and of correlating the forest to the undergrowth of the human, or social, psyche of the small town of Twin Peaks. It's a typical David Lynch aesthetic where he's showing what seems to be an innocent surface — in this case the late fifties or early sixties, when America was still kind of self-deluded and naïve. But he's always probing this perverse undercurrent of violence that lies underneath a surface of benevolence, and the forest is correlated to the psychic underworld of this community.

RA: Forests really covers a lot of the foundational mythology of Western civilization, but it doesn't have much to say about Judeo-Christian mythology. In your book Gardens, you give the Book of Genesis an extended treatment, so I know you're not generally dismissive of those texts. Do the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have anything interesting to say about forests?

RPH: There's not very much about the forests in the New Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures do mention the sacred groves of the Gentile peoples, though not in a flattering way. In fact, Yahweh enjoins his people to burn down the sacred groves wherever they find them, because as we know he's a jealous god. The fact that the desert is the place of the monotheistic, Judaic god makes the Old Testament suspicious of the forest; forests are the places of the non-Jewish peoples like the Greeks or the Pagans with their gods of the woods and so forth. There is a distinct hostility toward what they called "the groves."

And while there's not much in the New Testament about forests, Christianity has a very interesting historical relationship to the forest. What was the desert for the Hebrew peoples becomes, for Christians, the forest; in other words, it's a place beyond the bounds of human habitation, and it's a place where many of the hermits and the saints would go in order to have a more intimate communion with God. And so you have this duality where the forest is the place of the outlaw or the pagan. Christians were very suspicious of the forest because they saw it as a haven or stronghold for a paganism they felt had not been sufficiently wiped out. At the same time there are a ton of hagiographical stories about saints going into the forest in order to find God, and they do find God in their own way there.

But for the most part, the Christian imagination takes its idea of the forest from Aristotle, who had this concept of unformed matter, hyle in Greek and sylva in Latin. For some reason Aristotle used sylva, the Greek word for forests, to designate primal matter, matter that has not yet gained form. Therefore, form is good, matter bad. It's not really that simple for Aristotle, but in some sense for him, it's only when matter enters into form that the good is realized. When the Christians took over and conjugated this Aristotlean notion of prime matter and form, the forest, the sylva, becomes associated with darkness, sin, perdition, and alienation from God — because God is obviously a God of the heavens, and the forests obscure our view of heaven.

In Christianity there's a long tradition of forests as a place of error that you need to get out of in order to achieve salvation, and that's why Dante's Divine Comedy, for example, begins in a dark forest. That dark forest is the allegory of the soul's state of sinfulness and error, although what's quite interesting is that while the Divine Comedy begins in a dark forest, after the pilgrim descends through the nine circles of hell, and then climbs the seven terraces of purgatory, he ends up in the Garden of Eden, which is not a dark forest, but an ancient forest. It's a sacred forest, but the difference between the sacred forest and the dark forest from the Inferno is that there are no more wild beasts in the Edenic forests. The three beasts that threatened Dante in the Inferno — the she-wolf, the lion, and the leopard — are allegories for wilderness and savagery, and in the Edenic garden, they've disappeared. There's a kind of domestication of the forest between the Inferno and the top of Purgatory; the ancient forest of Eden has become a kind of park under the jurisdiction of the City of God.

What's interesting is that when you get to the final reaches of paradise, the dwelling place of the blessed is compared to a celestial rose, and so you have this progressive sublimation of the forest from dark, savage forest to redeemed, sacred forest, to finally a kind of rose, a cultivated rose. There's this metamorphosis that takes place with the trope of the forest, which is typical of what happens in forests: the logic of contradiction or distinction always goes astray in these depictions. Forests are never just evil; they are evil and enchanted, they're places where you go and get lost, but they're also places where you go and find yourself; they’re places of sin, but they're also places of redemption. And so there's this Western logic of distinction and opposition that gets undone when the forests are the scene of literature, or philosophy, or religion.

RA: Your book, particularly the end of it, criticizes some of the basic ideas that motivate environmentalism and ecology. In particular you argue that when we conceive of deforestation as "loss of wildlife habitat," or "loss of nature," or "loss of biodiversity," we're not capturing the full loss that we face. First of all, what is the extent of that loss, and in your view has ecology changed much in the past twenty years?

RPH: That's a good question. When I'm critical of modern approaches to ecology, I'm really trying to remind my reader of the long relationship that Western civilization has had to these forests that define the fringe of its place of habitation, and that this relationship is one that has a rich history of symbolism and imagination and myth and literature. So much of the Western imagination has projected itself into this space that when you lose a forest, you're losing more than just the natural phenomenon or biodiversity; you're also losing the great strongholds of cultural memory.

In some ways it's analogous to that famous scene in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, where he wants to recollect this particular period of his childhood, but he can't do anything with his voluntary memory. Then, by chance, he goes to tea where he has a Madeleine, this little French pastry, and the taste and flavor of the Madeleine liberates his involuntary memory, and the whole period of his childhood rushes back to his mind. It took this thing, this pastry, to trigger the memory, and that tells me that memory is not something in our psyches, in some invisible space inside our heads. Our cultural memory is embodied in things, in buildings, in landscapes, in statutes and cemeteries and all sorts of places, and the forest is a place that holds very deep memories for the human psyche. If we lose those forests, we're going to lose access to that memory.

Ecologists who insist only on the material or biological losses that take place when we lose forests aren't doing justice to the idea that there's an equally important cultural archive at stake. When I go into the forest, I know that there are certain psychic things that happen to me, subtle or not subtle, and if these forests aren't there, I'll no longer know how to access them.

RA: You close Forests with a long meditation on the work of the Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto. One gets the impression that you see Zanzotto, and other poets, as our last, endangered vessels of the poetic wisdom stored in our ideas about forests. You argue that poets perpetuate the cultural ecology of forests. Sadly, Andrea Zanzotto passed away last fall. Has anyone emerged to replace him? Among the new poets, is there someone you regard as equally sensitive to forests?

RPH: There aren't many that come to mind, but I don't know all the poets writing over that period of time, even in English, to say nothing of other languages. I wouldn't want to sound peremptory, because my not knowing of many probably has more to do with my own limited reach than a dearth of good poetry about forests.

Susan Stewart is an American poet who wrote a book called The Forest. It was published a year after mine, and it confirms the thesis of my book, which is that there's a certain kind of poetic imagination that is intimately linked to the forest. So she's someone I would point to. Unfortunately the American poet A.R. Ammons also died recently; he was a wonderful poet of the forests. There's also W.S. Merwin; he's a great poet of the forest and of gardens, too. He is very sensitive to the biotic, and anyone sensitive to the biotic tends to be very sensitive to the forest, because forests are these exuberant places of life and so they're greatly cherished by people who declare their fundamental allegiance to life. It's actually the opposite of Gilgamesh, whose fundamental allegiance is to death even though he's revolting against it; he brings about all of this destruction because he's externalizing or projecting his own inner nihilism onto the natural world. Where people become caretakers of the earth, rather than consumers or destroyers of it, forests always take on a certain halo of sacrality, because they are such incredible recesses of life.

My fear is that the rapidity with which our society is losing daily contact with the natural world will make it more and more unlikely that we will have poets of the forest like Zanzotto or Merwin or Susan Stewart, who grew up on a farm in the midst of Pennsylvania's forests. The more our worlds are detached and abstracted from nature in this daily way, the more I fear that poets will invoke the forests in only the most superficial of ways, without the kind of full-bodied authority that a lived relationship to the forest creates.

RA: You actually end your introduction to Forests on a similar note. You visit Zanzotto's forest in Italy, where you discover that it "in its enduring antiquity is the correlate of the poet's memory and that, once its remnants are gone, the poet will likely fall into oblivion." Have we edged closer to that oblivion in these past twenty years?

RPH: It's tough to answer that question, and it's tough to know whether an honest answer would be sociological or poetic. All I can say is that when I went to visit Zanzotto, which was many years before I embarked upon the writing of Forests, it was interesting how natural it was for him to take someone who had come from afar, someone who had come to see a poet in his abode, into the woods where he would say "all this is new growth, it's really not interesting at all," and then deeper into the forest to the small remnant of old growth in the mountains there. Even though he wasn't saying anything about poetry, he was showing me this place, and without his saying it, it became clear to me that this was the matrix of his poetry, the incubator of it. His poetry had a natural relationship to that old growth, and that's what got me started with this idea about the connection between forests and the Western imagination. These old growth forests have gotten increasingly rare in the twenty years since my book was published; they're harder and harder to access, and fewer people live in daily contact with them. I would have to assume that this doesn't bode well for the kind of poetry that would represent a bastion of deep cultural memory, poetry of deep time, which has always been associated with old growth forests.

RA: I was recently out West to visit the redwoods for an essay I'm writing, and the whole time I was desperate to ask you about the mythologies surrounding the forests and landscapes of the American West. Do those mythologies overlap with previous forest myths?

RPH: I don't know a whole lot about the mythology of the Redwood forest, or the other Northwestern forests, but I will say that the West is a strange place in the American and European imagination. The first thing you think about when you think of the West is the wide-open vistas, the skies. I've done some work on John Muir; I reviewed a biography of him for the New York Review of Books a few years ago. He was always at home in the forests and he loved walking through them, but he was also the one left breathless by the big sublime vistas at the top of a mountain peak overlooking whole ranges and so forth. On one level the redwoods are a place that block such a view; it's a much more intimate space than it is a sublime space.

If there's something that's sublime about the redwood forest, it's the palpable sense of antiquity that's embodied in its trees. I would expect that if there is a mythology of the redwood forest, native or otherwise, it's deeply associated with the phenomenon of age, which by the way is the topic of the book I'm writing right now.

For most of our history, it's always been assumed that forests were here a long time before us, and that they were going to be here a long time after us, because they partook of a completely different order of time than human time. We're starting to realize here in the late 20th century that forests are not eternal, and that human beings can destroy them very rapidly, and therefore we have transferred our own mortality onto the forests in our destruction of them. They have become as mortal as we are, and their life or death now depends mostly on us. From a historical point of view, that's a huge transformation in the way that we imagine forests.

RA: You followed Forests with Dominion of the Dead, which is a similar cultural ‘zoom out’ on the relationship between the living and the dead, and then Gardens, a book-length essay on the human condition. What can we look forward to next?

Harrison: Well, Forests, Dominion of the Dead, and Gardens together form a kind of trilogy, because all three deal with phenomena that are rooted in the Earth, in the humus of the Earth, the topsoil. It's the soil of the forests, and the soil in which we lay our dead, and the soil that the gardener works in, cultivating gardens. Until I'd finished with Gardens I didn't even realize that I'd sort of been following Dante's itinerary, this transition from the forest, to the realm of the dead and then on into the garden, the Garden of Eden and then paradise.

So if I were to be consistent, my next book would be about paradise, but it’s not. Instead, I am writing this book about age. It is connected to Forests and these other books by analogy, in the sense that age is the ground for time — it's what time is rooted in. The premise of my book is that there's nothing in the universe, including the universe itself, which does not have its age. Time is abstract, it can be infinite; time only has an incarnate reality insofar as it's embedded in things that have an age. Age is complex in the way forests are complex.


Recommended Reads:

LARB Contributor

Ross Andersen is a writer based out of Washington, D.C and the Science Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a regular contributor to the technology channel at The Atlantic. You can find him on Twitter at @andersen.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!