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Trees and Forests


The Shadow of Civilization

by Robert Pogue Harrison

Forests is a wide-ranging exploration of the role of forests in Western thought. Harrison describes how the governing institutions of the West--from religion to law, family to city--established themselves in opposition to the forest. Consistently insightful and beautifully written, this work is especially compelling at a time when the forest, as a source of wonder, respect, and meaning, disappears daily from the earth.

Praise for Forests

"Forests is among the most remarkable essays on the human place in nature I have ever read. Elegantly conceived, powerfully argued and beautifully written, it is a model of scholarship at its passionate best. No one who cares about cultural history, about the human place in nature, or about the future of our earthly home, should fail to read it."--William Cronon, Yale Review

"Forests is, among other things, a work of scholarship, and one of immense value . . . one that we have needed. It can be read and reread, added to and commented on for some time to come."--John Haines, The New York Times Book Review

"This book is as deep with history as an ancient grove of trees, and as majestic, and open, and delightful."--Bill McKibben

"Elegant and thought-provoking."--Simon Schama

Quotes from Forests

"Medieval chivalric romances tend to represent forests as lying beyond the confines of the civic world and its institutions of law. But early on in the Middle Ages many forests had already come under the jurisdiction of law. The word 'forest' in fact originates as a juridical term. Along with its various cognates in European languages (foresta, foret, forst, etc.), it derives from the Latin foresta. The Latin work does not come into existence until the Merovingian period. In Roman documents, as well as in the earlier acts of the Middle Ages, the standard word for woods and woodlands was nemus. the word foresta appears for the first time in the laws of the Longobards and the capitularies of Charlemagne, referring not to woodlands in general but only to the royal game preserves. The word has an uncertain provenance. The most likely origin is the Latin foris, meaning 'outside.' The obscure Latin verb forestare meant 'to keep out, to place off limits, to exclude.' In effect, during the Merovingian period in which the word foresta entered the lexicon, kings had taken it upon themselves to place public bans on vast tracts of woodlands in order to insure the survival of their wildlife, which in turn would insure the survival of a fundamental royal ritual--the hunt.

"A 'forest,' then, was originally a juridical term referring to land that had been placed off limits by a royal decree. Once a region had been 'afforested,' or declared a forest, it could not be cultivated, exploited, or encroached upon. It lay outside the public domain, reserved for the king's pleasure and recreation. In England it also lay outside the common juridical sphere. Offenders were not punishable by the common law but rather by a set of very specific 'forest laws.' The royal forests lay 'outside' in another sense as well, for the space enclosed by the walls of a royal garden was sometimes called silva, or wood. Forestis silva meant the unenclosed woods 'outside' the walls."

. . .

"In a remarkable passage of The New Science, Vico explains:

Every clearing was called a lucus, in the sense of an eye, as even today we call eyes the openings through which light enters houses. The true heroic phrase that 'every giant had his lucus' was altered and corrupted when its meaning was lost, and had already been falsified when it reached Homer, for it was then taken to mean that every giant had one eye in the middle of his forehead. With these giants came Vulcan to work in the first forges--that is, the forests to which Vulcan had set fire and where he had fashioned the first arms, which were the spears with burnt tips--and, by an extension of the idea of arms, to forge bolts for Jove. For Vulcan had set fire to the forests in order to observe in the open sky the direction from which Jove sent his bolts."

"As an obstacle to visibility, the forests also remained an obstacle to human knowledge and science. By burning out a clearing in the forest, Vulcan prepared the way for the future science of enlightened times:

Thus in their science of augury the Romans used the verb contemplari for observing the parts of the sky whence the auguries came or the auspices were taken. These regions, marked out by the augurs with their wands, were called temples of the sky (templa caeli), whence must have come to the Greeks their first theoremata and mathemata, things divine or sublime to contemplate, which eventuated in metaphysical and mathematical abstractions.

"The lucus, then, was the original site of our theologies and cosmologies, our physics and metaphysics, in short, our 'contemplation.' The temples of the sky were the first tables of science. Science meanwhile has advanced a great deal since the time of its divinatory origins, but has it in any way altered its nature? For all its strides and breakthroughs in abstractions, science has never yet lost its initial vocation, nor has Vulcan ceased laboring to keep the eye of knowledge open. One way or another science preserves its allegiance to the sky. Space travel remains its ultimate ambition. It predicts the eclipse, contemplates the stars, observes the comet, telescopes the cosmic abyss. One way or another it continues to scrutinize the auspices, attending upon the celestial sign; and one way or another the vocation as well as criteria of science remain that of prediction."

. . .

"Forests cannot be owned, they can only be wasted by the right to ownership. Forests belong to place--to the placehood of place--and place, in turn, belongs to no one in particular. It is free. Of course nothing can guarantee that a place's freedom, like its forests, will not be violated or disregarded, even devastated. On the contrary, this natural freedom of placehood is the most vulnerable element of all in the domestic relation we have been calling logos.

"On certain rare occasions this inconspicuous freedom of placehood finds a voice, for example in the poetry of John Clare, whose name we mentioned in connection with Constable. Let us take the time here to listen to it. The need to offer a brief biography of Clare before doing so springs not only from a scandalous undervaluation of this great poet by the English literary canon (one cannot assume any prior knowledge of Clare) but also from the deep roots of Clare's poetry in the place of his birth.

"John Clare was born in Helpstone in 1793. He had a minimal school education and became literate largely through his own personal efforts. He never quite mastered the rules of grammar and punctuation, preferring to do without the latter in his poems. He achieved a short-lived notoriety as the 'Northhamptonshire peasant poet,' but not enough to save him from the troubled times in England's countryside where Enclosure and the Engrossing policies of rural capitalism were bringing down wages and putting many land laborers out of work. Clare could not maintain economic independence as a poet, nor as a laborer struggling to remain a poet. In 1832 he and his family moved to the neighboring village of Northborough and occupied a cottage with a tiny plot of land. But so attached was Clare to his native horizon, beyond which he had rarely ventured, that his move three miles away from Helpstone led to an aggravated sense of disorientation and uprootedness. His sanity began to give way. When he entered his first asylum five years later, he took with him only the poor possession of his voice.

"Clare was indeed poor, poorer than any poet could hope to be. His loss of sanity was only one of the forms of expropriation that his poetry identifies as the fate of poverty. The only thing Clare never lost was his poetic voice. It remains to this day the most authentic and inalienable voice of modern literature. He continued to write poetry up to the very end of his life, composing some of his best poems during the thirty years he spent in various asylums. As one of his physicians observed in 1840, 'He has never been able to maintain in conversation, nor even in writing prose, the appearance of sanity for two minutes or two lines together, and yet there is no indication whatever of insanity in any of his poetry.' This voice was indeed sound and free."

"The opening lines verses of Clare's poem 'The Mores,' composed sometime between 1821 and 1834, introduce us to this voice:

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed springs blossoms on its brow
Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity
And lost itself which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist orisons edge surrounds
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all--a hope that blossomed shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labours rights and left the poor a slave
And memorys pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now."
. . .

"As we have tried to suggest in so many versions throughout this study, forests mark the provincial edge of Western civilization, in the literal as well as imaginative domains. Although they were brought early on within the jurisdiction of public institutions (royal preserves, forest management, ecology, and so forth), they have nevertheless retained to this day their ancient associations in the cultural imagination. Their antecedence and outsideness with regard to the institutional order has not really changed in our minds. What has changed recently is our anxiety about the loss of an edge of exteriority.

"The global problem of deforestation provokes unlikely reactions of concern these days among city dwellers, not only because of the enormity of the scale but also because in the depth of cultural memory forests remain the correlate of human transcendence. We call it the loss of nature, or the loss of wildlife habitat, or the loss of biodiversity, but underlying the ecological concern is perhaps a much deeper apprehension about the disappearance of boundaries, without which the human abode loses its grounding."

Table of Contents of Forests

  1. First the Forests
    Vico's Giants
    The Demon of Gilgamesh
    The Virgin Goddess
    The Sorrows of Rhea Silvia
    From Mythic Origins to Deforestation
  2. Shadows of Law
    The Knight's Adventure
    Forest Law
    Dante's Line of Error
    Shadows of Love
    The Human Age
    Macbeth's Conclusion
  3. Enlightenment
    The Ways of Method
    What is Enlightenment? A Question for Foresters
    Conrad's Brooding Gloom
    Roquentin's Nightmare
  4. Forests of Nostalgia
    Forest and World in Wordsworth's Poem
    The Brothers Grimm
    Forests of Symbols
    Waiting for Dionysos
  5. Dwelling
    The Elm Tree
    London Versus Epping Forest
    The Woods of Walden
    Andrea Zanzotto

About Robert Pogue Harrison

Robert Pogue Harrison was born in Izmir, Turkey. Educated in Italy and the United States, he teaches French and Italian literature at Stanford University.

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