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Sacred Woods

Forests: The Shadow of Civilization

by Robert Pogue Harrison
University of Chicago Press, 304 pp., $12.95 (paper)


The seventh square on the chessboard, the Red Queen warns Alice, “is all forest.” When Alice arrives on its outskirts, in the looking-glass world, she finds its darkness disquieting.

Well, at any rate it’s a great comfort,” she said as she stepped under the trees, “after being so hot, to get into the—into the—into what?” she went on, rather surprised at not being able to think of the word…. “What does it call itself, I wonder? I do believe it’s got no name—why, to be sure it hasn’t!… And now, who am I? I will remember, if I can!”

But Alice can’t remember. She has entered what the Gnat has already told her is the wood where things have no names.

In The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner identifies this forest as the universe itself, untouched by symbol-manipulating humans who insist upon labeling portions of it because (as Alice recognizes) “it’s useful to the people that name them.” The world by itself contains no signs. Lewis Carroll, however, whose own idiom was less semiotic, must also have been thinking of the classical words hyle and nemus. For Aristotle and other philosophers, hyle, the Greek word for “forest,” also meant “chaos”: primordial matter, shapeless, and with only the potential of forms. Nemus, one of the Latin terms for a wood, is linked by its shared Greek past with nemesis, but also, by association, with nemo (no one), which is what individuals are all too likely to become when astray in a forest. Virgil uses it tellingly of the one through which Aeneas gained access to the underworld, the quintessential place of non-being.

In Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, Robert Harrison sets res nullius (belonging to no one), another ancient woodland designation, against res publica: the open, public place—preeminently the city—of human social structures and institutions. The rigorous separation and hostility, over the ages, of forest and city, the wild and the tamed, is one of the major preoccupations of his rich and imaginative book. At its center lies Giambattista Vico’s fable, in The New Science (1744), about the moment when the giants who roamed the primeval forests of earth first looked up through the canopy of foliage—in response to a terrifying flash of lightning—and saw the sky. From that chance glimpse of a clearing, religion was born, and civil society. The forest became monstrous, obscuring the prospect of god, its oaks needing to be felled to make room for civilization and quite different, genealogical “trees.” This pattern, Harrison suggests, has repeated itself endlessly, both in fiction and in fact. Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, was suckled in his infancy by a she-wolf, but the city he established destroyed the forests of Latium which had sheltered him. Now, thousands of years later, in South America, the last rain forests crash to the earth, for commercial reasons, day by day.

Yet the city has for centuries been linked imaginatively with the forests it fears and systematically destroys. Harrison points out that “historically the natural boundaries of the Roman res publica were drawn by the margins of the undomesticated forests.” A wild “otherness” antagonistic to human civilization has always in the past defined that civilization. This is partly because, as he insists, any “historical age reveals something essential about its ideology, its institutions and law, or its cultural temperament, in the manifold ways in which forests are regarded in that age.” The Enlightenment, however, brought a significant change in sensibility. Cartesian rationalism stripped the medieval and Renaissance forest of the numinous and the strange, reducing the scene of the Wild Hunt and the love-madness of Launcelot and Orlando, the home of talking animals and dark gods, to a sum total of harvestable trees, preferably planted in straight lines. This was also, one might add, the moment when cloth (as Michel Pastoureau has shown)1 finally displaced wood from its symbolic position as materia prima among the substances used or worked by man. When, after the industrial revolution, cloth yielded pride of place to metal, wood was to sink even lower in the hierarchy.

Much Romantic literature did try to restore potency to forests. Harrison writes well about Rousseau’s contradictory attitude to them: in Corsica, purely a resource to be exploited, but at St. Germain, where he actually walked beneath the trees, something he felt to be “the imagination’s storehouse of images of remote antiquity.” I have some doubts about Harrison’s attempt in this section of his book to enlist Wordsworth as a forest poet. Neither “Tintern Abbey” nor “Lines Written in Early Spring” is really a woodland poem, despite Harrison’s rather strained attempt in the latter case to persuade the reader that “a natural enclosure, a grove, a bower” is “in short, a forest.” One reason, surely, why Wordsworth’s alpine vision, in Book VI of The Prelude, of “the immeasurable height/Of woods decaying, never to be decay’d” is so memorable is that it is untypical. In an England largely deforested, even in the north, such colossal, ancient woods did not normally figure in this poet’s experience. Harrison is on surer ground with the Brothers Grimm, passionate apologists for the surviving German forests which, for them, symbolized a lost cultural unity, folk traditions recoverable only by a spiritual return to their depths.

Even now, at the end of the twentieth century, some sylvan mystery lingers, if only in the sinister woods of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, where the owls are not what they seem. Harrison interestingly poises the perversely circular trajectory chosen by Beckett’s Molloy as he tries to escape from what seems to him a dark and “towering” wood—a “progress” repeating, with a difference, Dante’s discovery that to follow a straight path in the selva oscura of the Inferno is only to go astray—against Descartes’s limiting insistence that the only way out of “a forest of randomness and confusion [is] by following the straight line of method.” But, as he gloomily points out, today’s conservationists, defenders of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “wildness and wet,” have been forced for the most part to adopt the language of the enemy: to talk about the material usefulness of forests to society, not about their value as a habitat for plants, birds, and animals—let alone the human imagination. Yet the loss of forests involves far more than the loss of ecosystems.

Across the centuries, some human beings have reversed the direction of Vico’s giants and returned to live in the wilderness, whether on a temporary or permanent basis. Especially for people estranged from the social order—Harrison lists “the wanderers, the lovers, the saints, the persecuted, the outcasts, the bewildered, the ecstatic”—forests have traditionally provided an asylum. They might even, as in the case of heroic outlaws, shelter an alternative society operating according to principles in true justice neglected or travestied in the world outside. When the outlaw is, like Robin Hood, “a guardian of the law’s ideal justice,” his woodland refuge becomes in a very special sense “the shadow of civilization.” But it is impoverishing, Harrison argues, even for those who placidly remain in the city, and obey its laws, to ignore or seek to obliterate their relationship with the forest—that “outside” in the absence of which “there is no inside in which to dwell.”

Harrison makes an eloquent and passionate plea for the survival of “wildness and wet,” because he believes them to be a psychological and cultural necessity. Tautly written and argued, his book draws upon an astonishing range of material: myth and fairy tale, architecture and painting, literature from the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh to Beckett and A.R. Ammons. Yet it never seems pretentious. That is partly because of its unquestionable honesty; but also because Harrison is not only a formidable scholar and historian of ideas but a quite exceptional literary critic, responsive to poetry and prose in a number of different genres, languages, and periods. He writes with brilliance and sensitivity about writers as diverse as Virgil, Dante, Boccaccio, Conrad, and Sartre. Or about concepts of poverty and freedom in the poetry of John Clare, seeing (for instance) that the sonnet beginning. “The snow falls deep; the Forest lies alone” is really another in Clare’s series of “nest” poems, the gypsy camp in the snow-filled forest “as gathered and as vulnerable as the pettichap’s nest on the side of an open road.” He can make a poem as familiar as Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” suddenly seem new. Written, as Harrison reminds us, in a wood near Florence, the ode evokes “a great cosmic forest that embraces land, sky, and even the subsurface life of the sea.” It is not just a political stalemate, but his exclusion from this forest of “primordial correspondence,” the “universal cycle of death and rebirth,” that the poet, imprisoned like all of us within linear time, laments.

Inevitably, in a book so wide-ranging and bold, readers are likely to question Harrison’s readings of some works and regret others left out. He seems to me on shaky ground when he claims that in Shakespeare “forests become innocent, pastoral, diversionary, comic,” savagery being displaced to the city. Even As You Like It‘s Arden and the wood of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are less “innocent” and simple than this implies. And he ignores the ruthless woods of Titus Andronicus, or those “moist trees,/That have outliv’d the eagle” among which Shakespeare’s Timon retreats to live as a wild man, wishing not only that cities, but all cultivated land (“thy marrows, vines, and plough-torn leas”) would dry up and disappear, the world becoming once more a vast, unbroken forest. Timon of Athens—like Frost’s “Spring Pools” and Faulkner’s “The Bear”—is a work that seems to cry out for a place in this book. Harrison does pause briefly over Birnam Wood, at the end of Macbeth, arguing that it symbolizes, as it moves toward Dunsinane, not only “the forces of natural law” but Banquo’s issue, “the family tree…vanquishing its sterile enemy.” The idea is ingenious. But surely, for Shakespeare’s audience, the visual image of Malcolm’s soldiers enveloped in “leafy screens” would have evoked something far more tangible and familiar: celebrants on May morning, emerging from the woods festooned with leaves and branches—and so, the return of spring to a Scotland unnaturally arrested in winter by the usurper.


In his preface, Harrison states that “it is hard to believe that just six years ago, when the idea for such a book first came to me, there was very little talk about forests in the news.” Now, as he says, the fate of the earth’s remaining forests has become a major, worldwide issue. He is thinking of ecological protest here—a protest to which he adds another powerful voice. (“Sooner or later we will have to come up with a less ironic name than “greenhouse effect” for the choking of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide…. The color is ashen.”) But his book also takes its place in a steady build-up over the last decade of work on the symbolism of forests. Many of these books have been linked to the idea of the hunt: Corinne Saunders’s The Forest of Medieval Romance (1993), the French collection Le Château, la chasse et la forêt (1990), edited by André Chastel, in which the Pastoureau essay mentioned above can be found, John Cummins’s The Hound and the Hawk: The Art of Medieval Hunting (1988), or Anne Rooney’s Hunting in Middle English Literature (1993). There is a wealth of material in these books to support Harrison’s claims about the imaginative necessity of forests. Roger Manning’s Hunters and Poachers, however, breaks significantly new ground.

  1. 1

    La forêt médiévale, un univers symbolique,” in Le Château, la chasse et la forêt, edited by André Chastel (Bordeaux: Sud Ouest, 1990).

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