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…

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