New beech leaves in Grib Forest in Denmark. (CC BY-SA 3.0. By Malene Thyssen.)
Forests. Lots of plants, big and small, living together on land. Animals dwell there. Hunters hunt there. Recluses and far-away grandmas live in cabins there. How many fairytales take place in a forest? How many books you’ve read? Is the forest good, evil, or both or neither? When was the last time you sat on a fallen tree in the middle of a forest and just listened? What did you hear?
Mirkwood (“Thranduil’s Halls” by Alan Lee)
Forests really get my imagination going. Some of my favorite books use forests as major backdrops—even as characters in their own right. Tolkien, for example, takes readers into at least four different forests over the course of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (the Old Forest, Lothlórien, Mirkwood, and Fangorn). These are mythical places with elves, talking trees, gigantic spiders, and, especially, the endless woods.
When we were kids, my brother, our friend, and I spent many of our days in a “forest” (in reality it was about an acre of planted pine trees. I’m from the part of Washington where such a thing is highly unusual and utterly unnatural.) We built a “fort”—an enclosed wooden platform in the trees, complete with its very own collection of gigantic spiders. You could climb high enough on some of the trees that your head came out of the general canopy and you could look out over much of the rest of the forest. Occasionally we even climbed and jumped between trees high above ground.
On November 20th, 2008, Richard Hacken (work|poetry) gave a lecture entitled “Into the Imagined Forest: A 2000-Year Retrospective of the German Woods“. There he spoke of the cultural history of the German wald—the forest that figures so prominently in the German and the more general European imagination. A summarizing quotation:
The imagined forest is a contradictory forest. To early Germanic tribes, the forest was an object of worship—a temple of holiness—while to others it was the home of evil and danger. For later thinkers it stood as a model of immortality and regeneration; for others it perfectly illustrated the Darwinian struggle for survival…. Culturally, the forest has formed the context for heroic quests; it has been a backdrop for sorrow (especially in the vicinity of fir, willow and cypress trees).
It has been the asocial haunt of wild men, sociopaths and thieves, but it has also been the stage for social justice. It has been a moral exemplar but also a place to avoid. The woodlands have been seen as a source of industrial materials; or they have been a place of rest and recreation. The forest has been a source of food and medicine on one hand, and a venue of death on the other. The structure of a tree has been the well-rooted inspiration for branching charts such as family trees, grammar trees and hierarchies…. And most recently… the forest [has been seen] as both barometer and fount of ecological salvation.
[A] forest is… a landscape that subsumes every fern, butterfly, tree, rock, soil type, underground ore deposit, clump of lichen, fallen branch, shrub, insect and wild animal within it. Woodlands provide potent and vivid symbols of life, death, regeneration, social process and collective identity.
A book I was reading a few months ago glowingly described the forests of Poland and their role in the upheavals of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 17th century. I started to see the forest as characterized by its vastness and its seeming unconquerability. For thousands of years, civilization lived around the forest and utilized the forest. Traveling by boat on a forest river gave some few a glimpse of the forest’s mysterious endlessness. Yet none but the wildest people actually settled there.
Eventually that changed. Settlement by pioneers with axes resulted in the conquest of the woods, giving us today’s widespread deforestation combined with a safer, more civilized wood that is criss-crossed by highways and major settlements, rarely even lacking cellular phone service. But vast tracts of virgin forest still beckon to moderns, offering a chance to confront Nature more or less raw and uncut.
Below are some images, quotations, and links to articles on the topic of forests that might excite your imagination. Enjoy!
“Despite veneration of individual trees, the forest as a whole was seen, at least through the Middle Ages, as problematic. It was difficult to travel in, and it was seen as a nuisance, occupying ground that might otherwise have been used for farming. Groves and individual stands of timber were carved out for use and cultivation, but the deep, unending primitive forest was a danger.”
“The German language developed two different words… to make a distinction: the Wald (not cognate to English ‘wood,’ but to the antiquated ‘wold’) was natural forest, while the Forst (cognate to English ‘forest’) was the managed, cultivated forest, the wilderness domesticated. Thus was born the profession of forester to protect demarcated woodlands, usually belonging to a sovereign or noble family.”
“To early Germanic tribes, the forest was an object of worship—a temple of holiness….” A hymn by Paul Gerhardt: “Make room for your spirit in me / That for you I become a great tree, / Sinking my roots deep in the earth. / Allow me, solely for your praise / Within your garden to raise / Myself from sapling in rebirth”
“The forest was the cultural context for the medieval quest, a place where life had to be wrenched from the dark, foreboding wood with bravery and effort. Forest darkness was not just an absence of light; it was an absence of humanity, friendship and morality. The inventory of dangers imagined in the forest grew from mythical wild men in league with the devil to include dragons and monsters. In black and white terms, the court was good and the forest was evil. This was fictional, of course, since the dichotomy ignored any treason, intrigue or violence found at court.” (CC BY 2.0. By Zollernalb.)
“It is in the forest that fairy-tale characters often lose their way and then find themselves again as their life’s purpose becomes clear. The forest in question is not a small tract of woodland. It is always immense, unbounded and unknowable. The fairy tale forest of Germany has power to change hearts and destinies. It is a meritocracy that distributes justice without regard to social class. Hansel and Gretel are not the only ones to get lost in the forest and then to return wiser and fulfilled.”
“In the first decade of the 20th century, Franz Kafka wrote that: ‘…we are all like tree trunks in the snow. It appears that we can be easily kicked aside. But no, we are rooted to the ground. Yet even that apparent rootedness is deceptive and misleading.'” (CC-BY-SA. Photo by Merlin.)
“Fairy tales are as popular in America as they are in Germany, perhaps because we… prefer order and predictability in our own imagined woods. But… the imagined German forest requires its heroes to tame the wilderness both within and without.”
“Tree cult practitioners among the Germanic tribes equated man with plant. Early medicinal superstitions held that a tree could remove or call back diseases; a specific living tree, spiritually conjoined with a person, could serve as a Doppelganger to share, forecast, or even determine that person’s fate. Today there is still a German figurative usage of Lebensbaum (tree of life): ‘the tree of my life is growing, blossoming, withering, dying…'” (CC-BY-SA. Photo by Mikenorton.)