Cry Treedom

Jonathan Bate

  • Forests: The shadow of Civilisation by Robert Pogue Harrison
    Chicago, 288 pp, £19.95, May 1992, ISBN 0 226 31806 0

It must be cause for at least mild celebration that the United States now has a Vice-President who can use the word ‘Cartesian’ in place of one who could not spell the word ‘potato’. In a chapter called ‘Dysfunctional Civilisation’ in his book Earth in the Balance, Al Gore writes that ‘the Cartesian approach to the human story allows us to believe that we are separate from the earth, entitled to view it as nothing more than an inanimate collection of resources that we can exploit how we like; and this fundamental misperception has led us to our current crisis.’ For Gore, Descartes’s influence has been both cause and symptom of a separation between the mind and nature which has served as Western man’s licence for his ravaging of the environment. An array of Greens from ecofeminists to holistic New Agers share Gore’s hostility to what is seen as the arrogance of the Enlightenment, arguing that we are all now paying a price for it in the form of global warming, acid rain and so forth. Over a century ago, John Ruskin was arguing that Cartesian (‘modern’) thought had destroyed man’s reverence and wonder in the face of the external world, and that the death of God-in-nature would eventually bring the end of nature. Gore’s book is squarely in this tradition: it is an appeal for spiritual regeneration as much as a manifesto for environmentally-sensitive policies.

For Robert Harrison, too, the Enlightenment took a wrong turning:

The new Cartesian distinction between the res cogitans, or thinking self, and the res extensa, or embodied substance, sets up the terms for the objectivity of science and [its] abstraction from historicity, location, nature and culture. What interests us about Descartes in this context is the fact that he sought to empower the subject of knowledge in such a way that, through its application of mathematical method, humanity could achieve what he called ‘mastery and possession of nature’.

Harrison reminds us of Nietzsche’s madman rushing into the market-place with the announcement that God is dead. Suppose we stopped him, calmed him down, and asked him when and where God died. ‘And suppose he were to answer: “In 1637, in Part Four of the Discourse on Method!” A madman, after all, can afford to be precise about such matters.’ Descartes does have a God, but it is a cold metaphysical God, not a force immanent in nature. A God who doesn’t, for instance, live in trees.

With the Enlightenment the forest becomes a place neBither of mystery nor sanctuary but rather something to be managed: ‘One of the ways in which this dream of mastery and possession becomes reality in the post-Christian era is through the rise of forest management during the late-18th and 19th centuries.’ Trees were planted with Cartesian precision, in straight lines. Italo Calvino’s novel The Baron in the Trees tells of an 18th-century nobleman who climbed a holm oak at the age of 12 and vowed never to set foot on the ground again. He wrote a number of political and philosophical treatises which attracted the attention of the high priests of Enlightenment, Voltaire and Diderot, but they had no time for his most characteristic work, a ‘Constitutional Project for a Republican City with a Declaration of the Rights of Men, Women, Children, Domestic and Wild Animals, including Birds, Fishes and Insects, and All Vegetation, whether Trees, Vegetable, or Grass.’ Imagine the species and the forests that would still be living if some of the principles of this project had found their way into the enlightened declarations of the American and French revolutionaries. Baron Cosimo’s treatise would have found an enthusiastic reader in Shelley, but then he was always a marginal man. The one philosophe who might have understood it was Rousseau, who stands Janus-faced at the edge of the Enlightenment wood. As author of the ‘Project for the Constitution of Corsica’, which proposes an ‘exact policemanship of the forests’, he is the incarnation of his age; in the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, and the Bois de Boulogne passage of the Confessions he kicks against modernity and embarks on an anti-Enlightenment quest for the old meanings of the forest.

Robert Harrison’s book is an eloquent analysis of those old meanings, but it is also a passionately-argued case for the continuing necessity – social and psychological, as well as ecological – of the forest. We only know ourselves when we confront our ‘other’. Fanon and de Beauvoir taught us that the defining ‘others’ of Western man are the black and woman; in the beginning, however, his shadow was the forest which he cleared in order to make a space for himself. ‘A sylvan fringe of darkness defined the limits’ of Western civilisation, writes Harrison: ‘the margins of its cities, the boundaries of its institutional domain; but also the extravagance of its imagination’. Forests is a hymn not only to trees in and for themselves, but also to those extravagant, vagrant artists for whom the forest is the dwelling-place of their being.

The poetry which Harrison values is not that of urbanity. Horace and Pope have no place in his pantheon. Nor does Jonson, a particularly interesting case whom he does not mention. This poet arranged his work in collections entitled The Forest and The Underwood, and called the raw material in his commonplace book Timber, but he had little sympathy for trees per se: when he names a copse, as in ‘To Penshurst’, his real interest is in the owner of the estate. For Harrison, true poetry is that which goes beyond the confines of the city, which enters into the dark forest. I suppose I have to say that the book spoke to me so deeply because those who wander thus are my own favourite poets: Ovid, Ariosto, Spenser, Wordsworth, Shelley, Clare – and, interpreting ‘poets’ generously, Constable, Thoreau, Conrad, Calvino and Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Fallingwater is Harrison’s model house, built on the Ruskinian principle of ‘not only coming to rest in its environment but also embodying an extension of the foundation upon which it rests’.

Harrison’s book begins with a quotation from The New Science of Giambattista Vico: ‘This was the order of human institutions: first the forests, after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies.’ The ‘progress’ of civilisation is a progression away from the forest and destructive of the forest. Man dislodges the trees in order to see the sky; his sky-gods (Jupiter, Jehovah, the quest to conquer space) displace the tree-gods, the nature spirits which connect ‘primitive’ communities to their environment. The greatest enemy of the forest is empire. Early in the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells us that in the golden age man was content to remain on his own land, but that with the iron age came the felling of trees, the building of ships, the building of empire; one of the many respects in which the Metamorphoses is a rebuke to that great apologia for empire, Virgil’s Aeneid, is its anthropomorphic sympathy for trees. Give a tree a human past and it can no longer merely be raw material for ship-building. Forests keeps returning, threnodically, to the symbiosis between imperialism and deforestation: before the Athenian empire, the hills of Attica were canopied; before the Roman empire, the length of North Africa was wooded and fertile; before the Venetian empire, forest stretched from the lagoon to the Alps; before the American empire, the rain-forest spread across Brazil. Only one thing has changed: now the trees go to make, not ships but space for cattle which will be slaughtered at the shrine of Ronald McDonald.

However anti-imperial, Forests is not uncomplicatedly left-leaning in the manner of nearly all today’s politically-conscious literary criticism. In a highly original analysis of John Manwood’s 1592 treatise on forest law, Harrison shows that ‘an ecologist today cannot help but be a monarchist of sorts.’ Manwood’s definition of a royal game preserve, which reads like nothing so much as a description of a modern national park, is a definition ‘governed by the idea of privilege – the privilege granted by the king to his wildlife to live in freedom and safety within the afforested areas of his kingdom’. This defence of privilege and, by implication, of royal hunting makes for profoundly uncomfortable reading if one comes to it with a gut abhorrence of blood-sports and an axiomatic sympathy for the underclass who encroached on the privilege of the royal forests and became victims of the game laws. When Harrison writes about outlaws – Gamelyn, Robin Hood and their successors in Elizabethan comedy – it is easy for the politically-sound critic to suppose that he can become a Green Man and still be a Red. So too in the section on John Clare, described by Harrison as ‘the most authentic and inalienable voice of modern literature’ (‘inalienable’ because alienated, I take him to mean): poems such as ‘The Fallen Elm’ and ‘The Lament of Swordy Well’ ally themselves with the dispossessed labourer and the despoiled land. Likewise in Michelet’s La Sorcière, with its sympathy for the witch’s ‘alternative and outcast wisdom, which belonged to the profane, eccentric space of the forest’.

But with Manwood on forest law, it is not so easy. And when it comes to the brothers Grimm, authors of the highest-selling book in the West save the Bible, the politics risk becoming as dark as the woods in which the tales take place. ‘The Grimms thrived on their faith in a miraculous healing process by which the original unity of German culture could be restored to integrity,’ says Harrison. Quite so, but Hitler and his green lieutenant Richard Walther Darre throve on that too. (Anna Bramwell’s work in this area is a conspicuous omission from the otherwise excellent bibliography, the length of which makes one pause to reflect on the number of trees which have been cut down in the cause of humanism.) Harrison does not confront the difficult question of whether conservation in certain respects implies political conservatism, whether reverence for the land means reverence for the nation, whether there is not something fascistic about the atavism of deep Green thinking. Malthus is often viewed as little better than a fascist, yet, as Gore recognises in Earth in the Balance, his inexorable principles of population have to be at the top of the Green agenda. Forests would at the very least have benefitted from an analysis of Burke’s arboreal metaphors, his antithesis between the oak-like growth of the English constitution and the radicalism – literally, the tearing up by the roots – of the French Revolution.

I suspect that Harrison and fellow Green literary critics are going to have to come to some accommodation with Burke; at the very least, as David Bromwich proposes in quite another context, they may have to embrace a Burkean language but wrest it to non-Burkean ends. This means that the relationship with ‘New Historicism’ and its marxisant traditions will inevitably be uneasy. When Harrison notices a human dwelling-place in Constable’s Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree, he reads it as integrated with its environment:

Indeed, the tree now assumes a powerful correspondence with the oikos, the house. Tree and house correspond to one another as if to suggest that their correlation discloses the phenomenal realm itself. This correlation is so ‘natural’ that the wood that went into the making of the house (which we detect in its roof) belongs to the forest in which it opens the place of dwelling.

This is the exact opposite of the way in which John Barrell reads Constable: he is interested not in integration but in the dislocation between, on the one hand, rural life, rural labour and rural poverty; and, on the other hand, the repose of landscape, of ‘nature’ harmoniously arranged. He would ask who built the house, how much they were paid and how much they suffered in the building, who lives in it and how they earn a living. Manwood beautifully, if falsely, derived ‘forest’ from ‘for rest’ (‘the name being derived from the nature of the place which is privileged by the king for the rest and abode of the wild beasts’): Barrell would reply that only kings, nobles and gentlemen have time for otium, for rest.

Forests is likely to find more favour with Deconstructionists than New Historicists. This becomes less surprising than it might at first seem when one reflects that – for very different reasons – Deconstruction and deep ecology are both anti-Enlightenment projects. ‘Remain faithful to the earth,’ Nietzsche, grandfather of Deconstruction, wrote in Zarathustra. Heidegger is the key, however; although he only appears in the endnotes, he presides over Harrison’s concept of ‘dwelling’ and his bouts of etymologising. Harrison reveals himself as a Deconstructionist when he argues that humankind’s dwelling-place, our oikos, is ultimately the logos. By this account, the word eco-logy, from oikos and logos, names our dwelling in language. To dwell in language is to be excluded from the forest. Or rather, the forest ‘remains an index of our exclusion’. One could put this another way and say that ‘nature’ is a word, a hypostatisation, which marks humankind’s thinking of itself as outside, above, its particular eco-systems. But the artistic imagination has a special capacity to take us back into the forest. The history of forests in the Western imagination is ‘the story of our self-dispossession’, but it is also our hope of salvation. If there are to be no more forests, there will be no more poets. But it might just be the poets who will reawaken deracinated Western man to what it means to dwell upon the earth. In the forest’s asylum the poet finds ‘the outlaws, the heroes, the wanderers, the lovers, the saints, the persecuted, the outcasts, the bewildered, the ecstatic’ – also, remembering Manwood, the king and his beasts. Without their outside domain, ‘there is no inside in which to dwell.’