“There is too often deliberate rage and vengefulness at work in the assault on nature and its species, as if one would project onto the natural world the intolerable anxieties of finitude which hold humanity hostage to death.” (from Forests: the shadow of civilization by Robert Pogue Harrison)
Forests , published almost 20 years ago, is a little-known, complex, poetic treatise that deserves a much broader audience. It offers a look at the deep emotional relationship humans have with forests, and by extension, the wilds of nature.
Harrison believes that we can understand ourselves better if we look at the way we look at forests. A forest, he argues, is like a mirror. When we look into them we see “a strange reflection of the order to which they remain external.”
That is, while forests and woods, by definition, lie beyond the bounds of civilization, their presence out-there evokes, demands, a response to what we believe, and do, in-here. The forest - by persistently remaining outside, mysterious, even dangerous - demands explanation. For a settlement to sit somewhat comfortably beside the wildness of the woods, we need to capture and control, to whatever extent possible, the fear that rises from living so close to the wild unknown. Civilization, in this attempt to contain the wild and fearsome, creates a narrative and symbol of forest, even as it holds it at arm’s length. The forest becomes, as the subtitle of the book says, “the shadow of civilization”, the darkness that civilization casts out beyond itself, because of itself, but that it dares not call part of itself.
Harrison’s point, quoted above, is compelling, and challenging. What if it is not just greed that compels our gluttonous taking of the earth’s precious resources; what if it is not just arrogance that encourages us to create thousand-fold waste for the sake an ounce of usable natural treasure (think of the destruction of whole mountains for the comparative pittance of coal we retrieve); what if it is not just ignorance that allows us to continue to consume beyond the point of replenishment?
What if our harsh behavior toward the resources of the wild is based on something even deeper - our dread of personal extinction?
Then truly religion in general, and Judaism in particular, may play a powerful role in crafting responses. For we offer not a view of darkness and emptiness at the end, but a vision of eternal renewal and hope, for humanity if not for ourselves.
The eternal light that shines above the aron, the ark, in the synagogue is not just about the constancy of the daily sacrifices that were offered in the Temple. Not just about the constancy of God’s presence in the midst of the Jewish people. It is also about the enduring promise of life. If, in the iconography of the human imagination, the forest’s darkness equals death, the lamp’s light equals life.
Perhaps this message of hope, this vision of a vibrant future that is ours to enjoy if we do not mess it up, this impulse of possibilities can restrain us from trashing the world out of our despair, and an overwhelming sense of impending, irretrievable, loss.