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At one point in Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1991), Robert Pogue Harrison contends that when “thinking takes refuge” within the walls of the academy, “it can no longer remain radical.” Harrison himself is Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University and his Forests tenders an innovative synthesis of literary history and moral treatise, which if at times hare-brained in its politics, is erudite in its scholarship and ambitious in its design. Harrison’s environmental concerns do not particularly interest me – although unlike the Speculum pen Judith S Neaman I would not caricature his argument as “sentimental and preaching in its cry to ‘save the trees’,” – and the achievement of Forests instead derives from its combination of a regard for the general reader and an attention to scholarly detail. Neaman’s review, incidentally, disapproves of Harrison’s jack-of-all-trades approach, and she almost implies that one will inevitably be “at home” in some specialist academic areas and “less secure” in others. She hits the right note, however, when generously concluding that “…Forests represents a genre that may well prove the salvation of that endangered species – the scholarly book.”

Harrison essentially identifies the forest as the supreme archetype of otherness, which has continuously “shadowed” the advance of Western civilisation. He asserts that, “Western civilization literally cleared its space in the midst of forests,” and that “the governing institutions of the West – religion, law, family, city – originally established themselves in opposition to the forests, which in this respect have been the first and last victims of civic expansion.” Harrison notes that throughout the history of ideas, forests have been alternatively represented as profane and sacred, dangerous and enchanted, and lawless and the sanctuaries of freedom fighters. Within the cultural imagination “forests remain the correlate of human transcendence,” although they equally evoke a fear of “the disappearance of boundaries, without which the human abode loses its grounding.”

Giambattista Vico imagined the giants of antiquity tearing down the forest canopies which obscured their view of heaven. In this fable, the enlightenment of the human mind accords with the establishment of a forest clearing, and Harrison’s book explores how this core theme has been successively elaborated upon throughout Western history. The classical forest Gods were splendid creations, but rather awful and savage, and they ultimately symbolised the unknowable otherness of the forest. Medieval Christianity often yearned to bring fire to the forest and destroy the remnants of paganism, but its hagiography would equally posit hallowed souls in a forest setting. The medieval forest was the destination for those who found themselves above or below humanity – lovers and outlaws, saints and wild men – although it was “not a place of lawlessness” but “the shadow of the law.” Adventuring knights broke down in the forest and became wild men, but they always returned regenerated to civilisation. The original savagery within the English king’s sovereignty stood forth in the shadowy judicial twilight of his “Forest Law,” affirming that he was the ultimate “ravenous beast.” Medieval outlaws slipped away into an arboreal realm of subterfuge and disguise, exposing the law’s “inherent contradictions, shortcomings, ironies; in short, the failure of its pretensions to correspond to its reality.”

With the arrival of Humanism and the Renaissance, never before had Western thought “so thoroughly divorced the human from the animal species and considered the earth as a whole the former’s natural inheritance.” This period accordingly witnessed an unprecedented degree of deforestation and the “widespread extermination of those species of wild animals which could neither be tamed or utilised.” If Petrarch’s sweet woodlands were innocent of “savagery,” Matteo Maria Boiardo‘s Orlando Furioso ran amok in a forest, uprooting trees and ripping the heads off pastoral shepherds. William Shakespeare, whilst tendering pastoral forests, rediscovered the savagery of the wilderness in the hearts of civic men.

The Enlightenment lion Rene Descartes equated forests with error and doubt, and he championed modern reason over these old world forces. He favoured a rationally-constructed city over the forest, which by definition had grown up willy-nilly, as a result of custom rather than rational design. By the eighteenth century, Europe’s remaining forests were being typically managed in accordance with utilitarian principles. The German practitioners of Forstwissenschaft (forest science) transformed the forester into a mathematician and state scientist, and the result of their labour was “forests of uniform types” and “trees in rectilinear rows.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau viewed the forest both as an exploitable resource and as a means of reconnecting with the original “natural man.” He ended up wandering around suburban parklands, alienated from both nature and the city. The emerging nostalgia for forests within Western thought ultimately cast them as “imaginary, inaccessible, or unreal.” The Brothers Grimm hunted the forest for the folk origins of the German nation, although Harrison notes that their great dream of recovering Germany from history has actually “done more to devastate Germany and divide it against itself than all the so-called ravages of modernity”

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness furthers the distinction posited by Shakespeare: the city of London resembles a great dank forest whilst the savages within Kurtz’s own forest are comparatively civilised, possessing the virtue of “restraint” whilst imperial Europe continues aimlessly, awfully conquering the earth. As a “humanist,” Jean Paul Sartre “suffered from the same sort of forest phobia as Descartes” and his hero Roquentin is sickened and demoralised by an encounter with a tree. He imagines green vegetable paws encroaching upon the sanctuary of the city. Samuel Beckett evoked a world of depleted resources, where great lost swathes of forest are only half-recalled by Hamm when he mutters “Those forests!” upon awakening from sleep.

Forests at times resembles a maverick dictionary, providing odd and somewhat unjustified definitions of familiar terms. The fall of Rome furnishes a rather-too-neat exemplum to an ecological sermon. Harrison states that whilst the Greeks deforested their homeland to provide wood for ships, the Romans cleared their forests for agriculture, “leading to irreversible erosion in regions that were once the most fertile in the world.” “It is hard to imagine that a civilization as brilliant as that of the Greeks, or an empire engineered and administered so efficiently as that of the Romans, could remain so blind in their practices as to bring about the ruin of the ground on which their survivals were based.” Notwithstanding the argument that the living standards of many Romans were unaffected by their empire’s alleged “fall,” the German historian Alexander Demandt’s Der Fall Roms (1984) has identified 210 potential reasons for the fall of Rome (deforestation is number 49). The environmental explanation attributes the decline of Rome to a “blind” destructive folly on the part of its citizenry, when they failed to adapt to all sorts of challenges (rather than merely neglecting to care for their trees).

Enlightenment has been subjected to many smears over the ages, but one cannot quite share Harrison’s own contention that it is “always underway” and an “unending labour.” As we live in a liberal democracy rather than a theocracy or a slaveholding society, surely Enlightenment has some rather more tangible achievements to its name than Harrison suggests. Harrison defines the nineteenth century as one of “nostalgia” and “visions of future alternatives which history for some reason never fulfilled,” and although he does not elaborate further, one may be satisfied with the nineteenth century’s modest accomplishments (electricity, the railway, sanitation, anaesthetic…).

Harrison defines democracy as “a particular kind of shelter grounded on the earth… People are free only when they are housed; and they are housed only when their abode unfolds rather than enfolds itself.” This seems to confuse electorates with suburbia, and to a venture a more spiritual equivalent of the nineteenth century view that the vote should have a property qualification. Harrison pours scorn on Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s endorsement of “Habitat for Humanity”: “What sort of concept of home is operative here? Can safe wiring and running water of themselves redeem the alienation of living in a box?” Even if the answer was not a resounding “yes!,” one would not care to dismiss the homes of millions of people as “boxes,” especially when Harrison’s alternative seems to be merely an airier sort of box: Frank Lloyd Wright’s “metahouse” Fallingwater and his Usonian homes.

Incidentally, Harrison presumes that our age is witnessing the end of forests, the total devastation of the natural environment. This disregards an interesting possibility: that “global warming” will extend the forests in Canada and Russia by liberating the land from glaciers, opening up new arboreal frontiers. The decades have, of course, taken the edge off Harrison’s environmentalism, which had wandered much further from academic clearings than it would necessarily have done today.

Rather than demanding the general replanting of forests, Harrison hopes to redeem the destructive progress of modernity with the insights of the poet, almost approaching Percy Bysshe Shelley’s definition of poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In a variation upon Shelley’s 1821 conclusion that, “we live among such philosophers and poets as surpass beyond comparison any who have appeared since the last national struggle for civil and religious liberty,” Harrison suggests that it is “possible and even likely, then, that our time will be remembered not only for its ecstatic destruction of all that was culturally and historically authentic, but also for the saving efforts of its few – very few – vigilant poets.” He then rather unfairly lays the very salvation of the planet at the feet of poor Andrea Zanzotto, an obscure and provincial Italian poet who apparently pens “catacombal” and “forestial” verses.

Literature has advanced all manner of antitheses and “shadows” to enlightened modernity, from Romanticism to Surrealism, from folklore to science-fiction, and from the animal howls of the Unconscious to the wonder and savagery of childhood. Harrison fails to justify the line that the forest is a privileged archetype, and more than merely one plane against which the shadows of civilisation are thrown. Many great writers and poets, including Herman Melville, Henry James, Sylvia Plath, and Ernest Hemingway have not particularly concerned themselves with forests, and yet Harrison’s analysis would rank such figures as minor or secondary artists; because of their choice of theme rather than their creativity or moral sensibility.

The figures which Harrison himself cites as central to his vision are not particularly inspiring. We are treated to a study of John Constable’s Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree (1820), in which a solitary tree “stands detached, but not estranged, from the forest.” Constable’s “counterpart among English poets” was John Clare, who through poverty and insanity lost everything except his poetic voice (Harrison identifies language, which “stands outside” of nature but is not a conscious human creation, as “the ultimate “place” of human habitation.”) We retreat from the apparently urgent need for political action to the solitary woods around Walden pond, where Henry David Thoreau – a political thinker so crass that he thought he could detach himself from society by refusing to pay taxes – is attempting to begin America again in a forest Wendy-House, and imparting his wisdom in a style “which makes any identification between reader and author ultimately impossible.” If Walden is a “written testimony of the craving for reality,” Thoreau’s achievement was to “defamiliarise his life so as to return to the irreducible loss at the heart of it.” America, of course, has failed to acknowledge this loss:

Its fate… was to sacrifice its freedom to nationhood, to reiterate and exasperate the rage for possession, and to fall into the watery mire of what is not life. Instead of a nation of poets, it became a nation of debtors, property owners, shopkeepers, spectators, gossipers, traffickers in rumor, prejudice, and information – capitalists who in their strange uncertainty about life, pursue the delusions of recovery in their appropriations of everything…

It seems a shame that such a sophisticated work of scholarship should arrive at the age old grumble that the Americans are a pack of greedy capitalists. Moreover, to replace a nation of property owners with poetic architects, or house-building poets, is at the very least vulnerable to accusations of conservatism, provincialism, and nostalgia.