How Forests Speak

by Anatoli Ignatov and Dinesh Paudel Issue: Fall 2016 Special Issue on Forests

Forests. Forests bring us into contact with ancestral pasts, personal and collective memories and histories, haunted presents, and contingent futures. As complex ecosystems; human, plant, and animal habitats; cultural symbols of nature and wilderness; “natural resources,”; archives of anti-colonial resistance; or sacred abodes of the ancestors, forests emerge as the living embodiments of political struggles and spaces for negotiation of multiple visions of the good life.

This special issue of Cold Mountain Review brings together a talented group of writers, poets, elders, and artists to explore the political, cultural, and socio-ecological lives of forests. Each contribution to the issue makes its own distinctive foray into a richness and diversity of forest representations and relations that no editorial can explore in its entirety. In what follows, we will focus on a few select themes that draw some of the pieces together and reveal forests as places of power and resistance. These themes highlight how forests shape our ideas of what it means to be human in ways that gesture towards more eco-egalitarian, postcolonial, and sustainable worlds.


The Double Life of Nature

Nature shapes the human world as it is shaped by us. Forests are both given and made, cultivated and wild, and these processes of cultivation are often linked to Euro-Western models of selfhood and nature-society relations, which need to be troubled in order to reveal anthropocentric and colonial habits of perception and action. Whether it is Chris Azaare’s veneration for reciprocating Yaba-tissi (ancestral trees) or Linda Hogan’s love for the beautiful smell of the black walnut tree, a number of contributions explore people’s relationships with trees as windows into broader interdependencies between social identities and natural processes. For Hogan, logging itself constitutes a settler-colonial relation of theft and dispossession. This is a view shared by Gary Snyder in his poetic indictment of the power entanglements between logging and empire (see the essay by Leon Lewis). For Azaare, cutting down the Gurensi sacred grove embodies the erosion of African traditional lifeways under the influences of Christianity and modernization in Ghana.

These interdependencies between socio-cultural identities and forests take multiple forms in the issue. For Mary Jacobsen, trees become a source of ethical self-discovery. Eamonn Wall and Sara Rich speak of human descent from the woods and rebirth from the earth. Azaare’s ancestors return to live with their living relatives in the village as sacred groves, baobab trees, crocodiles, and pythons. In the age of the Anthropocene, the nature/society distinction remains crucial to contemporary socio-economic inequalities and yet difficult -- even impossible-- to sustain. What is a forest and what differentiates it from the human world? How do the stories that forests tell and the stories that we tell ourselves about forests shape our collective identities as humans and political beings?  How do they affect society and our political imaginations?  And how would an enhanced perception of the vitality and agency of forest trees and animals contribute to the "greening" and decolonizing of our thinking about socio-ecological and political change?


How Forests Speak: Love, Spirituality, and Resistance

The issue provides suggestive answers to many of the above questions. Several contributors accentuate the need to cultivate an ability to register and learn the complex language of forests. Forests speak. They tell stories in multiple, diverse voices, only some of which are human. Colonial projects can only succeed if they silence this plurality of voices through institutions and practices such as missionary education, mapping, and the chainsaw. These practices and institutions are enabled by models of selfhood that are insensible to the expressiveness and agencies of nature.

Human language and cultural scripts are inscribed into forest landscapes and are legible to vernacular speakers and knowledge holders. Eamonn Wall prompts us to see trees as an “alphabet laced across the land.” Theo Dorgan reveals the wealth of customary and experiential knowledge about tree uses, botany, and folklore enshrined in the correspondence between trees and the letters of the Irish Gaelic alphabet. Many forest landscapes continue to be haunted by the ghosts of colonial violences. Van Noy recounts stories of the Angel Oak tree at John’s Island in South Carolina and the ghosts of lynched slaves gathering around it. Sara Rich’s swamp is haunted by ghost lights of kids who have been killed at an Indian boarding school in Kansas. In Azaare’s writing, Gurensi sacred groves refuse to accept exotic trees such as mahogany, mango, guava, which were brought by the British and mark the savanna landscape with enduring colonial presences.

Together these ghostly forest landscapes remind us that efforts to decolonize go on long after the political establishment of self-determination. They require an epistemological, cultural, psychological revolution to decolonize hearts and minds. The language of place troubles the colonial idiom of object-nature – the “words of whites” spread through missionary education, as Sara Rich puts it – and makes it acknowledge the subjugated histories and identities inscribed into lively vernacular landscapes.

Forests are already speaking. How to become better attuned to the messages and stories they tell? In Black Walnut, Sweet Blood, Linda Hogan challenges settler colonial perspectives of trees as economic resources and commodities by affirming indigenous kinship with black walnut trees as “beautiful people.” Nature is personified and is “not speechless.” Odor is the language of the black walnut and one has to listen to what the tree says “with heart.” Like Azaare’s Yaba-tissi, Hogan’s trees possess “soul” and “intelligence.” They communicate in multi-sensory ways that no colonial documentation, botanical classification or boarding school can permanently silence. In I-Thou-Tree, Carol J. Adams rethinks her family relationships as an I-Thou world of mutual relation, rather than I-It activities with objects. This includes her relationship with the apple tree, which she petitions for help in the conclusion, in a way that approximates the supplication to the Gurensi ancestral tree. Van Noy’s trees also communicate and “talk through underground mycelial networks.” For Lynn Hoffman, standing still cultivates an enhanced perception of the vibrancy and capacity for dialogue within the life of the forest.  For Gary Snyder, the vitality of the forest is registered through attentiveness to the whisper of Bristlecone Pine, “the Oldest of Beings.”


Commodification of nature

Perhaps the missing piece in this issue is an explicit critique of the ways forests are silenced. Non-hierarchical nature-society relationships and diverse moral economic practices of subsistence and reciprocity are displaced when we cultivate the supremacy of the ideas of progress and growth that are manifested through schemes of accumulation and represented by categories such as raw materials, natural reserves, conservation, national parks, and greeneries. Representing trees and forests as objects important only for human aesthetic and monetary consumption can come to seem like common sense when in fact many other ways of relating to forests are possible.

Such enhanced receptiveness to the liveliness of forests troubles colonial notions of what it means to be human and the way in which such notions structure nature-society relations. It troubles the reproduction of the autonomous, individualized human self, and its separation from broader ecological contexts. It reveals forests not as inanimate objects but as co-agents within a web of socio-ecological interrelationships. The cultivation of attunement to the language and affectivity of forests can be seen as a form of resistance that intertwines love, spirituality, and nonlinear conceptions of time. Hogan’s love and affection for the black walnut tree, her intensified sensory perception of the tree’s smell, allow her to hear and encounter the black walnut dialogically, as a person rather than object. For Hogan, trees are a “sacred world,” and like the Gurensi tingana, they connect humans to greater spiritual agencies and moral orders that have to be respected and reciprocated.

In Sara Rich’s contribution, indigenous resistance to the colonization of the mind by missionary education requires both the resurgence of the Lakota language and return to the nonlinear time of nature’s cycles. Winungna’s escape from the Indian boarding school is enabled by drawing on the earth and indigenous ecological knowledge (the marker tree by the river), and not on the knowledge imparted by Christianity, science, and Euro-Western education. Like Azaare’s tingane, which offers an abode for the dead ancestors, Winungna, a twice-born daughter, embodies the contemporaneousness of past, present, and future and defies the linear temporal logic of Western progress and development. In Ghosts on the Coast, “the dead stay with us” as the ghosts of lynched slaves continue to surround Angel Oak tree. The dead forest left by Hurricane Mathew now is the habitat for the ghosts of climate change, a potent omen for the future. We become better equipped to apprehend how the interlinked histories of exploitation of people and nature curated by dead tree trunks bring us up against other unfoldings of time that gesture toward worlds free from colonial, racial, and economic inequalities and violences. By remembering and recrafting the stories co-told by people and forests, the ensemble of writers, poets, artists, and elders in this issue can play a role in interrupting such power asymmetries and make us more perceptible to what makes us distinctly human in the Anthropocene.