Lifted and Lost; Encounters with Forests

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Lifted and Lost; Encounters with Forests

By J.J. Fellows

An exploration of why we find aesthetic pleasure in forests.

There's almost a tangible weight to forests. A weight that pulls one down, though not unpleasantly—at least not necessarily so. Why do so many people flock to the woodlands each year? Why do we seek immersion in trees, surrounded by bugs and camp fires that only partially cook our food? In short, what is aesthetically pleasing about forests? Why do we seek out this weight?

One answer can be found quite readily: we are the cousins of creatures who swing from the trees, rarely setting foot on the forest floor. We have forests written into our DNA. And yet, humanity has invested a great deal of effort since leaving the forests in trying to divide ourselves from them. What is civilization, if not an effort to separate humanity from nature? As a result, we have a connection and a fundamental disconnection with forests, and this tension is well-worth exploring. In spending time in forests we learn something about their nature, but we also learn something about ourselves. In literary circles this experience is described as the experience of the Other, something that is in one sense quite familiar, but in another sense fundamentally alien. Ondrej Dadejik and Vlastimil Zuska speak of forests in these terms in their article “More than a Story: The Two-Dimensional Aesthetics of the Forests”. We belong in nature, yet on the other hand we don't belong. We have defined ourselves as not belonging. We have understood our relationship with nature as one of opposites. So, to find ourselves immersed in the forest is to find ourselves at odds with ourselves.

There are, Dadejik and Zuska suggest, two ways of dealing with this tension. The first—and most common—way is to explain the forest in human terms “where natural forms and scenes begin, for example, to express human emotions—the forest becomes sinister, the sky sad, and so forth.” (42) Unable to deal with the forest on its own terms, Dadejik and Zuka claim we often resort to understanding the forest in a human-centered way. But there is a second way to deal with the tension; we can come to see the woods on their own terms. “[A] special place is held by the situation in which it is not nature that is 'humanized' but the human spectator who is 'naturalized' . . .” (42) If we are able to accept the forest on its own terms, we can come to know something about ourselves apart from who we are in a civilized context. This might well explain why so many people flock to the woods each summer for hikes and camping trips. Forests offer the opportunity for self-exploration.

But this answer may strike some as overly narcissistic. The woodland is appealing in a wider way than simply because it teaches us something about ourselves. There is a humbling quality to forests that goes beyond merely being confronted with the contradictions in our own human nature. Jose Ortegay Gasset in his book Meditations on Quixote notes this as well. In speaking of forests, he claims, we are always speaking of something that is only partially experienced.

"I have now around me as many as two dozen oaks and graceful ashes. Is this is forest? Certainly not. What I see here is some trees of the forest. The real forest is composed of the trees which I do not see. The forest is invisible nature—hence the halo of mystery its name preserves in all languages." (59)

The experience of the woods extends beyond the visual. In all the ways it is possible to sense, we can sense the expanse of life and the mysterious growth happening at every level, from the smallest single-celled organism to the large, slow and ponderously growing trees. The forest surrounds us, hidden behind the trees that close us in. Being in forests is, in a sense, losing ourselves in something so much vaster, so much greater than any individual human. This makes forests not only a place where we are confronted with ourselves, but also a place where we are confronted with the hidden and the mysterious. Not only confronted with the mysterious, but lost to it.

Woodlands are not only mysterious in terms of size and scope, but also in terms of time. Holmes Rolston III in his article, Aesthetics Experience in Forests, points out that the trees in an old growth forest in North America may well predate the arrival of Columbus. “Forests take one back through the centuries; or, put another way, they bring the historic and prehistoric past forward for present encounter.” (157) Rolston calls this deep time. Forests immerse us in a time-scale so radically unlike the time-scale humans are accustomed to. We measure time in years and decades. Perhaps a handful of people will see a century. But forests measure time in centuries and millennia. Our small, fleeting lives are dwarfed by the immense time-scope of the trees around us. This quality of forests does not seem to offer an opportunity to self-explore. When we recognize this deep time, it is far from narcissistic. It is humbling.

Rolston gives a vivid example of this humbling ability with reference to the Petrified Forest in Arizona:

"The Petrified Forest is not far from the Grand Canyon, and comparisons give perspective. The Canyon rocks are old, the older the further down one descends; but the Canyon itself was cut in the last five or six million years. So the ancient pines were living long enough ago for the Grand Canyon to be cut and re-cut again some forty-five times over!" (158)

This is a time-scale that it is just not possible to humanize. Forests outstrip our experience and imagination. When it comes to a time-scale, the woods must be accepted on their own terms if they are to be understood at all. This again leaves us immersed, lost both in time and space. There is, then, something about the woods that inspires a respectful humility. Rolston notes that “were civilization to collapse, the forests would return.”(159) This makes forests not only old and majestic, but also powerful and dangerous.

While there is an undeniable beauty about forests, there is also something a little dark, a little sinister, about leaving our civilizations, and entering these spaces. Deep shadows blur boundaries and distort shapes. Sounds are muffled and indistinct, making it difficult to locate origins. Dangers may lurk around any corner, adding a tension to the peaceful quiet found deep within the woods. But this danger, this tension itself, is another part of the attraction of forests. Forests are not only places full of life, they are also places full of death. “The darkness shadowing life is as much the source of beauty as is light or life.” (Rolston III, 164) Perhaps this is because forests are honest. The beauty and the cruelty are both exposed for consideration in a way that is often avoided in civilization. This illustrates another way immersion in forests challenges our sense of self. They lead us not only into humility, but also honesty.

All these considerations of the aesthetic power of the woods share one thing in common; forests challenge us to transcend ourselves, transcend our lives, transcend our humanity. They ask us to step out of civilization, out of our time-scale and out of our civilized perspective of the world which tends to highlight the safe and comforting and hide the dangerous and deadly. Forests will do all of this, if we will let them, if we will meet them on their own terms. “In common with churches, forests, like sea and sky, invite transcending the human world and experiencing a comprehensive, embracing, realm.” (Rolston III, 164) This final answer is perhaps the simplest; forests are aesthetically appealing because they are spiritual, in the fullest sense of that term. We seek them out for the same reasons we seek out other methods of spirituality. The weight of the forests lifts us up.

Works Cited:

Dadejik, Ondrej and Zuska, Vlastimil “More than a Story; The Two-Dimensional Aesthetics of Forests” Estetika; The Central European Journal of Aesthetics vol 47 no 3. 2010. Pp. 27-50

Gasset, Jose Ortega Meditations on Quoxite (Champion; University of Illinois Press) 2000.

Rolston III, Holmes “Aesthetic Experience in Forests” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol 56, no 2. 1998. Pp. 157-166