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Forests of the mind.

Through the mists of an Oregon valley stalk deities that speak wordlessly of humanity's primeval love-hate relationship with wilderness.

They are like trophies, those big Doug-fir logs mounted on semitrailers rumbling down the Cascade slopes, headed toward the Oregon coast. Each of them is thicker than a man is tall--a giant ramrod of a trunk a third of a football field long. One of the semis pulls onto the interstate ahead of us, hauled by a bright red Mack diesel blatting through the morning-misty flats of the Willamette Valley. "My God," we say, "look at the size of that tree." And we speed by, watching it diminish in the rear-view mirror until at last it is gone from sight--but not yet gone from the hidden creases of our minds.

The awe is genuine, the reference to deity not merely a casual blasphemy, for a god had lived in that tree--a forest god feared and revered from the very beginning of our time on the planet, when protohumans left the forest, stood upright, and with an opposed thumb, a hungry belly, and year-round estrus came to dominate the world. We have been ambivalent about the forest ever since.

Now there is a crisis, a crossing point in history that perhaps goes beyond mere economics: Members of the species have taken to arguing with one another about whether we fell certain trees, in Amazonia or Oregonia, or leave them uncut (the argument was settled for that one Douglas-fir, of course) so that ecosystems can remain in balance for the sake of posterity. Accordingly, it is not altogether idle to speculate about what seems to be driving the controversy, for it brings murder and hatred. Chico Mendes is dead in Brazil, killed by those who would clear the forest for farming. In the lumbertown barrooms of the Pacific Northwest, violence is promised if the old-growth cannot be cut.

Is this just about money? Jobs for a tiny fraction of woods workers living in out-of-the-way places as rubber tappers or chainsaw operators? Or is something deeper going on in human consciousness, in our apperception of what a forest is, shaped by ancient needs and fears that lie too deep for cognition but are yet remembered?

Forest. The word means, simply, "the out of doors." From the Latin fores, coined in the days when most of known Europe was forested, not yet cleared or grazed off to become cropland, meadow, brackened moor, or a dry, rocky steep bordering the Mediterranean sea. Yet by the time of the Renaissance, the forest had been decimated--for firewood, furlongs, grazing land, timber for houses, and the insatiable demands for masts, keelsons, framing members, and planking for ships of the line and the merchantmen. It became a king's prerogative to set valued tracts of the dwindling forested land aside for his exclusive use. "A certain territory of woody grounds and fruitful pastures," an English legal scholar described the royal forests in 1598, "privileged for wild beasts and fowls of forest, chase, and warren to rest, and to abide there in the safe protection of the king for his delight and pleasure."

In modern Italian, forestiere means "stranger"--someone from another country. And so the forest is also a place of strangeness. Our own word foreign comes from the same root. And why wouldn't the forest seem foreign? Our species, homo sapiens and the collateral hominids, did not arise in the forest anyway. We are of the savanna--short grass and scattered trees--so perhaps we should be unsurprised that we feel so ambivalent about the jungles. Those other apes live there.

Prehistorians can date our ancestors with certainty to 3.5 million years ago in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. Some believe we date back even farther--to 5 million years. Thus the good place for humans during all but a tick on the geological clock (to account for the most recent period when this clever, ambitious species migrated from its place of origin to occupy niches not inherently suitable) has been in landscapes of short grass and scattered trees. Here our upright posture and keen vision allowed us to locate prey at great distances with clear lines of sight through the separated trees down to the lakeshore or river's edge from our hillside perch. It works the other way, too. Our adaptation to the savanna habitat (it was then a bit more wooded and lush than the driedout East Africa of today) enables us to spot the animals wishing to prey upon us soon enough to elude them (by climbing one of those trees) or kill them in self-defense.

Every species has a "right" habitat, and the savanna is ours, the open woods, not the deep forest. It may be revealing that in cities and suburbs we call natural areas open spaces, in the jargon of land-use planning, even though for the most part the open space is thick with trees. Ostensibly the word open means not built upon, but it could also strike a deeper, wishful chord relating to the most elemental needs for safety and food that the savanna habitat in the place of our origin provided.

As for those curious people who returned to the dense forest--the pygmies of the Congo, for example--they prefer open space, too. According to anthropologist Colin Turnbull, their hatred of the forest is so intense that they clearcut wide areas for their villages and build their huts without windows so that they cannot see the dark, imprisoning walls of trees. "They tried to ignore the world around them," Turnbull writes of one such village in his book, The Forest People, "because for them the forest was hostile, something to be feared and fought."

To a remarkable degree, the ancient aversion to deep forests and a pronounced preference for open woodlands and savannas have shown up in the research undertaken by environmental psychologists. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, from the University of Michigan, recently aggregated a number of studies (including their own, over the 25 years they have been leaders in the field) that use a technique favored by researchers which involves asking respondents to react to slides or photographic prints of different kinds of landscapes. As reported in The Experience of Nature, the Kaplans found that people from all walks of life tend to prefer what the Kaplans term open forest, followed closely by parkland, to any other kind of scene--whether natural or of the "built" environment.

In one study, conducted by John Falk, an ecologist, with psychologist J.D. Balling, children of various nationalities brought up in many different locales were asked what kind of "place" they preferred. Falk told me that the children were shown pictures of a savanna, a deciduous forest, a coniferous forest, a rainforest, and a desert. Among the youngest children (between eight and 11) there was a marked preference for the savanna. Older children tended to like the picture of the kind of place where they were brought up as first choice, but second choice was usually a savanna, too.

On the negative side, psychologists have found that among natural scenes, those most disliked are "blocked" views of dense woodlands on the one hand, or completely open landscapes on the other--deserts, bogs, marshes, prairie, or cropland. If the woods are unblocked--with spaces between the trees and pathways, perceived or actual, into the scene--then the preference ratings go way up. Researchers report that the blocked views of thick woodlands produce a sense of fear or unease, while an open woodland where a respondent might adduce a means of access, of walking through the woods safely, does not.

It would appear that our psychological reactions to habitat may not be much different than they were millions of years ago when our hominid ancestors gathered around savanna campfires to exchange the news of the day while munching on a roasted rib of eland. The extremely open spaces promise a difficult hunt. The extremely thick woods are dangerous to the hunter. The good place is the open woods, the complex yet legible landscape that the experienced hunter can read and that we instinctively reproduce in our lawned gardens and savanna-like parks and cemeteries.

Instinctive attitudes can, however, be modified by experience. For the past 10 years, the Kaplans, with financial backing from the U.S. Forest Service, have been conducting studies on how we respond to the deep wilderness. In this work, slides are not used, but rather the direct experience of respondents in what the psychologists call a "wilderness laboratory." The venue is the Outdoor Challenge Program (modeled on the English Outward Bound schools) held in the McCormack Experimental Forest in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

At the beginning of each session, the Kaplans' respondents voiced the expected fears and concerns about the deep woods--the dangers from bugs and snakes and wild creatures, getting lost, the possibility of injury or death from falling or drowning. But by the end of the two-week session, after participants had "learned" the ways of the wilderness and discovered that they could survive, they found the forest a much more agreeable habitat. "It's quiet and very peaceful," said one youngster. "I am glad to be here. It's not scary at all." Others likened their immersion in the wilderness to something akin to a religious experience. "The quest for tranquility, peace, and silence resonates with what in a religious context might be considered serenity," the Kaplans conclude.

And well it might, for the relation of religion to the forest has had a long run in human history. It turns up, for example, in houses of Herculaneum, the Roman resort town that, like neighboring Pompeii, was buried under a thick blanket of volcanic material when Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79. Unlike the ash that covered Pompeii, however, what fell on Herculaneum formed a compact mass of hard, tuffaceous matter 60 feet deep that preserved the town embedded within almost as perfectly as amber preserves an insect. Excavation did not begin until the 18th century, but archaeologists found the houses and their wood frameworks intact, the furniture like new, even recognizable food on the table. And on the inner walls of the houses, frescoes commissioned by the wealthy owners remained bright and almost free of blemish.

What has intrigued scholars is how many of the frescoes depict "the sacred grove"--a representational woodland where Diana, goddess of the forest, dwelt. Diana, the versatile tree spirit, huntress, bringer of sunshine and rain, fructifier of earth as well as women, would seem to be among the most significant of the gods for these builders of empire.

Here the smooth Beach and rev'rend Oak entwine

And form a Temple for the Pow'rs Divine:

So Ages past from ancient Bards we've heard,

When Men the Deity in Groves rever'd.

A Tow'ring Wood superior in its Kind,

Was to the worship of the Gods assign'd.

As these lines from an anonymous English poem composed circa 1773 suggest, the concept of forest deities residing in a sacred grove of "Tow'ring" woods arose in all cultures. According to the great Scottish anthropologist, Sir James Frazer, among the Druidic Celts the "old word for sanctuary [in its primary definition as a place of worship] seems to be identical in origin and meaning with the Latin nemus, a grove or woodland glade."

In Assam in northeastern India, the Aryan Mundaris designated a sacred grove for each village. They believed that if a tree within the grove were cut down, the forest gods would withhold the rain. In Germany, says Frazer in The Golden Bough, the oldest sanctuaries were natural woods. Such is the spiritual power of the forest.

It is perhaps no wonder that the Christian kings, beginning in the Middle Ages, sought to arrogate forest divinity to themselves by asserting exclusive use over designated parks and chases. Today's royalty, which within republican nations are those who have accumulated great wealth, tend to do the same thing: to designate large tracts of forested land as a "nature" sanctuary (in this context a tautology), ostensibly for philanthropic reasons but often to assert divine hegemony as decisively as any Norman king. Where public access is not barred outright, it is often discouraged by the simple expedient of keeping the existence of the place quiet and the dark paths and trails unwelcoming to all but the most dedicated worshiper in search of a sacred grove.

And so it goes. The forests of the mind are cluttered with genetically derived instincts overlaid by contrary cultural traditions that have accumulated for millennia. And there are modern notions that must be overlaid as well, including the supremely rational views that derive from environmental considerations. But even these can be limned in the mirror of our history. The great intact forests of the world are needed to maintain climate-regulating carbon balances, we are told. Without its trees, the planet's temperature will rise, the weather become unpredictable. Scientists are alarmed and seek technical explanations as the forests are felled.

But we know something of retribution that has to do with matters of the spirit. We have cut the trees of the sacred groves, and the rains have not come. The cropland lies dry and cracked at summer's end. "Save the trees!" we cry. And yet the ancestral urge within us, deriving from our long stay in the African savanna, feeds our primordial fear of the forest. "Cut it down," say the genes! "Burn it if necessary! Make clearings!" The tiger's eye glows yellow in the night.

Oh, Diana, where are you now that we need you? You would know that the controversy about forests concerns more than board-feet of timber, more than numbers of acres cleared for crops.

Checking the rear-view mirror, we move to the right lane and exit I-5 near Corvallis. The mist is burning off now, as it does in Oregon, despite what they say about rain there. It has become a fine day. We swing around the cloverleaf, pause at a long stoplight, then minutes later take the overpass back across the highway. It is just a coincidence, we suppose, but beneath us the red Mack diesel roars under, the great dead tree in tow. As it moves down the highway, the spirit within it, so we imagine, vanishes upward, into the sun.

Charles Little of Kensington, Maryland, is the author of many books and articles on conservation and the environment.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Forests
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Little, Charles E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1991
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