What’s Going on in the Woods? Secrecy and the Study of Forest-Texts
Ideally, forests are environments in which secrets flourish as well as trees. But they don’t let humans in (quite literally) on their hidden life. For human ears, they remain stubbornly silent. To understand trees we need translators, that is, humans who speak and write for them. In order to avoid too many things getting lost in translation, writing and speaking for trees must be scrutinized not only by those who know trees but also by those who know texts.
The recent surge of books promising to decode, unveil and uncover The Secret Life of Trees, The Hidden Life of Trees and lead the reader Inside the Secret World of Plants forms the latest of many attempts to enter a world that is and will remain utterly strange to humans. With the ongoing destruction of woodlands in mind, they speak also to a heightened desire to protect the ground on which all life depends. Appreciating forests and trees, understanding and popularizing the complex symbiotic entanglements that thrive away from human influence is, no doubt, a worthy and necessary endeavor. Yet, there is a twist: By revealing a secret, the secret as such ceases to exist. But if secrets are a vital part of forests and trees, does the urge to uncover them threaten ecosystems even further? How can more interest in forests unfold without disturbing these environments even more? Is the desire to know each and everything about the secret lives of nonhuman others more than just another instance of human dominance? Can secrets be revealed and protected at the same time? These are questions that have no place in a strictly scientific inquiry and yet they must be asked because they not only touch on the ways in which we communicate vegetal capacities and environmental politics, but also the ways in which knowledge about trees is produced. They point to the ethics of scientific research (Is it worth entering an ecosystem or felling a tree to study it?) and decision making (Do we need to know “everything” about a given system in order to decide what to protect and what to consume?).
Sylvan ecologies are rich and complex, if left to their own devices. But their very abundance is unnerving if one does not feel privy to it. There is so much going on, so many relationships, so much growth, so much that cannot be seen—apparently, that is too much for humans. It is the fact that forests are doing very well on their own, that renders them precarious because it doesn’t audibly protest the still prescient illusion that resources are endlessly available and it makes it all too easy to ignore the possibility of their collapse.
A forest consists of much more than trees: in the shadow of the giant plants grow ferns and brambles; mushrooms and epiphytes create, with the trees, a three-dimensional space of life that grows deep into the ground. The secrets that grow along are more-than-human. Long before plant communication and intelligence became a research topic, humans entering forests sensed that there was something going on that exceeded the seemingly silent existence of plants and fungi.
Stories—myths, fairy tales and even literature in a modern sense—retain a knowledge of this secrecy that precedes philosophical and botanical endeavors by far. Both the dangers and potentials of secret ecologies and ecological secrecy are part of a vast system of narrative and poetic conversations that enable and structure human-tree relationships. In his seminal study, Forests. Shadow of Civilization, Robert Pogue Harrison lays out the dark history of human-forest-relationships “from mythic origins to deforestation”. Building on Giambattista Vico’s myth of origin in Nuova Scientia, Harrison conceptualizes the forest as a necessary ‘outside’ to human civilization: To become ‘civilized’, humans needed to literally clear the forest. Canopies prevented humans from gazing at the skies and thus they needed to go. As Harrison notices, this is a highly allegorized way of looking at human-tree-relationships, but it is incredibly powerful as a red thread in the retelling of the history of civilization as a history of deforestation. Civilization as a phenomenon that realizes itself in a conceptual and literal forest clearing must ban forests to the ‘provinces’ of the human world. There, forests provide shelter to all those nonhuman and human ‘outlaws’. Robin Hood and the big bad wolf share the woods with the lovers in Shakespeare’s comedies and wildlife in need of a ‘natural sanctuary’. Yet, the more civilization expands, the more it consumes its own shadow. A world without its shadow might be entirely enlightened and ‘rationalized’, but it ceases to be a world. The darkness and secrecy, the uncertainty and wildness of what happens outside of the domain of ‘civilization’ guarantees no less than the ability (for humans) to inhabit the world (as humans). Even in literary and cultural terms that means: There is no (civilized) life without forests.
“The outlaws, the heroes, the wanderers, the lovers, the saints, the persecuted, the outcasts, the bewildered, the ecstatic—these are among those who have sought out the forest’s asylum in the history we have followed throughout this book. Without such outside domains, there is no inside in which to dwell.”*
In this cultural history the forest is home to humans precisely because it becomes an outside to ‘civilized’ life. Without it, we become refugees without hope to find sanctuary. Even in this very condensed version, Harrison’s conclusion sounds all too familiar. Forester Peter Wohlleben’s bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees also stresses the communicative and caring capacities of trees in order to give humans one more reason to protect them. This has become the desperate undertone of many of the texts concerned with the secrets of nonhuman life—if only we knew how to listen, to see, to understand that we need the forests to dwell, we might finally be convinced that we have to leave room for the forests to thrive. Despite the frustrating frequency with which the call for this one thing we need to understand or know in order to ‘care’ for our environments has been issued and overheard since the nineteenth century (at least), the discourse about forest secrecy offers a unique mix of science and story-telling. While Harrison’s plea to let forests be in order to protect our own ‘civilization’ echoes ideas of ‘sustainability’ on a cultural level, Wohlleben and others offer another reason to protect the trees: they are like us. They care, they talk, they feel, we just didn’t know. Why would we destroy them? Again, this presumes all too optimistically that humans hear pleas to protect those who are like them, but it isn’t enough merely to declare Wohlleben naive in his humanizing efforts.
Richard Powers, whose widely successful novel The Overstory goes even further than Wohlleben’s book and has the trees themselves call humans to their aid, and so fictionalizes the effect that a book such as Wohllebens could have. In The Overstory a forest ecologist named Patricia Westerford (who resembles the actual forest ecologist Suzanne Simard) writes a book called The Secret Forest. The way in which Powers describes it makes it sound like the epitome of secret-life-of literature, but what it does makes it interesting: it’s less a plea or explanation than a connector, an instrument of recognition for those willing to acknowledge the capacity of nonhumans to have secrets, to lead a life worth living and to assume the right to exist. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter whether the science in such a book is right or which means of story telling a given author uses, but that the book itself serves a purpose beyond entertainment and education (a very Enlightenment idea of literature) is crucial. It helps with recognizing trees and it helps with recognizing tree people. In Powers’ novel this leads to a powerful political movement that has yet to materialize. But it resonates with humans sitting in trees, hugging them to protect them from chainsaws, with teenagers taking to the streets to demand a future. The stories, the books they share are important. Not least, this reflects back on the ways in which we, and now I mean academics, talk about forests and trees. Who gets to say what and where and who can claim to ‘know’ what trees and forests are?
It would be all too easy to dismiss the ubiquitous secrets in book titles as no more than a trendy marketing tool, that is, reducing it to a rhetorical gesture. Capitalizing on the lure of secrets is only one aspect of the equation. I am convinced that there is more to it: a desire to marvel at what has been happening all along, a willingness even to let nonhuman others reclaim agency in a world that bears the traces of human interference in the most remote places. Asking for the secrets of the forest offers a narrative space in which plants and humans meet as equals. It is a utopian space that, no matter how much an author might insist on speaking strictly from a scientific, political or imaginative point of view, refuses the (human) boundaries of disciplines and discourse. Instead, it entangles and complicates human organization and threatens to reveal one of our best kept secrets: we are not in control.
I can feel scientists stirring in their seats when I write things like this, I am supposed to rein in the blatant universalism of my claims by stating: “This is a literary perspective. This happens only in books. You are in charge of the science, I am in charge of the stories.” But I won’t, because it makes sense to disrupt the orderly disciplinary fashion in which we amass data, interpret it within a disciplinary community and only then deliver it to one another via scientific communication, entertaining pop science and scientifically contextualized fictions. That is not enough and it never was.
Let me be clear: As a scholar of comparative literature, I greatly respect the ways in which scientists, historians and philosophers work and, don’t get me wrong, I have learned to be as territorial as any other academic about ‘my’ field. But if there is one thing that studying trees and forests can teach us it is that separation can only ever be a step of the way, never the goal. Literary and cultural plant studies, as I understand it (and I am in good company), take on a task that is not unlike their ‘subject’, that is, they use their specialized capabilities (analyzing texts, contextualizing narratives and comparing cultural artifacts across time and space) to not only reveal connections and problematize analogies and inappropriate narrativization, but to connect ways of knowing. We are not in the business of revealing secrets. What we can do, however, is making room for secrets and finding ways to speak about them without disrupting the environment of which they are a part. Instead of installing yet another paradigm, we analyze and propose vegetal poetics—ways of organizing knowledge in language according to the subjects of world-making, by focusing on trees (and other plants) a literary and cultural studies perspective must insist on broadening the scope. Asking botanists, ecologists and foresters for their expertise, while at the same time potentially criticizing their texts, is a risky endeavor. But we go both ways and criticize our own ways of producing knowledge in literature as well as literary scholarship, too. Amidst all the critique, hopefully, there emerges a richer and, if not more accurate, than more inclusive image of what we are talking about when we ask for the secrets of plants. There is a utopian potential to those who acknowledge that trees might have secrets, if (and this if is important) they are willing to accept that the trees might refuse to give them away.