The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #94: The Forest

General Introduction
– Grubbs is back!
– Old English
– Snow
– Listener feedback

Etymology
– Not promising
– Madness and wood

Biblical Forests
– The Epic of Gilgamesh
– Wildernesses and deserts
– Man-eating forests
– Trees clapping their hands
– Joseph the stonemason

Classical Forests
– Forests and mountains
– Centaurs
– Categories of dryads
– Satyrs and the wildness of the forest
– Dionysus’s origin story
– Not just another biome

Medieval Forests
– Nothing changes
– A place for adventures
– No clear borderline
– Wandering without navigation
– The king’s ownership

Renaissance Forests
– The dark wood of error
– Spenser’s catalogue of trees
– The demythologized forest
– Flexibility of identity
– Allusions and illusions

American Forests
– The errand to the wilderness
– Manifest destiny
– Site of deliberate living
– Woods vs. civilization
– The closing of the frontier
– Wild at heart

Conservation and Ecology
– How are our notions changing?
– Ward of the human race
– The role of photography
– Specimen to ecosystem
– Anthropocentrism
– East vs. West
– The forest at war

Theological Turn
– Loss of awe
– Outliving civilizations
– God’s woods

4 thoughts on “The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #94: The Forest

  1. Once again, gentlemen, your MP3 brightened a rather boring day at work for me.
    While listening I had thought I’d mention that a forest had meant primarily a game preserve (and not all of which would, I think, be necessarily wooded).  But one of you did point that out after a while.  In this context, it’s interesting that in Hampshire there’s the New Forest — where King William Rufus was slain.  As I understand it, it was “new” because it was newly claimed as a game preserve by the Crown after the Norman Conquest.  Doubtless, at the time, this meant evictions and the erection of banks to keep the deer in … but not one assumes the planting of trees!
    I haven’t looked the OED to get a historical survey of the use of the words, but it seems to me that in modern English while there are overlapping senses in which the words “wood: and “forest” are used, they are not always used in quite the same way.  I think the main difference, these days, is one of *size*.  Thus I don’t believe one could refer to, say, the Teutoburg Forest — “Give me back my legions, Varus!” — as a “wood”.  Similarly, if I knew a farmer who had a few acres of woodland on his land, or maybe something little bigger than a copse, I might refer to it as Mr. Smith’s Wood, but not, I think, as a “forest”.
    I also suspect that traces of past usage remain.  So if I came across the term a “woodsman” in a novel I would think of someone who perhaps lived in the woods and got some of his livelihood from them.  By contrast, a “forester” would suggest a man employed to *guard* their resources (originally, this would principally mean the game).  It’s interesting that in Britain we have The Forestry Commission, which was a national body set up, IIRC, after WWI to make sure there was enough wood for pit-props for mines and suchlike should there ever be another war (mining for coal, then a major fuel source,  being of military significance in those days).  The FC were responsible for many coniferous plantations and were hated for it — dead woodland where wildlife doesn’t flourish and the birds don’t sing in the opinion of lovers of the countryside and of deciduous woodland.
    By contrast, would “forest” always work in “elevated” or “mystic” contexts?  Could William Morris — all questions of euphony and alliteration aside — have written of The Forest beyond the World?  Could Eliot have spoken of the Sacred Forest?
    I wondered whether James Fenimore Cooper would come into the section on American attitudes to woodland.  Maybe that was an outsider’s expectation.  I’ve an idea that it has been said (by Twain among others) that his language is so verbose and clumsy that he’s something of an embarrassment to the U.S.  i’ve also an idea that he was hugely influential in his time, however.  Someone — maybe Paul Johnson in his history of America — mentions whole villages in Germany turning out to attend readings of Cooper and emigrating partly on the basis of the spell he wove.  IIRC, the Leatherstocking tales begin (_The Deerslayer_) with two men moving through (romanticised) virgin forest, and in _The Pioneers_ reach a sustained meditation on woodland and its resources, who should have them, who are those who would destroy them with their “wasty ways”.  And, of course, there’s a forest fire — seen here as destruction brought about by carelessness and lack of respect for Nature.
    I’m very much looking forward to your episode of the literature of the Great War.  I made something of an effort to read some of this a couple of years ago and covered the usual — Graves, Blunden, etc., as well as some lesser known memoirs and letters.  I even got hold of Kipling’s _The Irish Guards in The Great War_, said to be a labour of love for his fallen son and to have a sombre beauty of its own, but have yet to read it. Kipling has some remarkable short stories about the war, too, hasn’t he?  “The Gardener” in _Debits and Credits_ with its reference to the “thinking he was the gardener” passage seemed remarkable to me:
    http://www.aftermathww1.com/gardener.asp
    You don’t know that Michael isn’t who the lady has said he is until that moment, and the whole story has a different significance in retrospect after that revelation.
    A friend had also said to me that I should read Henry Williamson’s Great War trilogy, and this represents another of my failures to follow up.  I got part-way through the first volume _The Beautiful Years_ and got distracted.  My friend said that Williamson was a far greater writer than was generally recognised and that he would stand much higher if he hadn’t “blotted his copybook” politically.  This he seems to have done particularly because of his WWI experience — Williamson was so disillusioned by the war that he didn’t trust politicians, wanted to avoid another one, and thought Hitler could be trusted since he had been a soldier.  I dunno.  I did read Williamson’s _Salar the Salmon_ recently, and language seemed very beautiful to me, but the WWI trilogy stopped me (too soon perhaps).
    I think the most hair-raising book to come out of WWi might be Ernst Junger’s _Storm of Steel_.  Junger seems to have taken the war as an opportunity to experience the sublime and to enact an rather Nietzschean conception of Herrenmoral.

  2. Seeing as how this episode came on the heels of the “musicals” episode, listening to this episode required the mental discipline to fight off my brain’s attempts to sing lines from Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”  It’s been a while since the last time I saw “Into the Woods”, and I remember it being heavy-handed with the existential stuff (How can we know right and wrong now that we’ve killed The Narrator?), but I seem to remember certain similar themes to your description of Shakespeare’s portrayal of the forest.  The Woods is dangerous (beware of wolves), but also where everything is uncertain and categories are fluid (“Witches can be right, giants can be good”).
    As for a favorite reference to the forest not mentioned in the episode, I’ll go to Robert Service.  I grew up in Alaska, attended Robert Service High School, and Service has long been one of the few poets whom I actually enjoy reading.  Specifically, there was talk about the forest as a source of fear and awe.  In Alaska, the forest remains scary and awe-inspiring because there’s still so MUCH of it, and this is reflected in Service’s poems.  I would nominate “The Law of the Yukon” for a good Scary Forest poem ( http://www.classicreader.com/book/269/5/ ) with a hefty shot of “Mountain men are honest tough-guys and city-dwellers are corrupt wimps” on the side.  The last part of the similarly-named “The Spell of the Yukon” has always stuck with me for the awe-inspiring power of the Alaskan wilderness ( http://www.classicreader.com/book/269/2/) :

    It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,
        It’s the forests where silence has lease;
    It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
        It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

  3. Just catching up on CHP and was listening to
    the episode on forests and was hoping you might take a page from one of
    my favorite contemporary theologians…sigh…thought you might enjoy
    anyway. This is a rewrite of a earlier piece of his (that I then
    couldn’t find). Hope you enjoy.
    “’The Cedar has fallen!’ The Prophetic Word vs. Imperial Clear-cutting” by Ched Myers
    http://www.chedmyers.org/system/files/The%20Cedar%20Has%20Fallen%2C%20The%20Prophetic%20Word%20vs.%20Imperial%20%20Clearcutting.pdf

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *