The Word for World is Forest

I have the great good fortune to live amongst magnificent and majestic trees. Among all beings, I feel most at home with the trees. If Nietzsche thought that without music life would not be worth living, in my case I can’t imagine myself living in a world without the trees.

I’ve borrowed the title of Ursula Leguin’s novel for this post because it is true, in fact. (I’ve never read the book, but I love the title). “World” is related to words for forest: Wald or Wold. Strangely enough, so is the word “salvation” and “saviour”, which are related to the Latin “silva” or forest. So, paradoxically, is the word “savage”, which basically means of the forest. That is also the meaning of the name “Dionysus” — He of the Trees, and so he is the “Green Man” of legend.

For shamans, the tree is the closest relative to the human, not the ape. And it would represent a sea-change in our orientation to the earth if we were to know that and understand it, for it is true. The tree figures prominent in mythology for that reason — the World Tree Ygdrasil, axis of the world, as well as the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge in the Eden myth. Quite likely, our affinity with the tree is owing to the functional resemblance of the nervous system to the tree and our evolutionary inheritance from the plant kingdom — the “vegetative nervous system“.

That the plants are sentient, and communicate with one another, is now well-known. And because we share in their life and sentience by virtue of our evolutionary inheritance, we can know them intimately. They respond to our presence and attention as much as we respond to theirs. Here “intersubjectivity” or “inter-being” is as valid and real as it is between humans.

Once you accept as fact the subjectivity and sentience of the trees and plants, then you are in a position to know it directly. By virtue of our shared evolutionary inheritance, empathetic atunement with the inner life and sentience of the tree or plant is possible. This affinity via empathetic knowing is one of the ways by which shamans or Medicine Men and Women acquire their knowledge of the curative and healing properties of plants. This way of knowing we call “empathetic epistemics”. Our “interbeing” or possibilities of intersubjectivity which we call “affinity” is owing to the fact that tree, plant, animal or human, we all arise from the same “field”, the common medium of our being that relates us. Affinity and direct empathetic knowing via intersubjectivity are possible to us by virtue of this common “field” of energy.

The problems of human narcissism and the culture of narcissism is the empathy deficit it causes. In fact narcissism and empathy deficit are synonymous terms. In essence, you are the “field” itself. But in the narcissistic condition, as Blake puts it, “man has closed himself up until he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern”. Awareness is not encased in the skull.

It is not just to the shamans that the sentience and subjectivity of the trees and the plants are directly known. Unconsciously, we are always connected to this same field. Sometimes the poets and artists sense it, and write eloquently about that feeling of affinity. Heidegger sensed it in his walks in the woods. That shared field of energy and awareness is only approximately described in the phrase “web of life” or “biosphere”.

In fact, the so-called Butterfly Effect of Chaos Theory or quantum non-locality or transluminal effect make no sense at all unless the “You of you” is intimately and immediately connected with all that is through this field of common energy and awareness, and this is what is called “soul” or psyche. Coincidentally, the word “psyche” actually means “butterfly”, and in ancient Greece the soul was often symbolised by the butterfly, as Gebser points out in his Ever-Present Origin.

“Soul” is not only what participates in this great field of awareness called “web of life”. It is identical with it. Without it empathetic knowing would be impossible. “To know the thing, you must become the thing you want to know”. That’s the rule of empathy, and it was a fundamental truth of the Hermetic Philosophy. “Thou art that” because your true inner being is inseparable from the great field of awareness, and through this field only is “Ultimate Truth” attainable and realisable, and never by “objective methods” alone.

The trees are, in fact, your next of kin.



9 responses to “The Word for World is Forest”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Should add here that our collective task becomes obvious — to raise what is presently unconscious into the daylight of consciousness.

    But our civilisation is moving in the other direction — the sinking of consciousness into “the unconscious”, for this is where narcissism ultimately leads, as well as materialism and the Mechanical Philosophy. The ideal is the machine and with that comes the sinking of awareness into the inconscient condition of matter and mechanism. This is the negation of empathetic awareness which alone guarantees the continuation of life. In effect, this is non-entity, and complete nihilism.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    The native of our region called the palm tree, our aunt and they know that the palm tree is the only tree that if you cut her head it dies and the divine verse says that I have created for you the trees, the trees that you can not grow them and let you enjoy the varieties of their fruits and to enjoy moving among them and rest in their shadows . the trees that engender in you the awe that ignites in you the empathetic knowing that makes you feel that you are not here in vain and that your appreciative awareness is your ticket to the paradise of the soul.

  3. Dwig says :

    You haven’t missed much by not having read the book. Much as I love Le Guin, this isn’t her best writing. You might find the short story “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” interesting — the “title” character is a sentient forest.

  4. Wayne Ferguson says :

    Lovely piece. I would only quibble with one clause… Perhaps I am mistaken, but I have come to think that our (apparent) “shared evolutionary inheritance” is an epistemological construct instead of an ontological explanation. The claim that “empathetic atunement [sic] with the inner life and sentience of the tree or plant is possible by virtue of our shared evolutionary inheritance” seems inconsistent with (or at least unnecessary to) the claim that “affinity and direct empathetic knowing via intersubjectivity are possible to us by virtue of this common ‘field’ of energy…”. In other words, the common “field” or “energy” is prior to our evolutionary history and in no way dependent on it. Rather, within this field certain forms are represented and the form we usually think of as “ourselves”– i.e. the human form –is able to piece together a natural history and geneology for itself in spatiotemporal terms. This is interesting (and useful!), to be sure, but if taken as an exhaustive account of our nature and origin, is part of the problem you are attempting to expose, is it not? Thanks for your consideration and, if possible, your refutation of this critique. If it seems too obscure or wrong-headed, just address the question of whether or not this shared field or energy is the product of evolution. I am inclined, personally, to think that the reverse is true–that this field is the source of our (apparent) evolution.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Not sure if I’m speaking to your objection here, but the “field” isn’t a spatiotemporal affair. It’s quite identical with Gebser’s “ever-present origin”. In itself, it’s formlessness (and therefore often described as Non-Being or the Big Empty or Void) but from it all forms emerge. That is to say, in Gebser’s terms, what emerges into manifestation from the state of latency and returns to latency is how we perceive “rise” and “fall” in temporic terms, but in effect, time is a perception and interpretation of our biological form. So Gebser doesn’t see evolution as a linear process, but as an “unfolding” from latency into manifestation and a return to latency. That seems to be the old Aristotelian notion of “potens” and “actus”.

      I’ve been dabbling in Lao Tze’s Tao Te Ching lately, and its much the same notion, that the “10,000 things” all arise from the formlessness of Tao. The Tao is their common inheritance and quite likely this is identical with what Heraclitus understood as “Logos”. The traditional symbolisation of that process is “the Golden Flower” (or the Lotus) — the petals all connected to the same source, which is their common inheritance. The Golden Flower is probably the best way to represent Gebser’s own understanding of the relationship of evolution to the source or ever-present origin.

      Not sure if that speaks to your question or not?

      • Wayne Ferguson says :

        It speaks to it very directly (since by “our shared evolutionary inheritance” you do not seem to have Darwinian evolution by natural selection in mind, but something more akin to neo-Platonic emanation or perhaps the dependent co-arising spoken of in some Buddhist circles — is that right?).

        • Scott Preston says :

          What bothers me most about the phrase “natural selection” is that “natural” is not really defined clearly, and is used to exclude subjective states like desire, intent, sentience, and so on. Since when are these “unnatural”?

          It seems that an illicit Cartesian metaphysical dualism is smuggled in in the phrase “natural selection”. Well, I can agree only when “natural” also includes internal factors in evolution. But the game is rigged to ensure that internal factors are excluded.

  5. Sue says :

    Reminds me of the reference in the book of Revelation about the trees being for the healing of the nations in the time after the apocalypse.

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