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.