Already in the time of Tacitus, the barbarians of Germany looked to the forests of the past as the cradle of their race, just like the myth of Arcadia, in Virgil’s Aeneid, turns to a remote era in which men were born from oaks. Tacitus reminds us that certain woods were the places where “the god king of all things reigns, all subject to and obedient to him”. These woods, according to Tacitus, were also the places of theophanies.
Currently, the German “great possession” is literally dying. Those healthy “well rooted trees and trunks, rich in sap, which organically assimilate air, water, light and earth to maintain their shape and individual life” are turning into “dry and fallen branches” of poverty, in a slow process of biological decay. Despite all the efforts of the German Greens to pass the forests as the heritage of the homeland and the guardians of its spirit, there is not much that Germany can do about what they call the Waldsterben, the death of the forest, because the tree death is caused by acid rain. Acid rain knows nothing of national borders, cultural unity or common possessions.
Meanwhile, the German nation has been put back together, like brothers whose severed heads are reattached to the trunk. That political reunification can reunify the ancient German forests is doubtful; otherwise it would have to be concluded that such resuscitation depends on something more than a miraculous root or a witch’s wand.
It was not only the prehistoric forests of northern Germany that harbored the gods. Even in historical times most of the temples were surrounded by a forest that extended in the immediate vicinity. Sometimes the wood was a temple. From the iconography we take that a single tree, or a group of trees, was sometimes surrounded by a wall that delimited the space of the temple. The devotees came in procession and invited their goddess to appear ecstatic dancing around the sacred tree. At the height of their ecstasy, the goddess would reveal her presence. Rituals like these testify to the existence of a very widespread tree cult in the various pagan religions. Thanks to the research carried out by Sir Arthur Evans we know that in Crete, for example, the spirit of the sacred trees was guarded by wooden or stone pillars. In the Sapphic entitled Mycenaean Tree and Pillar Cult, Evans reconstructs the rituals by which the spirit of a tree was transferred to, or made to dwell in, a column.
Walden brings this loss to mind. In fact, experiencing loss means living poetically, knowing that we do not own the world we inhabit precisely because we have not yet found the hunting dog. Where, if not in nature, can we learn to subdue nature and thereby attain our humanity – our finite yet open transcendence in its outcome? Thoreau speaks of “living wisely”, of living life for what it is and not for what it is not. This requires that one “stop at reality” and then end one’s “mortal career”. The conclusion of a mortal career does not come to the end of it, but is already implicit in it from the very beginning. Such a conclusion does not belong to the kind of “quick conclusions” of those who imagine that the Walden Pond is bottomless, or who in their uncertainty assume that our main purpose on earth is to give glory to some other world. It consists in the awareness of the fact that all there was to lose has already been lost and that therefore life is given, or condoned, free of charge.
When a mortal career ends, a fact of life makes us aware that there is something instead of nothing, that nature has no human reason to exist, and that we live in the identity of loss. This self-knowledge, and this alone, is freedom.
But wasn’t it precisely this poetic freedom that America promised to those who voluntarily abandon themselves to the seas of departure? Wasn’t America discovered precisely in the hope of amnesty? For some reason, it was not America’s destiny to become herself, to build her home on the foundation of a loss that could have been found. Rather, her destiny was to sacrifice her freedom to the idea of nation, to reproduce and exasperate the fury of possession and to fall into the chaos of no-life. Instead of a nation of poets, it has become a nation of debtors, owners, shopkeepers, spectators, gossips, chatterers, prejudices and information-capitalists who in their strange uncertainty about life pursue the illusions of a find by appropriating everything.
In its continuous flight from the conclusions of a mortal career, America has become not the caput mundi of poetic freedom, but the caput mortuum of modernity: capitalism has turned into a skull. America will forever be what it has not become, and Walden will remain its uninhabited home.
From Robert Harrison, Forests – The shadow of civilizations, and It. Garzanti 1992
This book is one of those that straighten, illuminate, purify, convert the Mind to truth. It is a philosophical text that sets you apart from the ignoble destroyer, in any place, just like in a large, miraculously unspoiled forest. My sad century spared none, and where the city was it sowed forests of skyscrapers and asphalt jungles, and the story of the loss of forests is parallel and indistinguishable from the story of the loss of the conquering man. To the destroyers of forests we owe the evocation of Némisis and the frightening multiplication of blinded multitudes (today we are seven billion avid geophages around this stripped bone Earth that we call growth their deprivation of real life) which between the nineteenth and the twentieth created a unlivable world, and the forests with their gods and spells are no more than matter for the monoindustry of decay.
Read Robert Harrison’s Forests: it will shame you and make you, perhaps, less passive, less predatable by the forces of Evil.
Taken from: Guido Ceronetti, I salute you my cruel century, and Einaudi 2011