foto by Erik Krause

Man in the forest

"Do you think perhaps, my little brethren, that Paradise be something else but this earth become virtuous?" (St.Francis)

The climax vegetation of the earth is forest. That means that tree cover is the least temporary landscape on the earth; all other landscapes, whether due to climatological and catastrophic causes or resulting from human intervention, are less durable. Different niches exist in more or less permanent fringes, bordering on seas or rivers and cold or warm deserts. Clearings play an important role in biodiversity. Man has evolved from the forest to such fringes, where he could assume a visual superiority over his surroundings, thereby increasing his chances of group survival. Having established his dominion over the animal world, man went on fighting man (the reason maybe for it all from the start), and having beaten him had to keep an eye on what had been conquered. In a forest the enemy could hide and keep fighting and hitting back. That’s why such conflicts often ended with the slashing and burning of woods and crops. Political power needed bareness and civilisation developed in landscapes with vista’s. But this is past history, because forests hardly shield adequately combatants anymore, and as a consequence there is no sound tactical motive left for not having them. What is left is no more but a habit, a (agri)cultural compulsion towards a certain amount of horizon in our lives, although scyscrapers and even one’s neighbour’s house would thwart that kind of compulsion for what is now a majority of people. This hunger for horizon persists however: most documentaries on tv are concerned with open space, the most popular among them describe the life of big mammals in the savannah or in the sea, the same being true for landscapes depicted in glossy magazines. The problem will be how to conciliate this compulsion with living in a forest, amidst tree giants. The very herd of elephants shown in our documentary film, roaming the plains, going from one watering place to the other, cannot be filmed hidden amongst the trees, which is the environment where it had been heading for in the first place.

Nevertheless man has been living for the most part of his history within forests. We have only to delve a little bit deeper in order to find archetypal forests and trees in our inner landscapes. The fear dark forests inspire is a definitely later contribution of civilisation. Forests, up to a recent past, covered the earth to a much larger extent than they do nowadays. Two thousand years ago temperate Europe was still under a blanket of trees of all kinds. Ten thousand years ago Palestina was covered in dense giant oak and terebinth stands. As we have seen before, in this latter case, the domestication of sheep, antelopes and goats led to their destruction. Having a rich meat and milk source at his disposal, even if there was a price to pay for it, enabled man to gather into important nomadic communities, which became increasingly mobile as the herds became bigger and the need for pastures grew. Pigs, although they had been domesticated even earlier, became now less popular and instead of tending trees and rearing pigs, these societies invented agriculture, that is a method of getting a staplefood from fieldgrown crops. Rich, irrigated lands produced storable crops which could sustain an important sedentarised population, living in ever larger villages which developed into cities, where a wide variety of professions came into being, amongst which soldiers, who were able to force the nomadic tribes living in the neighbourhood into paying tributes and providing meat. Various factors and models have been detailed elsewhere about the origins of civilisation. In my opinion a growing population density in areas with rich crop yields resulted in complex and structured societies with unheard of concentrations of power, for which survival implied competion with and eventually killing and conquering of neighbouring societies. Paradisiac playfulness and tolerance were relinquished and replaced by hunger for power and at the same time by anxious and guilt-ridden psyches man having become his brother’s murderer- albeit on orders from above. The world of the gods became largely a mirror of the preoccupations of this new society. As a result we see a hierarchisation into two distinct classes: an elite, which could cope somehow with these feelings, whereby madness and greed usually were at a premium, and the others, consisting of the less capable or less ambitious who were forced into slavery or lured, through more or less demagogic means, into rewarded subservience with the help of stress reducing drugs (cereals, milk, alcohol and opiates)* and psychologically stimulating social, artistic or religious (afterlife)values. As communities became even larger they grew into complex states, with all the cultural paraphernalia pertaining to them, amongst them a series of already traditional taboos which became widespread as the means of identifying members of such states

The pig had been the companion of the goddess of the dark earth, rich in humus, which had fed man, animal and plant alike, the great Mother to whom it was sacrificed in a ritual of death and rebirth. Her (Demeter’s) gift of grain to mankind (as well as her growing enjoyment in watching men fight), marked her downfall as well as the pig’s. Patriarchal society had no use for swine, for practical reasons but also because their diabolisation reflected the changed status of the woman.

In ancient Egypt the pig was held in contempt, being a crop destroyer, an omnivorous animal which ate excrements and occasionally babies, while at the same time being nasty and almost human and therefore associated with the god Set, a forerunner of Satan. It will not come as a surprise therfore that the pig was banned early in the jewish East as a result of a religious taboo. From 1000 BC onwards pigbones are not found anymore in their households. This taboo spread to other nomadic monotheisms.

There were several reasons for succesfully prohibiting the pig: if it cannot be made into a gentle and placid companion it can be a shrewd and dangerous opponent, difficult to herd and not easily kept in enclosures with the means at the disposal of early agricultural man, and consequently a permanent threat to crops and even granaries; it thrives in forests where the ruling classes a priori have no control over the workers; it can occasion a deadly parasite with human beings, which however is relatively easy to deal with by heating the meat to 60 degrees, and, last but not least, being intelligent and anatomically close to humans -what with its appalling manners-, it can be turned into a representation of evil with superstitious and thus malleable minds.

At first glance we must assume that forests cannot shelter and feed the actual population of the world, but our assumption rests upon the sparsely populated rainforests in the tropics, which harbour dwindling, but freedom loving populations of Pygmies, Indians, Papuans and tiny mountain tribes elsewhere. In other words, it has to be demonstrated whether a forest can be turned into a crop and livestock yielding plot, with a production which would be equivalent or greater than the same amount of land under field crops. At first sight it would seem that a single chestnut or walnut tree produces more valuable foodstuff, with less input and effort, than a patch of cereals of the same size. Whereas chestnuts and a wide variety of nuts and fruits can feed man directly, acorns and other plant material have to be converted into animal protein.

Since a few decades much of the older forests of the earth has been destroyed by irresponsible and illegal logging and burning. This amounts or will amount to a global catastrophe which will impoverish and threaten ecological systems and processes upon which all life is dependent.

An new possibility is offered nowadays by the techniques of agroforestry, which means to combine field and forest crops.

"I imagine ( agriculture ) could be managed, with the huge mechanical means at our disposal, on narrow lanes, the width of a motorway, and almost it’s length, any length in fact, separated from each other by equally wide or wider strips of natural forest, connected with each other here and there by a tunnel.

This agricultural strategy has several advantages: in the first place a forest will consider this kind of strips as no more than an ordinary, a bit lengthy, clearing and will therefore behave as any undisturbed wild forest, providing the necessary biodiversity, and secondly, the cultures grown in these lanes will benefit from the protection of the near-by forest, which will absorb the unbalancedness resulting from artificiality and disrupt the windblown or otherwise propagated spreading of diseases or pests. The cultivating and harvesting of let’s say a hundred kilometre track is moreover a relatively easier job and could also be easier robotised.

Such a revolution will not be possible without authoritarian state intervention. In times of war such an intervention is considered acceptable. The struggle for our survival may be worth such a sacrifice".

So far tragedy has been the soil on which mankind has grown, and anguish the main spur to creative action. Still people do laugh and hope and seek each other’s pleasure. We don’t know what future holds for us, especially with regard to the technical prowesses we may be one day confronted with. If our course towards paradise is some kind of ascending curve, because each generation, each family, and each individual is able to mature through processes and stages towards a greater amount of humility and love, or respect and dignity - come to your senses, man - we shall some day be living close to it. But paradise is mainly forest, and instead of owning our little dreambungalows on mean little garden plots, humans will settle in fairy tale glades, near a river or some other water, much as the small Indian tribes in the Amazon or, alternatively, in comfortable flats in huge highrises (or in sophisticated underground or even floating cities), with a view on their magnificent hanging gardens, and further away on a true jungle or a savannah, a desert, some primeval landscape, accessible to all through nature-friendly technical means. Far away, in regions which have been set apart, a few millions of hectares of high quality agriculture. Unless we be standing, barefoot, on some silver beach, in our hand a pebble giving us access to the universe.

* See the interesting article, elaborating on the presence of exorphines in cereals and milk: The origins of agriculture a biological perspective and a new hypothesis, by Greg Wadley & Angus Martin, published in Australian Biologist 6: 96 105, June 1993

© A.Thyssen, 2001