The Woods – our stories or theirs?

The plants and trees of the world’s forests speak, but in a voice we do not hear: for the most part, we do not know how to listen.  It is all too common among us humans to view the forest as a mere setting in which other, more important human dramas unfold.  ‘The woods’ therefore as a concept becomes charged with metaphor well-exploited by Hollywood popular culture projects, usually to evoke the uncanny, the horrific, the hidden and wild aspects of human experience we shy away from.  However, there are a few examples in which the trees and plants of the forest take on more active roles.    If these movies support a more active engagement with the woods, how then may we walk among them?

Forest of Death, or Sum Yuen, is a 2007 Hong Kong Horror movie in which the plants tell the story of brutalities they have been witness to.

True to human stories, the plants do not speak, but instead are used as Secret-Life-of-Plants-type lie detectors.  Their electromagnetic responses are used to identify a killer and solve a crime.  It would be interesting to view the story from the plants’ perspective:  human animal storm of rage and violence occurs in their midst.  They are, understandably shocked by it, and later experience a stress response when presented with the agent of this trauma.  They are hooked up to machines, fed an electrical monitoring current, and watched closely by other humans who approach them with another human storm of desire, expectation, and skepticism.  Then if they are lucky they are returned to their previous state, and left alone to continue to grow for the rest of the year, a few years, or several decades. There is the occasional human storm rapidly passing through, and countless animal, bird and insect interactions during cyclical weather patterns and day/night respiration.

Certainly this would be a very different movie – one more attuned to documentary films such as Microcosmos, and would require a considerably longer attention span.  However, Forest of Death brings up an interesting point – that of plants and memory.  Our traumatic memories are apparently stored in our muscles and cells, as body stress responses.  A variety of bodywork techniques focus on accessing and releasing these held memories.  If plants do a similar thing electromagnetically, how long can they remember?  If plant communities are closer to a group mind (like slime molds) as I am beginning to think, do remembered stresses become shared throughout the group?

Group mind is hard to fathom for an individual like me, as I identify with ‘my’ memories as being proof that ‘I’ exist as a particular entity.  I once knew a twin who had shared memories with her sister, but the event only happened to one of them.  I also watch animes that deal with animism and identity of various forms, (Miyazaki‘s works, Mushishi, Moyashimon, Wolf’s Rain ), but there is still such a tendency to anthropomorphize other, non-human ways of knowing and being.

If plants remember what has happened both to them and around them, how long do they remember for?  A twisted, knarled yew tree, does it remember the romans?  The countless raping and pillaging happening the centuries? Do ivies remember fires and acts of cruelty from inside the walls they cling to?

This is the theme of the 2006 film The Woods.  The resentful, bitter woods wreak havoc on a New England girl’s school, in search of revenge.  Unfortunately, it ends up being a group of witches manipulating them.  Certainly there are countless other stories, horror enterprises or no – this ‘something’s out there’ tingly feeling, and evil in the woods has been a part of western fairytales since the beginning.  I wonder if this is some sort of sensory data that makes possible communication or communion with the non-human that we in our fear and self-absorbed amnesia feel but cannot acess?   Like avoiding a painful memory, we focus on other things.

Perhaps out of this habit of self-preoccupation, we keep placing people at the centre of the story, serial killers, witches, strange hermits, inbred families.  For sure people can stray far from the status quo when left to themselves in the forest, but these are stories  we have been telling  to ourselves for centuries,  ever since we conceived of wilderness as the untamed grounds beyond the city walls, where survival was a struggle, and man(sic) had to use his wits in a solitary negotiation of the territory.  (Though, in actual fact it was never solitary, and those who survived and flourished were those who listened to the animals and plants around them.)  The wild forest archetype contains a degree of tittilation of having to come to terms with the fact that we can be prey as well.  Like wilderness hiking in BC – you have to keep you wits about you.  What is interesting about bear country to me is how inappropriate the fear response can be to an imagined threat.  That is what these movies are banking on.

Having recently re-watched David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series, I was struck by the problematics of violence against women and the proximity of the woods, in which something strange dwelt.  This was highly sexualized violence,  and was portrayed as wreaked by a disembodied entity, a near -cannibalistic ‘force of nature.’ 

Yet despite this tale of human -female- suffering and murder, what made the show what it was and why it is a gem even now, is the non-linear investigation of both the murder mystery and the relationship the townspeople had with the woods.   Through the idiosynchratic and intuitive navigation by the main character of Agent Cooper, we learn to listen for hidden signs, for the small voices that are easily overlooked.  Slowly the history of the woods unfolds.   In the dream sequences and pinnalce scene, there is a near-incomprehensible logic that cannot readily be perceived, but unfolds with patient witnessing.  This is the time when crucial information is conveyed, but it is in signs, and spoken backwards or not at all. Yet it is ultimately a story left unresolved – it is left hanging and bleeds out of the TV series format, into the thicket of our collective paranoias.

This is not to say these fears are not unfounded.  When I lived in Nova Scotia, it was not unheard of for people to walk out their back door and disappear, making their way back two weeks later suffering from exposure and hopelessly disoriented.  The Eastern woodlands were dense, even before the trees were cut, and grew back denser for being a uniform age and species.  I used to joke about the Eastern woodlands being the site of negotiation, whether between native peoples or colonialists, just because you couldn’t see straight.  It turns out, however, that Nova Scotia is the world capital of people getting lost in the woods.  Tricky to see, tricky to orient, easy to get turned around, not much shelter to be had, and hard to shake the fear.  It is no wonder that asthetically, the landscape genre in the east was portrayed as a site of settlement, of human stories against a background of a forest that had been cleared, that had been wrestled into submission.    (Until  Toronto investors got a hold of the Group of Seven).

On the West coast, the landscape genre assumes an entirely new meaning. I am old enough to remember the few bits of old growth forest that existed on the southern parts of Vancouver Island, and the power and majesty of those woods.  The trees grew tall, but with relatively low underbrush, enabling a much clearer view of the surroundings.  The navigation was at times not easy, but it was an over-and-under adventure of nursery trees and hidden streams and everywhere deep mosses.  It remains light enough to see where you are, and trees are individual enough to remember where you had passed.  The forest was damp, and at times sopping wet, but young cedar trees offered effective shelter.  Pardon me for waxing nostalgic.  I miss it so.   However, being out there in these forests is not a pleasant stroll.  There are bears, cougars, and humans to watch out for.  If you get wet, it can be pretty hard to get dry again.  And there are the winter storms, fantastic and terrifying.  These are alive places.

This is not a human presence, but there is no doubt the forests of the Northwest coast are very alive, with a power all their own.  The few undisturbed  forests are old and vast, with growing on scales that dwarf us – even the ferns on the forest floor can be chest-level.  Settlement and forestry has given rise to invader species – Himalayan Blackberry and Scotch Broom grow in thick and twisted thickets, denser and more virulent to native species each year, unless actively cut back.

The Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of northern Vancouver Island have a rich history of living in and with this environment for centuries.  Their highly developed culture is expressed through elaborate  and theatrical dance-rituals, informed by the power and fury of these forests.  One of their most important are the winter ceremonials, held near the time of the solstice during the dark and stormy part of the year, is essential for the ongoing well-being of the community.  From what I remember of my non-western art history classes, the Hamatsa dance  was part of their shamans’ training, which began weeks before.  These young men would go live in the forest, purifying themselves and attracting the attentions of the spirits, in particular that of the

Hamatsa’s Cannibal spirit, the devouring force both in and of the forest. When the time came, the initiate would re-enter the community during the dance, and over several days the spirit would be tamed.  The spirits of  several animal and bird clans are crucial to the dance, and lending their aid to the human community in the  civilizing of the cannibal spirit’s power, for the shaman to be able to draw upon. This is the connection to the spirit realm that is so important to the health of the community. As such this powerful dance remains closed to outsiders, but for theatrical demonstrations during the summer for tourists.  The masks are elaborate, and are meant to be safely hidden  from view to preserve them as abodes of the respective spirits.  (Unfortunately this rule has not always been respected.)

In this way the human presence as a civilizing force in the forest comes not from cutting it and planting crops, but from an attentive and involved witnessing of the forest itself. Instead of being feared, and the site of psychological exile,  what is “out there” in the forest  becomes a source of information, and working with it in dance – active movement- and alliances with non-human ways of knowing and being both heals and tames its destructive power.

Cooper in Twin Peaks was not able to do this.  He was working only within the human realm, although owls, for example, were as important to the story of Twin Peaks as the Owl clan is to the Hamatsa dance.  Their non-human integrative abilities remained unknown to him, and became instead a vessel for the killer spirit.  Though “there was always music in the air,” the dancing was only done by the killer, and the rest of the community’s ability to resonate and slowly shift the furious energies was left untapped.

This integrative process of the Hamatsa dance is re-enacted on a much smaller scale when engaged in spiritual or energy-type bodywork.  The body’s memories of trauma are released through attentive listening, witnessing, resonance and release, usually with a number of allies or aids, whether material or immaterial.  Plants in one form or another play a powerful role in these subtle healing techniques, and are often described as expressing their individual ‘wisdom.’  (Even in the slash-and-burn methods of allopathic healing, plants are crucial to treatment and recovery.)

These types of alliances point to a very different way of being.  The afore-mentioned seventies’ classic The Secret Life of Plants outlines a series of experiments with lie-detectors attached to plants.  What was interesting to me was the plants would react to the intent to harm, as well as the actual experience of being harmed by a human.  The stress response would be triggered by the sheer presence of the person in question, even if much later, and the person was not thinking of them at all.  As well, that seemed to have no bearing on geographical distance.   As explored in The Forest, the first film mentioned, there is much potential information that we can use to solve crimes, etc.  But, like Cooper, as long as we are motivated by intellectual or human-centric pursuit of knowledge, we miss the potential of a collective integration of the power of subtler, non-human voices.  I don’t know what they sound like.  I know that there is great potential in existing in a world in which everything has a story to tell, if we can only watch the signs, listen and bear witness to it. 

Though we may think it crazy, which was the cross the Log Lady bore, it may well be necessary for the killing to stop: whether plant, animal, or human. Though it may be excruciating to bear, the fear of pain is often more limiting to growth than the pain itself.   Or the reliving of a buried memory.  As these stories, these aspects of human culture tell us, there is a lost but cruicial part of us that needs to feel this sensitivity to the plant and forest realm.  For all of our continued existence on this green earth.


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