The forest and the human: A retrospective

Let’s stop to think for a moment. What is the relationship we have with the forest? Not as individual people, but as humans.

Certainly, in the current times we’re living, where there is not a single day in which the news do not warn us about the serious deterioration of the natural environment caused by human action. Alerts as serious as global warming, or massive deforestation, perhaps make us think that the times we are currently experiencing are not the most conducive to define our relationship with forests in a positive way.

But this is not something which is contemporary. There is no doubt that the process of industrialization of Western societies has caused great changes in the ecosystems and in our relationship with them, but since time immemorial, forests have always been the frontier.

This concept is interesting, and above all, interesting from an anthropological point of view. Since the beginning of time, man has lived in an intense relationship with the natural environment that surrounded him. Do not think, in any case, in this relationship as something bucolic or idealized. During the dawn of civilization, man had to adapt quickly, and sometimes dramatically, to all his surroundings.

In early societies, the hunter gatherers, the forest is the environment in which life takes place and where the means to survive are sought. Not only that, it is also the place where supernatural entities which often decide the fate of humans and nature dwell.

As the collecting hunter societies evolved, that threshold forest grew and became a clear frontier between the “civilized” and the “wild”.

Entering the dark forest or the Enchanted Forest is a threshold symbol; the soul that enters the dangers of the unknown; the kingdom of death, the secrets of nature, or the spiritual world that man must penetrate to find meaning. 

J.C Cooper- Dictionary of Symbols.

 

It is curious as one of the most influential civilizations and the one which possibly established a milestone in adapting and shaping nature to their needs, had that dual relationship with the forest. We’re talking about the Romans. Their empire, one of the largest that the Earth has ever known, pioneered in designing major engineering works that implied a radical change in the environment. Highly influenced by the Greek, their civilization venerated trees, and many of the legends and stories also attributed to trees all kinds of supernatural powers and abilities.

However, even the powerful legions, with cutting edge progress through the conquest of the Roman Empire, felt fear when they reached the impenetrable and dense forests of Germania, or in the distant lands of northern Scotland.

It is no accident that those were the most remote and dangerous places in the empire. Not only because of the bellicose tribes that lived there, but also because of what implicitly meant leaving the security of Roman cities and settlements, where the “civilization” was, to face the “barbarians” who were still living in the forest.

During the middle ages, the forest became a dark and gloomy place, where all kinds of dangers, some natural, others not so much, lived.Bandits, outlaws, thieves and other people on the outskirts of society, were those who chose the forest as a dwelling place. However, the forest remained the place where a large amount of raw materials that were still necessary for human progress were removed from.

Since ancient times, the near impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the hidden, the dark, almost impenetrable world of our unconscious. If we have lost the framework that gave structure to our past life and now have to find the way to become ourselves, and have entered this wild land with an undeveloped personality, if we succeed in finding the way we will go out with a much more developed humanity. 

Bruno Bettelheim

It is curious to see how all these conditions have been dragging into the era in which we live today. The real big turning point in our relationship with the forest was the industrial revolution.

The rural population, fixed to their surroundings for centuries, began a slow but inexorable exodus to urban centers where industry began to prosper on a large scale and where the true breakdown of the relationship between humans and forests occurred. Perhaps breakup is too much, perhaps more like an unfriendly divorce.

Today, what is our relationship with the natural world? How does an urban dweller, even a person living in a village, interact with the environment?

In the first case, possibly that relationship is null, or much filtered through experiences or moments in which situations are very controlled. Today more than ever, the inhabitants of the big cities look for that “unique experience”, whether traveling to remote places, or doing some kind of “extreme” activity, which we can later tell and publish on our social media.

And what about the people living in the countryside? Ranchers, farmers, or simply people who consider cities an inhospitable place to live. Surprisingly, livestock or agricultural activity has largely caused deforestation and degradation of the natural environment. The introduction of non-native species into natural ecosystems has been a gradual process that has dramatically modified the natural habitats.

In today’s volatile society, maybe it is not a good time to look back and try to recover some of that lost connection. Not lost now though, but lost over centuries of evolution, and “civilization.”

We have idealized nature and the forest as almost sacred places where we look for roots and sensations lost since time immemorial. Is this good? Does turning the forest into almost a place of worship favors that natural relationship that humans and their environment should have?

I never saw a wild thing

sorry for itself.

A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough

without ever having felt sorry for itself.

D.H Lawrence – Self pity

 

Both in the park next to our house, as in a distant boreal forest, nature will not take sides. Neither for the good nor for the bad. There will only be what we have taken. And that is what will amplify. Like it or not.

Forest Bathing does not seek to “fix” or “naturalize” who experiences it. Nor does it seek to establish norms or a way to approach the forest. At the very heart of this practice lies the most absolute simplicity. Recover that connection, in a personal way, and above all, without goals or means beyond enjoying the moment.

We do not have to follow Thoreau’s steps to experience the benefits of nature. We just need to develop empathy for the natural world, being aware of what that means and what it can bring us. And of course, letting ourselves go. Forest Bathing is nothing more than a way to establish that new form of relationship with nature.

Perhaps not in equality, but in an equitable and balanced way.

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