Critical Essay on “The Forest”
In Theodore Roszak’s brilliant polemic Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society, which was written over thirty years ago, Roszak sounded the alarm about the spiritual emptiness at the heart of the scientific, technological society of the West. Roszak laments what he called the “artificial environment” that prevailed in urban areas. “City-dwellers,” he writes, “have grown accustomed to an almost hermetically sealed and sanitized pattern of living in which very little of their experience ever impinges on non-human phenomena.” The result is that people forget their connection with and dependence on nature.
How easily we forget that behind the technical membrane that mediates our life-needs, there is ultimately a world not of our making and upon which we must draw for sustenance. The air conditioner must still rely upon a respirable atmosphere; the chlorinated, fluoridated, piped-in water supply must still connect with potable lakes and rivers; the neatly displayed cans, jars, and cartons in the supermarket must still be filled with the nutritive fruits of the earth and the edible flesh of its animals.
He then tells a story of how his daughter was eight and a half years old before she realized, on her first visit to a butcher’s shop, where meat actually came from. Up to that point, she had known it only as something that was wrapped in plastic and cardboard in the frozen-food section of the supermarket and looked nothing like the remains of a dead animal. This prompted Roszak to reflect, “We live off land and forests, animals, plants, and minerals; but what do we know of their ecological necessities or the integrity of their being?”
Roszak’s message is similar to the message Stewart seeks to convey in “The Forest.” Human culture has developed to such a point that the forest, and all that it symbolizes of the entire world of nature, is “lost to us now.” People have to ransack their memories and their imaginations to even begin to understand the visual, tactile, auditory, and olfactory reality of that mysterious domain—the forest—in which nature, not a collection of artificial human constructs, is sovereign. Seen in this light, humans are prisoners of their own success, utterly ignorant of what that success has cost them. They have treated nature as a “thing” to be subdued, harnessed it to meet their needs, and then pushed it into the background, to be regarded only as pleasant “scenery,” cut off from and irrelevant to the day-to-day reality of their lives.
In her book, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, Stewart makes essentially this same point. She argues that in industrialized nations, certain kinds of sense experiences that up to now humans have taken for granted are disappearing. Stewart says that these include:
[A] tacit knowledge of tools and forms of dancing or of carrying infants, the disappearance of ways of living with animals or cultivating plant life, along with the smell and feel and sounds and even tastes that accompanied such practices; the sound of wind in uninhabited spaces; the weight of ripe things not yet harvested.
She continues, in a passage that can serve as a gloss on the meaning of “The Forest”: “These experiences are gone, and even their names will soon be gone. The historical body of poetic forms is more and more an archive of lost sensual experiences.”
This is certainly a high claim for the status and power (and responsibility) of poetry and the poet. It suggests that in “The Forest,” the struggle on the part of the dreamy, alienated consciousness of the speaker to construct the lost sensual experience of walking in a forest is also an attempt to create a poem that will act as a kind of storage device for future generations to re-experience what a forest is like when there is no other way of doing so.
When Stewart chose the forest as her central symbol, it was part of her quest, as she told interviewer Jon Thompson in Free Verse, to explore nature “as a reserve beyond the facts of history.” She also commented that when she later came across Robert Pogue Harrison’s book Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, she learned “in a deeper way how much of my thinking was...
(The entire section is 1791 words.)