Symbols of Forest in Literary Imagination :- Ph. Sanamacha Sharma Introduction: Forest implies an spot filled with trees. Without trees, a place cannot be called forest. But to understand a forest, we cannot talk only of the trees, then it would be like discussing a leaf singly by forgetting the whole complexity of the tree. Our talk of forest cannot be complete if we do not speak of the birds, animals and insects and other organisms living in it, the soil and the rocks, the ponds and the rivers running through it, the grasses and colourful flowers growing there and man living with it, in it, as a part and as a dependent.
Accordingly, deliberation on forest means touching Nature itself in totality, as something separate yet inseparable from human life itself, as something which is in us, as a part of us, outside us and we inside it at the same time. Though there can be nature without forest, there cannot be forest without nature. Yet forest is an important part of nature. Talking about forest in literature does not mean talking about it impersonally or coldly as a collection of trees from scientific point of view.
Literature often represents it like a real person with real feelings and emotions of their own, as representation of parts of our own thoughts and feelings, of collective conscious and unconscious, as sort of a mother who nurses her children, or something as inscrutable as mysteries of life itself which has the potential to create, sustain or destroy life like Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in Hindu mythology. Tree as metaphor/image/symbol It is impossible to imagine life without forest. Human life and human settlement cannot be envisioned without trees.
Trees and forests have been shaping the cultural imagination of people since prehistory time. Even today, some people still consider forest groves as sacred and mysterious. Even today, there are many animistic people who believe in deities dwelling in these forest groves which control the general welfare and well-being of a particular community. As ecocritics one can view it as old indigenous way of conserving the natural resources, sustaining the biodiversity of a particular area.
Obviously, trees as metaphors have gone into our parlance for self-and community-expression and have been employed since time immemorial in ancient and modern literatures. In Genesis of the Bible, there is the image of Adam and Eve near the apple tree in the Garden of Eden, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Eating the forbidden fruits severs their link with innocence and connects them to the beginning of knowledge of the world. Buddha got his enlightenment sitting under a tree in a forest grove.
In the Gita, tree-metaphor is used to explain the complicated spiritual matrix binding of all things in universe: It is said that there is an imperishable banyan tree that has its roots upward and its branches down and whose leaves are the Vedic hymns… The branches of this tree extend downward and upward, nourished by the three modes of material nature. The twigs are the objects of the senses. The tree also has roots going down, and these are bound to the fruitive actions of human society.
The real form of this tree cannot be perceived in this world. No one can understand where it ends, where it begins, or where its foundation is. But with determination one must cut down this strongly rooted tree with the weapon of detachment…. ( Ch. 15: Text. 1, 2 and 3) Every people has its own distinctive mythology as reflected in legend, folklore and ideology. Yet there are some archetypal motifs and themes and images which are found in many different mythologies which elicit analogous psychological responses and serve similar cultural functions.
In many parts of the world, many people do not look at simply as an object to be owned and cut down for use. They sometimes worship trees as deity. In literature, trees in its most general sense symbolizes “life of the cosmos: its consistence, growth, proliferation, generative and regenerative processes. It stands for inexhaustible life, and is therefore equivalent to a symbol of immortality. ” (Cirlot, 1962: 328; of the depiction of the cross of redemption as the tree of life in Christian iconography) In “A Poison Tree”, William Blake compares tree with his anger.
He shows that if one emotionally nourishes anger inside oneself, it will grow up with the possibility of doing harm to oneself or other. The poet tells us about a person telling of his anger toward a friend and a foe with different response and reaction from both of them. When he expresses his anger to his friend, he finds relief. But if he doesn’t tell his foe about his anger, it simply feed his fury and it grows inside him like a poison tree. A symbol may appear in a work of literature in a number of different ways to suggest a number of different things.
Chevalier and Gheerbrant (1996) state that most commonly, a symbol will present itself in the form of (1) a word, (2) a figure of speech, (3) an event, (4) the total action, or (5) a character. They give conventional symbols of some of the trees as follow: 1. Apple: temptation, loss of innocence 2. Chestnut: foresight 3. Oak: strength, wisdom 4. Pear: blossoming, fleeting nature of life 5. Poplar: linked to the underworld, to pain, sacrifice, and grief, a funeral tree, symbolizes the regressive powers of nature 6. Sycamore: a sign of vanity and to climb it is to thrust in vain things 7.
Pine: symbol of immortality because of its evergreen foliage. Man as nature poet As a reaction or response to the eighteenth century Industrial revolution in England, the Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Shelly, etc. escaped to Nature making it the centre of their life and subject of their poems. In ancient time too, Virgil and Theocritus wrote pastoral poems whose subject was urban poet’s nostalgic image of the supposed peace and simplicity of the life of shepherds and other rural folk in an idealized natural setting.
But for the romantic movement, nature became their lives’ purpose, their political agenda. So trees as metaphors and symbols are found abundantly in their poetic creations. P. B. Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind (1820) written in a wood inArno near Florence, brings up the vivid image of tree and leaves to depict his internal conflict of suffering and hope, of death and regeneration like dead leaves scattering in the West Wind, “the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean”, “If I were a dead leaf thou mightiest bear”, “Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud”, “make me thy lyre, even as the forest is”.
In nature, heading towards regeneration “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind”, he sees the revival of his will-to-live, his hope in a life full of despair. In Ode to Nightingale (1820), John Keats addressed Nightingale as “light-winged Dryad of the trees,/In some melodies plot/ Of beechen green, and shadows numberless/Singest of summer in full-throated ears. ” To William Wordsworth, Nature is God itself where he can thrust with his whole life, where every tree, brook, animal and flower are objects of delight and knowledge. “To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that lie too deep for tears”.
To him, “a crowd/ A host, of golden daffodils,/Beside the lake, beneath the trees,/fluttering and dancing in the breeze” can give everlasting peace. Unlike human beings in society and nations, every entity in Nature was animate with joy and vigor, living in love and agreement with no violent struggle with other objects. In his poem Tintern Abbey (1798), he sings,“…. Nature never did betray/The heart that loved her”. He further claims that nature is: The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul Of all my moral being. (Tintern Abbey, lines 111-13,)
For the American Henry D. Thoreau, his Walden; Life in the Woods (1854) espouses the idea of a self-reliant individual living in and with Nature with simplicity and friendship. Living in the woods with the animals and birds with minimum contact with mankind, he can find spiritual reality or ‘Oversoul’ flowing through man and nature. He believes that connection to this oversoul will restore our well-being and its severance tear down our peace. That’s why, he claims that ‘There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still….
While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me. ’ (129) Thoreau’s notion of simple lifestyle in the lap of wood provides an answer to the problems of exploitation both of human beings, and of natural resources. But he did not fail to notice the menacing encroachments of civilization over the wild, mistaken so widely and pitiably for development in America. He saw rows on rows of willows, pine, oak and other trees cut down for fuel, or furniture, and cried out in despair, ‘Thank God, they cannot cut down the clouds! Nature was his ‘companion’, ‘friend’ and ‘bride’. Nature as commodity: Deforestation, a Treeless World? Rohinton Mistry, Indo-Canadian novelist, in A Fine Balance (1996) exposes the encroachment of human civilization over the Himalayan mountains by building luxury tourist hotels. For Mr. Kohlah who lived there his whole life watched its degradation helplessly. He declared, ‘Taking a walk is like going into a war zone. ’ (265) and “The forests were being devoured for firewood; bald patches materialized upon the body of hills. (264) Describing the environmental pollution taking place there, Rohinton Mistry wrote, “Then the seasons revolted. The rain, which used to make things grow and ripen, descended torrentially on the denuded hills, causing mudslides and avalanches. Snow, which had provided an ample blanket for the hills, turned skimpy. Even at the height of winter the cover was ragged and patchy. / Mr. Kohlah felt a perverse satisfaction at nature’s rebellion. It was a vindication of sorts: he was not alone in being appalled by the hideous rape.
But when the seasonal disorder continued year after year, he could take no comfort in it. The lighter the snow cover, the heavier was his heart. ” (264) In the name of progress and civilization, modern humanistic category like reason has been utilized as the means to achieve total mastery over nature by treating nature as an enormous, soulless mechanism that works according to knowable natural laws. This way of approaching nature with man at the centre has made nature meaningful or meaningless according to the way his rationality assigns to it.
Such view of nature is coincidental with the rise of capitalism which turns nature into market commodity and resource without significant more or social constraint availability. Nature is often treated like a commodity to be exploited endlessly by its human inhabitants, controlling it, fighting over it, using it like it would stay like as it is for centuries. Nature is like a mother betrayed and exploited by Her children’s greed. People have converted the life-supporting systems of the entire world into their own resources and have vastly disturbed the natural ecological balance.
Serious degradation and depletion have been caused through over use, misuse and mismanagement of resources to meet human greed. His greed and his unending needs will surely drive and push the forest into extinction, ultimately leading to global warming and environmental pollution. Scientific progress has given us so many beautiful and useful things. But it has its dark side too. R. P. Harrison (1992: 121) argues that forestry had traditionally concerned itself with the protection of the ‘forest’ as both sites of production and as habitats.
But, the start of scientific principles cast out their traditional value and symbolic character: For this sort of enlightened humanism… there can be no question of the forest as a consecrated place of oracular disclosures; as a place of strange or monstrous or enchanting epiphanies; as the imaginary site of lyric nostalgias and erotic errancy; as a natural sanctuary where wild animals may dwell in security far from the havoc of humanity going about the business of looking after its ‘interests. There can be only the claims of human mastery and possession of nature—reduction of forests to utility. ( Harrison 1992: 121) Consequently, ecologists, ecofeminists and ecocritics often identify the scientific revolution as an ecological disaster where man’s primal relationship with his environment setting is severed and lost, where man’s materialistic progress has to pay a big price with the threat of forest’s extinction, as a result, man’s survival on this planet. If we removed all the trees, what will be left of is T. S. Eliot’s waste land, industrial as well as spiritual.
An environment without trees evokes a wasteland without hope, a world where we would not find any redemption when we look desperately for it. In his poem The Waste Land (1922), T. S. Eliot forecasts a bleak aspect of human civilization ending in some kind of a waste land. Hinting at the barren world, he speaks of “the dead tree gives no shelter”, “dead mountain”, “dry sterile thunder without rain”: If there were the sound of water only Not the cicada And dry grass singing But sound of water over a rock Where the hermit thrush sings in the pine trees Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop drop drop
But there is no water. (Waste Land, lines 352-58) Forest needs water. Water in river is contaminated with industrial refuses and man’s garbage. We have acid rain. Trees in forests are fed with this impure adulterated water and trees die. Soil, animals and insects and birds surviving all around it also suffer. The ecology is desturbed and finally putting man’s existence on this earth at risk. So, in a modern landscape of environmental contamination and industrial waste, water which is traditionally a symbol of purification and regeneration loses its meaning.
Living in our concrete rooms, some day we may wage war and kill ourselves to have control over a pond of a water, nations may fight for it and employ armies to guard over it. In the future, man will be trapped without any corridor of escape. Conclusion The so-called ‘advancement’ of modern civilization may turn out to be time bomb waiting to be exploded anytime in the near future. Futuristic movies like Day After Tomorrow and 2012 demonstrate the possible ending of the world as we know today if we do not mend our environmentally damaging ways.
They show the possibility of the man’s civilization ending in an apocalypse, the whole surface of the earth turning topsy-turvy to regenerate itself, to maintain the final balance in its ecosystem. Reducing forest utility only to for only one aspect of man’s benefit needs rethinking and lots of positive action. Preserving its pristine beauty, maintaining its sacredness and safeguarding its lives are necessarily for a clean conducive environmental, an environment where not only we, but all the future generations can live safely.
We should treat forests not as a means to our ends, we should treat it as an end in itself, with love and respect just like we treat ourselves and out near and dear ones. References Chevalier, J. & Gheerbrant, A. (1996) The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Penguin. Cirlot, J. E. (1962) A Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. Jack Sage. New York: Philosophical Library. P. 328. Harrison, R. P. (1992) Forests: the Shadow of Civilization. London: University of Chicago Press. Mistry, Rohinton (1996) A Fine Balance. Great Britain: Faber and Faber. Thoreau, Henry D (1854,1982) Walden. India: Oxford University Press.