Saturday, May 21, 2011

Finding what the Forest means to you... Looking beyond the trees.

Last fall (2010) when Steve and I were teaching our course in Eco Spirituality and Sustainability at Plymouth State University, I conjured up an interesting exercise for our 22 students.  I wanted to have a conversation with them about the social construction of the forest -- its meaning and symbolic place in our cultural context -- but I wanted an interactive way to structure the lesson.  So I came up with a list of 40 or so 'associations' people might have with THE FOREST.  Many of these were straight out of our texts, as we had read about these ideas in the various books and articles we had been reading the first few weeks. Quite a few of these descriptions/associations were from the text on Hindu Ecology that we were reading for class -- and we had just discussed the Indian epic THE RAMAYANA (see my previous blog on this MYTH).  So, it is not surprising then, to see that many of the descriptions fall beyond the realm of forest reality that we live with here in 21st century America.

I typed each description ('association') on a small slip of paper.  Then I passed the slips out, giving each student 2 or 3, and asked each student to read his or her slip silently.  I asked them to think about the historic and cultural context that shaped the particular 'forest association' they found on their slip. (see list below)

For example, one slip might say "The Forest is a place of danger" and another slip might say "The Forest is home to cute furry things"

Was the description of the forest on their slip something they agreed with?  
Was it a modern viewpoint or something they thought people might have believed long ago (but not anymore)?  
Was this viewpoint something that held meaning for us here in the USA -- or was it more likely this 'meaning' made more sense in another society (another culture or nation-state or region)?  
Did the slip speak to them from a religious or rational perspective?  
Was it true or false?

Then I drew a really long line on the blackboard that crossed the entire front of our, rather wide, classroom,  I  handed the first student a tape dispenser.  One by one, I asked students to come up and tape their slip to my time line.  It started in 10,000 BCE (Before the Common Era) and ended in 'the future.'  As a historian, I was interested in seeing if they saw these descriptions as time specific or timeless. 

 I also asked them if the ideas were place specific or universal.  Each student was also handed a piece of chalk so that they could draw or make notes around the slip once they taped it up on the time-line.  A few rebels decided to ignore my linear mandate and created their own 'space' up on the board (I was proud of them for that).  Some clearly felt stressed by the task, really worried they wouldn't get it 'right'.  I suggested that if they were stuck or confused, they could ask their classmates to vote, to offer advice, to share opinions.  Most students were pretty confident but others became frustrated when they realized so many of the ideas we were 'playing' with were quite 'relative' -- putting the slip upon the board wasn't easy -- it depended on who you were, where you lived, and when you existed.  My first point, on subjectivity and positionality was made.

The timid slip tapers relied more on class votes -- or actually, what turned into 4-5 'forest expert' students doing some serious 'back seat driving' -- shouting out where to plug the slip in on the time line.  Others watched baffled.  What's the point if there is no right answer?  I could see some of them fighting back the urge to ask "will this be on the quiz??"  Not only wasn't there one right answer but voting on these things didn't seem to make them 'right' either -- in fact, it became clear that most of the students believed voting on these 'meanings' (like good modern Americans) did not help.  Voting didn't make the 'associations' place on the time-line more real.  Even if a majority of us agreed on one meaning or spot on the board -- so what?  The Forest seemed to be all things, to everyone, they concluded.  And yet... we each still strong feelings about what it was and what it wasn't, individually.  How could THAT be?
What a curious place, this thing called THE FOREST.  
It wasn't simply just a bunch of trees at all!

This activity wasn't a success so much as it was an illustration of complexity.  Despite spending over 5 weeks discussing ecology, spirituality, and our relationship to the environment... students were still figuring out their relationship to the Forest.  We left that class a little flummoxed.  It seemed it wasn't as simple as many had hoped.  What does the Forest mean to each of us?  The answer seems to lie beyond the trees.

Teaching this course made me curious about how students felt about the forest.  Not trees, so much -- but the FOREST, the whole kit and kaboodle.  What comes to mind for the average American 18 year old middle class kid going to college in rural New Hampshire when they hear someone say the word: FOREST?  Does it evoke happy hiking memories, does it remind of us slasher films from the teenage years, does it remind us of creepy childhood fairy tales full of hungry wolves and dangerous goblins?  Do we have a collective consciousness (perhaps inherited from Euro ancestors) of the forest, its purpose, its dangers, its beauty?

Early in the semester we had investigated our personal history/feelings related to TREES and this was easier.  
I had students get together in groups and travel up and down the hallway, visiting different stations where I had posted tree-related poetry, pictures, political cartoons, etc. They had to discuss each station with their peers and jot down notes.  After visiting each station they had to report their 'findings' to the class.

I even had one station outside our classroom building. They had to visit an apple tree that sat out on the quad smack dab in the middle of our bustling campus less than hundred yards form the main entrance of our building.  Many admitted never noticing that the tree bore fruit -- fruit you could actually eat!  They went out  into the cold dusk (it was an October in NH) and spent more time at that station than any of the 'constructed' tree stations I had erected indoors. They had been asked to 'experience' the apple tree-- to touch it, sniff it, climb it (if they wanted), and to sample its fruits  (a few brave ones partook in its wormy sourness).  They thought this was corny but fun.  God bless students who are flexible and willing! :-)  

The last station was inside the classroom.  They had to sit at a cluster of desks, select another person in their group, and spend a few minutes there conducting TREE BIO INTERVIEWS in pairs.  This was also a popular station.  The bio interviews asked students to psychoanalyze their own relationship with some trees they had known.  Students laughed and joked and rolled their eyes.  No one had asked them to talk about this stuff before...

We seem to feel good about trees, in general, and have nice memories of them from childhood.  They held our swings and let us climb them.  They gave us shade and dropped funny seeds and fruits and sticks to play with.  When did we stop climbing trees?  When did we stop playing with them?  When did we stop noticing them and feeling close to them?  

During the TREE BIO INTERVIEWS students asked each other:

What is your earliest memory of trees? 
What is happiest tree related memory? 
Do you have any painful memories involving a tree?  
Did you have a favorite tree?  Where? Why?
How many trees have you climbed? If non, why?  
Were you ever told you shouldn't climb trees? Why?
How has your relationship with trees changed since your childhood?

Students liked this exercise.  They loved sharing tree stories.  Everyone had one.  Some were pretty funny.  Others were heartfelt and a bit sad.  The boys tended to tell more 'how I hurt myself with a tree or tree part' stories -- while a lot of girls recollected writing poetry in trees and singing in them.  I could relate to that. Who among us, ladies, hasn't sought solace in the branches of a loving tree at least once in our lifetime when we've felt no one else 'understood us' or when someone had hurt us, let us down, or simply, left us?  Okay, maybe some of you reading this blog are from Manhattan or Duluth or something.  You have no tree memories.  But a lot of us have had some pretty tender moments (of self pity or perhaps self-soothing) in the arms of a large, comforting tree. 

Do you think that's less true today than perhaps 20 or 30 years ago?  I wonder if there is a correlation between hours spent on Xbox or Wii or Facebook and diminished tree climbing/playing/poetry writing?
If so, what does that mean for our world?...

Trees are our friends, by and large.  They aren't intimidating or painful, despite the fact that we've been injured in them, by them, or by falling down from them.  Forests, however, are another story altogether.  Unless your an avid outdoors-men  or a fish-and-wild life professional -- you've probably had fewer really happy forest experiences.   And by forest, I don't mean that small grove behind your condo unit.  I don't mean that grove in the town park.  Most of us, I'd imagine, have had fewer DEEP FOREST experiences than we've had basic tree experiences.  

Acknowledging this to be generally true, we wanted students to experience a real forest experience.  We wanted them to witness the woods and watch their reaction to that witness and then give their TESTIMONY in their weekly journal, and if they were brave enough, to give it in class.  That is, we wanted them to GO TO THE WOODS and watch themselves there.  Then we wanted them to report back their feelings.  Crazy homework, right?  Well, the experience was (third) eye opening on many levels. And I purposefully use terms like 'witness', and 'testimony', which are religious terms because I think a few of these city-slickers (okay, small town NH slickers) found something sacred in the woods when we went there and 'communed' with nature.

We asked students to go into a forest for at least an hour a week over the course of the semester (15 weeks) -- all we wanted them to do was just to go and sit quietly, deep in the woods, and do nothing else.  

We said if they thought that would be too hard then they could start with just 15 minutes at a time and build up, as they got more comfortable with it.  We also asked them to go deep enough so that they couldn't see or hear any signs of development and/or civilization (highways, parking lots, hikers, etc.).  The hardest part of this assignment for our multi-tasking, high-tech, over-stimulated students was that we asked them to just sit there -- no books, no cell phone texting, no ipod, no pets.  The results were mixed.  Some did it, regularly, without fear or trepidation.  They tended to be the nutty-crunchy-granola kids who were already committed to the back-to-nature, tree-hugging life trajectory.  Others found it unsettling and boring.  Others just said they didn't have time or they simply "forgot."  Many could only handle 15 minutes or so without desperately seeking distraction.  Some admitted singing to themselves to avoid the silence.  But a handful or them admitted seeing and smelling and feeling things that they had never experienced before.  And that was the "Aha!" moment.

Steve asked students, one week, to tweak the assignment.  He asked them one week to have a relationship with something 'out there' in nature, just for 10 minutes or so.  He suggested they pick an entity in the forest - something that caught their interest or intrigued them and spend some 'quality time with it' - alone and deeply focused.  He suggested it could be a flower, or a rock, or a fern. He challenged them, "spend time focusing all your energy on one part of the forest and see what you can learn." And some students took the task to heart and did it with an earnestness that was refreshing.  

One student, who decided to focus on a particularly lush piece of moss, described the experience with excitement in a lengthy journal reflection.  He almost waxed poetic about his moss!  He was, self-admittedly, surprised and slightly embarrassed by the experience.  In fact, he found so many things in that patch of moss, it surprised even us.  I'd venture to say that he had something of a spiritual experience, as bizarre as that sounds.  He admitted that had never given himself over to that type of concentration in that sort of context before -- pondering something in nature so deeply. Yes, he concluded, it was the closest he had come to a spiritual revelation.  A piece of moss! He told us he had thought long and hard about how he was connected to that moss -- How the universe had made that moss.  He realized how many years it took for that piece of moss to form.  He felt sad about all the times he stamped over moss or kicked it or ignored it.  He wondered at how much life was going on in that moss.  To be frank, he was a little bashful reporting on all this in class but, luckily, enough other students had had similar experiences of awe out in the forest that it didn't seem nearly as loony to everyone as he feared it might.

After that experience, the forest was something more real to that student -- and to several others.  It wasn't an abstract thing.  It wasn't something found only in fairy tales about red hooded girls and sharp toothed predators.  It wasn't something you 'drove past' to get to vacation locations or ski resorts -- it wasn't something you occasionally hiked through on your way to a scenic overlook, once or twice a year, with friends.  The forest became more personal and more sacred.  Or if not something sacred, something full of mystery that demanded more reverence and respect.

For me, as a teacher exploring unchartered waters in spiritual ecology, it seemed important that we have a conversation about why the forest matters.  Whether we see the forest as a place of discovery and sanctuary -- or a place of dark mystery, isolation and danger -- matters!  Investigating the meaning of the forest to each of us is a practice that may bring us more fully into ourselves, into the world, and into the sacred transcendent.

Feeling we are part of the forest and that it is not a place foreign to us, may make the difference in ourconservation efforts.  For sadly, without a personal and spiritual connection to the FOREST we are lost.  Our forests are disappearing. And that is a tragedy we've yet to personalize or self-actualize.  We have failed to connect to our Forests and we aren't even bothering to have a conversation about WHY this is.

I blog about this, seven months after the lesson that I taught interrogating the myths and meanings we attribute to the FOREST, because it seems important. I don't know who reads this blog anymore, or if you care... but I hope by putting it out there in the universe it can do a little good.

Below are the 'descriptoins' or 'associations' of the forest that I handed out on small slips to each of my students that day in class.  These are the meanings we read aloud, shared, pondered and pinned to our time line.  

Which of these 'understandings' of the forest resonate with you?  
Which seem true?  Which sound foreign?  

Take a moment to read through them all and leave a comment.  
Which one felt the most right to you and WHY?

The Forest is far away.

The Forest is where we gather food.

The Forest is where we find healing.

The Forest is where people live.

The Forest is wild.

The Forest is home.

The Forest is full of sounds, smells and tastes.

The Forest is where we go to escape.

The Forest is full of demons.

The Forest is where medicinal plants grow.

The Forest is a place of peace.

The Forest provides us with wood to cook our food.

The Forest provides us with wood to warm our bodies.

The Forest provides us with wood to build our shelter.

The Forest is a place of prayer.

The Forest is a retreat.

The Forest is sacred.

The Forest is erotic.

The Forest is dangerous.

The Forest is where students go to learn.

The Forest is Life.

The Forest is a place where Holy Men go to find Moksha.

The Forest is Foreign.

The Forest is part of the watershed.

The Forest is our home.

The Forest is a hermitage where ascetics go to be alone.

The Forest is a place of exile.

The Forest is the King’s Royal Hunting Ground.

The Forest is full of Death.

The Forest is a place of pain.

The Forest is a place for heroism.

The Forest is where the animals live.

The Forest is a place of sport and play.

The Forest is where our ancestors reside.

The Forest is impenetrable and dark.

The Forest is a place of plenty – a place of abundance.

The Forest is ancient.

The Forest is a part of us.

The Forest is where criminals hide.

The Forest is the most natural place.

The Forest is biodiversity and resilience.

The Forest is where the Spirits Live.

The Forest is where we hunt.

The Forest is part of our history.

The Forest is a commercial resource.

The Forest is where god lives.

The Forest is an interconnected web – an eco system.

The Forest is a place of fairy tales.

The Forest is romantic.

The Forest is where gods and goddesses reside.

The Forest is mythical and magical.

The Forest is uncivilized.

The Forest is useful.

The Forest is scary.

The Forest is empty.

The Forest is full.

The Forest is where I feel most at peace.