Friday, September 20, 2019

The Word for World is Forest

Reposted from "Chimeras".


Every book by Ursula Le Guin is by definition the best book by Ursula Le Guin. And there is no book by Ursula Le Guin that's not the best book by Ursula Le Guin. But this one, "The Word for World is Forest" may be even better than that!


I read "The Word for World is Forest" maybe 30 years ago, but when I took it up again, every word in it was familiar to me, as I had dropped it in a drawer just one week before. Each word of it carried the rumble of thunder and the force of a hurricane, the same effect on me of a presentation by Anastassia Makarieva on the same subject, the forest.

Anastassia Makarieva is a scientist, Ursula Le Guin was a novelist. It doesn't matter. There is a thread, there is a narration, there is a story that pervades humankind's consciousness. I can't remember who said that trees are the pillars that hold the sky, but I am discovering it is true. Not single trees, the forest, it is the biotic pump, an incredible machine that works pumping water from the air above the oceans and distributes it for free to every living creature. The ultimate gift of life.

I can't understand how Ursula Le Guin could grasp these concepts by pure intuition nearly 50 years ago, but she did. Reread many years later, this book is a pure hit to the stomach. It leaves you breathless, but in a state of mind as if you wanted to be punched again and again, for the pure pleasure of the action, the movement, the sensation.

In 1972, something about this subject was already known and the destruction of the Vietnamese forests using the infamous "agent orange" reverberates all over the book. The basis of the story is the Vietnam war, retold in a science fiction setting, with the Aliens in the role of the Vietnamese and the Terrans of the Americans. The Terrans want to destroy the forest to turn it into plantations, the Aliens want to save it. In fact, it is the same story as that  of the "Avatar" movie, it is just that Cameron's debt to Ursula Le Guin is not acknowledged.

But the book is not just a political statement, it is much more than that. Read this passage ("Selver" is the alien leader of the story):

"Sometimes a god comes," Selver said. "He brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death. He brings this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses. That is insanity. What is, is.

The meaning of this passage may be evident to you, or you may need to mull it over for a while in your mind. But it is one of the deepest statements I've ever read on the predicament we find ourselves in. The beauty of it is that so much hope is embedded in these words: the world changes, ideas evolve, sometimes taking the form of Gods or god-like entities. It is in this way that the world is changed: when dreams become reality. And some dreams are truly beautiful and full of hope, like this one by Anastassia Makarieva




You see, there is a succession process for forest recovery. We first have shrub grasses after some disturbance like fire, then it takes time for that to be replaced by trees. So if we are lucky our grand grandchildren will be walking in such forest, so this dimension should also be stressed. We are working for the future we are not just securing for ourselves some two dozens years of better comfort. Rather, we send a message through centuries such that people will remember us and walking into this forest along the brookes and rivers they will remember us with gratitude for our consciousness and dedication. (Anastassia Makarieva  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZ1UtHRBcG4 - min 30:05))





8 comments:

  1. I agree that "The Word for World is Forest" is one of LeGuin's best novels. I've carried it around in my head for many years, viewing the real forests through the eyes of bioregional awareness.

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  2. All LeGuin's novels were translated into Serbian language and published. They were even sold as sets. I do have two of them in my library: "The left hand of darkness", and, you can guess, "The Word for World is Forest". Serbian edition of "The left hand of darkness" was published in 1978, and "The Word for World is Forest" in 1980.

    Ugo gave me a great reading recommendation to read it again.

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  3. What I get from Selver's words is that we can not propose that we get rid of any existing technology or systems in proposing solutions to the cacophony of converging crises facing humanity if we wish to succeed in getting everyone onboard.

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    1. It is possible that the situation is even more onerous than how Jef interprets it. In Limits to Growth Revisited, Ugo showed a model of 19th century whaling (for whale oil) which he had previous published. The key thing for me is on page 34, where he points out that whale oil production had already peaked and started to decline before the advent of fossil oil. The whalers (i.e. ships) slowed down as the resource (i.e. whales) disappeared, so at an individual level there was some awareness of the decline, but yet it continued to destruction. Taking the (perhaps unreasonable) step of generalizing would suggest that "a new way to do a thing" coming from the "dream-world", in a "free access" economy, we will keep doing it until the basic materials are exhausted. Furthermore, the decline in one way of doing something will not in of itself bring about a different, better, less harmful way. So in the context of power (electric, thermal, motive) production, we (the world) will keep using fossil fuels until it is all gone - which we know will be catastrophic!

      The crucial issue here is the assumption of a free access model which leads to a "tragedy of the commons". Maybe the break in the model is societal breakdown, which limits our capacity to access the resources - the supply chains are long, complex and require sophisticated global and national organization.This is hinted at even in the title of Limits to Growth.

      Ugo, it'd love to see you expand your (optimistic) interpretation of the Selver's comment, to put the lie to what Jef and I see.

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    2. According to Gail Tverberg there is limit to resource depletion due to higher production expenses (lower EROI) and reduced income for the majority of consumers. She thinks that catastrophic disruption of eco systems and climate is less probable and she has actual data that confirm her opinion. But in my opinion there is still enough of oil to perform the massacre of the forests and to disrupt the eco systems. In fact when fossils are gone humans will again start to cut the trees and damage to the forests will depend on actual number of humans at the moment of forests massacre.

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  4. I was so fascinated with Anastassia's work that I wanted to understand where her dedication and love for forests comes from. So I found in my library the book by the great Serbian historian of religion and philologist Veselin Čajkanović (1881-1946). One of his studies was named Култ дрвета и биљака код старих Срба (The Cult of Trees and Plants in Ancient Serbian Religion). I do not have access to Russian ethnological literature, and I never learned Russian language, but I suppose that the religion of ancient Russians was very similar or identical with the religion of ancient Serbs because, after all, they both have the roots in Old Slavic religion. So I found very interesting information in Čajkanović's study. In fact every sentence in that study was revelation to me. Sorry that I can't translate all of it into English.

    While some Old Serbian religious cults allowed limited access or even prohibited women's participation, the cults of trees and plants were practiced almost exclusively by women. Fairies are also related to the cult of trees and plants. Cults of particular tree species are still very much present. The names of some Christian monasteries bear the names of ancient Holy Groves (Krušedol, Orahovica, Grabovac) because they were built on the sites of old pagan temples.

    There was recently a scandal when Serbian authorities wanted to build the highway and the highway was supposed to pass over the place where there was an ancient, several centuries old tree. Such individual trees are particularly respected in Serbia and are named "zapis" (meaning "inscription"). Locals gathered and prevented cutting of the tree and demanded that the highway goes around the tree but the authorities came next night and did their destructive job. Obviously people think that cutting of such old tree is some kind of sin.

    I think that Anastassia's interest in forests is deeply rooted in collective memory and mental structures of her soul. The trees are Gods that protect us from various evils.

    What fascinated me the most is comparative analysis of ancient religions in Čajkanović's study. Old Greeks, Old Romans, Old Germans, Old Slavs, in fact all the mythical Indo-Europeans had similar cults dedicated to trees, forests, and plants. When Christianity came we unlearned things that we once knew and ruthless exploitation of the nature started. Industrial civilization is the consequence of that process of unlearning.

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  5. Ugo
    I think you are right to combine technical insights (Anastassia Makarieva) with the intuition of the novelist Ursula Le Guin. I would like to contribute some small additional information.
    Le Guin provides a valuable introduction to her novel The Word for World Is Forest and both can be read here: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/ursula-k-le-guin-the-word-for-world-is-forest-1
    Here is a quote from part 2 of her Introduction; ‘Synchronicity Can Happen at Almost Any Time' after she had found out about the Senoi people: from Le Guin:-
    “Were they ever there, and if so, are they still there? In the waking time, I mean, in what we so fantastically call ‘the real world.’ In the dream time, of course, they are there, and here. I thought I was inventing my own lot of imaginary aliens, and I was only describing the Senoi. It is not only the Captain Davidsons who can be found in the unconscious, if one looks. The quiet people who do not kill each other are there, too.”

    On the technical matters of hydrology in your earlier post A New Paradigm for the Earth's Ecosystem, I already contributed a comment with ‘Penman’s equations’. Essentially, unconstrained green evapo-transpiring surfaces usually behave as an equivalent to a free water surface. The great Boreal and Tropical forests provide these ‘continent-sized’ water surfaces in interaction with water from the oceans. Incoming energy receipts (W/m2) drive the evaporation from these vast areas.
    Of course the Boreal forest in the winter has fewer energy receipts. Here is a very technical paper about the water vapour above the Canadian Boreal conifer forest. The ‘rough’ surface of the forest will also absorb more heat than bare or sparsely vegetated or snow covered ground. The albedo is very different especially in winter and spring if the dark forest stands above the snowfall, even at low temperatures. Forests are indeed major factors in climate.
    Quote: "Maximum daily evapotranspiration in the summer was 3 – 3.5mm per day and in winter was 0.1–0.2mm per day, mostly as a result of snow sublimation. Occasional relatively high winter evaporation rates up to 0.5 to 1mm per day1were observed during the passage of warm synoptic weather fronts. Here is where I found the paper by Arain et al. 2003. Sorry about the long url.
    https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/45204526/Yearround_observations_of_the_energy_and20160429-22285-t88mkc.pdf?response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DYear-round_observations_of_the_energy_an.pdf&X-Amz-Algorithm=AWS4-HMAC-SHA256&X-Amz-Credential=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A%2F20190923%2Fus-east-1%2Fs3%2Faws4_request&X-Amz-Date=20190923T091834Z&X-Amz-Expires=3600&X-Amz-SignedHeaders=host&X-Amz-Signature=e7dc8c3180f53b17e594abaa29243d43ac4a62b2c95115b81788addee63bff98

    Finally, even in our Western mind it is possible to retrieve from our past a powerful sense of ‘Forests’. I find these thoughts on Welsh legends interesting; perhaps they still are real somewhere in our ‘dream time’, to borrow the term from Ursula Le Guin. https://ymgyrchiannwfn.wordpress.com/?s=forest

    best
    Phil

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  6. Ugo
    I think I submitted this already. Not seeing it published, I have revised it slightly, for instance taking out the very long url, and am resending for your consideration.
    I think you are right to combine technical insights (Anastassia Makarieva) with the intuition of the novelist Ursula Le Guin. I would like to think that the following offers some small support for the great forests and their astonishing value both in fact and in our minds.
    Le Guin provides a valuable introduction to her novel The Word for World Is Forest and both can be read here: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/ursula-k-le-guin-the-word-for-world-is-forest-1
    Here is a quote from part 2 of her Introduction; ‘Synchronicity Can Happen at Almost Any Time’. She writes, having found out about the Senoi people:
    “Were they ever there, and if so, are they still there? In the waking time, I mean, in what we so fantastically call ‘the real world.’ In the dream time, of course, they are there, and here. I thought I was inventing my own lot of imaginary aliens, and I was only describing the Senoi. It is not only the Captain Davidsons who can be found in the unconscious, if one looks. The quiet people who do not kill each other are there, too.”

    On the technical matters of hydrology in your earlier post 'A New Paradigm for the Earth's Ecosystem', I have already contributed a comment with ‘Penman’s equations’. Essentially, unconstrained green evapo-transpiring surfaces usually behave as if they are equivalent to a free water surface. The great Boreal and Tropical forests thus provide these ‘continent-sized’ water surfaces. Incoming energy receipts (W/m2) drive the evaporation from these vast areas. The ‘downstream’ results are significant.

    Of course the Boreal forest in the winter has fewer energy receipts. There is a very technical paper about the water vapour above the Canadian Boreal conifer forest that I have found useful in several regards. The ‘rough’ surface of the forest absorbs more heat than bare or sparsely vegetated ground. The albedo is then very different especially when the dark forest stands above the snowfall. Forests are indeed major factors in climate at all latitudes.

    Quote: "Maximum daily evapotranspiration in the summer was 3 – 3.5mm per day and in winter was 0.1–0.2mm per day, mostly as a result of snow sublimation. Occasional relatively high winter evaporation rates up to 0.5 to 1mm per day1were observed during the passage of warm synoptic weather fronts." This is from M. A. Arain et al. Hydrological Processes, 2003. The link has a very long url so I have not submitted it.

    Even in our Western mind there can remain from our past a powerful sense of ‘Forests’. I found these thoughts on Welsh legends interesting. Perhaps forests have power still in our ‘dream time’, to borrow a term from Ursula Le Guin. https://ymgyrchiannwfn.wordpress.com/?s=forest

    ReplyDelete

Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)