Forest time, forest space

What happens when an inveterate traveler succumbs to the temptation to try and fully enter one of the places that haunt his imagination, when he craves “something so far beyond my comprehension that I would have to step completely out of my skin to understand and become a part of my surroundings”?

This is the task that Eric Hansen sets for himself in Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo (Penguin, 1988). What’s amazing is that he succeeds – not just in the trek itself, but in adapting himself to a very different way of seeing and traveling, as well. Of course, it isn’t easy. And in the end, the transformative experiences of the first part of his journey do not magically turn everything wonderful for him. On the way back he almost gets killed by Kenyah villagers for walking by himself during Musim Takoot, “The Season of Fear,” and he almost kills a Protestant missionary who seems to embody the worst traits of the “ugly American.”

But the most memorable portions of the story, for me, concern his initial adaptation to jungle traveling under the tutelage of his two Penan guides. (Penan are the hunter-gatherer people of Borneo, who live in very low-tech, band societies and are comparable to the Ituri Pygmies in their level of at-homeness in the rainforest.)

Three narrow trade routes cross the great dividing range between the Kelabit highlands and Kalimantan, but because Bo ‘Hok and Weng, like all Penan, preferred the deep shadows of the forest, we meandered through a maze of game trails that had no beginning or end. I had been with Bo ‘Hok and Weng for nearly two months. . . . [They] wanted to explore this new landscape, and they laughed at my frustration about how little progress we made some days.

“Dawai, dawai” (slowly, slowly), they would say. They had a point. Why should they rush? There might be gaharu or stands of sago nearby. I didn’t know where I was and had finally learned to keep my suggestions to myself. Bo ‘Hok and Weng were the pathfinders, so we continued to meander through the rain forest. During this phase of the trip I remained completely disoriented. I knew we were headed in a generally southeasterly direction and stopped asking “How far?” or “How many days?” The questions were meaningless.

“If you haven’t been to this part of the forest before,” I asked Bo ‘Hok, “how do you know where we’re going?”

“Mal-cun-uk” (we follow our feelings), came the reply.

He made it sound easy. It wasn’t.

My anxiety about wanting to get “somewhere else” was partially due to the fact that I knew to many “other places” in the world. For Bo ‘Hok and Weng there was no “other place” apart from the jungle, and I grew to envy their sense of place, their contentment with where they were. When I became anxious, I would embark upon extraordinary journeys in my mind. When, for example, a steep, muddy trail became impossible because of the leeches, I might imagine myself on a pair of cross-country skis, gliding across expanses of unmarked snow, a picnic lunch and a bottle of wine in my pack. The sight of bee-larva soup could send me around the world to the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, for afternoon tea and scones with freshly whipped cream and thick strawberry jam. Outside, a light snow would be falling on the passing traffic.

Even during this relatively difficult period, there were some days in the rain forest that were effortless and full of new discoveries. We saw tree-climbing pigs and flying snakes and lizards, and one day Weng brought me a leaf in the palm of his hand. When I touched the leaf, it stood up and walked around looking for a place to hide. The leaf was actually a cleverly disguised insect that blended in perfectly with the leaf litter on the jungle floor.

Also, Weng told me the story of a diving ant that launches itself from the rim of a Lowes pitcher plant (Nepenthes lowii) and plunges into the insect-eating reservoir of digestive fluid contained within the body of the plant. The diving ant rescues some of the insects by “swimming” them to the edge of the reservoir like a miniature lifesaver. Then the ants eat the insect.

I was reminded of this by the entry for “Forest” in my brother Mark’s brand-new, co-authored book, Deleuze and Geophilosophy: A Guide and Glossary (Mark Bonta and John Protevi, Edinburgh University Press, 2004). This is one of the instances where the authors expand on the ideas developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (DG) in A Thousand Plateaus, Anti-Oedipus and What is Philosophy? (I discussed DG’s philosophy a bit back in January – see Cat’s Cradle.)

To understand the discussion of “forest,” one first needs to grasp three other terms. The first is “rhizome”- “a decentered multiplicity or network.”

DG list six principles of a rhizome: connection (all points are immediately connectable); heterogeneity (rhizomes mingle signs and bodies); multiplicity (the rhizome is ‘flat’ or immanent); ‘asignifying rupture’ (the line of flight is a primary component, which enables heterogeneity-preserving emergence or ‘consistency’); cartography (maps of emergence are necessary to follow a rhizome); and decalomania (the rhizome is not a model like the tree, but an ‘immanent process’). There can be a rhizome from which one extracts a piece and plants elsewhere; the piece is also a rhizome and continues to bud. Two multiplicities can form a rhizome with each other or become each other; this is the primordial example of the wasp and the orchid. . . .

The reference to the subterranean nature of the botanical rhizome is intentional in DG’s use of the term, because it is meant to evoke the hidden network quality of interlocked forces that have adapted to resist the striating forces of the surface and air, and especially the hierarchized State. . . .

The second Deleuzoguattarian term one needs to understand is “Plateau,” which is simply “a ‘region of intensities’ without reference to a transcendent goal. DG offer their own clear definition of the term: ‘A rhizome is made of plateaus . . . ‘” The third concept is “striation” or “striated space,” which in turn can best be understood in contradistinction to “smooth space” – “the space of intensive process and assemblages, as opposed to the striated space of stratified or stable systems. Although in constant interchange with it, so that it is in fact probably better to speak of ‘smoothing’ and ‘striating’ forces.” Both smooth and striated space operate “in the landscape, in mathematics, in music, in thought, in politics, in religion, and so forth. . . . Emergent properties, intensive becomings, occur only in smooth space. The possibility for symbiosis, for mutualism, for a food web and ecosystem, and finally for forests, seas, prairies, and so forth, is predicated on smoothing, not striating forces.”

Thus, striated space is space that has been measured or stratified, “especially as effectuated by the State apparatus.” However, “This is not to say that only humans striate: any organism striates milieus to achieve territorial organization. Human systems, however, attempt to achieve a particularly crude type of striation, and strive, via the signifying regime, to striate the earth completely.”

O.K., got all that? Now on to . . .

FOREST: DG spend little time on this space, except to characterize it as striated by ‘gravitational verticals’ (that is, trees) and as the annexed or associated milieu of many agricultural societies. . . .

We suggest an alternative map of forest space as holey space. The tree, far from being the standard for the forest, is rather deterritorialized by it, though perhaps not in the type of European wood-lot forests that DG imagined. DG failed to theorize the forest as anything other than a human space and precursor to civilization via short-fallow swidden agriculture. In seeing the forest as nothing more than a community of trees, they exclude the dynamics of tropical rain forests where the tree is but part of a vast rhizome with no center, no sense of perspective, no organizing principle, no ground [sol] (the soil is infertile, because nutrients are in constant cyclic motion throughout the system, and are not stored there), where plants can grow from top to bottom and then back (the strangler fig) or defy gravity altogether (epiphytes). The rain forest contains a high ratio of flow to order, and its complexity is engendered from this far-from-equilibrium crisis state. Its plateaus avoid climax.

Forest space, to remain a rhizome, can only be occupied and defended by anti-State forces, and many of its users – hunter-gatherer-swidden agriculturalists using long-fallow rotation (for example, in the Amazon) – are part of its rhizome. Forests are the outside of the State (Latin foris, outside), the holey spaces that fend it off: the shelter for outlaws and misfits, the domain of guerilla groups across the world today, powerful in their capacity to hide (thus, the necessity of the Agent Orange defoliant), they avoid the striations and overcoding of the State more than any other type of social formation. [Robert P.] Harrison calls forests the ‘shadow of civilization’ and because they are not and were not to be trusted, they have been ‘locked up’ as the King’s domain, and now as nature reserves. Tropical rain forests are often painted as multisexual or threatening bodies, as virgins, and so on: another threat to or possibility for the State. Forests, like deserts, also follow civilizations that overextend themselves, and grow along the borders between nation-states.

Actually, one can accurately describe temperate forests with much of the same language applied here to tropical forests. Only in the past few years have forest ecologists begun to get a handle on the emergent properties of old growth forest ecosystems, especially in terms of soil microorganisms. The literally rhizomatic structures of fungi – mycelia – turn out to be intimately involved in nutrient and energy flows, to such an extent that fungi and not trees may be considered the quintessential forest organisms.

The above description stresses the capacity of forests to disguise and conceal. In the mythologies of forest dwelling peoples, this is but the first stage in a process of complete transformation and (in DG terminology) deterritorialization (“the process of leaving home, of altering your habits, of learning new tricks”). Eric Hansen’s account suggests the power of such transformation, especially when he realizes how close he has become to the bali saleng, the peripatetic collector of human blood. “He is half-man, half-spirit; he lives in the forest; he is believed to be employed by large companies. . . . What I did not know was that the description of the bali saleng changed regularly . . . At the time I happened to be travelling through the Apo Kayan, the description was ‘a tall, white-skinned man with brownish hair who walks by himself in the jungle. He will come over the mountains from Sarawak during the season of grass cutting.'” Only by fully adapting to the native thought-system, and passing off a pin in his possession as a powerful charm to protect himself from malevolent forest spirits, did Hansen manage to save his life.

The reference to forest as land that has been “locked up” foregrounds one of the favorite images from the propaganda of the modern state, in the guise of the U.S. forest industry and its “wise use” front groups. Actually, it is striking the extent to which industry and government propaganda turns ideas inside out in its attempt to foster fear and hatred of unregulated natural landscapes. Land is “locked up” when it is most free (preserved from striating forces). Clearcuts are now generally referred to as “regeneration cuts” – even when it is obvious that the forest so destroyed was the result of stochastic events and/or disturbance regimes that are in no way reproducible through human actions. Foresters refer to any significant removal of timber or application of pesticides or chemical fertilizers as a “treatment,” employing a healing analogy also evoked by “regeneration.”

In other words, in forester space, natural forest ecosystems are vectors of disease. “Old growth” – originally a forester coinage – was once by definition “decadent,” a reservoir of tree pests and diseases that must be cleared out for the health of the forest (tree farm). That many in the forest industry still think this way may be seen in the very title of the Bush administration’s “healthy forests” initiative. But that’s a topic for another day.

To read more of my brother’s Deleuzoguattarian analysis of forest space, see here (second essay).

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

1 Comment

  1. hi, i visit and paint on canvas my local coastal rainforest in taranaki new zealand as an attempt to reclaim it from state commodity stereotyping. iam a deleuzian and question whether my artform is valid.


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