Exploring the Symbiotic Forest

November 22, 2020

This fall I've been directing the program Forests through Texas Tech's Humanities Center, and we'll be back in the spring with another slate of events. Initially inspired by Richard Powers’ vast narrative The Overstory, I've been immersing myself in the symbiotic forest biome of the mind, communicating wood wide webs, living networks of sentient systems, nurturing planetary cognition, sensoria capable of cognizing Gaian being. Here I map a handful of places we've gone or will be going on these Forest rounds.

In October we welcomed anthropologist Natasha Myers for a virtual lecture, viewable here: Becoming Sensor for a Planthroposcene (passcode: +r=t^e69). Wedding ecological training and a dancer's sensitivity to biophenomenology, Natasha showed us how to “become sensor”—to become a node of Gaian sentience. First, one must shed the dry leaves of dead dogma:

Ecological thinking has been shaped by functionalist, neo-Darwinian logics that story nature in militarized, mechanized, heteronormative, and deterministic terms. . . . To become better allies here we might need to forget everything we thought we knew about nonhuman lives and worlds . . . forget what we thought “nature” was; to forget how we thought life “worked”; and to forget, too, the naturalizing tropes that made us believe that living beings “work” like machines, or that forests perform “ecosystems services,” or that “reproduction” and “fitness” were the only valuable and recordable measures of a life. . . .

One can now put out feelers for cross-species, cross-kingdom openings and attunements. In the pocket-park remnants of black oak forests of Toronto:

Becoming sensor in the savannah demands subtle attunements of our always already synesthetic sensoria. As long-time dancers our attunements to these lands are always already kinesthetically attuned and profoundly attentive to rhythm, temporality, momentum, and more-than-human movements of all kind. Two years in, our first attunements are just beginning to sensitize us to what this land is mattering, and what matters to this land.
from Natasha Myers, “Becoming Sensor in Sentient Worlds: A More-than-natural History of a Black Oak Savannah,” in Between Matter and Method: Encounters in Anthropology and Art (2017)
Photograph by Natasha Myers

Myers’ practice counsels epistemological reserve toward all-too human projections while inviting resonant receptions from the other-than-human:

While we must be careful with the anthropomorphisms that limit our capacity to understand plants' ways of doing life by imposing our own impoverished models, we can and should actively and without reservation practice what one scientist I spoke with called "phytomorphism": we should be vegetalizing our own sensoria in order to begin to appreciate plants' lively, expressive, curious, and articulate ways of being.
from Andrés Lomeña, “Seeding Planthroposcenes: An Interview with Natasha Myers,” The Ethnobotanical Assembly 6 (Autumn 2020).

Visiting another metropolitan forest, Robert Macfarlane’s account of his tour of greater London’s Epping Forest in Underland also reminds us that, as products of a certain scientific education, we have been more than equipped with a “learned wariness towards anthropomorphism” that impedes rather than sharpens the new attunements. In this passage, vegetalizing his sensoria, Macfarlane allows his imagination to register the good nature of his momentary bower:

Where the pollards spread out to form the canopies, I realize I can trace patterns of space running along the edges of each tree's canopy: the beautiful phenomenon known as “crown shyness,” whereby individual forest trees respect each other's space, leaving slender running gaps between the end of one tree's outermost leaves and the start of another's. Lying there among the trees, despite a learned wariness towards anthropomorphism, I find it hard not to imagine these arboreal relations in terms of tenderness, generosity and even love: the respectful distance of their shy crowns, the kissing branches that have pleached with one another, the unseen connections forged by root and hyphae between seemingly distant trees.
Robert Macfarlane, “The Understorey (Epping Forest, London),” in Underland: A Deep Time Journey (2019)

At that moment, Macfarlane’s forest tour guide is the mycologist Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures. The fungal kingdom rules over an immense domain and it has us all—plants and animals—wrapped around its little finger. Talk about your symbiotic planet! Half a billion years ago, fungi were the able anchors that rooted plant life onto its new rocky home above the seas. Sheldrake explains:

Plants only made it out of the water around five hundred million years ago because of their collaboration with fungi, which served as their root systems for tens of millions of years until plants could evolve their own. . . . By partnering, plants gain a prosthetic fungus, and fungi gain a prosthetic plant. Both use the other to extend their reach. It is an example of Lynn Margulis’s “long-lasting intimacy of strangers.”

With their hyphae networking the latter-day root systems of the forest trees, shrubs, and flowers, the fungal mycelia have always been going ahead to lay a carpet down for life on land to lie on. This buried, until-recently unappreciated mutualism has been foresting the Earth for four hundred million years.

Above ground, in some forests, no proximity is too close. The ecological benefits of biotic community are immediately evident in the generation of a niche climate. In The Hidden Life Of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate - Discoveries From A Secret World, Peter Wohlleben captures the beech forests of rural Germany as Gaian systems. Forests rapidly fill the gaps left by dead trees, which holes in the fabric would otherwise “disrupt the forest’s sensitive microclimate with its dim light and high humidity. . . . When the supposedly feeble trees disappear, the others lose as well. When that happens, the forest is no longer a single closed unit.” Or again, restated in neocybernetic terms, when maintained as a “single closed unit,” a forest possesses effective operational closure as an ecosystem, as a Gaian system. Tearing that fabric imperils its extended autopoiesis. However, the “gaps” or missing pieces left by natural events of dying are naturally regenerated, whereas the accumulated losses left by industrial clear-cutting or piecemeal land development threaten the forest’s capacity both to regenerate and maintain itself.

Even in unfavorable spots, left to themselves, stands of forest patiently build up their own favored environments. Here is one more Gaian subplot: transpiration and evaporation set up a negative (self-regulating) feedback loop in the moist air: “Evaporation leads to cooling, which, in turn, leads to less evaporation.” Wohlleben describes an ecological succession in a stand of conifers into which beech trees have been seeded:

The air in this little forest gradually became moister, because the leaves of the growing beeches calmed the air by reducing the speed of the wind blowing through the trunks of the pines. Calmer air meant less water evaporated. More water allowed the beeches to prosper, and one day they grew up and over the tops of the pines. In the meantime, the forest floor and the microclimate had both changed so much that the conditions became more suited to deciduous tree than to the more frugal conifers. This transformation is a good example of what trees can do to change their environment. As foresters like to say, the forest creates its own ideal habitat.

When it comes to forests, a hard lesson to learn is when to let go. As the forester character in Richard Powers' The Overstory Patricia Westerford puts this truth in her fictional book, The New Metamorphosis, “The best and easiest way to get a forest to return to any plot of cleared land is to do nothing—nothing at all, and do it for less time than you might think.” The time to tend it in a newly indigenous manner will be once it has returned. To assist your own pursuit of strategically temporary ecological quietude, I commend to your attention a silent video by photographer and artist Maria Whiteman, Strange Strangers. Stay with it until the leaves begin to fall out of the autumn trees, like flying squirrels parachuting from the canopies, like dead dogmas falling away.

Photograph by Maria Whiteman
Bruce ClarkeBruce Clarke
Bruce Clarke is Paul Whitfield Horn Distinguished Professor of Literature and Science in the Department of English at Texas Tech University, and the 2019 Blumberg/NASA Chair in Astrobiology at the Library of Congress. His research focuses on systems theory, narrative theory, and ecology. Clarke co-edits the book series Meaning Systems, published by Fordham University Press.


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