Real forests are wild. The forests of human contrivance are tree farms, plantations, monocultures, timber supply areas. Such clusters of trees may superficially appear to be real forests, but they are less complex, less organic, less living and therefore less enduring. And they were handicapped by their beginning. Instead of originating and developing by the creative randomness of biological chance, their growth was guided by a defined purpose. They are not real forests because they are not wild.
Even real forests can lose their wild quality if they are disturbed by human influence. The enchantment provided by the wild is rare and delicate, sometimes violated by a word or a breath. Maybe this is why real forests invite the same quiet reverence as cathedrals, temples, or those sacred and holy places which countenance nothing less than silent awe.
A person in a real forest is in the presence of the wild, of something so profoundly important and so deeply primal that it only speaks to our bones — because, as Robert Bringhurst writes in The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, “it is what-is” (Counterpoint, 2008).
In Bringhurst’s thinking, the wild is the essence of “what-is”, a conviction — better still, an insight, an awareness, a knowing — he explores in the chapter, “Wild Language”. As a linguist and typographer, Bringhurst is looking for the wild in language and typography, the same wild that is in real forests.
Not surprisingly, he admits failure. “Wild typography isn’t something I’ve achieved; its something I’m always trying to reach. It is typography in which each form is as well made and as well placed as the wildflowers blooming in an alpine meadow in the spring, deerprints in a rain-soft stretch of game trail, the feathers in a varied thrush’s wing, or the miniature forest of moss and lichen spreading over a stump.” In other words, the wild is a spontaneous rightness that happens of itself, an unfolding perfection and a continuing completeness that is powered from within.
The wild cannot be made by us. “People accustomed to orchards, farms and gardens,” writes Bringhurst, “very often think of the wild in opposition to the domesticated or tame. The garden, they say, has greater order than the wild. But it’s the other way around. The order of the garden may be easier to see, but it is fragile and superficial. It is artificial and unnatural in a very convincing sense: it cannot take care of itself. The order of the wild is self-sustaining, flexible and deep.”
This brings us closer to the meaning of wild in a real forest. In Bringhurst’s words, such forests are “a living, ever-changing shrine to timelessness”. The wild contains a level of ordering that transcends human influence and control. “The wild is by definition unmanaged and unmanageable, and in some sense unconfined by those who would manage it.”
This begins to explain why real forests — wild forests — are so special. They provide something far greater than human planning and intention, something even more complex and permanent than the civilizations we think are so sophisticated and durable. Indeed, as Bringhurst rightly observes, “Forests are also highly developed civilizations.” But they do not “need or want our managerial interference.”
In reality, they contain a crucial wisdom that we would do well to learn, replicate and internalize. In Bringhurst’s words, “human civilizations actually start to resemble” a wild forest when they begin “to sense and respond to” the same “supple and reinforcing order” that guides its growth. So, “the wild isn’t something to conquer or subdue; it’s something to try to live up to: a standard better than gold.”
If this were all Bringhurst had to say about the wild in forests it would be more than enough. But he has more. “As soon as you think your way out of the wild — as soon as depression or arrogance or some other form of exaggerated self-concern leads you to see yourself as distinct from it — the wild looks like a thing. You might imagine you can carve it up and sell it. You might even think you can redesign it or manage it and do a better job than the wild itself. But of course you can’t. Your only hope, when you are really cut off from the wild, is to rejoin it. The wild is the biosphere: this tiny hollow ball which is the only place in the universe where you and I are free to be what we are.”
So the wild is a teacher, a constant reminder that we can be who we are. We can be ourselves just as the forest is itself. The same spontaneity that grows a wild forest grows the fullness of our own character. Just as each wild forest is unique, so too are we each unique, the organic consequence of a complex unfolding that happens of itself. We each become who we are just as a wild forest becomes what it is. The miracle of our own individual being is mirrored in the wild forest.
This comes close to the meaning of wild. And it comes close to the essential reason for protecting wild forests. They are ourselves as we ought to become and as we ought to be. We find ourselves in them. We can feel peaceful and whole in them because the freedom that makes them what they are is the same freedom that makes us who we are. Entering a wild forest is like entering our deepest selves, like coming home to who we really are. The elusive feeling that pervades a wild forest is the creative power of nature fulfilling itself.
Without the wild we become lost in a contrived world of impositions and manipulations, captives in a construction of conventions and expectations. We lose our character, our integrity, our soul, our essence. We need wild forests as a reminder to both ourselves and to our civilizations that what we seek is not a thing to be but a way to be.