A Conspiracy of Trees
I want to revisit a forest walk— maybe this one near Lake St. Clair in Tasmania (the trek that prompts this essay) or ridge-top nothofagus in New Zealand’s Tararuas, or the old, twisted orchards that surrounded my boyhood home— to think about empiricism, specifically “radical empiricism,” and the problem of representation in nature writing. For decades literary scholars have “problematized” the notion of Representation (“problematize” means they talk about it, a lot). While nature writing often does its damnedest to invoke the beautiful and the sublime, it, unlike much imaginative writing, is anchored by the brute facts of the more or less directly experienced material world. In a sense, its representation is more aligned with science— the act of naming and categorizing—which helps account for much of the writing by today’s “new naturalists” who are either practicing scientists or write of their experiences with them. (I’m thinking of, for example, Robert Macfarlane, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Merlin Sheldrake, or Bernd Heinrich).
For those who remember their history of philosophy, radical empiricism is most directly associated with William James, the American philosopher from the late 19th century. In brief, empiricism is the philosophical position that understanding and knowledge arise from the direct experience of objects in the material world rather than through rational or logical categories that somehow preexist or transcend actual experience. James attaches the adjective “radical” to his empiricism to make room in thought not just for the isolated objects of experience but also for the experience of relations among them: “the relations between things, conjunctive as well as disjunctive, are just as much matters of direct particular experience, neither more so nor less so, than the things themselves.” James is of course arguing this fine point in the rare air of academic discourse. For trekkers, radical empiricism is simply the air we breathe. Unlike a scientific researcher who of necessity brings an abstract nomenclature designed to produce order and extract a specific (but often narrow) understanding of the objects of nature, for trekkers, wandering in the world brings both the perceptive clarity of specific objects—look at that tree, hear that bird, stub that toe on that rock—and at the same time the perceptual blur of conjunctive and disjunctive relationality. It is not so much a philosophical position as it is a necessary practice. The sights, sounds, and smells of the forest relay understanding of specific threats — the rattle of a snake— but also relational moods: the wind shows the underside of leaves, the humidity shifts, the birds go silent; the weather is changing. I don’t want to turn loose a philosophical concept onto the forest to find a way to “Represent Nature.” Instead I want to try to understand how thinking and knowing happen while wandering in an area teeming with sensation, with entangled multiples, with life.
Representation depends on the notion that the world presents itself to some generally outside observer, then language or art re-presents that world. For the radically empirical trekker (a redundancy) the individual furnishings of the world are not simply represented by a word or symbol, because they are not individual. Nothofagus alpina doesn’t stand in for those moss covered southern beech I wandered on a Tararua ridge except as the most rarified of abstraction or objectification. Those epiphytes and their symbionts were all of a piece, as was my presence there along with uncountable other nonhuman actors: “The humidity seems to go up as the temperature drops. The hairs on your arms respond even as your heart rate slows. The smell is both faint and acute, the merest but cleanest whiff of turned soil, and the moss itself breaths. We have no words to describe the sound of moss.”
Here is perhaps where James can join forces with his friend and philosophical colleague Charles Sanders Peirce. The two are best known as the founders of the philosophical school Pragmatism, but Peirce is also the author of a complex semiotics, a study of how signs make meaning. Unlike Ferdinand de Saussure who famously declared there is an arbitrary connection between the signifier and the signified, a point that later became generalized as an irretrievable split between word and thing, Pierce takes a different tack, bringing three possible forms of meaning production: icon, symbol, and index. The last—the notion that meaning can come from the act of pointing, brings us back to the forest. If the Latin nouns define and isolate the nothofagus, the pronoun (as Peirce explains in a different context) functions on another plane. It is indexical, pointing out that specific southern beech festooned with moss and lichens, not an abstract isolated botanical specimen. The indexical points toward an object but is intimately linked to the disjunctive and conjunctive relations constituting the moment (including the pointer and the observer following the finger).
Eduardo Kohn, author of the recent How Forests Think, brings Peirce (and, by implication, James) into the forest. Kohn uses his experience in the Amazonian rainforest to ascribe the meaning-making capacities of the indexical to non-human and even to non-neural beings. He explains, “For Saussure human language is the paragon and model for all sign systems …. Peirce’s definition of a sign, by contrast, is much more agnostic about what signs are and what kinds of beings use them; for him not all signs have language-like properties, and . . . not all the beings who use them are human.” The index is a pointing out or a signaling that turns the attention of any entity toward a part of the world, perhaps momentarily singling out a recognizable object (or threat) in the perceptual blur that is the experienced world. For Kohn, the myriad signals threading through the rain forest—odors, sounds, temperature gradients—are all a form of communication (between all those entities).
In contrast, a representation would be of a system in a single, stable slice of time. It could be called scenic, the Western privileging of the radical split between the object and its (human) observer. Conversely forest semiosis is fluid, unstable, and situation specific. As James would say, “Our fields of experience have no more definite boundaries than have our fields of view. Both are fringed forever by a more that continuously develops, and that continuously supersedes them as life proceeds.” Much nature writing tends to highlight that expected scenic moment: the point where the green tunnel opens up to a vast, open landscape, where the trekker becomes observer of the beautiful and sometimes sublime. But the trekker’s experience of the world is rarely that. Hours are spent, day after day, where experience is “fringed forever by a more,” and where meaning is not abstracted from noise but lived in and through it.
Another way is to think a forest walk as a conspiracy. For most that word calls up images of shadowy figures talking in hushed voices in out-of-the-way corners, but etymologically is means “breathing together.” To conspire is not so much to plot as it is to conjoin in recognition of mutual needs and desires. Trekking is always about breath. It’s keeping pace, increasing speed and slowing based on dimly perceived oxygen levels— oxygen encountered by breasting the air the forest has just made. The experience of the forest cannot be represented but it can be conspired. As Natasha Myers makes clear, “our worlds will only be livable worlds when people learn how to conspire with the plants.” Her’s is a practical and a political imperative. It is also (radically) empirical: “The objective nucleus of every man’s experience, his own body, is, it is true, a continuous percept; and equally continuous as a percept (though we may be inattentive to it) is the material environment of that body, changing by gradual transition when the body moves” (James). It’s not knowing about the forest, nor is it knowing with the forest, it is knowing as part of the forest, as its very breath: it’s a conspiracy.
PS. This year my time in the forest was cut short by the need to avoid conspiring. The Covid 19 pandemic brought me home from the woods to a place where breath is not to be shared. We now live in a world where responsible people wear masks to avoid sharing breath while, at the same time, some complain that masks inhibit breath and still others actively cut off the breath of their fellow humans. The product of an objectification that ignores the conjunctive and disjunctive relations that enable (and compel) us all to breathe together.
T. Hugh Crawford