Monday, April 9, 2012

Eternal Forest

This post is a follow up to TheLandscape of my Imagination, and part of the Andrews Forest Writers Residency series begun on my blog for Eolyn during May, June and July of 2011.  My decision to revisit the topic of forest and landscape in fantasy is in part a recognition of Earth Day, coming up on April 22. 

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This thousand-year-old oak resides in the forest
that inspired the South Woods.
Last night we went to see the movie The Hunger Games, in which twenty-four teenagers are chosen at random and obligated to kill each other – or die themselves – while struggling to survive in a mountain wilderness. 

I could devote this blog to yet another analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the film, but there's plenty of that going on elsewhere in the internet.  So for the moment I'd rather talk about wilderness, how by the end of the film Hunger Games, I was contemplating, once again, the importance of setting in science fiction and fantasy.

The presence of wilderness, and particularly forested wilderness, is often considered a standard trope for classic epic fantasy.  Anything written in the tradition of Tolkien is expected to have at least one uncharted forest, beautiful and deadly, filled with magical creatures and dangerous mysteries.

I’ve often thought of modern fantasy, and especially science fiction, as eschewing this trope and being bound more to the urban landscape of a contemporary-style world.  Yet last night The Hunger Games challenged this impression.  After all, the most intense part of Kat’s journey is undertaken in the deep forest.  And when you think about it, hers is not the only example of forest in modern fantasy and science fiction. 
Where would fantasy be without the Ents?
In the Twilight series, the vampire Edward reveals his sparkly nature to Bella in a shaft of light breaking through ancient trees.  J.K. Rowling built Harry Potter’s beloved academy of magick not in downtown London, but in a scarcely populated rural area, with a healthy forest in the backyard. In addition, the forest provides Harry refuge in the days before his final confrontation with Voldemort.  And of course, one must only mention the word Avatar to inspire images of Home Tree, along with the vast and exhuberant ecosystem in which it lives. 

If these titans of modern fantasy are any indication, the landscapes of our imagination have not been as deforested as I once thought.  The deep woods are still a place of exploration, mystery, adventure and danger.  Whether or not we ourselves have been to a forest, we like to see our characters go into that living maze, and we like to see them come out awed by beauty, harried by experience and transformed by truth.

During my week at Andrews Experimental Forest last summer, I had the opportunity to contemplate the meaning of forest from both a biological and literary standpoint.  I came to the conclusion – admittedly based more on personal experience than statistical data – that the encounter with wilderness can have a unique and important impact on the imagination. Old growth forest, in particular, stretches our understanding of reality, inspires images of the fantastic, and challenges us to relate to the world and to each other in ways that are both novel and unexpected.
Andrews Experimental Forest: home to one
of the last remnants of Old Growth in Oregon. 

As a fantasy author, I’ve discovered I have a special gift. When I write stories, I can bring the experience of being in the forest to life for my reader. 

But no matter how immersed readers feel in Eolyn's forested world, it is impossible for me to capture the full essence of Forest with words. 
More importantly, whatever small piece of wilderness I’ve been able to bring to my readers has depended entirely on the fact that there are still old growth forests out there that have welcomed me into their verdant depths, then sent me back to my computer with new ideas and fresh plots.

So as Earth Day approaches, I am going to ask something of you, fantasy readers and fans.  I ask you to remember Old Growth Forest.  This is not just a place in the pages of our books – not yet, anyway.  Forest is a living entity in our world, an active partaker in the art of storytelling.  And it is under threat, in the tropics, in the temperate latitudes, in the great expanses of the boreal north. 

Educate yourselves about the reasons we are losing old growth forest.  Learn what you can do to help, and do it. Our stories are not born out of thin air; they are part and parcel of the organic world in which we live. So if you like your fantasy worlds to have ancient forests, make sure the real world you live in has them as well. 
-  posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

The forests of Middle Earth were inspired by old growth European
deciduous forests of which only small pieces
 remain, like this one in Montenegro.

7 comments:

Terri-Lynne said...

What an amazing tribute. Thank you for this, Karin.

It reminded me of several things, as I read--the first being Mythago Wood (Robert Holdstock) and how the forest was a character in and of itself, as well as being setting. That deep, dark lives in the heart of most all of us, our cultures. One can't be in the forest without feeling it, that connection, that sense of "home" even if the immensity and vitality are frightening.

And that reminded me the wild gardens around Dromoland Castle in Ireland--the perfect blend of wild and cultivated. The trees were so old, gnarled and magical--they rememebered wild days. That was evident in every twisting branch. And yet the paths we walked were manicured grass, dotted with gorgeous plantings. Proof that humanity and nature can coexist in the most basic and glorious ways.

Last, it reminded me of The Poets of Pevana, and the TREE that plays so vital a part within the urban setting. Again, proof that in all our hearts, the forest lingers. But I'll let Mark comment on that. :)

Three With Eyes That See said...

What an amazing tribute. Thank you for this, Karin.

It reminded me of several things, as I read--the first being Mythago Wood (Robert Holdstock) and how the forest was a character in and of itself, as well as being setting. That deep, dark lives in the heart of most all of us, our cultures. One can't be in the forest without feeling it, that connection, that sense of "home" even if the immensity and vitality are frightening.

And that reminded me the wild gardens around Dromoland Castle in Ireland--the perfect blend of wild and cultivated. The trees were so old, gnarled and magical--they rememebered wild days. That was evident in every twisting branch. And yet the paths we walked were manicured grass, dotted with gorgeous plantings. Proof that humanity and nature can coexist in the most basic and glorious ways.

Last, it reminded me of The Poets of Pevana, and the TREE that plays so vital a part within the urban setting. Again, proof that in all our hearts, the forest lingers. But I'll let Mark comment on that. :)

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Thanks, Terri!

Yes, when you start to think about it, the list goes on and on. Martin's world has the Godswood. Patricia McKillip is another great example of an author who brings the forest to life.

Of course, forest is not the only wilderness out there -- and not the only one of worth -- it's just the one I decided to focus on for this post.

Mark Nelson/ Pevanapoet1 said...

I remember visiting the Secret Gardens in Seoul, South Korea when I was a kid. This place was the old royal family compound in the center of the city--at that time around 8 million people. For me, it was like a time warp. It was more than a sanctuary of collected and preserved plants and trees; it was a hint of the heritage of the whole peninsula that was almost ruined by the chaos of the Korean War. 80% of the landmass from the Yalu River (north) to Pusan (south) was denuded of trees and relevant foliage. I felt time there, and the promise that trees ARE. Yeah, caps intended. Too often it seems that trees just are, lower case intended, and subject to definition as hinderences (view blockers), bothers (leaves), boundary stretchers (upset fencing) and the like. Eric Reynolds' tree killing neighbor is only one of a multitude. For such a thing to fall to the vagaries of wind and time is one thing, but to succomb for the above reasons to metal teeth weilded by the dispassionate.

I loved the redwoods, but I didn't like driving through the tunnel so adroitly cut in that one fallen trunk.

I really, REALLY, GET Treebeard, in so many ways. I've tramped in the Black Forest in Germany, camped in the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington, seen the fall from the Skyline drive in the eastern ranges, and hiked through a goodly chunk of the Cascades, and the sensation I received when I ducked under the barrier and hid for an hour from the tour group in the Secret Gardens trumped them all. I sat with my back against what I was told later was a 600 year old monster, planted by a prince of the royal family. I GOT him, too.

I think trees are both the question and the answer of our times: their presence in our urban existence, so carefully collected and protected, convicts us in a way of our incipient hypocrisy. We live too fast, too furious, creating huge metropolitan spaces and ignore the question of the trees: "Why?" And we also ignore the answer they provide: "Patience."

Concrete covers up a lot of the rhythms of our experience that were perhaps better left unrestricted. I used to feel bad when I saw trees growing seemingly encased in concrete. I recall a particular park in Paris...

And then I think of the roots, and I realize that most of the story is still going on, reaching, leaching, penetrating.

Just yesterday, I was walking down the stairs to my classroom. One of those trees in cement shades the steps. At the bottom I noticed a new crack in the cement with a darker hint of something. I took a close look: tree root.

So, for those of you who will ever read Poets of Pevana, there is a reason why Devyn stops dead in his tracks running from the bad guys. He feels the roots of the Tree through his boot-soles and receives part of an answer...

So, yeah, Karin, Terri, for me Trees are a manifestation of LIFE in all its subtle magic.

So I think I have thing for roots. The trees in the Secret Garden grew in a riot of limbs and stretching roots, breaking rock, filling up the spaces between the tended flower beds with slow, patient, intent LIFE.

And that's cool.

Three With Eyes That See said...

(Terri here, signed in to our blog name because blogger hates me for some reason, and eats all my comments.)

Mark, reading your comment reminded me of that show on the History Channel, "Life After People." http://www.history.com/shows/life-after-people
It is a bleak show, but very cool too. It takes different scenarios as to the why behind human extinction, and then fast forwards over the scant decades between our downfall and nature's reclaiming of the earth. It starts almost immediately, and just keeps going until we're artifacts left for some farflung space being to find.

We humans live so quickly in comparison to trees. Yeah, I get Treebeard, too. I think it's why we're the volatile creatures we are--there's so much to feel and do in the short span of time we have. (A point I make in ATNL, but that's another story.)

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Mark, thanks so much for your lovely comments!

Your remark about patience hit home for me; I'd never thought about that being a 'lesson' of trees, but I think your totally right.

We'll have to visit the Overland Park Arboretum when you're in KC. ;)

Mark Nelson/ Pevanapoet1 said...

One of the coolest things about trees: Most of them make us look up...