If the Parc Régional du Morvan were a jewel, to use the clichéd language of the welcome center, it would have to be an emerald. That, at least – a vivid and multi-faceted green – is how I’d always known it, but after 5 months without a drop of rain and some of the highest temperatures on record, the grass had been toasted brown, and the woods rustled like rice paper on the faintest of breezes.
I had just emerged from a hiking trail into the glare, and the small country road was melting in the heat, the burning air dense with the smell of asphalt and ferns. A few hawks were plying the thermals, but the only other sign of life were the Charolais cattle huddled in the patchy shadows under the oaks.
I was nearly out of water and it was too hot to go on, so I decided to head for the nearest village by cutting through a Douglas fir plantation.
Imported from the American North West in the mid-19th century, and planted on an industrial scale in the last three decades of the 20th century, these conifers are recent invaders, but they have become a defining feature of the Morvandel landscape, their more somber hue in bold contrast to the glowing green of less warlike, deciduous trees, the oaks and chestnuts which are native to the area. Jagging the skyline and hugging the mountainsides in serried ranks, they seem almost wicked in their yen for transcendence and in the phallic assertiveness with which they stake out their territory, but however thrilling they look from afar, these plantations lose much of their aura when once you have entered them.
Evenly spaced and rigorously aligned, near-clones of each other, the trees were not allowed to exceed a certain girth or grow above a certain height, and the entire place had the stifling feel of an attic. No sunlight dappled these woods, and nothing stirred on the dim, bronze-colored air. Despite the resin oozing from the trunks, there was no scent of pine. The silence too was uncanny, and in its bland inertness the air itself felt like cardboard.
This Douglas fir plantation was not even an ‘environment’ in that – Douglas firs excepted – it did not surround or contain anything. Least of all people. Indeed, man-made though it was, it could not have felt more dehumanized, and it is no wonder that such is the setting of that bleakest of all folk songs:
I’m going where the cold wind blows
In the pines
In the pines
Where the sun never shines
This latter was surely not an old-growth forest, but a tree plantation just like the one I had entered, a grim dossing place for the outcasts of society, its vagrants and wanted men, filled throughout the night with the huge, clattering roar of the never-ending freight trains referenced in the ballad.
People did not belong in these woods, whatever the welcome center might claim to the contrary, and I don’t mean that in a narrow, legal sense. I felt constantly as if I were trespassing, but there were no DÉFENSE D’ENTRER (Keep Out) signs nailed to the trees as there were in lusher parts of the Morvan. Indeed, the phantom entity that owned and exploited this land had no need to warn people off, or to fear any damage to its capital assets. Poisoned by herbicides and suffocated by needles, no flowers grew in these woods, and there were no nuts or berries when October came round. There were not any seasons here either – these being evergreens – and this forest gave nothing to glean but broken twigs and pine cones strewing the floor.
On reflection, could one even call it ‘a forest’? After all, divorced as they were from their natural environment, the thriving cosmos of which they were once so vital a part, these trees were not so much living organisms as “timber stands” or future telegraph poles, and to my inexpert eye, aside from a kind of bile-green fuzz growing in patches under the trees – which had the merit, perhaps, of surviving the poisons – there was only one plant species to be seen here, and not a hint of sentient life.
But I forget the hand of man, the tree farming model described above, the gouges made by the JCBs that had ploughed up the soil, and the bright orange markings sprayed on some of the trees like portents of the wildfires which were bound to engulf our overheated world in decades to come.
Plantations of this kind were the antithesis of ‘husbandry,’ with its sense of tending to, and taking care of, something, and I was probably the only person, that one lone tagger excepted, to have entered this no-man’s-land in the decade or so since the saplings were put in the ground.
I had never known such solitude before. I myself was the only source of sound, and the self-consciousness I felt was heightened by the complex acoustics of the place, in which noises – my rattling tin flask, now empty, or the crack of a twig underfoot – either ricocheted off the trees or were scattered among them and instantly absorbed into space.
But it wasn’t the silence or the emptiness that oppressed me so much as the same dreary vistas wherever I roamed and whichever way I turned. Diversity, after all, is essential to life, and nature – our human nature included – abhors sameness as much, perhaps, as it abhors a void, and this place was a solipsistic nightmare, a hall of mirrors in which each part reflected each other part ad infinitum. It was a rational desert as bewildering as any maze, one in which North, South, East, or West were meaningless categories, and as the sun began its descent and dusk closed in like smoke entering the lungs, the trees merged into a monochrome gray, – ‘between dog and wolf’ as the old saying goes, – and a kind of blindness came over me, affecting not just the organ of sight, but the moral faculties as well. I began to feel that nothing had meaning or value anymore, not even – had the issue of choice presented itself – time-honored notions of right and wrong, and in a modern re-telling of the biblical story, might not Cain – the first farmer, – have lead his brother Abel, – the shepherd boy whom God preferred – to just such a place of perdition? have slain him here in the half-light of this sinister grove?
This is, of course, an ancient story, but the moral it conveys is perhaps more relevant today than ever before. Yearning for the tree of knowledge (as the Bible tells us), man has always sought dominion over the natural world, and now that the End, it would seem, is truly nigh, we are starting to see what we have done to our garden. Out of sight and out of mind, places like the one I describe constitute quite literally our blind spot as a civilization, that part of our collective nature we ignore at our peril, and which is none other than the death instinct at the heart of industrial capitalism. We are transforming what was once an earthly paradise into a barren Hell of reason, quite different from Dante’s ‘selva oscura,’ – the dark woods through which he strays into the netherworld – and far more terrible than his, since not only have we damned ourselves and all our posterity, but we are taking the rest of Creation with us.
These were my thoughts, and this was the state to which I had fallen, when I noticed that my forearms, which were glistening with perspiration, had taken on a greenish color. Raising my eyes at last as though waking from a horrible dream, I was elated to see, at the far end of the dim, brown corridor I’d been walking in for what felt like forever, the lush foliage of oak and chestnut trees piercing the gloom like a trove of green treasure.