This course is offered online in synchronous format.
Can the humanities help us think differently about the forest? What happens if we imagine forests as the agents of their stories? At the same time that forests of the world are in crisis, the “rights of nature” movement is making progress in forcing courts to acknowledge the legal “personhood” of forests and other habitats. The stories that humans have told and continue to tell about forests are a source for the imaginative and cultural content of that claim. At a time when humans seem unable to curb the destructive practices that place themselves, biodiversity, and the forests at risk, the humanities give us access to a record of the complex inter-relationship between forests and humanity. The course begins with the oldest extant stories, which reveal startlingly fresh insights into the foundations of human behavior. In one of the oldest, Gilgamesh and his companion lay waste to a sacred cedar grove and slay its guardian. In mythology, forests and trees intertwine with the lives of humans and gods. In fairy tales, forests can be foreboding places. Since early modern times, deforestation has been an abiding consequence of industrial activity, to the point of precipitating Europe’s first energy crisis. The concept of sustainable yield forestry originated during the early enlightenment and led to cultural practices that continue to shape green politics. At the same time, romanticism inspired a philosophical regard for the forest and the creative power of nature. Recent studies in forestry as well as psychology are shedding new light on the communicative capacity of tree networks (the “wood wide web”) and the therapeutic properties of trees on humans, while city planners, landscape architects, and urban foresters break down the divide between city and forest. New histories of wood and the forest are opening our eyes to stories bigger than ourselves. The outcome of German elections may turn in part on the symbolic value of a forest. In the 2018 novel, The Overstory, McArthur-Award winning author Richard Powers, breaks new ground in integrating human lives into the environmental narrative that contains us. These and other stories told in the West and the Global South provide models for rethinking our relationship to the forest and motivating effective action.