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2. Natural Places

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As we have discussed previously, the desert plays an important symbolic role in the Western genre film or novel. In a way similar to Biblical prophets, American cowboys forsaked the civilized life of the east to practice a new asceticism.

Few have celebrated and spoken to the core of the desert experience in America as well as art critic and art historian John C. Van Dyke. In the summer of 1898, the asthmatic forty-two-year-old university professor-librarian, accompanied by a fox terrier named Cappy, rode an Indian pony into the Colorado Desert. He had spent much of his life in the finest galleries of Europe but he felt that when he rode into the Colorado Desert, he rode into one of the greatest art galleries he would ever enter. He stayed almost three years.

"The desert," he writes in the Preface to The Desert, "has gone a-begging for a word of praise these many years. It never had a sacred poet; it has in me only a lover." He talks about the contrast of the "Old World" of civilization in Europe and contrasts this with the "New World" of America represented by the Colorado Desert:

"We have often heard of 'Sunny Italy' or the 'clear light' of Egypt, but believe me there is no sunlight there compared with that which falls upon the upper peaks of the Sierra Madre or the uninhabitable wastes of the Colorado Desert. Pure sunlight requires for its existence pure air, and the Old World has little of it left. When you are in Rome again and stand upon that hill where all good romanticists go at sunset, look out and notice how dense is the atmosphere between you and St. Peter's dome. That same thick air is all over Europe, all around the Mediterranean, even over in Mesopotamia and by the banks of the Ganges. It has been breathed and burned and battle-smoked for ten thousand years."

But a different type of air is in the American desert and Van Dyke celebrates this air. "Ride up and over the high table-lands of Montana," he writes and you can see, "how clear and scentless, how absolutely intangible that sky-blown sunshot atmosphere! You breathe it without feeling it, you see it a hundred miles and the picture is not blurred by it...Once more ride over the enchanted mesas of Arizona at sunrise or at sunset...and all the glory of the old shall be nothing to the gold and purple and burning crimson of this new world." The place of the American desert really had a "sacred poet" after all.

(b) Prairies

The best known of the world's temperate grasslands or prairies are the prairies of North America and the steppes of Eurasia. They extend far into the interiors of these northern continents. However, smaller prairies are also found in the southern hemisphere in the veld of South Africa and the pampas of South America. They also occur in southeastern Australia. Prairies are a type of mid-point between forests and deserts. They probably developed wherever rainfall was too low to support forests and too high to result in semi-arid regions.
In America, the western prairies are the place of the great cattle drives and buffalo herds. They are also the place where most of the confrontations with Indians have occurred. In the western story genre they often symbolize the "promised land" where farms and new homes can be established and crops can be grown in the rich soil. This promised land has been important in American place symbolism and significantly one of the most popular television series in history was A Little House On The Prairie. Much of the American prairie background and mythology was restated in the recent blockbuster film Dances With The Wolves.

(c) Jungles

Jungles, or tropical rainforests, are the world's richest areas in animal and plant life. They consist of a series of layered or stratified habitats. These habitats range from the dark and humid forest floor through a layer of shrubs to the emerging tops of scattered giant trees which tower over the dense main canopy of the forest. Each layer of vegetation is a miniature life zone containing a wide selection of animal species. These great rainforests occur only in regions close to the Equator. The major places of these jungles are in the nation of Brazil, Central America, western Africa, southeastern Asia and Micronesia.

Since prehistoric times, jungles and forests have offered shelter to cultures who, lacking any knowledge of agriculture, have existed as hunters and gatherers. They used only stone and wooden weapons such as bows and arrows to kill their animal prey and collected berries, fruit and honey from their surroundings.

The jungle has a primitive symbolic aspect because of our first ancestors were hunters and gatherers who originally came from the jungles and forests. Unlike the deserts which have very little life and the prairies which have some life, the jungle has more life per square inch than any other place on earth. It is in the jungle that the Darwin's theory of "survival of the fittest" is constantly played out. The phrase "it's a jungle out there" is one common expression which uses this aspect of jungle symbolism.

Certainly the jungle has been a very important part of background for the adventure genre of fiction and for writers such as Joseph Conrad. It is hard to imagine Conrad finding a more adequate background than the jungles of southeast Asia for his story Heart Of Darkness. It is this jungle background which gives mythological status to films such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon and books such as Dispatches. It has also served in the creation of a sub-genre of stories such as the Tarzan stories and the stories of Rudyard Kipling.

(d) Forests

The great forests of the world are found in North America, Europe and eastern Asia. Unlike jungles, forests are products of northern, cooler, climates. The great rainforests of Brazil are really more jungles than forests. The trees in forests are deciduous in that they shed their leaves in autumn and stand bare through the winter producing new foilage every spring.

The location of forests in northern areas and their association with annual seasonal cycles have given forests a long association with myths and legends of northern nations and with the time aspect of place symbolism. The bareness of forests in winter and the lushness of forests in the spring and the brilliant colors in the autumn make forests one of the greatest symbols of place change.

Forests have traditionally had a strong association with the unconsciousness and serve as places for many fairy tale stories and romance legends of the world such as those about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Forests have a special magic power and magical people live in them whether they are Snow White, Goldilocks, Robin Hood or the characters from T.H. White's The Once And Future King.

Although forest symbolism is complex, J.E. Cirlot notes that it is connected "at all levels with the symbolism of the female principle or of the Great Mother." He says:

"The forest is the place where vegetable life thrives and luxuriates, free from any control or cultivation. And since its foilage obscures the light of the sun, it is therefore regarded as opposed to the sun's power and as a symbol of the earth... Since the female principle is identified with the unconsciousness in Man, it follows that the forest is also a symbol of the unconsciousness. It is for this reason that Jung maintains that the sylvan terrors that figure so prominently in children's tales symbolize the perilous aspects of the unconsciousness, that is, its tendency to devour or obscure reason."

Significantly, forests were among the first places in nature to be dedicated to the cult of the gods and places where offerings were suspended from trees.

The forest is the realm of the psyche and a place of testing and initiation, of unknown perils and darkness. J.C. Cooper in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Traditional Symbols notes that:

"Entering the Dark Forest or the Enchanted Forest is a threshold symbol; the soul entering the perils of the unknown; the realm of death; the secrets of nature, or the spiritual world which man must penetrate to find the meaning."

Cooper observes that "Retreat into the forest is symbolic death before initiatory rebirth."

In the book The Uses Of Enchantment: The Meaning And Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim emphasizes the importance of the forest in fairy tales. He notes the Brothers Grimm's tale "The Two Brothers" where two brothers went into the forest, took counsel with each other and came to an agreement. The forest where they go, notes Bettelheim, "symbolizes the place in which inner darkness is confronted and worked through; where uncertainty is resolved about who one is; and where one begins to understand who one wants to be." Bettelheim elaborates on this noting:

"Since ancient times the near impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious. If we have lost the framework which gave structure to our past life and must now find our way to become ourselves, and have entered this wilderness with an as yet undeveloped personality, when we succeed in finding our way out we shall emerge with a much more highly developed humanity."

It is this ancient image, Bettelheim notes, that Dante evokes at the beginning of The Divine Comedy when he says "In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost." It is in this dark wood that he also finds a "magic" helper, Virgil, who offers guidance on the trip which leads first through hell, then purgatory and then into heaven.

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