Perhaps the major contribution to our understanding of forest symbolism is the recently published Forests: The Shadow of Civilization by Robert Pogue Harrison. The book is a wide-ranging exploration of the role of forests in Western thought and imagination. "From the family tree to the tree of knowledge, from the tree of life to the tree of memory, forests have provided an indispensable resonance of symbolization in the cultural evolution of mankind."
Harrison points out that most of the places of human habitation in the West were at some time in the past more or less densely forested. In this sense they have served to mark the symbolic edge of Western civilization.
"However broadly or narrowly one wishes to define it, Western civilization literally cleared its space in the midst of forests. A sylvan fringe of darkness defined the limits of its cultivation, the margins of its cities, the boundaries of its institutional domain; but also the extravagance of its imagination."
He remarks that forest symbolism has represented "an outlying realm of opacity which has allowed that civilization to estrange itself, enchant itself, terrify itself...in short to project into the forests shadows its secrets and innermost anxieties." This projection of Western civilization's innermost anxieties was the subject of the oldest literary work in history, the ancient epic of Gilgamesh. The story concerns the battle between the hero Gilgamesh and a forest. The first antagonist of Gilgamesh is the forest. The hero's major exploit figures as his long journey from Uruk to the Cedar Mountain to stay the forest's guardian Huwawa.
Forest symbolism stands in opposition to desert symbolism. Harrison reminds the reader of his book of a quote from T.E. Lawrence who once said the desert is a place without nuance only of light and dark in their opposing contrast. He notes that "the forest, on the other hand, is all nuance. It blurs distinctions, evoking the lost kinship between animate and inanimate, darkness and light, finite and infinite, body and soul, sight and sound."
Some interesting speculations are made by Harrison between forests and religion. "The correspondences between columns and trees," he notes,"leads one to suspect that the archaic Greek temple is not unlike the Gothic cathedral in its religious symbolism." And he points out how forests have been at odds with the teachings of the Christian Church.
"The Christian Church that sought to unify Europe under the sign of the cross was essentially hostile toward this impassive frontier of unhumanized nature...In theological terms, forests represented the anarchy of matter itself, with all the deprived darkness that went with this Neoplatonic concept adopted early on by the Christian fathers...the last strongholds of Pagan worship."
The darkness of forests have stood in opposition to the light of religious divinity which comes from above. One of the more far-ranging speculations of Harrison concerns this point. He notes that "Where divinity has been identified with the sky, or with the eternal geometry of the stars, or with the cosmic infinity, or with 'heaven,' the forests became monstrous, for they hide the prospect of god."
At the end of his book Harrison offers one of the most intelligent arguments ever written for the ecology movement today. More than any other place in the world it is the place of forests which are being destroyed and he concerns himself with what it means to the human imagination not to possess this place any longer. There is no longer any circumference in the world because with the loss of forests "the center is now everywhere and the circumference nowhere." This gradual loss of "an edge of opacity, where the human abode finds its limits on the earth, is part of the global story of civic expansionism." In the West, he notes, "the first and last victim has been the forest."
In the vast deforestation going on with the burning of the rainforests of Brazil Harrison sees a different problem for mankind. "We call it the loss of nature, or the loss of wildlife habitat, or the loss of biodiversity, but underlying the ecological concern is perhaps a much deeper apprehension about the disapearance of boundaries, without which the human abode loses its grounding." He writes that:
"Somewhere we still sense - who knows for how much longer? - that we make ourselves at home in our estrangment, or in the logos of the finite. In the cultural memory of the West forests 'correspond' to the exteriority of the logos. The outlaws, the outcasts, the bewildered, the ecstatic - these are among those who have sought out the forest's asylum in the history we have followed throughout this book. Without such outside domains, there is no inside in which to dwell."
He writes that those who stay home, "who dwell strictly within the cleared space of the institutional order, are left homeless without the containment of the province." More essentially, they are left homeless "the moment they are left without a provincial envoy who departs from the homeland and returns from afar with the message of estrangement."
The envoy that Harrison talks about is not simply the world explorer but rather the poets of our world. When the forests are gone there will be no more poets and no more poetry. And in this sense all of us become the "homeless" of the world.
Earth is the water planet. Of all the planets in the solar system only the earth has abundant liquid water and 97 percent of this surface water is found in the seas and oceans. While the waters of the oceans appear to be passive and unchanging while rivers appear active this is far from true. In reality the oceans are a turmoil of great sluggish rivers and constantly circulating surface currents driven by the prevailing winds.
Oceans, like deserts, have a certain boundary symbolism in stories in that they are places to be crossed rather than places to be inhabited. They serve as barriers between the continents and the nations of the world. Two of western literature's oldest stories The Illiad and the Aneid are stories about crossing oceans. Many of Joseph Conrad's stories have an ocean background which tests the mettle of the characters that float across their surface.
In another symbolic sense, oceans have a symbolism associated with the space aspect of place symbolism. No topographic map of Earth can be drawn unless there is some kind of base line from which to measure depths and heights. This base line has always been taken as the level of the sea. Whereas mountains are associated with the place symbolism of "above", "up" and "height", oceans are associated with the symbolism of "below", "down" and "depth". Ocean surfaces and sea-level is symbolically the boundary line between height and depth. Within oceans are the deepest places in the world. Within their depths they hold the oldest forms of life on earth. And the bottoms of oceans are the closest man can get to the center of the earth. Stories such as 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Journey To The Center Of The Earth have explored this mythological nature of oceans.
The place symbolism of below and under are associated with the domain of the devil and the place of hell he inhabits. Creatures in stories and mythologies from hell come from below and not from above. The novel Moby Dick was about a creature from hell as well as the modern version of Moby Dick in the Steven Spielberg film Jaws. The background setting of Jaws is a small seaside town and Spielberg has taken the story Moby Dick and almost brought the monster onto shore. Like Spielberg's later film ET, background genres are again mixed. A monster is put into the background of a small town rather than the open reaches of the ocean.
The two most essential aspects of the ocean, notes Cirlot, is its ceaseless movement and the formlessness of its waters.
"It is a symbol, therefore, of dynamic forces and of transitional states between the stable (solids) and the formless (air or gas). The ocean as a whole, as opposed to the concept of the drop of water, is a symbol of universal life as opposed to the particular. It is regarded traditionally as the source of the generation of all life."
The mythologist Heinrich Zimmer has observed in his book Myths And Symbols In Indian Art And Civilization that the ocean is "immense illogic", and that it is a vast expanse dreaming its own dreams and asleep in its own reality, yet containing within itself the seeds of its antithesis."
This ambivalence and antithesis is represented by the symbolism of the ocean as the begetter of monsters, the chaotic source which brings forth base entities which, as Cirlot notes, are "ill-fitted to life in its aerial and superior forms. Consequently, aquatic monsters represent a cosmic or psychological situation at a lower level than land-monsters; this is why sirens and tritons denote a sub-animal order. The power of salt water to destroy the higher forms of land-life means that it is also a symbol of sterility."
In the book Das Zeitalter des Sonnengottes, Leo Frobenius talks about how the ocean is equated with the collective unconscious.
"If the blood-red sunrise is interpreted as the 'birth' of an astral body, then two questions arise: Who is the father? And how did the mother come to conceive? And since she, like the fish, is a sea-symbol, and since our premiss is that the sun plunges into the sea and yet is born in it, the answer must be that the sea previously swallowed up the old sun and the appearance of a 'new sun' confirms that she has been fecundated. The symbolism here coincides with that of Isis whose twin lunar horns embrace the sun. This appearance of the sun and its disappearance back into the deeps of the ocean confirm that the 'Lower Waters' signify the abyss out of which forms arise to unfold their potentialities within existence. Thus, the ocean is equated with the collective unconscious."
It is out of this collective unconsciousness, Zimmer notes, that the sun of the spirit arises.