THE WOODS AT NIGHT. RE-IMAGINING THE FEAR OF NATURE
Ph.D., Professor of Communications at Landmark College in Putney, (Vermont, USA)
The author reflects on the significance of fear of nature, resulting from the inability to establish complete control over it, or manage it. In the process of knowing nature, a person nevertheless gains a certain degree of control over it at the cost of losing fear, which, he believes, is one of the prerequisites for creative imagination. The author reveals the contradictory nature of human relationship with nature on the example of his experience in communicating with the forest at different periods of his life.
Keywords: fear, forest, imagination, nature, the Woods
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings
– Wendel Berry, “To Know the Dark” 
Small fear is fever and worry;
Great fear is vast and calm
– Chuang Tze
Let us therefore fear what we may not fear
– St. Augustine
As humans, we are in the business of trying to control, or manage, nature. We do this in the name of conservation, progress, resource management, or recreation. When we succeed in preserving a region of wilderness, we believe we have brought this land sufficiently under our control (and out of the control of others). We attempt to control nature so that others are unable to control it in ways we see as unfit.
No matter if we romanticize, neglect, abuse, or protect nature, we are trying to control it. Even the pursuit to understand, appreciate, or save nature is an attempt to control and comprehend (grasp). The key word here is pursuit, and its connotation is never far from control or conquest. In pursuing, we seek to overcome whatever obstacles might stand in our way. We speak, for instance, of conquering our fears, assuming (in the case of our relationship with nature) that we will have achieved a desirable state, one in which we feel on top of nature. But we seldom stop to consider the costs of these achievements - one of the key costs being the loss of fear, a crucial component of our imaginative connection to nature.
Nature, of course, continually reminds us that it is not under us at all, but is indeed everywhere. In its everywhereness, it is always beyond us, and more-than-us. This everywhereness and beyondness of nature speaks of a power that frightens us and reminds us of our finitude. We are aware that it can kill us. No matter how much we seek out its wildness, it is only a relatively tame nature that we find palatable. Even as we pursue the riches of nature, we continually retreat from the truly wild. This makes for an uneasy relationship with nature, one in which we both pursue and retreat: in fact, in each pursuit there is also a retreat. This is the way of all relationships: we advance on one plane only to retreat on another. Though we associate fear with retreat, fear is inherent in both pursuit and retreat. Behind every pursuit is the fear of what we are trying to leave. Behind every retreat is a fear that pursues.
Fear is integral to imagination, for out of fear, we imagine what might be. This imagining propels us both forward, in pursuit of what we would rather find, and also backward, in retreat from that which we cannot face. Fear maintains our relationship with nature by instigating the imagination within a dialectic that keeps the relationship alive, dynamic, and sustaining. Our relationship with nature is personal to each of us. My own views grew out of my early experiences in the natural landscape of my boyhood home in New Jersey.
The Woods at Night
I grew up in a suburb of New Jersey, between city and country. Across the street were the Suburbs. Behind the house were the Woods. The Woods were 2,300 acres of watershed used by a neighbouring city for its water supply. The Woods were posted with No Trespassing signs. It was a place not open to the public, a forbidden place. I always considered myself exempt from the No Trespassing rule. After all, the Woods were right there where my backyard gave way to brush and trees.
So these Woods were a place where I did not belong, but entered nonetheless. They called me, always deeper into their interior, into their unknown places. And I followed, though the unknown places always retreated beyond my reach. No matter how familiar the Woods became, their mysteries were always preserved.
Although I became very familiar with these Woods, they maintained the power to evoke fear and mystery. Here was the place that kindled the imagination. Magic lived here, and alongside mystery and darkness and awe. It was a place where you were not supposed to be, much less stay. You were always to return home.
The Woods were a place that both beckoned and haunted, coaxed and shunned. I was lured into their mysteries, but there were places I did not go, and I always retreated before nightfall. At night, something always seemed to be lurking in the shadows. The mysterious sounds could be anyone or anything. Even though I knew I was imagining, I was still frightened, and ran from the darkness held by the Woods. Rationally, I knew there was nothing to be afraid of, but the irrational mind created all manner of danger, and I would turn and run toward the warm lights of the house. As I ran, the darkness always seemed to chase me from behind - indeed, this feeling of being chased was inherent in the Woods themselves. This was evident in certain recurring dreams.
The dreams were always the same:
I am in the Woods, and it is dark. Something (a Monster of some sort) is chasing me and I am running out of the Woods toward the house. I am running across the yard, trying to reach the back door. Something is behind me. My legs become heavy and I move slowly, with increasing terror. It seems impossible to get to the back door. My body is sluggish and I cannot move fast enough to avoid being caught by this Something. As if by design, I wake up before I can safely get into the house and before the Something can reach me. I wake relieved, but mystified.
In those dreams, I was always in that purgatory between beast and home.
As I grew older, I feared the Woods less. I knew them well and wandered them freely. Though I no longer associated the Woods with fear, at night they still felt impenetrable. Mystery and the unknown prevailed. My imagination still raced. The old dreams were always at my back as I quickened my pace.
As a young adult, I got a job as a naturalist and teacher at an outdoor education center in another state. During the summer, the center offered special camping experiences. My favourite was Night Camp. During the week of Night Camp, we would gradually alter our schedule so that by week’s end, we slept during the day and wandered the woods at night. The dinner of the others was our breakfast. During our nighttime forays into the woods, we studied night ecology and learned about the behaviours of nocturnal animals. We walked trails without flashlights, called to owls, and ate our lunch with thumbs taped back to imitate raccoons. We became very comfortable in the nighttime woods.
After these experiences I returned to New Jersey, eager to explore the Woods at night. This would be a new frontier, a new way of knowing them. One night I went and noticed I was not afraid, or that whatever fear was there I was able to keep at bay. I had achieved some mastery.
I do not think I went on such night hikes in my Woods more than once or twice. I immediately felt something missing. It did not feel right to overcome my fear of the Woods or whatever was in them. It felt wrong, as if I had violated the Woods, or myself. I had trespassed too far and was left with a vague feeling of transgression, as if I was trying to take something from the Woods that belonged to them and should remain there. The attempt to take this thing from the Woods, this mystery, was simultaneously the act of taking it from myself. The gain of mastery precipitated the loss of mystery.
The Mystery to which I refer is suggestive of what Emmanuel Levinas calls the there is. The there is is the sense of “being in general,” always anonymous, and associated by Levinas with the dark of night. This is the presence of an absence that we encounter with fear. The fear momentarily strips us of our subjectivity, our “master of being,” and throws us into “an impersonal vigilance, a participation…” We sense somethingness in the nothingness of the darkness. “The rustling of the there is…is horror.” Yet, though this horror threatens the mastery of being, it opens us to mystery, that which is forever beyond our grasp, and yet, somehow, in some fashion, related to us [3, pp.52-55].
When I went back to the center, I tried to explain this to my colleagues, but they did not understand. Why would I want to keep my fear? Fear, I said, was what kept the mystery alive. In fear I could tremble, and when I trembled I could imagine something in the Woods that I could not see or hear, but in trembling knew was there. When I stopped trembling, something I had known to be there disappeared along with the fear. Its absence frightened me more than its concealed presence. And I realized that the absence was in me, and not in the Woods.
In the moment of fear, one must stand there and behold it. If we listen, fear has much to teach us. Sometimes it will tell us to advance and overcome. Sometimes it will tell us to flee and to leave well enough alone. There is often more courage in retreat than in pursuit. In my experience, I learned that in leaving the Woods I assured their preservation.
Great Fear & Small Fear
When we attempt to control or manage nature, we think we are limiting it. When we tend our gardens, we limit nature to that spot. When we overcome our fears and walk in the dark (as I did), we limit the awe-fullness of nature. We are always in the business of drawing boundaries around nature. Once the boundary is drawn, we feel safer. But of course, we can never draw boundaries around nature. It is more than our boundary-making. It does not care whether it is in wilderness, or a city plot, or the sewer. While it pushes and defies boundaries, humans create and modify them—we try to fit nature into our human scale. We reduce; nature expands. No matter how wide we draw the boundary, it is still a reduction. Even our increased knowledge limits nature. We learn something new about the universe and the universe becomes smaller to us. The less we know about nature, the larger it is; the more we know, the more it shrinks. But the more we shrink and limit nature, the more threatened we feel. We feel threatened by an unlimited nature’s power over us, but in truth, a limited nature threatens us with the actuality of our inadequate power over it.
Chuang Tzu refers to a Great Fear and a Small Fear. Small Fear makes us desperate, possessive, and aggressive; Great Fear makes us respectful and expansive. Yet within Great Fear is a subservience we are suspicious of. But it may be that our very survival depends on it. In Small Fear there is arrogance, in Great Fear humbleness and awe in the face of our own finitude. What inspires our awe inspires our love, and what we love, we serve. In losing this fear and love, we possess nature, and Small Fear enters: the anxious thought that we can always lose what we think we have. Awe teaches us that we can never truly own or possess.
The suggestion of a “higher” fear, one that embraces rather than cowers, does not invalidate the innumerable and legitimate fears one may have of nature: natural disasters and violent storms, injurious animals and sundry “acts of God.” Understandably, we do not easily make peace with these threats; instead, we pursue ever more sophisticated methods of protection. One ubiquitous method is the attempt to avoid “wild” nature altogether.
I am also not suggesting a fear so expansive that it embraces without discrimination. Nature, we know, has ways of reminding us of our place in the order of things. In The Thing Itself, Richard Todd comments on “that ever looming doomsday in which the separateness of nature would be forced upon us. In the event of wholesale and cataclysmic change, our view of nature might, curiously enough, come closer to what it historically was: that is, we would experience a renewed awe—not the cozy admiration of ‘nature’s wrath’ that we enjoy in a televised hurricane but a true awe, unto terror.” [6, p.117e]
Whether through awe or terror, we have learned to create boundaries around nature, but we have not learned to create boundaries around ourselves. We go where we please, and fight what is in our way. When the nature humans can reach is everywhere, nature is nowhere. This is what Bill McKibben refers to in the title of his influential and controversial 1989 book The End of Nature. For McKibben, this is not the end of astronomical and biological processes, but the end of nature as we have known it. And we have known nature as that which we are separate from. In our expansiveness we “have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature’s independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us.” [4, p.58]
McKibben is talking here about our affective, philosophical relationship with nature, not our biological relationship. For literally (ecologically) we cannot deprive nature of its independence. It is always more than us or our effects. In fact, it is always more than we can ever use. Before we exhaust its resources, we will have exhausted ourselves. It is human hubris to believe that somehow, we are important enough to destroy the world. We have only the power to destroy ourselves, and other species. Surely nature itself does not need us, or even any particular species, or possibly (this is harder to swallow) this planet. No matter what we do, nature will continue to do what it has done for 15 billion years. It will create and destroy. And if the worst happens? That the earth becomes uninhabitable? Life will find its way back and take on new forms. In other words, nature itself will be fine.
But our nature is not. For this nature, this nature that is ours is a relational nature, not separate from us. We are with it. Nature’s independence, then, is not its only meaning. We mean by nature also that with which we are in relation. We cannot separate ourselves entirely. Nor can we subsume nature under our influence. No matter how hard we try, there will never be “nothing but us.”
We must then re-imagine nature as that from which we are separate and that from which we cannot be separate. Nature is that which is beyond us and that within which we are incorporated. We must embrace the apparent contradictions. Maurice Blanchot’s statement about our relationship with autrui could also be said about our relationship with nature: “I am definitely separated from autrui, if autrui is to be considered as what is essentially other than myself; but it is also through this separation that the relation with the other imposes itself upon me as exceeding me infinitely: a relation that relates me to what goes beyond me and escapes me to the very degree that, in this relation, I am and remain separated.” [2, p.52]
The Re-imagination of Fear
When we limit nature, we separate ourselves from what is beyond the boundary we have drawn. This separation reduces the field in which our imaginations play. We confine ourselves to what is before us, that which we can understand and focus on. We become mediatized, no longer able to access, on our own, that which is beyond the boundary.
Media tries to expand the field of imagination, and succeeds to a certain extent. Our imaginations have new places to go, but they are new places and not the old places that have borne us. Even as global networks expand, our imaginations become increasingly localized. When we can communicate with people from across the world immediately, they become local. In our expansiveness, we are reducing the world to our desktop. Our imaginations become limited to this localized place. Once localized, we lose the ability to imaginatively relate to what is outside us.
We are frightened of the nature that is beyond our control, and yet this nature that frightens us is the very thing that kindles our imaginations. When we respond to this nature by turning away, we find that we have not completely limited our imagination, for part of our imagining selves clings to what we have left. Our imaginations are the link, the Ariadne’s Thread, between us and the nature we seek to leave.
When we walk in the Woods at night, we partially lose our sight. To compensate for this loss, we carry a light. Then we can see, and we can walk where we would not normally walk. But as we walk with our artificial light, we quickly realize losses despite our gains. We now think we know where we are going, but we lose those senses that would guide us. The mystery that frightens us still frightens us, but now through the shapes and forms of shadows. We fear less the night than what lurks in the shadows. We find that we no longer stand in awe of darkness, but in fear of shadows.
Our imaginations still produce images, but they are images drawn from shadows we have created. A nature without shadows is a nature devoid of human imagination. In order to preserve nature as the crucial source of imagination, we need to think of nature as more than ourselves. Reducing nature to a commodity or a concept hinders the imagination, while seeing nature as more than us kindles it. This ultimately may be why we seek to preserve nature: we intuitively sense that restricting nature reduces the capacity to imagine. Nature is what mystifies, and mystification is what calls our imagination.
When we imagine nature, or re-imagine the fear of nature, we open up the wellsprings of imagination. New and unrestricted images appear to us, revealing that which had been hidden. We find ourselves sustained, nourished by something we forgot we needed. In the re-imagining of nature, we rediscover ourselves, not in the nature we imagine, but in the very soul of imagination itself. As William Blake puts it in his letter (August 23, 1799) to the Reverend Dr. John Trusler: “Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity, & by these I shall not regulate my proportions; & Some Scarce see Nature at all. But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.” [5, p.403]
The Fire in the Woods
During the winter months of my youth, when the sun set farther to the south and therefore directly into the Woods, I could often see beautiful sunsets of red and orange through the dark silhouette of leafless winter trees. There is hardly a more beautiful sight. This phenomenon, this Fire in the Woods, had the power to fill me with awe, wonder, longing. There in the distance it seemed as if a magical fire was burning, and I was drawn in by this Fire, even though I knew I could never find it. If I were to begin walking toward it, the Fire would always retreat before me. I would never be able to get to it.
This Fire kept the Woods as they were, safe from me and my desires to truly know or own them. The Woods were always beyond my reach, thereby keeping my imagination alive. The Fire in the Woods is always burning somewhere and it is the Fire itself we must preserve. (Jean Cocteau reportedly was once asked by an interviewer what one precious thing, out of a household filled with extraordinary artwork, he would save in case of fire. Cocteau answered without hesitation: “The fire, of course.”)
We always need a place that kindles the imagination, a place that keeps the fires of Eros burning within us. There are gods in these woods. We cannot kill them, only deny them, and they will retreat further and further into the woods, back there in the Fire of the Woods, back where we cannot follow.
The sun sets and darkness overtakes the Woods. The Woods return to their other nature, a nature we have difficulty knowing. In this darkness, the Woods refuse to reveal themselves fully to us. In our not-knowing, in the darkness that conceals, we get a glimpse of the heart of darkness, a heart that has the power to terrify but also to console, for in the deep darkness we can rest assured that there is something more than us that we can give ourselves to.
Reference for citations
Trenchard T. The Woods at night. Re-imagining the fear of nature. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice. 2020, 1(2). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)
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