Thursday, September 18, 2014

Whose Woods These Are

Growing up, I never fully got the whole “dark, foreboding forest” thing in the stories my father liked to read to me at bedtime. In how many of Grimm’s fairytales, for example, is the woods depicted as the enemy of civilization, as a sinister remnant of the pre-civilized world? That motif is almost a commonplace in that kind of writing, yet the whole concept—that the natural world is dark and scary, that the forest is to the town as night is to day, that the dark woods constitutes some sort of middle ground between the land of the living and the dank, gloomy version of Sheol that is naught but the grave writ big and a place, therefore, in which only scary, creepy things happen—that whole notion seemed foreign to me, and strange. Instead, I loved the woods. Perhaps, because we lived in such a dense, urban area, I think I primarily connected the forest with summer camp…which experience was the highpoint of my year for as long as I was young enough to be a camper. I liked my dad’s stories well enough, but the woods I knew from camp were anything but menacing. Just the opposite was the case, actually: I felt happy and free hiking with my bunkmates in the forest, content amidst the trees that encircled Lake Oxoboxo in a way I specifically did not feel at home amidst the lampposts that lined Queens Boulevard, secure that nature was peaceful and safe…and that, by extension, I too was safe and secure in nature’s embrace.

Or, to speak more honestly, mostly safe and secure…because even back then I think I also sensed something powerful and enigmatic in the woods: this peaceful verdant setting felt almost alive to me, and not alive solely in the sense that it was filled with living plants and animals. (I don’t recall ever seeing a bear near camp, despite our counselors’ best efforts to convince us they were out there somewhere. But I did see deer many times, plus lots of smaller animals and birds.) It felt alive in a different way, in a strange, inchoate way that I believe I only sensed as a child but doubt I could have articulated even unsuccessfully. And embedded in that aliveness was a kind of restless power that paradoxically felt both benign—because the woods was for me essentially a place of tranquility and peacefulness—but also vaguely threatening, even perhaps potentially dangerous. I doubt I could have expressed any of this cogently as a child; yet I remember those conflicting emotions clearly even after all these many years.

Years later, I read P.D. James great 1992 novel, The Children of Men, probably my favorite of all her books (and, at least in my opinion, far better than Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 movie adaptation). In the book, the author imagines a world in which the human race suddenly becomes infertile. As years pass and no babies are born, the population of the world both ages and diminishes accordingly. Some adapt nicely to the new reality, figuring that they personally weren’t going to live forever…so why should their lives be substantially altered by the fact that sometime after they die human life on earth will cease to exist. Wasn’t that going eventually to happen anyway? Others rage against the situation, treating it like a decree enacted by an unseen God against humankind that needs to be undone through some combination of prayer and heartfelt supplication. And still others…well, you will have to read the book (or, I guess, see the movie) to find out what happens. But the detail that stays with me even twenty years after reading the book is the slow, menacing (and no one does menacing like P.D. James), inexorable way that the forest begins to encroach on civilization, gradually taking back the edges of suburbs in which no one any longer lives, then positioning itself (and you truly do think of the forest as a player, certainly as a living thing) to begin its final onslaught against manmade society as the population dwindles and fades.

It’s a great book, P.D. James’, one I think anyone (other than the obsessively optimistic) would enjoy. But the idea was carried forward, and magnificently, by Alan Weisman in his 2007 book, The World Without Us, in which he imagined a world from which humankind has somehow vanished and describes in detail how—and how quickly—the traces of human society would be erased almost completely from the face of the earth as nature, and particularly the forest itself, would manage to reassert its power and its natural tendency to dominate the landmass and to eradicate whatever might otherwise stand in its way. It’s a powerful, very provocative book, one I not only recommend to you now, but actually made the basis of a Yom Kippur sermon a few years ago. You all know that I have a special predilection for popular science books that make advances in science intelligible to non-scientists like myself, and particularly when they are provocative and stimulating as well. Wiseman’s book is both those things—his chapter about the Białowieża Forest that straddles the border between Poland and Belarus alone is worth the price of the book and remains one of the most interesting chapters about the natural world I can recall reading—and would also be a worthy read for anyone seeking to be challenged both emotionally and intellectually. It is a great book!

But the power of the forest asserted itself in my imagination this last week for another reason. Among Nazi death camps Sobibor, built on the outskirts of a town with that same name near Lublin, was fifth in terms of people murdered within its precincts even though the dead there numbered a full quarter of a million people, more or less exclusively Jews from Russia, Holland, Poland, and France. There were 58 survivors, 48 men and 10 women, almost all of whom survived because of their participation in an almost unprecedented camp-wide revolt that took place on October 14, 1943. There were similar revolts in Treblinka on August 2 of that year and one at Auschwitz-Birkenau a year later on October 7, 1944, but the revolt at Sobibor was by far the most successful and, whereas the revolt at Auschwitz led to the destruction of one of the crematoria, the uprising at Sobibor actually led to the closing of the camp. (To readers who want to learn more, I can highly recommend Richard Rashke’s Escape from Sobibor, republished just two years ago in an expanded and updated edition.)  And it was then, after the Nazis made the decision finally to close down the camp, that the forest began slowly to erase the unspeakable evil that occurred in that place. Himmler himself apparently ordered that the place be bulldozed and planted with trees. But the forest does not take orders from anyone at all, and least of all from the Himmlers of this world…and what began as an effort cosmetically to mask the camp’s location ended up with the gas chambers themselves disappearing…almost as though the forest, ashamed, wished to eradicate the signs of the evil perpetrated within its boundaries.

And those gas chambers were never again located…until this week when Yad Vashem announced that, after seven years of archeological effort, the forest has finally yielded the site. This means that researchers and historians will now be able to see for themselves how the camp was laid out, thus making themselves able to describe the fate of those sent to that place for extermination.  Many artifacts that the forest claimed have also been wrenched from its sylvan hand, mostly recently a simple gold wedding band hidden in the moss with the words harei at m’kuddeshet li that every groom says to every bride engraved on its inside surface. To my way of thinking, these artifacts—and there are apparently thousands of them, plus countless more that will now be discovered—are the forest’s gift to us as a new year approaches. Terrible things happened in that place. And then the forest took over the site and, in its silent way, watched over it until people worthy of knowing its secrets arrived…and then it offered its secrets to them, allowing them to clear away the underbrush, the trees, whatever else was keeping the history of that place from prying eyes.  Is that too romantic a way to understand the way the natural world interacts wordlessly, but also profoundly, with humanity? It doesn’t always work that way, obviously. But sometimes…sometimes it feel as though it truly does.

As we approach a new year, I feel myself taking my place in that no-man’s-land between society and the forest primeval, between nature and city, between the trappings of culture and the basic biology that ultimately unites all living people as children of God…and I wonder if the society I have helped construct is worthy enough to warrant the indulgence of the great forest that once covered this place in which I live—and not only Long Island either, but also the rest of North America.  The notion that the natural world, alive and sentient, merely tolerates the efforts of humanity to tame its excesses and to subjugate its very right to exist to human needs and wants…that is a very powerful idea to complete as we prepare to stand before God in judgment on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Are we worthy of this world God has granted us?  Do we see ourselves as living in exquisite harmony with our planet, laboring tireless to earn our right to displace the ancient forest and live as we wish to live on land that was once fully forested, thus the primeval paradise that the Bible calls Eden…and which we call home? Have we earned the right to live in this clearing?

Scripture speaks of Eden as a place, of course. But what if it were not place but time, not a garden in the east but the original state of the world before the evolution of humankind into it? The Torah says, after all, that God planted a garden in Eden mi-kedem. Most Bibles translated that word as meaning “in the east.” But that is not how you say “in the east” in classical Hebrew, and all the commentators know that the word could just as easily mean “in ancient, primeval times.” All that being the case, I invite you all to join me in looking out at the world as these holidays approach and Elul wanes…and seeing not buildings and roads, but the great green forest that once covered all that you can see in every direction, that once blanketed the earth in this place. And then, once you can see clearly all that was, asking if we are truly worthy to have earned the earth’s patient indulgence of all that we have wrought. It’s not an easy question to ask. But answering honestly…that will be significantly more difficult.

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