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Forests and the Purpose of Man


CONTEMPORARY hunters and gatherers at least those of the tropics, far from wresting miserable and precarious livings from unwilling environments are among the world's most leisured people. Bushmen, who live in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa need to work, which is to say hunt, and their wives need to gather, only a day Or two each week to provide themselves with enough — and there is nothing material beyond "enough" to spur them to greater productive efforts. The Pygmies of the Ituri Forest probably don't have to work any harder. Both the Bushmen and the Pygmies dance a lot —in some Bushmen camps all night long as many as four nights a week.

Dancing for both Bushmen and Pygmies is both recreation and worship, as it is also for the Andaman Islanders and the Australian aborigines. Indeed, the Pygmies don't make a clear distinction between recreation and worship. That is, worship, which involves most importantly dancing, singing and the playing of flutes is undertaken. Pygmies say, to entertain the God Ndura. Now Ndura is not exactly a god of the forest. Ndura is both god and forest, or, if you prefer, forest as god, but a god that is coextensive with the natural world. The forest, which is to say the world, is thus personified and sanctified, and the object of religious ritual is to make Ndura — the forest —happy. If Ndura is happy no ill will befall Ndura’s children, men. One keeps Ndura happy by entertainment and by respect (ox Ndura's person, which includes animals, plants, and even streams and rocks. Ndura is thought to become immanent, if "immanent" is an appropriate term, in a fire, called "the Heart of Ndura" ignited at the commencement of religious rituals. There are strong suggestions that the fire is a male symbol, but beyond that it seems to represent life or at least some sort of vital force, consuming on the one hand and invigorating on the other, a principle or agency that recovers life from death, or, if you prefer, transforms that which has died into new living shapes.

We cannot, of course, make judgments concerning the theological soundness of Pygmy religious conceptions any more than we can concerning those of Christianity or Judaism. But it may be observed that they explicitly establish with the ecosystem what Martin Buber, a modern Jewish theologian, calls an "I-thou" relationship (a relationship in which the alter is treated as an equivalent of ego, in contrast to an "I-it" relationship, in which the alter is treated as a mere object to be exploited). The Pygmy religious conception is also reminiscent of the theology of the Protestant Paul Tillich who took what he called "The Ground of One's Being" to be continuous with "The Ground of All Being." Although Buber loved Yahweh and Tillich Christ, they would have agreed that the Pygmy love of Ndura is highly moral. I think we could agree that the conception of the forest as a deified person serves to direct men's purposefulness toward goals coinciding with the needs of the larger natural system of which men are parts. Whatever its theological virtues it would seem that animism, the attribution of divine character to natural objects or natural systems, is ecologically sound.

Forest Horticulture

IT MAY HAVE BEEN with his elevation to the role of ecological dominant, a role assumed with the emergence of plant and animal cultivation perhaps 10,000 years ago, that man's purposefulness began to become seriously disruptive. Man himself is a poor dominant. It is significant that in non-anthropocentric systems of any size the dominants are almost always plants —the "A" stratum trees in the rainforest, the algae in the reef, the grasses of the savannah. Plants, because they are without conscious purpose, are well-suited to be dominants: their mere existence fills the role, and the conditions which they set for other species tend to be stable. Men, on the other hand, must act and act continuously to maintain their dominance, and the action of men is less to be relied upon than the stolid existence of oak trees or algae. Men, unlike oak trees and algae, are also capable of making mistakes, and since the self-interested purposes of men may not coincide with the requirements of the systems they dominate, the conditions set by men tend toward instability.

I have worked with a group of forest cultivators, a people called the Maring. The Maring occupy the central Simbai and Jimi valleys in the Bismarck Range in Australian New Guinea: Completely autonomous local groups ranging in size from around 150 to about 900 people occupy territories several square miles in area, most of which rise from the river of one to two thousand feet to the ridge top of seven thousand to seven thousand five hundred feet. The region was probably covered by climax (or at least very mature) forest until fairly recently. Now the zones below five thousand five hundred feet are largely under secondary forest and gardens with small remnants of climax forest remaining on ridge tops. Somewhat larger stands of mature forest persist at the lowest altitudes, where there are also extensive groves of cultivated pandanus. In the Simbai Valley most horticulture takes place between three and five thousand feet. Gardens are found at somewhat higher altitudes in the Jimi Valley.

Maring horticulture is of the sort called "swiddcn-ing" or "bush-fallowing" or "slash and burn." Each year a gardening pair — usually a man and wife — will clear cut one or more gardens in the secondary forest. These are seldom more than an acre in extent. After clearing the underbrush and felling and pollarding the trees and making fences from some of the logs, the slash is burned. Burning not only disposes of tlie litter but also liberates the nutrients in the cut vegetation making them available to the crop about to be planted. Since the stratum of fertile soihunder the Maring forests is seldom more than two inches in depth and easily depleted the nutrients freed by burning are highly beneficial, if not crucial, to the growth of garden plants.

When the burning is completed a great variety of cultigens —banana, taros, sweet potatoes, yams, Rungia, sugar cane, hibiscus, beans, Saccharum edule, Setaria and many others, are interplanted in the same garden in what appears to be, but is not, helterskelter fashion. The Maring gardener is expert at taking advantage of micro-environmental variations and there is a reason for each plant to be where it is.

Weeding is selective. Herbaceous species are removed, but arboreal species are allowed to remain from the day of planting on. After fourteen or fifteen to twenty-eight months, depending on the altitude and other factors, the regenerating trees have made harvesting so difficult that the gardeners abandon whatever crops remain to their pigs, whom they conflne in their gardens for a week or more. The pigs, in their quest for tubers, soften and aerate the soil and thin the regenerating seedlings. Secondary forest then takes over completely and the site remains under forest fallow until a canopy has formed on the trees twelve inches or more in diameter and until the ground becomes soft again. This takes eight to forty or so years, depending upon the altitude.

The Maring maintain high population densities with this sort of horticulture —in some locahties, in fact, densities exceed 200 persons per square mile of arable area. Slash and burn, as practiced by the Tsembaga Maring whom I know best, does not seem to do serious damage to the ability of the climax to return to sites from which it has been removed. While regrowth on abandoned gardens is pioneered by fast-growing sun-loving second growth forms such as Alphitonia iacana and Dodonea viscosa, as it develops more and more species characteristic of climax, or at least mature forest, appear. Of thirty-six species present on one site sampled four years after abandonment eighteen were part of climax associations found at that altitude. On another site cultivated twenty to twenty-five years earlier eighteen out of twenty-six species Were climax forms, with such families as Fagacea, Lauraceae and Moracea well-represented.

We may reflect here on the general strategy of slash and burn forest horticulture. It is to establish temporary associations of plants directly useful to man on sites from which forest is removed and to encourage the return of forests to those sites after the useful plants have been harvested. The return of forest makes it possible, or at least much easier, to establish again an association of cultivated plants sometime in. the future. The Maring recognize this,-of course, and are almost as solicitous of the trees growing in their gardens as they are of cultivated plants. Their appreciation of the regenerating forest is clearly reflected in their term for it: nduk mi, which means "mother of garden."

It is clear that the Maring nurture not only the garden species that provide them with food directly, but also those species upon which they indirectly, but nevertheless ultimately, depend: the forest species that make it possible for the garden species to flourish from time to time.

Effective ecological regulation, which is to say the maintenance of the circular structure of ecosystems, depends in systems dominated by men on effective information feedback from the environment to those operating upon it (the flow of information through ecosystems, like the flow of materials through the same systems, must be circular). Information feedback from the environment is sensitive and rapid in small autonomous ecological systems in which everyone is a gardener. There are no special interest groups in the societies participating in such autonomous local systems. It is clear to all men living in such systems that their survival is contingent upon the maintenance, rather than the mere exploitation of the larger community of which they know themselves to be only parts. They comprehend more clearly than hunters and gatherers and more clearly than modern men the circular structure of their world and they are likely to understand well that their own purposes or goals are limited by that circular structure and the need to maintain it. It is worth noting here that the Maring and other New Guineans conceive the world as a set of cyclical processes. Not only are gardens and forests in their view merely different phases in the same cycles, so are growth and decay, for young plants grow out of the decomposition of older ones. The Maring call those spirits concerned with the fertility of gardens, of pigs and of people Rauwa tukump, which means "Spirits of Rot," and the "Spirits of Rot" are responsible not only for fertility, but also for death.

Twentieth Century

THE ECOLOGICAL circularities that are apparent to the Maring horticulturist are masked from men in state-organized societies by the sheer scale and complexity of these societies. Ecological considerations are less and less likely to temper purposefulness simply because ecological awareness is diminished. Ecological "rationality" — a rationality that is concerned to maintain the circular structure of ecological systems, a rationality that may not be ashamed to invoke mystical conceptions and feelings — is replaced by economic rationality.

To the members of a small, autonomous primitive group living within the forest, the forest seems to be all-encompassing, even to be co-extensive with god and the world. But to the members of a huge and differentiated state-organized society a forest is merely one vegetal association among many, one limited to one or a few regions among the many encompassed by the society. This is to say that the forest is no longer conceived to be & generalized, autonomous personified ecological system, but to be, simply, one element or sub-system in a larger socio-economic system. It is no longer mother and father to us all as it is to the Pygmy, not an indispensable link in the circle of growth and death as it is to the Maring. It is now a "resource." It has been degraded from the status of the world itself to mere object, an "it," something to be used.

Of particular interest here is the presence of all purpose money, which is absent from primitive societies. This is to say that it tends to dissolve the differences between all things by imposing one simple metric — that of dollars or whatever — upon the marvelous variety of things of which the world is made. Now living systems — plants, animals, ecosystems — are themselves very diverse, and each also requires a great diversity of distinct materials to remain healthy. But with money it becomes possible to make decisions affecting this diversity and complexity on the basis of a very simple arithmetic. All of the great range of unique and distinct materials and processes that together sustain or even constitute Ufe are forced into an arbitrary and specious equivalence by reducing their values to monetary terms. What is the difference between a forest and a sub-division? The correct answer becomes one of the class: $20,000 per acre.

The Problem of Harmony

THE PROBLEM OF HOW WE may live in harmony with our forests is the problem of controlling men's narrow and linear purposes so that they will not destroy the circular ecosystems to which contemporary humans remain as indissolubly bound as were their ancestors of a million years ago. If we are to live in harmony with our forests and other ecosystems we must restore and maintain their circular ecological structure. Such restoration and maintenance in turn requires the restoration of circular structure in our social and political systems so that the feedback of information concerning the states of social and ecological variables from the public and from the environment to regulatory agencies is assured. The problem of how to live harmoniously with our forests is not a problem in forestry. It is, rather, a set of social, economic, political, conceptual and even ideological problems. Their solutions are not to be sought through simple changes in forestry practices. They are to be found in changes in the organization of our thought and of
our society.


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