“A complex universe of meanings” – anthropological perspectives on the forest

The forest is much more than what is visible on the surface. Thinking about the resilience of future forests one has to remember that for contemporary societies a forest is ‘a complex universe of meanings’. The role of woodlands expands beyond their environmental functions and touches such crucial issues like identity. Trees, forests and green spaces contribute to a sense of belonging, create bounds with place and develop feelings of attachment to a space. The history of forests is always entangled with a history of people who live upon them: foresters, local residents, visitors from cities, ‘ordinary people’. In many countries forests play a significant role in the national culture. There is a conviction about the joint spirit and history manifested in trees and national nature cared for by previous generations. It is believed that the past of a society can be traced in the textures of the land. As a result, trees are not just supposed to grow, but very often they should teach us how and what to remember.

My essay “Trees that must remember” tells a story of the relation between the memory and trees on the example of Polish forests. From my anthropological point of view I am demonstrating how in the contemporary society cultivating nature can at the same time become managing a memory. Based on examples from local forests my essay describes how the forest itself is turned into the synonym for the fatherland and national heritage. In present-day states, natural spaces, including forests, are places where the national myth is played out.

To understand why forests are important for communities and how the meaning of the forest has been transformed within contemporary societies, it is useful to take a look beyond a stand of trees and carefully analyse how forests are built out of words and through actions of various social actors. Ultimately, the resilience is a capacity of forest to adapt to occurring changes and to recover after disturbances. This does not only refer to forest fires, storms and others risks, it also includes societal and political changes and disturbances we face today. To support forests in being resilient, we first have to understand what they mean for us.

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