Theme: Forests

In 2022-2023 CIDRAL’s activities were centred on encounters with the forest.


During 2022-2023 researchers from SALC led several CIDRAL-sponsored events on forests, details of which can be found by visiting the events page or downloading the events poster. The theme was also enhanced by CIDRAL’s Visiting Fellow for 2022-2023: David Fedman, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Study in the Department of History at the University of California, Irvine. David participated in several events during his week-long stay in the School, including a keynote talk on Japanese forests and the politics of paper, a walk in Macclesfield forest, and a workshop with postgraduates and research associates.

CIDRAL also hosted a reading group for researchers in SALC on the theme of forests, covering readings by Robert Macfarlane, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Robert Pogue Harrison, Nick Hayes, Pamela D. McElwee, Eduardo Kohn, Philippe Descola, Cristina Riva García, and Olga Tokarczuk, among others.


CIDRAL proposed that researchers understand the forest in the widest sense: as a lived environment; a repository of myths, magic, and ritual practices; a place of outlaw and outsiders; a source for paper and print cultures; the basis of developmentalist agendas; a frontier for historic and new forms of extractivism; an Edenic paradise and hellish nightmare; and a means for exploring ecocritical lines of thought and environmental humanities. Researchers certainly embraced that proposal, and the diversity of topics produced a rich and varied series of conversations, highlighting the breadth of research within the School. The forest itself, however, became a kind of gathering point, revealing new sites of commonality among such diversity.

Forests, we learnt, are vast but they can be read through an individual tree because singularity in the forest always seem to work in common with other organisms: the tree is embedded in an assemblage of communication networks, knowledge, ecologies, languages, and imaginaries. Moreover, trees and plants are interconnected by underground, mycorrhizal networks that challenge the vision of nature as simply survival of the fittest.

Do these networks of mutual benefit mean forests are nature-as-socialism? Does a question like that one suggest that though we may wish to decentre the human, we cannot but think of the forest in human terms? What kind of a thinking, we asked, is needed to engage with the idea that forests might think? And what kind of a forest practice is needed to create spaces in which human cohabit with other species?

Forests are stores of kinetic energy released through logging, fires, photosynthesis, the movements of trees, the flight of insects and leaves. The forest, not least through its changes in definition and changes in use, sometimes has no centre and no end, an always-in-flux place of intensities rather than of insides and outsides.

And yet the forest, we saw, is constantly subject to the imposition of boundaries, limits, and laws to counteract its limitlessness and its association with trespass. Forests are legal entities as much as biological spaces, demarcated and subject to regulation, both in terms of presence and practice. Of course, even some ancient forests were subject to the law, included in their exclusion. And bandits like Robin Hood, as Robert Pogue Harrison indicated, used the space of outlaw not to do away with the law but to refashion it. In that sense, many ancient forests are similar to urban wastelands in contemporary Berlin: they are not just unplanned spaces but also planned spaces and, moreover, planned unplanned spaces.

The tensions between the forest as planned and unplanned are reflected in the struggles over capital and capitalism in Forests. In such flows of goods and labour, such uses of the forest are often tied up with discourses of national identity as development – to be anti-logging in such contexts is to be anti-national, another kind of outsider, a foreigner, a forastero. But forests, we discovered, also harbour alternative systems of barter, exchange, and poaching, an anti-capitalist network of illegalities.

Such illegalities are not inherently progressive – they can also work against Indigenous land rights and sacred territories – but they sometimes serve to counterbalance the forces that try to regulate the forest. Forests, it is clear, are difficult to regulate, partly because of their scale, partly because of their terrain (not for nothing is the forest often the heartland of the guerrilla, the fighter who turns weakness into opportunity by mobilising the immobilising qualities of the forest). And the difficulties of regulation are intensified when thinking about rights – do trees feel? Do trees (or rivers) have rights? Can trees be represented in court?

But in these tensions between conservation and conservatism, between evolution and revolt, we are reminded that forests are repositories of time: to plant a tree is, as Wordsworth indicated, an act for future generations. And to study a forest is to explore traces of processes, interventions, exploitations, engagements, and entanglements that gesture towards future selves.

CIDRAL thanks Anke Bernau, Peter Wade, and Robert Spencer for their reflections, some of which fed into this review.