Editorial for The Empty Square (written January 2022)
“Learning to live like a forest, to operate like a forest, running on reciprocity, on mutuality, could perhaps be a proposition for a healthier society, one that considers the well-being of other species well as important as its own. I am asking myself can we really learn this? Forest is telling me that she can teach us: she is a great book we can read if we can connect the patterns in our minds.” Evgenia Emets.
By Evgenia Emets, artist and founder of Eternal Forest
What if we lived in Forest Time?
What if our society was organised like a forest?
What if our relationship with forests was based on reciprocity, respect and long-term vision?
What if forests became sacred places for us, once again?
These are the questions I have been asking myself since I was called to manifest the project I call ‘Eternal Forest’.
In 2018, when I moved from London to Portugal, I became interested in the relationship humans have with forests and started to explore it through art, poetry and film. Now, after four years of learning and listening deeply to forests and people, I am convinced that the forest is calling us to review our relationship. We need to revise our values, rethink our priorities, revitalise our creativity, intuition and spirit. We need to reconnect to the sacred cycles of nature, build a relationship with nature as equals.
Today, as I tune into deep interconnectedness, I see the hope of a society operating like a forest: together, in a mutually beneficial and collaborative way. The transition to such a society requires a shift on personal, community and societal levels. What is needed is not only a rethinking of our modes of seeing and our behaviours but also a re-imagining of the actual core of our being in relation to the whole ecosystem, the other-than-human. This also demands a shift in our understanding of time, our highly controlled, linear, short-term vision of time, towards an expanded perspective, one that embraces a non-linear, multiplicity-of-cycles, long-term view of a more natural time, Forest Time.
There is not a single day that passes without news of the destruction of another bit of old-growth forest. For paper, for wood, for soya and corn production, for mining, for real-estate development - the list of reasons for this erasure is never-ending. To me, it is like destroying an incredibly intricate complex masterpiece, an artwork of Time. Rivers are disappearing, soils are being washed away by torrential rains and are being dispersed by the ever-increasing violence of winds. The forest can be restored, but an old-growth forest is an artwork that needs its artist - The Long Time - in order for it to re-emerge.
Everything is interconnected; we just need to tune our senses to see that. Forests are us. We are forests. Everything in our culture is because of the forest, every object, every piece of clothing, every vehicle, every building is somehow indebted to the forest. Denying or ignoring this reflects our disconnection, ignorance, numbness and loss of gratitude.
What are we missing?
When I moved to Portugal, I experienced the most shocking environmental disaster I have witnessed in my life - the aftermath of the devastating forest fires of 2017, with kilometre after kilometre of charred remains of trees marking the ravages endured by the earth. An otherworldly landscape of devastation created by fires sweeping through the endless eucalyptus plantations that have taken over the Portuguese countryside. Burned forests, farms, gardens and villages. Human, plant and animal lives lost. Seeing this devastation pushed me to connect with communities able to share their feelings and observations of the forest. I was hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the situation and uncover the root of the crisis. But I also desperately wanted to hear that people still remembered and loved their forests, despite the wide-scale replacement of natural forests with monoculture tree factories.
After making my first art-film Eternal Forest (2018), composed of interviews with people from the communities in the area of Góis, Coimbra, an area greatly affected by those tragic fires, I organised film screenings and discussions all around Portugal. While meeting people, I kept hearing similar questions and observations. Everywhere the conversations focused on the economic benefits of a profit-driven, extractive relationship with nature, and concerns, framed by a scarcity mindset, about the viability of living with naturally biodiverse forests.
Forest is a place where we plant and harvest - forest gradually becomes a farm. If a certain element of the ecosystem has no commercial value, we simply take it out of the equation. The end result is monoculture - endless rows of eucalyptus, cork oaks, olive, almond and pine trees, with little in-between. This inevitably leads to a loss of health and vitality of the ecosystem, a loss of biodiversity and water, and the degradation of the soil. The land stops giving.
I want to contemplate a thought for a moment. Scarcity does not exist in a healthy, biodiverse, fully functional ecosystem. Scarcity has been instilled into us based on a story of losing our place in the garden of Eden. Working hard, extracting what we can, and when we cannot take more, moving on - this has been our path. Today there are simply no places left without the scars of industrial-scale extraction, and all too often the idea of an abundant garden seems unbelievable when we hold in our hands the soil that has no life and is just dust.
What if we gave space and time?
I sensed there was something fundamental missing from the conversations I was having. It felt like trying to listen to the faint pulse of someone who had lost consciousness, to see if they were coming back. That piece of the puzzle came to me as a counterpoint to the mainstream economic narrative of always needing to profit from the forest.
After many remarkable encounters with the public, climate change specialists, soil and forest scientists, ecologists, permaculturists, philosophers and anthropologists, I kept questioning the idea that we can only ‘afford’ forests when they are economically viable. Once I formulated the new thought, it was clear that it was fresh but not new - it was an old message from the forest that has been dreaming for a long time (not so long, though, in Forest Time) and returned because we need it now so badly and are ready to hear it.
This is when the vision of an Eternal Forest as a sanctuary came to me. It was to be a protected forest space, created through art, with a focus on biodiversity and supported by a local community for 1,000 years. I could finally verbalise it, describe it and even design it. During an art residency in 2019 I proposed to establish with a community an Eternal Forest Sanctuary, as a place, process and practice, whereby the community became the long-term guardian of the forest sanctuary, created a cycle of events and experiences, and welcomed artists interested in co-creating with the evolving forest ecosystem.
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