Hardcover: UK: A quasi-religious view of the nature of nature

Diana Beresford-Kroeger presents a refreshing blend of poetry and factual detail on almost every page of ‘The Global Forest,’ which will likely gain a cult following

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Sun, Apr 24, 2011 - Page 14

When I was at school in the UK, some time ago now, students were split at age 16 into science and arts divisions. Once you were placed in one group it was all but impossible to opt for studies in the other. This seemed to reflect two natural types of humanity, and those belonging to one type would, it was thought, be unlikely to have much in common with anyone belonging to the other.

This assumption, despite its patent absurdity, has persisted, so that even today it’s surprising to come across a book such as The Global Forest that mixes mythology with science and poetry with factual detail on virtually every page.

The book consists of 40 essays on the way natural forms, and especially trees, support other kinds of life, including our own. These essays are half poetry and half science, and the blend is cemented with a whimsical kind of Celtic humor. Author Diana Beresford-Kroeger, though now living in North America, tells us that she was brought up in the Irish countryside.

On one page she asserts: “There are trees of sacred legend in North America. These trees arose naturally over time and produced such remarkable characteristics that they became sacred. Then a necklace of prophecy was placed upon them from the dreams of aboriginal people.”

On another page, though, she writes as follows: “The chloroplast of the unicell sequesters carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere from its dissolved form as carbonate. The unicell chloroplast uses the energy of the sun to refit the carbon into carbon-rich sugars.”

It used to be felt that whereas arts specialists would be prone to rhapsodize on the beauty of the natural world, those focusing on science would be more likely to devise ways of exploiting it, possibly even using its secrets to devise new weapons of war. A text much beloved by we arts-side students was Wordsworth’s line “We murder to dissect.”

Things have changed, however. Today the view of nature that presents it as a mass of inter-dependent life forms is common fare, and even the norm. TV is awash with such perspectives, whether it’s David Attenborough explaining how planet Earth is one vast eco-system, or an unflappable snake-man rhapsodizing on the essentially kind nature of his beloved reptiles.

So in a sense Beresford-Kroeger’s book, or something like it, was to be expected. The scientific detail has naturally been amassed from previous publications, as the bibliography confirms, but her poetic effusions are very much her own.

This book is likely to gain a cult following, and if so this will be almost entirely to the good. Even so, it doesn’t represent the last word on its subject, and we ought to enquire what its real nature is before affording it the status of a new kind of orthodoxy.

In essence The Global Forest represents a quasi-religious view of reality. Everything — bar mankind’s lust for power and control — is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Even the subtitle (40 Ways Trees Can Save Us) has a ring of redemption about it. Religious terms are common — the global garden is “a living cathedral of nature,” forests “spread a hand of blessing over the creatures in their care,” and someone “realized with a start that the trees were praying, too.”

Sometimes this pantheistic dimension becomes specific. We are all part of a unity, the author writes, and she continues “Maybe, just maybe, this resonates of God. If that is so, then we are all His children, every earthworm, every virus, mammal, fish and whale, every fern, every tree, every man, woman and child. One equal to another. Again and again.”

For the rest, themes common to conservationists duly take their place. The small farm is sustainable and preferable to agro-business. Hedgerows sustain life and shouldn’t be cut down. We ought only to take from nature what we really need. The oceans naturally sustain their life-forms, but we are poisoning the seas. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has doubled in the last two centuries, producing global warming. And so on.

It’s possible to get annoyed with this book while remaining entirely in favor of almost all of its arguments. And the effusive stylistic elements that might irritate over-critical readers are probably the very ones that will help The Global Forest become an international best-seller.

Often religious in tone, the book inevitably tends toward prophecy at times. Two scenarios present themselves. The first is that some celestial creator will eventually have had enough of mankind’s bungling and ask for applications from other species for the job of running the planet. The second is that this generation will continue its destructive work, only for our children and grandchildren to rise up in protest and come to nature’s aid. This line of thought is presumably the author’s favorite, as it’s with it that she ends the book.

Pocket-sized and not over-long, this book may well take its place in the hands of just that future generation of eco-warriors the author so optimistically envisages. The science supports the poetry in ways that may well make both appear invincible. And it’s impossible not to wish it well on its journey down the ages.

Though manifestly a product of our time, this book may well resonate with a wide variety of readers for many years to come. And the worse things get, the more desperately people will reach for comprehensive overviews such as The Global Forest for help.