“May the Forest Be With You” is instantly recognizable as a blessing that is more grounded and earthy than its Star Wars source, “May the Force Be With You.” This is because “forest” connects us directly to the familiar. It offers us an alluring intimation of kinship with a suggestive hint of wisdom hiding somewhere in the dark recesses of its treed and mossy complexities. Forests have always lured us with the promise of something that we intuitively know to be elusive yet profoundly wise.
But what is it? And why is it not immediately obvious?
We know what it isn’t. Forests such as tree farms and plantations are monocultures of human contrivance that may superficially resemble forests but are committed at their inception to be less complex, organic, and living and therefore less vital and enduring. Instead of originating and developing by the inner creative randomness of biological chance, they are conceived with a purpose and controlled by the contrivance of a defined objective. They are not real forests because they are not wild.
Yet even real forests can lose their wildness if they are disturbed by our influence. The enchantment provided by the wild seems so serenely integrated and balanced that one often feels it could be violated by as little as a human footstep – sometimes by a mere sound or breath. Maybe this is why real forests invite the same quiet reverence as cathedrals, temples, and holy places that demand nothing less than silent awe. A person in a real forest is in the company of the wild, close to a presence so deeply primal and profound that it only communicates wordlessly.
The poet, philosopher, linguist, and typologist Robert Bringhurst explores this profundity in The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology. “People accustomed to orchards, farms and gardens,” he writes, “very often think of the wild in opposition to the domesticated or tame. The garden, they say, has greater order than the wild. But it’s the other way around. The order of the garden may be easier to see, but it is fragile and superficial. It is artificial and unnatural in a very convincing sense: it cannot take care of itself. The order of the wild is self-sustaining, flexible and deep.”
This brings us closer to the meaning of the wild in a real forest. In Bringhurst’s words, such forests are “a living, ever-changing shrine to timelessness.” The wild contains a level of ordering that transcends the influence and control of humans. “The wild is by definition unmanaged and unmanageable, and in some sense unconfined by those who would manage it.” Expressed differently, the wild has a spontaneous rightness that arises from itself and happens of itself, an unfolding perfection and continuing completeness that is powered from within.
This begins to explain why real forests – wild forests – are so very special. They provide something far greater and more profound than human intention and planning, something more complex and permanent than the sophistication and durability we assign to the contrivances that constitute our civilizations. Indeed, as Bringhurst correctly observes, “Forests are also highly developed civilizations.” But they do not “need or want our managerial interference.” In reality, they contain a crucial wisdom that we would do well to learn, respect, internalize and emulate. In Bringhurst’s words, “human civilizations actually start to resemble” a real forest when they begin “to sense and respond to [the same] supple and reinforcing order” that is represented by the wild. And so, he concludes, “the wild isn’t something to conquer or subdue; it’s something to try to live up to: a standard better than gold.”
The wild that inspires the unfolding of forests and civilizations is also active in the unfolding of our individual selves. So the forest is a teacher, a steadfast reminder that we can be who we are just as it is itself. The same inherent spontaneity that grows a wild forest is also growing the fullness of our own character. Just as each wild forest is unique, so too are we each unique, the organic consequence of a complex and uncontrived unfolding that happens of itself. We each become who we are just as a wild forest becomes what it is.
This comes as close to the meaning of wild as we are likely to understand, and to the meaning of the blessing, “May the Forest Be With You.” Forests are ourselves as we could become. So we feel peaceful and whole in them because the freedom that makes them what they are is the same freedom that invites us to be who we are. Entering a wild forest is like gaining access to our deepest selves, like coming home to the elusive promise of who we really are. The feeling of rightness and completion that pervades a wild forest is the creative power of nature fulfilling itself – with an invitation to each of us to do the same.
Without the wild in forests, we are overcome by the demands and manipulations of the world, held captive in a construction of conventions and expectations. We lose our character, our integrity, our essence. We need such forests as a reminder to both our civilization and to ourselves that what we seek is not a contrived thing to be, but a sacred way of becoming.
So the blessing hidden in “the Forest” is the wisdom awaiting those who are willing to be lost and then found in its mystery. In mythological terms, “May the Forest Be With You” is an invitation to return to the Garden, to the creative spontaneity that occurred before it was spoiled by the impositions of discrimination, deliberation and purpose. The forest, therefore, contains the wisdom to set us free – to let us be ourselves, to let nature be as it wants to be, and to let the world unfold as it will.
Ray Grigg is the author of seven books on Taoism and Zen, and during the last 15 years has been writing a widely-published environmental column, Shades of Green. This and comparable articles will be appearing in a forthcoming three-volume collection of his environmental writing. Ray lives on Quadra Island, BC.