Stephanie Brody, PsyD, is the editor of the BPSI Bulletin. Her below remarks originally appeared as the introduction to the Spring-Summer 2019 issue of the BPSI Bulletin, which can be read here.
In these times of conflict and fear, The Lord of the Rings has become a strangely comforting obsession: The forces of dark evil, the stunning moments that turn the tide, the women who prove their authority, the innocent folk who discover personal power. The trilogy unfolds as a kind of arc where conscious awareness and activism painfully emerge from the complacency of everyday life.
Though I read the Tolkien books as a teenager, it is the Peter Jackson film version that enthralls me now. In The Two Towers, the second part of the trilogy, Jackson depicts the military industrial complex that Tolkien conceived: a breeding factory where the natural resources of the planet are ravaged in a war to destroy the world of men. In a degraded landscape, an army of Orc creatures have been cloned to produce weapons of mass destruction and to fulfill the orders of a powerful authoritarian, Saruman. Tolkien invents an unlikely ally, the anthropomorphic Treebeard, who speaks for the great forests of Middle Earth. Called an Ent, Treebeard is a giant tree that can think, talk, sing, and travel. When it is clear that the great resources of the Earth will be harvested to extinction, Treebeard enlists an offense against Saruman. Until this moment, humans have known little of the world of the forest. But the Ents have an unexpected power—they are capable of sharing knowledge, creating invisible defensive strategies, and communicating with a reach that is farther than the length of their branches. The dormant power of the Ents is unleashed and Saruman reels. The death crucible is toppled and, for a time, destruction slows.
Tolkien was prescient. That trees are capable of mobilizing a strategy is no fantasy. In recent years, botanists, arborists, and scientists tell us that trees have a unique communication network that support their own survival and, like a finely tuned gauge, reveal the distress of the Earth in their very being. The interdependency between trees and every living creature defines their evolutionary purpose: To create a survival horticulture and maintain a legacy of value, even in Death.
Richard Power’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Overstory, also describes a magical world where a Dickensian set of individual stories intertwine, much like the roots of an ancient forest. At the heart of The Overstory is the discovery of harmony: a deep forest world, where communities of extraordinary competence and fortitude function in the service of one, and of many. Powers reveals what the trees know, and like Tolkien, hears their music. In this literary form of empathic immersion, Powers writes the reader into detailed character studies of people, and of the trees that have been present prior to human existence. His human characters are mesmerized and galvanized as they enter into a deep comprehension of the leaf bearers and the environment. In describing their endurance and their greed, Powers details the uniquely human capacity to foreclose long-term needs in the service of short-term gratification, and also how dormant awareness can transform into a heroic, and sometimes fruitless, call to action—a rejection of indifference and disavowal.
We are becoming familiar with such activism. Some of it comes from young people who have been pressed into precocious maturity and have put aside the joyful exuberance of youth to secure the planet. They warn us that when the trees disappear, so will we—that there can be no reversal. For these warriors, every moment is urgent and there is no hesitation. They challenge us to confront and acknowledge our denial—to reflect on the omnipotence that motivates us to exhaust all that we depend on for our existence. It is an ironic feature of our arrogance—we seem determined to consent to the suicide of our own species. This is another form of denial that works to obscure the dread of loss.
Activists, in fiction and in the world of 2019, are animated by reality. They know we are in a battle to save the future. But this cause cannot be won with foot soldiers alone. Ultimately, we must recognize what we will all lose if we do not share the mission, if we fail to listen to the fateful tree song that the activists can so easily hear.
Stephanie Brody, PsyD is a Supervising and Training Analyst at Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, and Lecturer in Psychology, Department of Psychiatry (part-time), Harvard Medical School and a Clinical Associate in Psychology and Attending Psychologist, McLean Hospital. She is the author of Entering Night Country: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Loss and Resilience (Routledge, 2016) and the editor of the bi-annual BPSI Bulletin.
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