Eduardo Kohn

The language of forests

© Eduardo Kohn, Amazonian Forest, 2017

The anthropologist and author of How Forests Think (University of California Press, 2013) recounts his Amazonian experience among the Runa people in order to convey to our Western minds the idea of a language that can go beyond words and symbols. A language that connects the beings of the forest, both human and non-human. A language that we seem to have forgotten…

According to you, thought and language are not exclusively human. In what way could forests also use them?

In the West, our metaphysical mistake has been to collapse all kinds of thought into a single kind of thought: human thought. By focusing on this very special kind of thought, we lose sight of others and in fact relegate everything that doesn’t conform to it to the domain of non-thought. The result is dualism.

Dualistically separating the human from the rest of the world is pervasive and problematic. My claim is that although humans are indeed different (in large part because we think differently), that difference is housed in something greater that holds it.

I am less interested in the details of communication (whether it is via pheromones or calls) and rather in the more general idea that when an organism represents its environment in a certain way for the next generation, that’s a thought. For instance, in the shape they have, the cilia of a paramecium represent something about the water through which the organism moves; these organelles capture something about it and that’s a thought for the next generation. It’s at that basic level that thought and life are the same. And it is on the basis of this that more complex forms of communication, human and nonhuman, are based.

We generally think of anthropological immersions plunging us into exclusively human worlds. But I happened to have worked in a place in the Amazon where people live intimately with lots of kinds of beings, not just humans. Of course, they also care deeply about humans, but they live in an intensely complicated ecosystem that they need to understand. They were using some of those elements of the ecology for food, through hunting, gathering, fishing, and gardening. This has forced them to become attuned to that forest world that houses these elements. To do this, they have had to understand the ecological relations in that world as communicative relations.  

Through ethnographic immersion, I learned that a lot of what they were doing was communicating with the beings of that world or communicating like the beings of that world. So, I was interested in understanding what would happen upon hearing a certain birdcall in the forest and in understanding how people interpret that call. I wasn’t just sitting down and asking people questions but having actual real-life interactions. Sometimes these birds were flying over and calling and I would hear the calls, hear people’s interpretation of those calls, and then observe what they would do. Different people interpret the calls in different ways, and how they interpret them affects what they then say, and you can trace all these things very carefully.

The prototypical example of a symbol is a word in human language. But the interesting thing about the dialect of Quichua spoken by the people I lived with is that it contains within it an entire, very well-developed lexical class that is not really symbol-like and that actually involves a large number of words that are somewhat imitative. Rather than trying to capture things in the forest, these words capture what Anna Tsing would call “happenings”, “events”, or “unfoldings.” They simulate the particular flavor of a temporal action in the forest and they paint it as a sonic picture, if you will. In Quichua, there are imitative “words” (or more accurately sound images) like tsupu, that simulate an entity penetrating a body of water, or tyas, which simulated the action of a machete slicing through something, or teeeye, a shotgun firing. These are the kinds of things that mean something but that are no longer in language. They are likenesses of the things they represent. When I pronounce teeeye, my mouth is opening in the way that a blast of lead shot starts from inside a gun barrel and fires out. By using these, they are capturing a likeness of the forest itself. Those clusters of words are themselves a likeness of the kind of thinking that is happening in the forest and constitute a picture of sylvan thinking itself.

© Eduardo Kohn, Amazonian Forest, 2017

Is it the evil of our time to have lost this communication to other beings?

In dense forests, like those in Ecuador’s Amazon region, sylvan thinking is generated to such a degree and with such a wealth that its properties become inescapable. In a forest, you can’t but think like a forest and this kind of forest thinking can guide and inspire us at a time in which we are losing touch with the sylvan thinking that sustains us. The great madness of our world is that we are becoming “all-too-human minds” separated from what we seem to only be able to treat as “matter.”

It is an ontological fact that we humans separate ourselves from the world with disastrous consequences, and the term “Anthropocene” alerts us to this. When we humans vastly simplify ecosystems for our exclusive gain, create worlds where we don’t need even need to understand where our garbage goes, where we are totally disconnected from all the ecological repercussions of our actions, this is a real problem. It’s not so much that if we just had the right theoretical lenses we could see that we are not actually separated. We are increasingly separated and that’s dangerous.

It’s very important for me to insist on the ontological properties of things like symbols. Symbols create separations. This is not a mistake; it’s a mode of being. Of course, symbols aren’t ever fully separate from the worlds from which they come and to which they refer and that’s why I’m saying: “Instead of doing theoretical work with the separation, let’s do theoretical work with the connections.”

We need to be aware of connections as well as differences. The danger of a “flat ontology” is that it proposes to get humans and non-humans in the same picture and make them all the same. If you are basically saying that everything is the same, how can you explore and potentiate different kinds of ontological properties?

The kind of ontological explorations that I do, with the goal of explanation (i.e., telling you “how” forests think), is powerful but also dangerous and limited. For example, one of the problems for me (and other anthropologists) is that I am forced into disagreement with the indigenous people I work with because according to my framework there is no way that rocks can have life. For the Runa, they do have life and, in fact, when I take psychedelics like ayahuasca with them, I understand the animacy of rocks. This is a tension that I want to sit with.

I don’t want to shy away from the productive conceptual work I’m doing with sylvan thinking but I’m well aware that it may close off certain possibilities. My hope is that sylvan thinking will suggest to me the emergent concept that will, one day, allow all of this to make sense.

© Eduardo Kohn, Amazonian Forest, 2017