Forest, The

forest, The

Walser, Robert

AT SCHOOL WE HAD AN OLD TEACHER WITH an enormous head who told us that in a relatively very short time all of Central Europe would become one huge forest if civilization were to retreat. If it were not for human beings struggling against the growth of the forest, the forest would burst free, a unified, dominating force. That gave us something to think about. Even imagining Germany alone as one huge forest, undisturbed by cities and human habitations and human industry, neither crisscrossed with roads nor hampered by the slightest trace of culture-the idea of it was mystery enough. Often we pondered with our young, dreaming heads, which we then filled up with fantastic images of huge, infinite woodland worlds, and we remained as puzzled as before. One thing was certain: the old teacher’s words put our imaginations to work, they bubbled with excitement, sketched out dreaming and dancing lines, tore down what they’d so painstakingly erected, began again where they’d broken off from weariness, and didn’t have a moment’s peace. The cleverest among us produced all sorts of elegant, amusing pictures of the indissoluble, ineradicable forest, filled the world they’d created with curious animals and plants until they reached the point where even their imaginations faltered. Then other things arrived that captivated us and provoked our thought, the forest withdrew, just as it really has withdrawn or retreated in the world. Perhaps it was poets now, or else athletes, that engrossed us-in any case, the forest’s mystery was neglected, it perished, canceled out by our dry schoolboy rationality.

– Teachers die, boys grow up, and the forests remain, for their growth is so much more soundless, more imperceptible than that of humans. And they are not so swift to die. They do not grow so violently, impetuously; and so they can endure the air of this world longer than we can, they are stronger and spread themselves out more durably and farther, they don’t tumble down so quickly once they’ve achieved their full, proud height. Man, however, is capable of thought, and thinking destroys one. And so man ponders the forest, which appears to be a perfectly dead, insensible thing. He finds it, for instance, delightful that the world is so full of forests, and that forests are green-of such an all-powerful green that they lend human existence an essential magic, they lie so close to human actions and sentiments, even impinge upon them. What a brooder man is! And he always broods with particular energy about what he loves. Well then, let me try this myself!

Our country is filled with rustling woods. Taken together with the rivers, lakes, and mountain chains, they comprise a lovely homeland. Various types of forest characterize our region. Each sort has its own typical appearance that imprints itself on one’s memory. Sometimes, perhaps even often, all the different types of forest are united in one large piece. But we don’t have very large forests, because they are too frequently interrupted. One charming interruption is a river, and a wilder sort is a ravine. But aren’t all these things connected? Interruptions disrupt the whole in only a slight way, they cannot destroy its beautiful, rustling, rolling unity. For this, the unity too far surpasses them. So the forest lords it over our countryside as a broad, benevolent, lusty whole. We scarcely have any unwooded plains; lakes not fringed by forest are also questionable, and mountains lacking the gaiety of woodsy crowns are almost unknown among us. To be sure, where the higher elevations begin, the forest naturally disappears. Wherever there is rock, the forest dies. Or, rather, that which would be forest in a lower, warmer, more expansive location is here rock. Rock is dead, extinct, suffocated forest. Forest is such a lovely, splendid form of life! Everything that is rock wishes to devour that which is so freely and enchantingly forest. The rock is rigid, the forest lives, it breathes, sucks in, blows out, it is the lake whose interior is full of streaming, it is the river that flows like a release of breath, it is a creature, almost more a creature than an element, for it is too soft to be an element. It is soft! Everything soft has the possibility of becoming hard. Can something that starts out hard become hard? No, just as only what is good can become wicked, only the best turn bad, and so only what is soft can become hard, precisely because it has the natural gift of hardening when something hard confronts it. In this way, I believe, our forests are faced with the prospect of dying, of being transformed, of becoming stone, of becoming that which they would have been in a higher, less roomy location. That which has room to expand tends to breathe deeply, peacefully, enjoys restful slumber and knows life within its profound sleep. Forests sleep, and sleep so beautifully! Their breath is warm and sweetsmelling, it heals the sickly, refreshes those who are in good health but sluggish, and is so rich that it would still stream and flow around if there weren’t a single creature present to enjoy what is so splendid to enjoy and taste. Forests are magnificent, and isn’t the fact that our land is so full of woods and forests itself magnificent? Could it be our homeland if it were a land without forests? It would just lie there, would cover an expanse, one could measure it out, certainly it would have borders, but would it be alive? And would we live within it as we do now, when it is full of forests? A forest is an image of one’s homeland, and forests are countries, and these countries are a homeland.

Our cities, even the largest ones, border forests, and there are small, forgotten little towns that are snugly encircled on all sides by woods. The lovely broad country roads-do not all of them lead through large forests? Is there a single road that, having run for several hours through the open countryside, does not lose itself in a thick, shadowy wood? No doubt such roads do exist, but they at least always offer a view of an approaching forest, or they offer-which is also worthy of appreciation-a nearby forest as a view to refresh the walker. Most beautiful of all, surely, are the patches of forest upon the backs of moderately tall but broad mountains. These are fir forests, mostly, which give off a wonderful scent full of cool, therapeutic oils. Beech forests are less common, but there exist small, only slightly towering hills entirely covered with woods of this sort. I mention the sweet sight of a beech forest in spring only to win over the two-thirds of my esteemed readership whom this is likely to enchant. How splendid, too, are oaks, and entire forests full of oak trees! This is no doubt the rarest sort of forest in these parts. The stature and shape of individual oaks is already so elevating and great, and how much more mighty and imposing must be the sight of an entire oak forest! It is then more a frothing, roaring, wind-torn lake than a forest. Most of our forests run wildly and impetuously all the way up to the margins of silent blue lakes.

Oak trees look marvelously beautiful beside lakes: charming and inviting to dreamers when the weather is fair, grandiose and terrifying beneath stormy skies. Forests are only gloomy under the rarest circumstances. Our souls must be dreary indeed for forests to make on them a melancholy impression. Even lengthy rain showers cannot make a forest bleak, unless they make everything bleak everywhere. In the evening, O how beautiful the forests are then! When above the dark green of the trees and the woodland meadows brilliant red and deep red clouds hover, and the sky’s blue is of such extraordinary depth! At such moments, flights of fancy are inevitable for the one who arrives to gaze upon this scene. At such moments man can find nothing beautiful any longer, because it is far too beautiful for his senses. Helpless and captivated as he is, he allows himself to be gazed upon by this profound beauty more than he himself looks at it. Gazing is then a reversed, exchanged role. – But most splendid of all are the forests very early in the morning, long before the sun arrives, when all space is still full of night, and there is only a pale, listless light falling down from above, not really light at all, just a sort of worn-out, dead darkness. Then the forest speaks a language without sound, without breath, without culture, and all is sweet cold incomprehension.

In the summer, of course, the forests are at their most beautiful, because nothing of their opulent, impetuous adornment is lacking. Autumn gives the forests one last brief but indescribably beautiful allure. Winter, in the end, is surely no great friend to the forests, but even wintry forests have their beauty. Does Nature contain anything that is unlovely? Those who love Nature can only smile at such a question; to them, all the seasons are equally dear and meaningful, for they find fulfillment for their hearts and senses in the image of any season. How glorious fir forests look in winter, with the tall slender fir trees laden heavily, too heavily, with the soft, thick snow, so that they lower their long, soft branches to the earth, which itself is invisible beneath all the thick snow! I, the author, have done a great deal of wandering about through fir forests in winter, and have always succeeded in forgetting even the most beautifull woodland summer. This is precisely how it is: either you must love everything in Nature, or you will be prevented from loving and respecting anything at all. But summer forests impress themselves more swiftly and sharply on our memories than any other, and this is no cause for wonder. Color impresses itself on us more vividly than form, or than such monotonous colors as gray or white. And in summer the forest is nothing but weighty, impetuous color. Green is then everything, green is everywhere, green domineers and rules, and allows other colors, which might also wish to attract attention, to appear only in relation to itself Green outshines all forms, so that forms fade into nothing and vanish! In summer, one pays no attention to form, one sees only the one huge, flowing, pensive color. The world now has its appearance, its character, that’s what it looks like; and that is what it looked like in the beautiful years of our youth, this we believe in, since it is all we know. What happiness it brings most people to think back on their youth: youth shimmers greenly toward them, for its most precious, thrilling moments were spent in the forest. Then we grew up, and the forests, too, grew older, but has not everything which has meaning remained the same? He who was a rascal in his youth will continue to wear some slight hint, a tiny badge of rascality throughout his life, and the same is true of teacher’s pets and cowards. The green, this omnipotent summer forest green, forgets neither one nor the other; all living, striving, growing beings find it unforgettable, all their lives. And how lovely it is that something so dear and friendly should remain so unforgettable! Father and mother and siblings and beatings and caresses and mischief-all of it entwined in this one ardent green.

And all the journeymen from foreign lands who’ve walked singing and whistling and harmonica-playing through our forests! In front of them, perhaps, trundled some heavy, long wagon, and they overtook it, because it was probably going quite slowly; then perhaps they encountered a milkman’s cart and later a company of elegant ladies and gentlemen, and the foreign lads, Norwegians perhaps, gave a casual, friendly greeting, were even greeted in return, because they were such robust, handsome lads, and then they walked on. What doesn’t one find walking along the roads that lead through large forests! No doubt many a gendarme has wasted great effort searching for a vagrant in a thick forest full of underbrush! Forests love freedom, and freedom-everything that bears the name of freedom-loves the forest! In earlier times, our mercenaries surely walked through the forests, their hearts filled with the intention never to return again unless it was with fame and riches. Crimes, too, can easily occur in the woods, since forests harbor every sort of liberty and free behavior. But are the woods to blame for the wrongs people commit in the woods? The forest is far more likely to lure one to innocent pleasures than to dark, malevolent deeds, this we should never forget. – In winter, when most of the trees in the forest are bare, when the cold air plays with the narrow twigs and branches, one can sense most clearly what a forest really is, what it represents, what its basis is. In summer, in the tumult of color and form, one forgets oneself and even the thing one is wandering through! One feels pleasure, and the pleasure makes one a poor observer, because one’s senses are absorbed by this pleasure. What is a forest? Everyone knows that! What makes the forest beautiful? No one’s sure what to say. Everyone says: it’s beautiful there, it pleases me, it makes me forget so much unhappiness, I’ve no desire to know on what this beauty’s beauty is based, what accounts for this loveliness’s charm! – The forest awakens people’s feelings, not their intellects, and certainly not the impulse to calculate! But one can calculate in such a lovely, thoughtful way; yes, but this calculation, in turn, is then nothing more than feeling, sensation. There is a dark comprehension, in everyone’s heart, of why the forest is so intoxicatingly beautiful, and no one-that is, no person who feels-is eager to blurt out some loud-sounding, precise explanation. Forests one has walked through leave one’s heart with a nameless feeling of majesty and holiness, and such feelings demand silence. “Was it nice in the forest?” “Yes, oh,” we say, “it was lovely”-but that is all.

Those who suffer like to visit the forest. It seems to them as if the forest were suffering silently along with them, as if it understood very well how to suffer and to be calm and proud in one’s suffering. A suffering individual likes to visit that which surrounds him with the proud, free composure of suffering. In any case, the forest teaches him tranquility, and he applies this to his suffering. Pain wants so much to cry out, to comport itself in an unruly manner. The forest is always an example to those who suffer, a lesson, insofar as the forest itself can be perceived as suffering. And this is easy; for anything that remains silent yet displays color and motion in its silence is understood by us to suffer. Everything proud and free suffers, we tell ourselves. Whatever feels, or at least: whatever feels with intensity has to suffer! The forest feels, it is home to delicate, deep-seated emotions, it shows itself to be proud, for when it speaks, it is merely amicable and soothing. The one who suffers can learn from it how disagreeable it is to turn other people’s lives prematurely sour through one’s grimly griping presence, to burden them with useless forebodings full of grief. And then forest fills the sufferer with peace. He sees and feels himself surrounded and rustled-about by peaceful, gentle friendliness, he asks the world’s forgiveness for his unlovely, selfish complaints and has learned how to smile along with his unhappiness. If his suffering is profound, all the more profound and meaningful and tender will be his smile. He thinks he might die a friendly death, here where everything scornful, faithless, ravaged dies and falls away from him. Sweet, sweet bliss of oblivion encircles him, smiles with him, shows him an even more profound, more nobly born smile! And he puts it to use, it comes about almost of itself, it is more within his heart than upon his lips, and suddenly he feels a sort of happiness that harmonizes wonderfully with his particular sort of suffering. His happiness kisses his pain. And then he tells himself: “So you see, my suffering is in fact my happiness; that’s the lesson of the forest-how dear you are, forest, how dear to me!” The forest suffers along with the suffering, that’s something all those who suffer like to imagine, and they find they are not deceived in this notion. In the woods, truth and openness rustle, and both these things suffer. And then the one who suffers in the forest still has the lovely impression that is perhaps the loveliest and most consuming he could possibly have: the forest is flowing, it is a deep, green flowing-away, falling-away, its twigs are its waves, the green is the wet; I am dying and flowing off with the wet, with the waves. I myself am now wave and wet, I am flow, am forest, am the forest itself, am everything, am everything I can ever be and achieve. Now my happiness is great. Happiness and pain, what intimate friends these are. I will never again be unkind or even furious because of pain. There are so many unpleasant moods that could so easily be avoided, and he who truly suffers avoids all rage. Only the forest has taught me what it truly means to suffer.

A young boy and a singer! The singer asked the boy: Do you love the forest? The boy replied, I often go up into the forest at the top of the mountain. First come meadows, and upon these meadows stand isolated trees. These, too, must once have belonged to the forest. I can vividly feel how everything, everything must once have been part of the forest. I approach the forest, but it refuses to accept me, it draws back from me. Why can it not love me? I feel such strong love for it. I want to enter into it, to possess it, want it to possess me, fully, just as I am. But it thrusts me away, I can see that. I cannot advance any further, I’m too frightened. Why must I be frightened? Why must it thrust me aside? I feel such longing for it, such tremendous longing. Why is this so? Why must I feel compelled to be near it, to enter it, and why must it withdraw before me? Why? Oh how it strikes at me when I approach. For this reason, I rarely do approach it, for these blows are painful. But even more painful is not being allowed to go to it. I keep having to think of it as gentle, to think it will, in the end, be gentle with me, and in this I only deceive myself Then I go to it again, and again it lashes out at me until I retreat, then I run back down the mountain. I thought it would be gentle very early in the morning, before even a sun was present, but this was not so. It seemed all the more incensed. My longing for it continues to grow. If only I could die. My longing grows and grows, it is becoming huge, soon it will be stronger than I am myself Then, perhaps, I’ll be able to die! I do not wish for this, and yet it would please me, but it would please me far, far more to be able to be close to it. Close to the one who is so wicked, who chases me away, when my only wish was to flatter it. How cruel it is, so very cruel, and how compelled I feel to love it! Once, it was nighttime and the forest slept, I quickly slipped inside, and I sang with joy! Then it awoke and slashed at me mercilessly with its branches. Since then I have never done more than stand outside it. I gaze at it from a distance, and it gazes back at me with such threatening eyes. What harm have I done to it? What about me displeases it? I wish to die together with my love for it. Now I no longer want to see it. I’ll never go there again. That will be enough to kill me, if I can’t go there any more. Perhaps afterwards I’ll be near it, inside of it. This I believe. Oh how happy the thought makes me! Now almost no more longing is left in me. What would be the point of it? I don’t wish to feel such bitterness again. – The boy’s eyes were full of tears. The singer, who herself was weeping, gently laid the head of the boy in her lap, closed her lovely hands tightly around it, and wept upon her hands. The boy wept into the singer’s lap. Then the kind singer bent down and kissed the boy. She took his head in her hands and kissed him just like that.

Is the forest poetic? Yes, that it is, but no more so than all other living things in this world. It is not especially poetic, just especially beautiful! Poets like to go to the woods because it’s peaceful there and in its shade one can no doubt complete a good poem. The forest often appears in poems, therefore certain people who are otherwise utterly devoid of poetic instinct believe they must regard and revere it as an especially poetic entity. Regard and take note of it as you like! The forest will, for all that, remain just as freely and candidly what it is: forest. Nothing upon this earth has special poetic value, it is just, perhaps, that one loves certain things more than others, grants some a certain advantage in one’s heart, without giving the matter any real thought. Poets, this much is certain, love the forest, as do painters-that, too, is certain-along with all good people, but above all lovers! It’s the forest one loves in the forest, not its poetic quality. Tell me, then, where, at what point, in what little comer might one find it? It’s not even there at all, this stupid monstrosity! Nothing is beautiful in and of itself Each person must go himself and learn to find a thing beautiful and precious. If he enters with a skullful of grinning poesie, enters, that is, into beauty, he will perhaps register something in his classical notebook, but he’ll still be a dull-witted, unfeeling clod trampling right past what is agreeable and sweet. Having senses and daring to open them up can produce the loveliest woodland poems. – It is above all to highly laudable circles of artists and writers that I wish to address the following brief story: Once upon a time there were two young painters who cheerfully wandered about in the world so as to fill up their sketchbooks before bringing them home, to demonstrate that they were industrious fellows. All right then, that’s a start! One evening they came to a beautiful forest. At the forest’s edge, one of them, the clever one, cautiously stopped, astonished and moved, whereas his companion, who was more a productive man of action than of feeling, leapt smack into the middle of the forest’s darkness-not in order to eat it up, but rather to study it. In this, however, he had little success. For as soon as he looked the darkness directly in the face, himself already consumed by it, he couldn’t find it or see it any more. That’s only natural, since when one is inside the darkness, one can’t have any impression of it. So there he stood now, this fellow, unable to snatch up the poesie, that is to say the darkness of the forest. A fine defeat! When he re-emerged, all foolish and dumb, the clever one had already laughed his fill at him, and moreover had surpassed him by producing an excellent study, a clear and simple sketch of the forest, which vexed this thick-headed know-it-all no end. So he wept with envy over the other painters lovely sketch, which had eluded him, and he’s probably still weeping to this day, for such tears are not swift to dry. That is the story. I hope it has a positive effect.

If my reader permits, I will now conduct him into a room. The lamp is lit, the curtains are drawn, and there are three young people sitting around the small round table: two boys and a girl. One of the boys, the more lighthearted one, sits pressed closely against the girl, who not only appears to be but is in fact his sweetheart. The other sits pensive and alone, smoking a cigarette, across from the others. The girl, a pretty, vivacious little thing, has dreamily lowered her clever little head toward the breast of her lover. Now she says: How wonderful it was in the forest. My eyes are still full of the flickering, dancing green. I cannot get away from it. What a splendid, unforgettable color green is. Why are the forests green, why are there forests? Everything ought to be one great rustling forest, the entire world, all of space, the highest, the deepest, the widest, all of it, everything ought to be a forest, or else (and here she lowers her clear voice), or else nothing! – Now she is silent, and the lighthearted one seeks to calm this girl who is seized with excitement. He is insufficiently gentle. The girl, still under the spell of her thought, says: Oh, that’s just how it should be! Why ever not? Do there have to be different things? Why can’t everything be one single thing? A stream, yes, blurts the pensive youth who has up till now been silent. Say it, oh do say it, tell us, the curious girl implores him, say what it is you mean! – I mean, the silent one says, that without it even having to appear this way, without it being at all clear to see, everything is a stream, a stream that flows away from us and eternally returns. And then one that never returns! What is a forest? It extends over plains, ascends mountains, leaps over streams and down mountainsides, it fills up valleys-how could we doubt its sovereignty? It descends deep into the bluely reposing lakes, it toys with the clouds, is the beloved of breezes and flees from us humans. It cannot endure human motion, human breath. We are thinkers, and this freely floating entity despises all thought. Then it approaches us once more and we may love it. We can see how it throws itself down into the mirrors of lakes, how it plays with the sky, how it becomes sea, storm, cyclone, and stream. Then we ourselves become something streaming away. Now we are in full stride, there is no longer the slightest speck of stillness left in our hearts. Now, all at once, we feel love, and this is a love that burrows its way into everything, tears everything down, in order to build it all up again. We are becoming master builders, and we take the forests as a model for our future edifices. They are to stand there every bit as splendid and proud as a hilltop forest-and then they collapse. For there is some tiny, minuscule thing over which the gigantic creature has had to stumble. There it lies, and how beautiful it is, lying there, how very lovely! And then it dies: good night! – He falls silent, weeping. The girl reaches her narrow, trembling hand across the table to him. He presses it fervently to his lips. The girl looks at the other youth, the lighthearted one, who has attempted to hold her back, with puzzled, questioning eyes.

When I look back over these pages, it seems to me I have come to no proper conclusion, as if there is still a great deal missing, as if I should have said more with fewer words. How it torments me, and truly, if the tormenting object were not so lovely, I would hardly let myself be prevented from resolutely turning my back on the troublesome matter. To write precisely and with certainty about something beautiful is difficult. Thoughts fly around the beautiful object like drunken butterflies, without reaching the goal, the fixed point. I wanted to spill my soul out, but then I realized that such spillings out within the art of writing demand a constant holding oneself in. I wanted to see the forest spread itself out powerfully, wanted to make it extend and stretch its limbs like a giant, only to follow it, gently subsiding, to the point where it would have had to assume again the dear, simple form in which we know and revere it. Then it went flapping off, appeared now huge and imperious, now small and cozy, it merely gave off a shimmer instead of issuing precepts, it made no claims for itself and thus disappointed me greatly, for I would have liked to behold it as a wild, influential, form-giving entity. Forest is now once more nothing more than forest, it has its woodland paths and woodland brooks, is filled with underbrush, with all sorts of flashy things, nets and beasts and the cries of children and the laughter of gentlemen and ladies that have selected it for their strolls. It is gentle and patient and indulgent with people. It is a silent fellow, whose colors, to be sure, awaken the impression of boisterousness, but it itself is far from all presumption. Dreamers are simply fond sometimes of distorting its image, perhaps only in order to reassemble it again lovingly afterward. The dreamer, oh what a fellow he is! In his eyes, everything always appears to be something different, something much wilder than it is. He digresses only for the sake of experiencing the satisfaction of having digressed. I have no love for him, and would love him all the less should he happen to have his seat within me; in that case, I might almost hate him. He exaggerates everything, and he creates blank spots when he ought to be lovingly, zealously investigating some matter. He knows no peace, and thus lacks all prospect of ever achieving peace and maturity. No, I do not love him-but the forest I love with all my soul. Love is always uncertain in its stridings and sketchings. I cannot describe what I love as calmly as is necessary. Perhaps I’ll learn yet how to tame all these quarrelsome feelings! Tranquility, oh how beautiful it is; tranquility and forest are one! This is something I knew, and I was perhaps in error when I nonetheless took it upon myself to describe this tranquility, the forest in such an unpeaceful state of mind. And now, from the hiding place of all my best thoughts, I bid the forest farewell. I am compelled to. That the forest should be so strong, so great, so widespread, so powerful, so mighty and so full of splendor delights me, and I’d wish just the same of man.

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Copyright Center For Social Research and Education Apr 2002

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved