How Forests, and ducks, Think

In How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn relates how the Avila of Ecuador enter into reciprocal semiotic relationship with the animals of the forest, in order to hunt them better. The hunters not only need to place themselves in the position of the creature in order to think where they might be at any one time, or what their next move would be in a given situation, but need to think how the animals perceive and interpret them (how humans are seen by the forest). Crucially, in regard to the forest jaguars, they must not turn away and show their backs, as this allows the jaguar to see them as ‘meat’, as prey. Instead, humans must stare back at jaguars, meet their gaze, to instill upon them that they are equals.

This reciprocity, while practiced primarily for instrumentalised and bloody reasons, spreads out and influences the Avila understanding of the diversity of lives that surround them as multiple centres of meaning and interpretation.

Modern Western anthropocentrism likes to see human beings as alone in their stature as thinking, meaning-making creatures. But perhaps it was only recently thus (since we did away with all the predators in our forests?). Browsing on a ‘Countryside Encyclopaedia’ from 1988 by Richard Muir, I alighted upon this description of a ‘duck decoy’ – “During the Middle Ages ducks were caught by gently driving the birds into the narrowing arm of a lake, around which nets were suspended. Subsequently the techniques were refined, and by the early 19th century designs had more or less standardised on the form of a steep sided, shrub-fringed artificial pond, with narrow, curving, tapering artificial arms, or ‘pipes’, usually three or four, leading off from its corners.Nets were hung over a pipe, and rectangular wicker screens were erected at regular intervals along the sides of the pipe. A dog, often of the Golden Laborador type, was trained to walk in a weaving manner in and out of these screens. Ducks floating on the pond were fascinated to see this appearing and vanishing ‘fox’ and their curiosity attracted them further and further towards their fate int he narrowing nets.”













Talking with the plants

Anthropologist Eduardo Kohn, in his recent book How Forests Think, says that semiosis (sending, receiving, interpreting messages) is a defining (constitutive) characteristic of all life.

This was not in my mind (I hadn’t started reading the book) as I walked up the lane to the station, idly staring at the plants in the bank and hedgerow, when the question occurred to me again, but more forcefully, even tetchily: “Why ARE leaves all these different shapes?”

It’s not a subject I’ve heard great discussion on. Clearly, it’s not an adaptation to improve photosynthesis, or a protection against predators (unless we’re talking Holly). My best guess was – unphilosophically, unscientifically –¬† that this lane’s crazy-wonderful differential of leaf shapes was a result of the spirit of creativity and diversity inherent to life and evolution. Another thought also slipped quietly by my mind, that it had something to do with me.

As I sat on the train I pondered it for a while, and thought about how we recognise one species from another, and how important leaf shape is to that process. And then I thought about something else.

My mind was well primed for Kohn’s words. The quietly revolutionary thing about this thought, and how it’s landed with me (his argument takes a somewhat different direction) is that these plants are communicating not only across species boundaries but across kingdom boundaries. Their shape expresses who they are and what properties they contain, not for the benefit of other plants, whose perception systems don’t work that way, but to us animals.


As a human person with a great interest in communication with other-than-human persons, this makes me very happy indeed. The above sketch, made with leaves collected in a few dozen yards on a sunny path in my woods, is a beginning gambit in Leaf Language.




Axis Mundi


I first saw this oak tree four years ago, perhaps from an angle  similar to this. It has a striking symmetry and skyward lift to all its branches. It is positioned right at the top of the wood, and within a small circle of clear ground, next to which and of a similar size is a round crater (presumably from a WW2 bomb, there are many around). I keep coming back to this oak. My first rubbing of a live tree was a circle of brown paper around its generous girth, in 2013.


When I did an introductory course to shamanism at the Sacred Trust in May this year, I took this tree as my ‘axis mundi’. The axis mundi is the world center, or the connection between heaven and earth / upper and lower worlds in certain cosmologies. As the celestial and geographic pole, it expresses a point of connection between sky and earth, where the four compass directions meet. At this point shamanic travel and correspondence can be made between higher and lower realms.

As the drum beat a heady rhythm, I caught the train back to Knockholt and slid through the woods to this tree. I slithered down its roots and met a somewhat disparaging earthworm and then a friendly badger. I climbed up its branches into the clouds, and then got stuck (I am not, perhaps, a natural shaman, too rationalist?). But the next time I saw this tree, I had a spontaneous surge of powerful connection and emotion. The oak, in the fullness of its physical self, and the oak I met in my imaginative journeying from a London church hall seemed to know each other… and know me.