the imaginative conservative logo

Caspar David Friedrich Abbey in an Oak Forest

Caspar David Friedrich Abbey in an Oak Forest

Deep roots are untouched by frost. —J.R.R Tolkien

It has been said that the Germanic soul and the forest are one and the same thing: the mythological Forest that contrasts the splendid isolation of man in his solitude against the infinity of nature. Only this kind of soul could have such a word in its language as Waldeinsamkeit—”Forest-loneliness”—just as one of the most moving passages in Western literature is the Easter scene in Goethe’s Faust: “A longing pure and not to be described/drove me to wander over woods and fields/and in a mist of hot abundant tears/I felt a world arise and live for me.” Northern legends have been built around certain species of trees—firs, ash, oak, elm—and in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, the representative of German Romanticism at its height, dense walls of magnificent trees dwarf a lone Napoleonic soldier—a metaphorical relationship that is withdrawn, fortress-like, dark and impenetrable. The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm all took place in the woods, while Siegfried, Parsifal, Tristan, Hamlet, Faust—those quintessentially Northern heroes—all longed for the woods in which their inner lives were awakened. Oswald Spengler, the maniacally erudite German historian, wrote in his Untergang des Abenlandes (“Decline of the West”) of the northern “longing for the woods; the mysterious compassion, the ineffable sense of forsakenness” and compared “Faustian” man—his Western ideal—with the Classical men of Antiquity, writing that “the rustle of the woods, a charm that no Classical poet ever felt, stands with its secret questions—whence, whither?”

The Forest: so invigorating and baptismal, suffused with those Goethean echoes that reverberate the lyrical tristesse of the high-minded loner; its contemplative splendor broken only by an occasional spray of sun-rays, like “fitful light-flecks playing in their shadow-filled volume,” as writes our Dr. Spengler. Indeed, if God made man in His image, one may say that Nature had her say and added three elements of her own: the Sea, the Stone and, above all, the Forest. The Sea—representing that which is rational, clear, enlightened in a man’s soul; Stone—to express his need to give shape to history, experience and memory. But most profoundly, the Forest—the darkness within him; a silent summons from deep within the murmur of trees giving rise to a man’s discovery of his own, authentic voice.

For Spengler, Classical man was the Apollonian—an individual, static entity, for whom History is mythological, anecdotal, ever-present. He is city-states, public life, political life, Doric and Euclidean. The “anxious, caring” Faustian, on the other hand, who “blossomed forth with the birth of the Romanesque style,” is forever tending-towards and looking-back; he is perspective depth in painting, he is the irrepressible discoverer of continents and the explorer of ocean floors. The Apollonian “is the nude statue; the Faustian the art of the Fugue;” in art, the former is calculated contours; the latter—light and shade. The Apollonian is Delphi, Olympus, and Elysium; the Faustian is Valhalla, Avalon, and the Grail. The Apollonian sees himself in Homeric epic; the Faustian in the Gallilean, Catholic, and Protestant; he is shaped by Baroque dynasties, Dante’s Beatrice, and… Faust. (There is, too, a third civilization-soul, the Magian, belonging to Judaic-Islamic and “Oriental” cultures). Faustian man is, in sum, the Forest, “restless and unsatisfied,” like an oak “straining beyond its summit” or a linden tree, which between sun and shadow is “bodiless, boundless, spiritual.”

The Forest, expressed as the soul of the West, takes shape in the highest creations of art, religious architecture, music, literature, and in the Western sense of Destiny and Duration—the “rootedness” of a man’s spirit, family, and legacy. In architecture, the great forests of the northern plains, wrote Spengler, were the inspiration for cathedrals, their interiors mixed with mysterious light, “the endless, lonely, twilight wood… the secret wistfulness of all Western building forms.” In his work, Le Genie du Christianisme (“The Genius of Christianity”), the 19th-century French writer, Chateaubriand, attributed the development of Gothic cathedrals to worship under tree arches. The French sacred-art historian, Emile Mâle, evoking the dramatic relationship of that architecture to the works of Nature, wrote that “the cathedral, like the plain or forest, has atmosphere and perfume, splendor and twilight… and gloom.”

Götterdämmerung Act 1

Götterdämmerung Act 1

The Forest is classical music: There is Siegfried—the hero who never knew Fear—born in the forest and killed in them, whose glorious Rheinfahrt in Act One of the Götterdammerung seems to bring the listener in, layer after layer, deeper into a pitch-black world of clan-loyalties, blood-ties, soil, and seed—all within a cavernous labyrinth of Wald. There is the high Romanticism of Carl von Weber’s magisterial Der Freischutz, a ghost-story opera of a huntsman, his bride, and the Devil that takes place during the Thirty Years’ War. That work’s famously frightening “Wolf Glen” scene is a twenty-minute excursion into sylvan ecstasy that one British critic from The Times said must be heard “late at night, with the lights off, and no more than a glow from the amplifier panel.” Even the shape of a Church high-organ, the invention of which is one of the most emotional chapters in the history of Western music, is, Spengler writes, “a history of a longing for the Forest, a longing to speak in the language of that true temple of the Western soul.” And I challenge anyone to listen to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf sing Richard Strauss’ “Morgen” and not see a lush mist breaking over a crusader castle-ruin, one fortified by woods, but vulnerable to troubadors….

The Forest is literature: For the deeply spiritual Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, God was not to be found in painting, sculpture, or icons, but living on in the dark woods, to be portrayed “not with lapis or gold, but color made of apple bark.” In his beautiful Stundenbuch (“Book of Hours”), Rilke writes in a series of love letters to God: “Often I imagine you, your wholeness cascades into many shapes. You run like a herd of luminous deer and I am dark. I am forest.” Robert Musil, the cranky and brilliant Austrian author behind Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften (“The Man Without Qualities”), in contemplating human relations, writes of “love, this ancient forest of eccentricity.” Ernst Jünger used forest-symbolism to take a philosophical-political approach against Nazism, Communism and what he saw as the totalitarian tendencies of modern Democracy in his 1951 work, Der Waldgang (“The Forest Passage”), writing of the “forest rebel”—the individual who, “isolated and uprooted” by the State, seeks to preserve his freedom in a totalitarian world by finding shelter in the forest. As for inward journeys seeking shelter—whether ideological or purely emotional—who can forget the captivating first line of Dante’s Inferno: “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way/I found myself within a shadowed forest/for I had lost the path that does not stray…”?

St. Hubertus

St. Hubertus

Northern mythology is, of course, the ancient precursor to such literary forest-imagery. Deep in the Black Forest, the noble Fürstenburg family resides and decades ago purchased from the then-impoverished German state the original Nibelungenlied, the epic poem of the North, one also born in the woods. In Scandinavian epic, the Poetic Eddas, the Norse god, Odin, hangs himself from the great ash tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nights trying to acquire supreme power. One of the recurring symbols in German, Austrian, and Swiss Christian mythology is that of St. Hubertus, the hunter redeemed by a holy stag with a Cross between its antlers. Today, the sets of antlers one often sees above the front doors of villas and jagdhüte in German-speaking Europe are not hunting trophies as is commonly thought but representations of this Christian legend.

Why the German-speaking countries are so attached to their woods may be traced back to the legend of the Battle of Teutoburg as described by Tacitus in his history, Germania, when the soldiers of Arminius used the camoflauge of trees to distract the Romans, unhabituated to forests as these latter were, using surprise, guerilla-like attacks from the forests. Even the German word for “Western”—Abendland, or “Evening Land”—denotes the forest: height and maturity, as opposed to a developing country, called a Morgenland.

Then, too, there is Russia, with its own brand of Northern mythology and an intense forest-consciousness. As historian and Librarian of Congress James Billington wrote in his classic, The Icon and the Axe, the Russian Bear, according to legend, was originally a man who had been denied the traditional bread and salt of human friendship, and in revenge took on a new shape and retreated to the forest to guard against intrusions of humans, his former species. Leonoid Leonov’s great novel of the mid-fifties, The Russian Forest, describes how the Soviet regime played a central role in cutting down the forest, as it was a symbol of Old Russian culture.

Burg Stubegg

Burg Stubegg

The Forest is also history: There is the famous Castle Road leading out from Burgenland, the easternmost province of Austria, to Semmering, just south of Vienna, westward into Styria and to Carinthia, where among eighteen fortresses and castles one will come across Schloss Schalling, the “Castle of the Devils,” sitting reclusively, warily, within a rich Styrian forest, where one day in the 13th century two Babenberg princes translated the Magna Carta into High German. Then there is Burg Stubegg, a fortress another ten miles south, where Crusader knights chose to recuperate because the wines produced there were thought to be Heaven-sent. Any of these travels will certainly take one past the many castles of the Princes of Liechtenstein, themselves among the largest owners of forests in Europe and Latin America, whose princely dominions have guarded and guard the world’s greatest private collection of art.

But most of all, the Forest is the rootedness of life, it is Destiny—therefore, Time—for Faustian man, no matter his origin. As Spengler puts it, “nobility and peasantry are plant-like and instinctive, deep-rooted in ancestral land, propagating themselves in the family tree, breeding and being bred.” In aristocratic Mitteleuropa, the Forest became the means by which to preserve the long-term, in wealth and family. There was a famous “Fürstenspiegel” or “Mirror of Princes”—those classic instruction manuals for the education of a monarch, born in the kingdoms of Persia and written well into the European 19th century—that instructed Germanic princes on this very subject. Fürst (Prince) Gundaker von und zu Liechtenstein, in his Instructio et Consilium Pro Principe Regente of 1653, proposed an abstract theory on the relationship between land and longevity, time and money. “Das Geld ist sanguis corporis politici”—Money is the blood of the body politic—he wrote in the work’s preface, and no good prince, Holy Roman Empire-bred or otherwise, ever strayed from that awareness. This meant a firm tie to forested land which was, and remains to this day, the enterprise of choice for those old families: “Virgin forests turned into financial energy; the slumbering spirits of gold awakened in enterprise,” wrote Spengler (once more) in his beautiful formulation. Or, as Prince Gundaker remarks: “Timber, salt mines, gold, silver, quicksilver, copper and iron—these are Nature’s gift to the Intelligent.” His Fürstenspiegel further warns: “The prince should always make sure his financial situation is better than any rival, and should see to it that no other nobility has a greater financial reserve as he does.” Certainly his family name lived up to such promise from the woods that they owned.

But perhaps the most poignant example of this Faustian tie to land as the basis of family, wealth and History is to be told in the journey of one of the great woods of Europe from the pinnacle of vibrancy and production to utter modern-day waste and ruin. It was one day, around three hundred years ago, in the early-18th century, that Emperor Charles VI offered a distinguished old German family a large swathe of land in the Habsburg Kingdom of Croatia- Slavonia (modern Croatia and a part of Serbia) for military Dienst (service) against invading Ottoman armies. The far-sighted noble family—the Eltz of the woods-rich Rhein—declined the offer as a gift, as they wished to stay Reichsfrei (“free” of the Emperor’s political and financial conditions), offering instead to by the land from his Imperial Majesty on the condition that the land be composed of the right soil—the palaces, titles, trimmings, etc. that would have come with ownership of that land were of little concern. A member of the family went to examine the soil, noting how it poured loosely through his fingers, was grainy and silky, sticking together but not clumping, forming a loose ribbon of earth.

Lippizzaner Horses

Lippizzaner Horses

It was a rich, loamy loess (a kind of sediment) soil—”that could feed the whole of Europe,” as has been said of that fertile land—born to a calcareous terrain rich in clay and well-supplied with calcium. It was a soil rare in Europe—a mild balance of opposing elements in a region of Europe used to extremes in more sense than one. This black earth was the product of the so-called “Pannonian” climate, one known for its stark summer heat and bitter winters, creating some of Europe’s best agriculture and… its very greatest oaks. The young man immediately recognized he had, literally in his hands, the makings of a great forestry industry—a mere two centuries down the line. And sure enough, by the mid-19th century, one hundred sixty years after their first oak harvest had been cultivated, the family emerged as one of the richest in Central Europe, their estate crowned by a stunning yellow and white baroque palace, as well as the original breeding grounds of the famous all-white Lippizzaner horses. The family had turned the soil of Slavonia into one of the most sought-after woods in the world—until, that is, the family was driven out and the woods, the oaks, the soil, and the palace were confiscated in part after World War I and then completely after World War II. Only the horses survived, having been sent out of the country in time to Austria, where they are still trained with the Eltz coat of arms on their pure silver bridles. The land fell into such ruin by the second decade of the 20th century that many of that land’s diverse new communal-owners—recipients of Socialist largesse—begged the family back to take up its management; the family declined. Only a picture of their palace on the back of the largest currency note in former-Yugoslavia remained as acknowledgement of what that family, blue-blooded but with love of forest coursing through their veins, once meant to the region.

“Here I am a Man. Here, I dare to be!” wrote Goethe of his beloved dreamscape excursions into the woods. That sense of “Being” is what the Forest is all about to the Faustian: the Mystery that inspires imagination—the most intense Reality that there is.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.  

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
5 replies to this post
  1. Beautiful. Another one of your essays which I shall find myself re-reading and no doubt mining for wisdom.

    Two minor comments:

    1. Heidegger’s excellent work “Conversations on a Country Path” come to mind as an example of this German reverence for the Forrest, and his philosophical concept of die Lichtung and the Forrest also comes to mind. I have spent many a day walking through the beautiful forrests near Warsaw, and appreciate this German sensibility there as well. Poles have less of a reverence for the Forrest, more for the Farm Community itself, but this German love of the woods is a wonderful thing!

    2. Your description of the mythic aspects of Germanic forrests reminds me of how my grandmother talked of her life before the War.

    Fantastic writing!

  2. How I love these lyrical, thoughtful posts! In Spandau Prison in the 1980s, Rudolph Hess’s son asked how he would vote in the German elections if he could. Astonished, Hess Senior replied “For the Green Party, of course!” Their Leftism mattered less than their love of nature, which had also figured heavily in the Nazi mystique. Forests again.

  3. I once read that in North America, when the Pilgrims arrived, the forest ran unbroken from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. Growing up in the Midwest, the woods I recall were not extensive, at most a square mile of trees separated by county roads. It must be a characteristic of trees growing close together which renders the dark and deep and mysterious aspect, but it was also there in my American wald. In my youthful rambles, I never went “out doors”, but “into the woods”.

    And, now, since it has been far too long, I will bring out my recording of Dame Schwartzkopf and mull an hour with Vier Letzte Lieider. (Which I somehow find more Dionysian than Apollonian.)

  4. What an excellent piece! If I were a professor teaching a class on the cultural roots of the West, this would be required reading!

    I do have one thought, and that concerns the implications that the Apollonian man had little to do with forests. I wonder about this, as the Roman fasces seems to play a kind of tribute or acknowledgement of the I breakable strength of wood bound together-much like the vaunted impenetrability of a densely wooded forest like the Black Forest or even of Tolkein’s Fangorn.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: