"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Animating the Forest

An "Ent" as depicted in the Lord of the Rings film series.
There are a couple of lingering topics from my week at Andrews Forest, and I want to return to one of them today.

During a follow up conversation with Frederick J. Swanson, one of the coordinators of the Long Term Ecological Reflections project at Andrews, he expressed interest in knowing more about ‘what I had to let go of’ when trying to consider the forest from a writer’s perspective, having been trained for so long to approach the forest as a scientist.

I’d say the most difficult impulse for me to follow – to put my faith in, so to speak -- was the desire to anthropomorphize the creatures around me, to animate them with human qualities.

It is very common for story tellers (and humans in general) to anthropomorphize animals and other non-human creatures. Walt Disney’s The Lion King, for example, imposes a human social structure and human behavior on lions and their cohorts in the grasslands of Africa, so that what appears to be a story about lions is, in fact, a story about humans dressed up as lions.

Disney, of course, does this with a lot of films; but I chose The Lion King is an example because the first animal social structure I learned about when I began my study of behavioral biology was in fact the lions.

Lions live in matriarchal prides, where territory is shared among sisters and passed from mothers to daughters. Males leave the pride when they reach reproductive age and live alone or in small groups (usually pairs of brothers) until they are able to challenge and replace the reproductive male of another pride. Upon ‘taking over’ a pride, a new male kills all the cubs in that pride, causing the females to enter their reproductive cycle earlier than they would have otherwise. The new male then has about two or three years to sire as many cubs as he can (and see them safely to maturity) before he, in turn, is booted out by a younger, healthier rival, who will then proceed to kill all the cubs that his predecessor sired.

Not the stuff of Disney movies, I suppose. But it was through the lions that I first realized most animals interact with each other in ways that are difficult to understand if measured by a human world view. We must use other tools – in this case, evolutionary theory – to make sense of their behavior.

The danger, for a scientist, of anthropomorphizing is that the moment we dress up another species with human qualities, we handicap our capacity to understand them on their own terms. So as a biologist, I have for years coached myself – and all my students – away from the habit of anthropomorphizing. (I might add that this is also the approach that the Magas and Mages of Eolyn’s world take; they do not impose human qualities on the plants and animals with which they interact; nor do I as the author.)

While I was in Andrews, whenever I found myself wanting to give voice and personality to the trees and other creatures, my first instinct was to back away. But this instinct ran contrary to the number one rule of any creative writer, which is not to censor yourself. In order to honor me-the-writer, I occasionally had to let go of me-the-scientist.

Anthropomorphizing may be treacherous ground for an ecologist, but it can be a powerful tool for the story teller. If used well in the attempt to relate something as complex as the experience of walking through a forest, the occasional anthropomorphic creature allows the reader a familiar thread that can help carry him or her through otherwise unknown territory. How many children, for example, came to love lions because of The Lion King? And would they have been so quick in their affection for this imposing predator, if the first thing they had learned about it was the customary massacre of all those sweet and playful cubs every time a new male takes over a pride?

While I appreciate the benefits of anthropomorphizing, something inside me cringes every time I see a movie – or read a story – where animals think, talk and act like humans. In my own work as a writer I try to avoid this, seeking a balance between making the creatures of Eolyn’s world accessible while respecting their fundamental non-human qualities.

An "Ent" of Andrews Forest
One of my favorite examples of a skillful anthropomorphism in fantasy is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents, the tree shepherds, which are essentially anthropomorphized trees. Tolkien allows Ents to wander through the forest, speak with hobbits, and even go to war. He hints at a loose social structure and the one-time existence of Ent-Wives.  Ent-Wives are very cool; they are credited with having taught the people of Middle Earth much about agriculture.  Nonetheless, a 'wife' is a kind of pointless concept for real trees, most of which have both male and female reproductive parts, and because the offspring take care of themselves, there’s no need for the pair bonding we tend to see in animals.

Despite all these human-like qualities, Ents never lose their essential tree-ness. I think that’s part of what gives Ents their immortality in our imagination, and why every time I enter a forest, I half expect to see one – whether I’m thinking like a scientist or not.

This is part of a series of reflections based on my experiences as a writer-in-residence at Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon.  If you'd like to read more about my week-long stay at Andrews, check out the links under "Spring 2011 Residency at Andrew Forest" on the right-hand bar.