How Forests Think today

Hiroshi Kondo:
Today I have mainly three topics to ask you. The first, about your book. The second, about your way of analyzing or thinking with ethnographic realities. The third, your project after How Forests Think*1. Would you tell us in a retrospective way, what this book with an evocative and provocative title aimed at?

Eduardo Kohn:
Thank you. The book is an ethnographic book, so it’s the product of spending time with people and listening to what they’re doing. What happens is that in the area where I worked, the people who I was working with, they aren’t just spending time amongst people. They’re spending time in a forest, around many kinds of beings. So when I was doing ethnography and listening to them, I wasn’t just listening to them. I was listening to other beings as well. I listened to them communicating with those other beings. I began to realize that in some ways, they were using language in strange ways in order to communicate with and like the beings of the forest. And I realized that also my kind of anthropology would have to change to understand what they were doing. That was the basis for the project. To really spend time with people as they interacted with lots of different kinds of beings in the forest.

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Kondo:
What was the most difficult point to summarize such a finding and write it down into a book?

Kohn:
Well, a lot of it went through many stages. It was the part of doing fieldwork where I spent four years in Ecuador doing research for the book. And it was part of my dissertation project. I spent a very long time there. And I guess there were times when I felt like, “Oh, nothing’s really happening. It’s boring.” Such a situation had happened to me at times. But then also things often came together and sometimes it turns out that some of the most exciting things for the book were things that happened over a few seconds.

That became something I spent a lot of time writing about. So it’s funny how time works in that way. Spend a lot of time not doing a lot but all of a sudden something happens really quickly and you have to be able to be there for that to happen. But the book is trying to explain to people how it is that forests think, it’s meant to shock people to say, how can you say that? and why within anthropology?

I was always very frustrated with anthropology’s inability to say much. Like it’s always anthropologists can say that these people think this and these people think that. It seemed like to me that it couldn’t really go much further than saying something about what somebody said. And I felt that there’s something else that one could do because, and it was the fact that people were interacting with other beings that allowed me to do this. Because they, in order for them to do what they did within the forest, they had to get into realities that were not just the kinds of realities that anthropologists are used to studying, which is the social realities, the cultural realities. They were interacting at other levels with other beings and they were forced to change their way of speaking, to change their ways of thinking because of that. I was very interested in that. And the book was to show that once you follow that, and you can see that, then if you look at it, it can change, it forces you to put into question what you think anthropology is. It can’t just be about culture anymore because it also makes you rethink what it means to be human as well. All of those things were part of what the book was about.

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Kondo:
It seems that you want to find a new way of describing realities as an anthropologist. Anthropologists are used to writing reality as a cultural reality, understood as realties only belonging to “these people,” realities of somebody else, but what you did is look for the way of expanding their realities to that of other beings, and of ourselves. Expanding “other’s realities” in two directions.

Kohn:
That’s exactly what I was doing. I was saying that you can actually talk about those realities and that’s why the question was “How forests think?”. I was saying that there’s a problem. There’s a real problem in the humanities, the social sciences and anthropology that you can’t ever do. You can’t even ever go beyond humans and how humans see the world.

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Kondo:
There have been diverse reactions to your book. If there are some reactions which caught your attention, could you tell us about it? Are there any particular positive reactions which you didn’t expect?

Kohn:
It’s complicated. I think the reaction, the scholarly reaction is very positive. I still think it’s interesting though, I think of that sometimes. And some of them are, I really feel like they understand what I’m trying to do, but many of them, I don’t know. I sometimes feel that some of the reactions are superficial or not really fully taking what I was trying to do. But I think what was less expected and very exciting for me were the reactions that are outside of my specific field. Especially how it’s been important in the worlds of music and the arts. That’s for me, what has been really exciting.

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Kondo:
How was that?

Kohn:
Well there was one musician, whose name is Liza Lim. She’s a wonderful Chinese-Australian, a contemporary classical composer. She wrote a symphony that’s called “How Forests Think*2.”

And that’s been really exciting. She wrote the piece for a 12 instrument ensemble, but it includes the xiao, a Chinese instrument and it’s played generally when she has performed the symphony. When it’s been performed, it’s played by one person. A Chinese musician has created a repertoire for this instrument and it’s very organic because you make a sound on the out-breath and the in-breath. It’s very interesting, the process of performing this and the way in which the musicians have to be attuned to each other. That’s been very exciting because even though I wasn’t involved at all, my book is an inspiration for this. Obviously it’s not very usual, you can’t just sort of take the argument of a technical book and put it into music. It’s really doing its own thing now. I didn’t know that it was happening. But after that, we’ve been in contact and in fact we taught together in a music course, or a summer course in Banff. It’s in the South of Canada and there’s an art center there. And since then we’ve been doing things together. And so that’s for me, is a very exciting kind of collaboration.

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Kondo:
Her reaction as a musician now developed into a new collaboration! How have other artists reacted to your work?

Kohn:
Oftentimes I think the place where really new things are happening is in the arts. They’re reaching for ideas and they’re very concerned with the climate crisis and climate change. They’ve found in this work a way to speak about climate change. Also in part because the question of art is often around the question of representation. One of the things in this book that I emphasize is that really to understand our relationship with the living world, we have to understand representation. We have to understand how we represent things and how others represent things.

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Kondo:
Here in Japan, a scholar majoring in aesthetics and art wrote a book titled How Figures Think*3. The title seems to be inspired by your book. His main idea is how figure or form itself starts to think through the creative process of artists or painters. We can find certain ideas shared between your work and his.

Kohn:
Wow. I would love to make contact.

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Kondo:
Also in Japan, as far as I understand, outside of anthropology there are other creative reactions.

Ethnography/anthropology as method

Kondo:
The second topic: As a translator of your book, I feel that one of the appealing points of your work is your unique way of leading ethnographic realities in your field experiences. In your review article*4
, which discussed contemporary anthropology, you express leading anthropologists as ethnographic thinkers. This is, I think, an evocative expression, which seems to say that ethnographic reality is a unique vantage point of anthropology. How do you think of ways of thinking of ethnographic realities or thinking with or through ethnographic realities?

Kohn:
I think one of the things that is so unique about anthropology as a field is that it’s very interested in ideas and in the history of ideas, but ultimately when it comes down to it, it’s about method. Ethnography is a method to find a way to get rid of any of your suppositions and to confront something that will change how you think about things. Ethnography is so central to that because it’s the place where you’re really forced to rethink everything. You have to abandon your assumptions about things. And that’s a really sort of enduring, it’s an enduring form. It’s an enduring, not form, ongoing…What I think one of the really special things about anthropology is method. It’s a way of listening such that you just kind of, you have to even question all of your tools, all of your assumptions.

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Kondo:
Yeah, I see. You wrote a form of thick description, of what happened in seconds or over a minute, then showed how what happens is rich ethnographically. Most anthropologists may agree today that thinking ethnographic reality gives us an opportunity to rethink our assumptions, but still your book seems to have more than that, way of telling the richness of realities…

Kohn:
Well, I think there’s several things that happened in that. First of all, I think one thing that was very helpful for me in that book was that some of the things I described were things that I had tape recordings of very careful descriptions of conversations, things that happened. That creates a kind of richness of detail. I think there was also a kind of layering, I took my time to be there. So I was able to sort of compare various layers of things. I had done all the surveying of plants and animals in layers of ethnobiology of the place, then I had the layers of ethnography and then I had knowledge of history, and all those things allow you to draw and to make connections and things. And of course, a lot of that happens is in the writing.

I think the writing itself is a way of making connections and things and I had a whole system of going back and finding ways to keep finding other things. That’s one of the things I did when I wrote the book. My book is completely rewritten and rethought from my dissertation. I don’t think there’s any sentence in the dissertation that is in the book. But still it’s based on the same project. It’s the same material. I think it’s completely different, but it’s also all the same. But one thing that was so exciting for me when I was doing my research was the moment where I had a lot of my field notes. They’re all typed up. They’re all on the computer. I was nearing the end of the research time and I took all these notes and very carefully read them all and took notes on top of those notes. Tried to take notes on what the big themes were on my notes. I ended up with a document about 125 pages long – all the notes about my notes. And it was the most exciting thing ever. It’s the kind of thinking I find it hard to write when I have to make a point. When I have to show how everything is connected. But when you’re just seeing patterns and you’re seeing things and you’re having insights, I think that that sense of trying to keep all that alive was part of what kept the writing exciting for me. I was very attentive to doing that. And that’s how I built the book.

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Kondo:
That’s interesting. It was the way of finding out the patterns.

Kohn:
It’s about seeing patterns. It’s about likenesses. I think that’s the thing that the book is about how forests think and the way that forests think is in pictures forming associations. That’s the sort of thinking that I tried to cultivate in my own creative thought. And it’s funny, how much writing can help you to do that and things start coming out and you see parallels. It’s very exciting. I think I’m not a good writer. I don’t write clearly. I spend a lot of time, really a lot of time. I might spend a couple of weeks on a few paragraphs to get them really clear. That’s part of how something like that becomes compelling because I try to develop my own emotional response to the text where I say, “What is that? I don’t really like that. This is boring.” Whatever. And I keep trying to as best I can to try to make the writing better and better.

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Kondo:
You said that finding out the pattern or similarity is very crucial for your thinking, and in your book you wrote, mentioning the work of Gregory Bateson, about finding similarities or patterns is the way life thinks…

Kohn:
Yeah.

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Kondo:
Before you found the discussions of Gregory Bateson, you already did what he said, already started to find patterns to your field notes.

Kohn:
Yeah, so I think…

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Kondo:
You spontaneously think as life thinks…

Kohn:
Lévi-Strauss had this wonderful statement that mathematics, music and anthropology are the only genuine vocations*5. Because they’re the vocations where you can discover the field completely by yourself or in yourself. You can derive it from yourself. And I think that that’s true in the sense that you discover, your engagement with the field is what gives you your tools to think. And then when you’re thinking well, it makes sense that it will fit with others who think well. It’s of course, Gregory Bateson, and I will arrive at the same ideas because they really aren’t our ideas. They’re being suggested by the world that we’re listening to.

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Kondo:
In your presentation given in Japan, you used the recording in the forest and made the audience listen to the sound of a tree falling. As a field worker, I never intended to take the recorder to the forest to catch the sounds of how trees fall. So how did you come up with the idea of taking the recorder all the way walking in the forest?

Kohn:
Well, I think one of my methodologies was to try to capture people speaking in natural contexts that are not in interviews, but as things were happening and in and around the natural world. So yeah, I took the tape recorder to the forest.

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Kondo:
During the fieldwork you always brought the tape recorder and started recording anywhere.

Kohn:
I took so much stuff when I was in the forest and sometimes I didn’t use the things. I’m now trying to remember how. At that point I really recorded an interesting conversation with that but it didn’t always work so well, and resulted in a lot of boring stuff too.

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Kondo:
You use the expression of thinking with images to describe how anthropologists think. These words seem to express particular aesthetics of anthropological thoughts. And I think the photos in your books are very beautiful and very suggestive. How do you come up with the idea of thinking with images? Are there any particular experiences or works or discussions that inspired you?

Kohn:
People in the area where I work, it’s not really known what language they spoke a few hundred years ago. Nobody knows what was spoken. They speak today and they have for the past few hundred years the language Kichwa, which is a language that is part of the Quechua language family, which comes from Peru. It spread with the Incas into the North and it’s closely related to those Andean languages. The stuff that’s spoken in The Amazon is closely related to what’s spoken in the Andes. But there are some interesting exceptions. One of them is that in the Amazonian dialects a whole class of imitative words have arisen, which don’t exist in the Andean version of the language. I became aware of this. I began to realize that this was sort of a little tiny portal into another way of thinking. These are words that do all sorts of things: they say something of the forest by creating an image of it. An image of a sound, an image of an action, image of how an action unfolds. It’s not quite the same as how words are normally used. All of those words are really imagistic. By examining those, I tried to understand why they’re used, why they’re used in the forest, why they’re used there while they weren’t used in the Andes. That became very interesting to me and that we can get way into thinking about images. And my argument is that essentially it permits people to think within a forest. Because it’s more like the thinking of a forest. That is, it’s more likely to think of all the beings of the forest, which is much more of a form of thinking that doesn’t involve symbols, doesn’t involve arbitrary signs, as that used in language. And in fact, what’s interesting is that the languages vary as to how much of it is imitated. It’s also interesting because that kind of imitative parts of language often don’t fit well in the language, because images are wholes, it’s a whole, so you can’t conjugate it. But what’s also interesting is that other languages have this sort of imagistic part. Japanese has a lot, I understand.

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The Project after How Forests Think, or ethics in our times

Kondo:
I’d like to move on to the third topic. And from now on, I’d like to ask you about your project after How Forests Think. Would you tell us about your current project entitled “Forests for Trees,” in which you collaborate with a network of the Ecuadorian people who try to translate or connect animistic conception to real environmental politics. What do they do and how do you work with them and what have you learnt? What do you think through these collaborations?

Kohn:
In many ways the book, How Forests Think was an ontological book. That is a book about how things are in the world. It was a book that directed a little bit more mainly towards academics, saying the world is not the way you think it is. If it isn’t, you have to change your philosophical and conceptual frameworks to be more true to the world. Specifically the claim about that world is that we all in some way or another live in a thinking forest. That’s a reality. So, that’s something that I wrote about. And then, the new project sort of began to take shape. After How Forests Think, I began to say, Hey, wait a second, a thinking forest isn’t just something real, it’s also something good. It has value. And if it has value, what are the things that we can do to have more of that kind of value, to ensure that it isn’t destroyed and to have more of that kind of thing in the world. Thus, my work became more of an ethical project. An ontological project that moved into an ethical project.

So, I went back to Ecuador. We spent a sabbatical year in Ecuador in 2015-2016. And the goal during that time was to work with other Amazonian communities. And these communities that shared this kind of ethical project. Not just, this is how we live and this is what we do, but this is actually something good that has to be defended. And we tell people about it. So I became an ally of some of these people who are defending these forests, defending them against oil companies, defending them against roadworks, and tried to tell people in the world. So it’s been a very exciting time in my own research because I began to work with those folks. The idea of the book, “Forests For The Trees,” the title comes from an English saying, which is, and I don’t know if there’s an equivalent in Japanese, but in English you can say you can’t see the forest for the trees.

That expression generally means you fail to take in the big picture, all you can see are the details. You don’t see the generalities. So the way that we usually think of that is that humans have a special capacity for making abstractions. When you’re really thinking well, you’re making the right obstructions. But I’m both working with that, but I’m also dealing simultaneously with the literal and metaphoric parts of the metaphor of the same. What I’m trying to say is that there is such a thing as a forest. It’s not just an abstraction that we make. A forest is not just trees. It’s something that is an emergent property, and not reducible to the elements that make it up. There’s such a thing as a forest and that forest can have something to say for the good of the trees and metaphorically speaking, we are trees.

That is, instead of speaking now about what a forest is, I’m asking how a forest can guide us as we’re facing a climate crisis, terrible ecological crisis. It’s clear that the human centered ethical values that we have are just not working. We have to find ways to listen to a larger world to guide us. But it’s not very clear how to do that. What does that actually mean to find guidance from a forest? Amazonians had some pretty good answers about how to do that. So, I’ve been working closely with people who are real thinkers, Amazonian thinkers, spiritual leaders who are constantly rethinking how to explore things, how to do inquiry, how to communicate things. It’s been a very exciting intellectual journey working with them, but always with the goal of trying to figure out very concrete ways to approach the climate crisis.

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Kondo:
Recently you wrote a short article on Aljazeera to tell about the oil spilling in Ecuador, with another author*6. Is the article also a product of collaboration with a member of the network?

Kohn:
Yes, she is. I’m expanding my work. Before, when I was doing work at Avila, it was just me and the community and the forest. I’m working with many different people. Part of my collaboration is working with two indigenous communities, the community of Sarayaku and the Sapara Nation. I work with both of them and some of my work is very collaborative. I help them write documents where they take their vision of animus and turn it into a political statement.

This is very interesting, fascinating work because it’s new. I help them do the kind of translation, which we do when we teach. This is not just letting me describe what’s going on in this place, but shows you how it relates to how we think about things. And so I’ve been helping them do those kinds of things. And we write together, the ways in which we think about writing changes because how they dream and visions become important. The emotional reactions to words become important. And so part of that work is with communities, part of that work is with artists. I’m creating a museum. The other piece of the puzzle is working with lawyers and people who are interested in the defense of the forest.

So my article came out of collaboration with Manuela Picq, an activist and academic. She and I were both friends of the court witnesses for a case brought before the courts after the oil spill. So we were writing about that.

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Kondo:
Is the text written with the indigenous communities published?

Kohn:
Yes, we have written. One of the most interesting one is the first one, and this is how I got into that kind of work. The community of Sarayaku was writing and has written. I mean, I didn’t write it. I was just helping them edit and focus it.

It already was very well-developed. Has developed a concept called the living forest, or Kwak Sacha in Kichwa. The Living Forest is a declaration that they presented at the COP 21 climate summit in Paris. The Sarayaku asked me to help them focus it through editing so that they could present it. And they presented it to presidents. They presented it to many people. And the document is not so surprising for an anthropologist because it’s a document that’s talking about animism. That kind of animism is an important part of the Amazonian way of thinking. But the thing that’s completely unique about this document is that they take the animism that they understand, they live and they say, “Well, what if we could create laws? How would it change your understanding of laws and property and sovereignty and rights?” They’re basically bringing these ideas into the realm of politics, showing how they can push back. Once that was done, the other community, the Sapara nation heard of what we were doing and they wanted to do some tribunal things to tell the world about their understanding of their relationship to the forest and what they have to say about that. That became a really interesting process because of how we wrote that by really finding different ways to listen to the forest. And it’s been very deep and now we’ve written two documents and are writing a third.

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Kondo:
In one article you expressed your decision to continue to cultivate forest thinking as a part of ethical practice in our times demand*7. What kind of ethical process can anthropology offer to our times? How do you see our current time and what is an urgent issue of our time and what can anthropology contribute to our time?

Kohn:
I think the big problem of our time is the climate crisis. What’s ironic and interesting is that the climate crisis is a human made climate crisis. It changes what we understand humans to be. If it’s human culture which is in fact having this kind of impact on the world, then we need to understand this and we have to rethink what it means to be human. Also this time that we live in is often thought of as The Anthropocene, the geologic age of humans. I think it’s very natural that anthropology should be involved in rethinking this. Not just as a critique. Not just to say, this is what we’ve done wrong, but as a sense of what could be possible. So, it’s a creative project.

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Kondo:
We have to create a new way of making allies with the forests…

Kohn:
Yes, and we have to know how to do it. I think what is interesting as an anthropological question is how to do this comes from listening. Because it’s from listening and learning how it’s done that we can do it. The thing that I think is interesting about this kind of ethical approach is that I’m not saying this is good and that’s bad, or we can find someplace where we’re going to learn the moral code. It’s saying a special way of listening to the world, which can tell you can provide answers, but that form of listening is already part of the dynamics of a living world. So it’s again that sort of parallelism, the imagestic mapping between how we think about things. Learning to think about things through the map, through the form, the process by which things happen in the world.

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Kondo:
Thank you. I’m looking forward to reading your collaboration with the Ecuadorian people. That should be very important not only for anthropologists, but also for everybody who takes the problem of climate change and environmental disaster seriously.

Kohn:
Well, I hope we can spend more time together.


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