Of trees and of men

From lundi matin #209 (23/09/2019): further reflections on Capital’s ecocide (in translation) …

Two weeks ago, lundi matin published a beautiful text by Alessi Dell’Umbria on the subject of extractivism in general and the Amazon fires in particular:La terre brûlée [our translation: The burnt earth]. This week, we received, like an echo from the past, a translation of a text written more than 30 years ago by Agustín García Calvo (1926-2012), Spanish philologist, linguist, poet, dramaturgist and essayist. “There, where a chain of events appears to us, he only sees a single and unique catastrophe, which constantly piles up ruins on ruins and hurls them at his feet.”

Of trees and of men

Agustín García Calvo

This deforestation and this crushing of peoples does not occur here, with drums beating, in the name of a war tactic, as with the Germans spoken of by Tacitus, but precisely in the name of civilisation and progress.

If I am invited to take part in this study of the Amazon [1], of its economy, its people and its problems, I think it is precisely in my capacity as a foreigner; foreign, first of all, to Geography, Phytography and Ethnography, not to say Science in general; and foreign, moreover, to the Amazon and the entire Americas, so as not to fall into the pretense of saying, in general, a stranger to the world.

It is possible that this foreignness and this distance allow me to take the case of the Amazonian zone as an example: that is to say, in the first place, as a case, par excellence, of contradiction with our ideas of Western Reality (in other words, normal: at these western horas, what might the West be?) And, secondly, as a motive for recognising generality, how we are equal or, more precisely, the same?

What interests me in the question is, on the one hand, the inversion or reversal of things, namely, how in the dominant ideas (and in the official Science which, as the daughter of the latter, confirms them in turn) realities are presented upside down, and, on the other hand, the glimmer of truth that can be glimpsed by inverting them in turn.

From what I hear and read about the state of things in the Amazon, what immediately appears as the most shocking or contradictory is in the relationship between ‘man’ and ‘tree’: among us (I want to say among the inhabitants of those countries where this Culture, invasive of the whole world, develops) traditionally reigned a form of relationship between these two things which was presumably conditioned by the environment, between trees and men as approximately equally powerful: the trees were par excellence the friendly way in which foreign life (Nature, as the moderns say) presented itself, shade against the summer heat, firewood and shelters against the cold, and finally domestication or cultivation of the earth with the the invention of cereal herbs, vines and fruit trees, from which comes the constant assimilation between begetting and planting (or sowing), between a man and a tree. And yet, where this relationship is best grasped, it is undoubtedly by its other side, that of war and devastation, where the destruction of forests and plantations goes hand in hand with annihilation or crushing of peoples: what Tacitus says about the technique of the Germans is testimony, “where they made a desert, they say they made peace,” and the lament over the loss of the forests of the Iberian Peninsula on the part of enlightened Republicans, who saw depicted directly in deforestation, the invasion of barbarism and misery.

Before turning to see what is happening to the peoples living in the Amazon basin, let us first try to better imagine, although it is based on the current vision of History, what was the path and the point of fall of these peoples: it also has to do, finally, with some of our peoples (since, most likely, we are all one) who, fleeing multi-civilized and overpopulated Asia, passed to the new continent by straits, about ten millennia ago (it is needless to add: in comparison, do not forget, that as regards speaking, it seems, we have been doing it for a few hundred millennia), and running through various stages (often changing homes, culture and vocabulary, and even a little grammar), until it ran aground in this jungle which, centuries later, will appear in the eyes of newcomers to be a green hell.

Here, the proportion between trees and men is so scandalously different, that this relation between ‘man’ and ‘tree’, in the end, loses its meaning: here, the jungle which invades everything in a vertiginous growth (a little like that of the human population in the current culmination of the dominant culture) comes to occupy the place of what was the cold and the heat for the primitives of the distant Europe, with their rough alternations of seasons. The jungle is here the natural environment, Nature itself; and, if by the hazards of history someone was lead to live there, there are only two possibilities: either one tries, vainly, to fight it and to tame it, or one finds a way to submit and to adapt to it, so that after a few generations, the jungle becomes simply natural, in the sense that it is there where one is born (and that one is made), and what is a green hell for strangers is the matrix of equally human creatures, their peoples and their cultures.

So two things for now: first, that there are no primitive or aboriginal peoples (that is, the idea of ‘primitive’ and ‘aboriginal’ is simply belong to the dominant Culture, conditioned not only by parochialism, but also by its limitation in the counting of times or epochs), but that there are only different ways of managing to establish the relationship between what is conceived of as “we” (“men”, if you will: in short, all those who, like me, speak and who preferably, speak like me) and what is conceived (consequently) as external to us, in other words, according to the modern notion of natural. And secondly, that the notions of “tree” and “man”, far from being universals (I would like to know very well on this point the languages of the Amazonian peoples, to study in them the absence of the idea of “tree”. And with regard to that of “man”, we know that in general what happens is that a people, that is to say those who speak a language distinct from the others that surround them, receives from foreign peoples their own denomination as foreign people, a name which they can then periodically adopt in their language as a kind of proper name of their “we”, and it is only, finally, to the extent that we admit or submit foreign peoples as similar, that the idea may end up resembling that of the Greco-Romans or of the dominant “man”), these notions are only ideas belonging to one form of culture, among an infinity, and conditioned by this latter, which happens to be the one that has become the dominant form: in other words, universal, but by force.

Ideas however are not just ideas (the falsification governing common belief, confirmed by the official science, is to believe that things are there, outside, and that we do nothing more than talk about them and give them names), but they are constituent (for half, so to speak) of reality: they are therefore weapons. We have in the handling of the idea of “nature” (contrary and complementary to that of “man”) the most terrible and eloquent example.

And the current process of the destruction of the Amazon basin and its peoples, that the studies gathered here knowingly reveal, and sometimes deplore, is the most typical and most flagrant demonstration, it seems to me: here, deforestation (and the ensuing extermination of the peoples who, in the jungle, had their matrix and culture) occurs by simply extending the term itself, to cover the fall of the green giants and the deterioration of their roots, in other words, by a simply increase of scale: do not we now have sufficient means to make, with the Amazonian jungle, what the miserable Spaniards did laboriously with their forests? But the most important thing is that this deforestation and this crushing of peoples does not occur here, with drums beating, in the name of a war tactic, as with the Germans spoken of by Tacitus, but precisely in the name of civilisation and progress.

To be more precise, this process of devastation of the jungle and all that remains of the savage, led by the civilisers, constitutes the opposite and complementary face of another process, which we are also witnessing nowadays: the Conservation of Nature, with its parks or nature reserves and ecological measures, which goes hand in hand with the Conservation of Peoples, in indian reserves or, at least, in the Museums. But, as opposites, destruction and conservation are two sides of the same coin: in both cases, what is revealed is that Nature is domesticated, that it is inside (well that we sometimes continue to claim that it is outside, that it is external and not human), in other words that the idea of “nature” has really imposed its domination.

All this reversal of realities (to be men is the only natural thing, since Nature has become man, the tactics of war are the tactics of civilization and peace) is in turn governed by another inversion which, being the most elusive and general, is perhaps the most original, and refers to the treatment of time, change, evolution or the metamorphosis of things.

In his documented study, A. Pérez reminds us of a feature common to all narratives that we can call the myth of the Indians of the Amazon: “The mountains were, for them, miraculous plants whose branches were lost in the sky; and everything, absolutely everything, was human, until a mockery, an imprudence dictated by ambition, transforms it into its present appearance: rivers, stars, or bitter cassava.”[2]

Here we find the right counterpoint of what, for the dominant Culture, reigns as idea and weapon in the historical (as opposed to “mythical”) ideation: but let us not forget that the “myth” is only the History or Science of the pre-historic and pre-scientific epochs, History and Science being then only the myth of the historical epochs): namely, that everything, in what is primitive and aboriginal, was Nature, and that it is only from it, by the successive stages of its evolution, from the inanimate matter to the plants, to the animals and to the monkeys, that Man, the climax of the whole process, has arisen.

Let us look closely at the meaning of the inversion that I propose: the indians of the Amazon (like so many other peoples, like our Greek people themselves when they said that the laurel, before being daphne or laurel, had summer Daphne, or that the nymph Syrinx was metamorphosed into the syrinx or flute of pan), starting from the fact that things have names, even when they are common, naturally consider them as proper names, and they deduce that one day they must have been the bearers of names par excellence, that is, people: since of me, who is the one who speaks, one can also speak, as of a thing, one then deduces that the beings individuated by denomination have also spoken as I did originally, and what has a name is attributed a voice. A fall into the error or following a misunderstanding has meant that these speakers remain silent, converted into animals or trees, or even if they were trees, into stone.

On the other hand, our Science (and vulgarized belief), since it begins with, for its falsifying operation, the pretension of objectivity (that is to say the principle that things do not speak, but that they are there, separated from language, even if one does not speak of them, forgetting thus that the one who says that, Science, is itself only a case of language), it must place this objectivity artificially constructed by arbitrary separation from its subjectivity first, and then explain subjectivity, to Man and to myself, by the evolution from the animal, the plant, and, in the last instance, from perfectly mute matter.

In two words, for the myth of the Amazonians, Man is something that is in the past, that is lost or that has degenerated: for the ideal of the dominant Culture, which is that of Progress, thanks to which it serves the forms of corresponding Powers, man is always in the future: just as the present man is the future to which, from the beginning of time, aspired rocks, plants, and animals, so let us always continue to aspire to a Future Humanity, to the finally perfect Man, who, occupying the whole Earth (or any stellar medium: so try to stop them!), make the Earth, the Universe, entirely human, such that finally, Nature is entirely man.

We can say, with some idiocy, that the other vision was pessimistic, and that this one is optimistic: with a notorious idiocy, since “optimism” as much as “pessimism” are notions that refer to the Future, that is to say, to the objectification of fears and hopes, and that what is denounced here is the inversion of the very notion of “time”. In a slightly less misleading way, we could say that with the imagination that the indians of Amazonia have of things (or with that which the Greek people had before becoming, in the eyes of all, the fathers of the Culture), people’s lives were nourished by the memory of happiness (and with it, of reason) lost and perpetually desirable, whereas with the ideal of the dominant Culture the life of men and women is condemned to the Future, that is to say, to be work and time.

Such is the reversal of things that serves, as a real idea, the destruction of the Amazon jungle and the crushing of its peoples, condemned to integrate with Man or to perish. And that one not ask about the why of all of this, or about the good for whom of it: it is the question that one does not ask, because it is already dead in the prior answer that the dominant Idea has prepared, so that it can not, if it manages to arise, but give rise to at most a shrug of the shoulders or repetitive formulations of what exactly was questioned: “For Development”, “Because the Time demands it to be so”.

Even an answer like “Money”, “The interests of Capital and the State” (it is necessary, however, that one formulates and reformulates this again and again, as the appearances of the State and of Capital change) can not but be, at most, only an intermediate step to continue to push the questioning further: because Money also, as idea and substitute for all things, derives its substance from Faith and from an Ideal.

I therefore encourage those who collaborate in this enterprise of description and denunciation of the case of the Amazon and its peoples not to be mistaken by taking the attitude of defence, which would eventually include them in the foreseen section of the Conservation of Nature (and of Ethnicities), whose function, as we have said before, is complementary to the devastation: it is not pity for the jungle and the Indians, but the indignation that overwhelms us, that is to say, against Power and the dominant Culture, which could be the most lucid thing from a logical point of view and, consequently, the most politically active.

Only the loss or weakening or wavering of the reigning Faith among us (which, under other names and signs, is the same – let us not be mistaken – as the Faith in the Cross that drove , for example, to the conquest and devastation of the Americas), only the loss of this Faith can save something of the jungle and peoples of the Amazon and deliver us from condemnation to that reigning form of God called Man.

  1. Agustín García Calvo (1926-2012) is a Spanish philologist, linguist, poet, playwright and essayist. For a presentation of his work, we refer the reader to the prologue by Luis Andrés Bredlow of the book La Société du Bien-être, Le pas de côté, Vierzon, 2014. The Tempête editions will publish in February 2020, his work, Histoire contre tradition. This text was originally published in the catalog of the exhibition “Culturas indígenas de la Amazonia”, Madrid, 1986, then taken up in the collection Que no, que no, Lucina, Zamora, 1998.
  2. Pérez, A., “La Amazonia venezolana”, in Tierra Yanomami, Weidmann, K. et al., pp. 22-40 and 41-134, Caracas, Oscar Todtmann, 1983.
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