How forests think

Barbara J King writes: Living in the Upper Amazonian forest around the village of Ávila, Ecuador, are jaguars, monkeys, white-lipped peccaries, giant anteaters, tapirs, and a variety of birds including cuckoos and antbirds. The Runa people living in Ávila hunt some of these animals for food. Yet they also understand them as beings with souls who make up a forest that teems with thoughts and meaning.

Eduardo Kohn, an anthropologist at McGill University in Canada, who conducted fieldwork among the Runa there from 1996–2000, describes, in How Forests Think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human, the surrounding forest as inhabited by “unparalleled kinds and quantities of living selves”. “Tropical forests”, Kohn writes, “amplify and thus can make more apparent to us, the ways life thinks.”

Kohn’s central concern in this often brilliant book is not to take up the role of ethnographer, describing from afar to the world’s curious scrutiny an exotic system of thought among the Runa. Instead, his aim is to invite all of us to see, as he himself learns how to see, what he has come to understand as the forest’s real nature. Kohn coaxes us to strip away the anthropocentric layers of our own, symbol-based systems of understanding, in order to consider that forest creatures without language do think, represent the world, and make meaning on their own. [Continue reading…]

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