Ecosystems at War

Extract from Robert Musil’s “Who Made You, Oh Forest Fair…?”
in Posthumous Papers of a Living Author

… But little by little your recover proceeds, and with it the evil spirit of the intellect returns. You start observing things. Directly opposite your balcony that green canopy of trees still hugs the side of a mountain, and you still hum that grateful song to it [‘Who made you, oh forest fair, rise so tall above the ground?…’], a habit which all of sudden you can’t seem to shake; but one day you realize that the forest does not consist only of a series of notes, but of trees, which before you couldn’t tell for the forest. And if you look very closely, you can even recognize how these friendly giants struggle over light and ground with the envy of horses fighting over fodder. They stand quietly side by side, here perhaps a grove of spruce, there a grove of beech trees: It looks naturally dark and light as in a painting; and moralistically edifying as the touching togetherness of families. But, in fact, it is the eve of a thousand-year long battle.

Are there not seasoned naturalists from whom we can learn that the stalwart oak, today a veritable epitome of solitude, once spread in hoards far and wide throughout Germany? That the spruce, which now supplants everything else, was a relatively recent interloper? That at some time in the past an era of the beech empire was established and, at another time, the imperialism of the alder dominated? There was a migration of the trees, just as there was a migration of the nations, and wherever you see a homogeneous native forest, it is in fact an army that established a stronghold on the embattled promontory; and where a variety of trees seem to conjure up an image of happy coexistence, they are really scattered combatants, the surviving remnants of enemy hoards crowded together, too tired and exhausted to continue battle!

Thanks to Helen Box for alerting me to this essay, cited in full in the Introduction to Christoph Asendort’s Batteries of Life: On the History of Things and their Perception in Modernity [trans. Reneau, D.; Berkeley: Uni of California Press, 1993].

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