‘Sung through the forest mirror’: the forest echo and non-singular language

The slides for my talk on forest echo, which I gave as part of the Significant Landscapes series in Oxford, are available here:

sung through the forest mirror

This talk discussed modern literary treatments of the forest as a voice-activated device, focussing on Eric Mottram’s A Book of Herne (setting by John Kenny here), Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Via (48 Dante variations)’ (setting with Ciarán Maher here), Anthony Barnett’s A Forest Utilization Family, Ciaran Carson’s For All We Know, Edmund Hardy’s ‘A Forest Set’, and Susan Howe’s Thorow (setting with David Grubbs here). Each of the texts solicits attention to vocal and auditory phenomena in the forest as a way of challenging mono-linguistic cultures, through what John Hollander in The Figure of Echo calls ‘the hermeneutics of overhearing’. This is through aesthetic and technical devices as well as specific addresses to the idea of forest echo.

forest echoes 2

There are canonical literary typologies of the acoustic phenomena of sonic rebound in the woods. The Hesiodic trope of echo in Virgil’s eclogues and the pastoral locus amoenus is of an oratorical utterance confirmed by the woodland’s reciprocity (Spenser: ‘the woods shall to me answer and my echo ring’). The forest’s echoic mourning in Hymn to Pan can be traced forward in treatments of the Aeolian cacophony of the woods linked to Pan (cf. David Toop, Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener). The mythology of the forest-dwelling nymph Echo herself is split between Pan (where Echo is dismembered by Pan’s followers leaving only her voice and musical properties), and Narcissus. The Ovidian Echo is a love-struck, speech-inhibited being who haunts woodland caves, and continues to have the last word through her terminal echo of Narcissus’s language. This Echo, whose vocation is a turning of the speaker’s words, can be heard in the Renaissance versi echoici, with its left alignment of speaker and right alignment of echo in the ‘Dic, Echo’ format (Speak, echo). These echo-texts deconstruct first speech into its hidden but operative parts, as in the extractions of light, joy, and leisure from the longer words in George Herbert’s ‘Heaven’. Often this meaningful truncation relies on the knowledge of two languages: Martin Mersenne’s seventeenth century thesis tested echoes that would answer in Spanish what was said in French, while Athanasius Kircher’s artificial schema for echo created a bilingual effect where the shouted word ‘clamore’, a literal outcry, returns at different points as the Italian words for ‘love’, ‘delays’, ‘hours’, and, finally, ‘king’. The forest echo that manifestly transfigures speech – rather than amplifying it with consenting noise – is, in Thoreau’s words in Walden, ‘to some extent an original sound’, and ‘partly the voice of the wood’. These kinds of revisionary echoes have been used also as a model for the constrained retorts of contemporary poetry (see Vanessa Place’s Echo, from Tusk Records, and Denise Riley’s ‘Affections of the Ear’).

The forest echo, as Hollander points out, ‘inhabits a realm of figurative language as dense as any woods’. This is because the word echo refers to very different manifestations of amplification, resonance, dwindling, distortion, delays in return, scattering, proliferation, or diffusion, and these have very different kinds of literary import. In a sample page from Eric Mottram’s A Book of Herne (slide two), echo can be referring to the perseverance of some original or anterior sound – ‘speech ceaseless’ and ‘ancient speech’ – or to the non-human non-vocal amplification of the natural environment – ‘archaic rocks woods echoes’ – or to fractured reiterations of certain parts of speech – here ‘fragment sounds’ – or as some kind of disembodied vocality, here either in ‘ancient pronunciation’ or in ‘intelligible voice’ – or finally echo addressed as an ‘interrogator’, in the versi echoici sense. Mottram is explicitly referring to these different acts of audition in the forest; textually we can’t discern which of these he is encountering, or if this is an echo-dialogue, or just the comportment of his own voice around the page in unrequited questions – ‘explain’, ‘where are you’, ‘do you hear me’, ‘have you / wonderful intelligible voice’.

Eric Mottram’s A Book of Herne (1981)

Eric Mottram’s A Book of Herne, from which this talk takes its title quotation,is explicitly engaged with sonic spectacularity in the forest (‘forester sounds / beat to his ears’; ‘ageless songs / springs into branches’), rather than any gesture towards possession or privacy of the voice. The excursive exercise of vocality is treated both literally (‘his homed voice / hangs in the branch’; ‘in the call to home / her voice encircles each bole’), and through the techniques. The text is interested in language’s shedding of selves and resurrections, and temporary assignments of identity in the rapid shifts between the huge amount of proper names and capitalised titles. Its interest in pantheistic forest gods and figures, like the stag-man Cernunnos, or the Green Man, is indicated by ubiquitous reference to the ritual shedding of the stag’s antlers, and other kinds of shedding and resurrection in myths of transfiguration – and, most particularly, in how this might be indicated in auditory exoticism and linguistic idiosyncrasies. The text acts as a kind of musical notation to the ‘ovidian sleights’ of language, as Mottram puts it: of language ‘in laurel transformation’, when ‘the tongue hears birds as words / in absurd ovidian games’. (Here, the idea of the hearing tongue suggests Echo as a speech that is authored significantly by listening – or, as Douglas Kahn has put it, ‘the ear has a voice in the matter’.)

The text is carried by sequences of polyglot phonetic transcriptions – where each occurrence varies by a single phoneme, for instance – and other re-samplings of phrases, referring to etymology and language morphology (‘wie alr     alder place / community    narrow col / water durr / colder calder / a narrow water community / cwic / evergreen alder’). This phonetic mimicry relies on endophony, or the reader’s inner articulation of the near homophones, following the commands and grammar of the graphic text. The text also plays with different ways of denoting speech and citation, from spatial alignment to quotation marks, italics, epigraphs, internal epigraphs, and the bibliography of citations. These are deliberately confusing; Barnett may begin paraphrasing a source quotation before the quotation marks commence, as with Gascoigne’s ‘The Green Knight’s Farewell’, or continue after the quotation marks close, as indicated by grammar and sense. The migration of quotation marks across the text is exacerbated by its exceeding of monolingual borders – movements between German, English, and French mid-sentence or mid-line, sudden fragments of phrases with caesura either side, or breaks into Anglo-Saxon riddling. These oral transmissions are marked by their irregularity. In the use of the George Gascoigne poem, the quotation marks would suggest direct fidelity; but Mottram extracts only fragments from the 1575 verse, and re-organises them into terse Old English hemistich with a strong caesura; he also reverses the text, so that the a-verse ends up as the b-verse, displacing the identities of Echo and Speaker if the layout were to be read in the ‘Dic, Echo’ format. In A Book of Herne we confront through these heroic cycles the performances of the vocalic uncanny – the resounding and re-sounding of text in the forest, in a voice which is always exophonic (‘distorted the I song in the greenwood’).

Anthony Barnett’s A Forest Utilization Family (1982)

Anthony Barnett’s text is an alphabetised collection of reworked individual lexical items from the Terminology of Forest Science, Technology Practise and Products (1971). In each case, he obediently tracks the original occurrence of the item by spacing the words and symbols exactly as they appear on the Terminology record, yet ruins the sense by omitting the majority of the text. Only fragments of the original entries survive, as if, like Echo, the text is doomed to repeat in short bursts. The spatial and typographical fidelity without semantic fidelity carries the words away from the original nomenclature systems they belonged to, and their organised structure of citations, attributions, cross-references, and determining contexts – releasing the metaphorical content of forest lexis and its morphs. ‘BILLET’ skips each of the definition of blocks, bolts and composite wood, in doing so releasing from the forest data a ‘heart’ metaphor, freed from its functional origin: ‘in current usage / show none / prepare   for / for / for / less / than a half     without heart’. ‘POLE’ extrapolates a sense of the elegiac from an original sentence about height growth and crown expansion, drawing new forms of prosodic rhetoric from the text, such as the parallel sentence structure in ‘still young    from / time it       begin to die / begin to slow’.

In what Judith Tsouvalis has called the postmodern age of forestry, the forest and its processes are increasingly held accountable to the utterances of programming and monitoring systems. The Terminology is an archive of the moment of hand-over into this new efficient linguistic evaluation of the woods, with modern digital forestry about to appear on the horizon. It is the result of a twenty year project to enforce a uniform vocabulary for forestry across languages, with each term distributed on 8×4 inch cards to documentation centres and bodies across the world. The policing of typographic minutiae and the emphasis on faithful and direct translation was to guarantee a controlled and efficient process and to increase the efficiency of the business of international forestry through a ‘pure’ common language (as it still appears in contemporary multi-lingual forestry dictionaries).

By creating new poetic strophes from the vocabulary data, Barnett disrupts the normal processes of combining and subordination which take place not just in forestry classification, but also the constituent classifications of any structured linguistic expression. One major effect is to draw attention to the forces of language morphology which have plagued stable definitions of the forest – and which the writers of the Terminology seek to avoid – and to the unstable intersections of the multiple foundational languages of forestry. Anthony Barnett’s A Forest Utilization Family uses a kind of echo device to renew diversifications in the vocabulary data, legitimizing elegiac and rhetoric expressions as languages of forestry. As in Ovid, the terseness of the echo works on the rhetorical complexity of (forest) language itself.

Ciaran Carson’s For All We Know (2008)

In ‘The Task of the Translator’, Walter Benjamin imagines the act of translation being ‘not in the centre of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering’. The echo is then able to give a response in its own language, reverberating from the trees and the dark hollows of the forest. Benjamin’s topography of translation, which finds itself not in the interior of the forest of language (Bergwald der Sprache), but on the outside facing the wooded ridge, is partly a play on an existing German adage. As Jakob Grimm observed, ‘it is an age-old saying that however one calls into the forest, just so does it echo back.’ Eric Mottram reworks this German adage in his A Book of Herne; in ‘Deer Hunt’ he closes with the lines ‘what is shouted into the forest / the forest echoes back / throws its terror cry / against crumbling ultimates of law’. Carol Jacobs in ‘The Monstrosity of Translation’ refers to the same German saying, but specifies Benjamin’s division from this model, for in ‘The Task of the Translator’ there is not a literally returned echo; the sound that returns from the dark woods is othered, ‘its own tongue become foreign’. The transmission and displacement which takes place in the woods means we are confronted with not ‘language as a whole’ or ‘one’s own’. There is a disarticulation of the originary voice: as Hanssen and Benjamin put it, however one calls in, ‘one’s ‘own’ voice could never remain such’ in the reverberations of the forest of language.

Irish poet Ciaran Carson uses the motif of the ‘forest of language’ throughout his sonnet sequence For All We Know, a dexterous study of memory, repetition and linguistic difference. ‘And so we lost ourselves in the dark forest of language’, he writes, and returns severally to this phrase. Throughout there is a focus on the political split between father and mother tongue, in reference to ‘double lives’ and the constant possibility of being ‘betrayed by our words’ to the ‘other side’ through ‘insinuating’ transmissions in the forest, where everything is ‘in a manner of speaking’. The forest is the over-arching terrain of For All We Know, whether explicitly (‘And so we lost ourselves in the dark forest’; ‘We travelled towards the dark forest’; ‘She told me a stranger was approaching through the forest’, ‘We are entering a forest’), or through fabular tales of woodcutters and chevaliers. The interest throughout the text in echo, modelled through the forest of language, places Carson very firmly in a Benjaminian frame, as with the soldier’s promise ‘I come again / Je reviens’, which literally returns again in French. The echo is a figure of continued life after death, of ‘a return of the departed within (acoustic) remembrance’ (Walter Benjamin and Romanticism), as in the ‘ghostly reflections’ of Carson’s fugue-text. It is also an oral displacement: an uncanny traversing of the voice by other, altered, voices. The afterlife’s discontinuity within the forest is where Benjamin markedly diverged from the German adage about the exact forest echo. He imagined not a reply, but a non-literal translation reverberating from the dark interior of the forest. Carson, too, in a text concerned with the impossibility of having a singular, politically safe voice and ‘guarding our tongues’ as an exclusionary communication, uses Benjamin’s topography of the forest which, here, overhears and retransmits through multiple ears and mouths (‘We are entering a forest, / you said, whose trees have ears and mouths that listen and respond / to every passerby. Everything gets reported back.’

We cannot guard our tongues against the other; here, run through the text’s recurrent themes of Stasi bugging (‘Everything gets reported back’), as well asthe language sensitivity and social surveillance of a troubled Belfast.

Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Via (48 Dante variations)’ (2000) and Edmund Hardy’s ‘A Forest Set’ (2012)

The recitative voice of the forest in Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Via’ can be heard online here. This work presents Dante’s forest (selva oscura) as the site of interlingual encounter; it is entirely made up of the first tercets taken from every English translation of the Inferno present in the British Library in 2000 (‘In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself within a dark wood, where the straight way was lost’). She reads these in an even, chanting voice, following each with the date and surname of translator. The variation structure, in which the text constantly riffs on the same refrain, draws attention to small interpretative differences in the terrain of Dante’s wood – the moral differences in wood, path, and speaker, through small shifts of diction. As the texts are arranged alphabetically by first letter, rather than chronologically, standard classroom editions and famous translations are mixed up with obscure versions, in a forest of bibliographic data.

The published version of the text was included in Chain 10: Translucination in 2003, in which the editors of the issue drew attention to ‘flawed ideas of linguistic meticulousness and semantic accuracy’ and ‘a traditional authoritarian, single literary voice’. In this experimental cento, the journey through the forest is uttered not from a singular origin, but as a long series of transmissions of acousmatic voice(s). Original authority recedes, with each selva oscura heard in relation to the anterior, and following, utterance. These constant distorted broadcasts draw from the functions of a random-access memory device, relevant to the technocritization of the forest and the serial components of its textual identity. The interminable act of translation in the middle of the forest is constantly being reset, with echoes ringing through it again as a model of the discontinuity of language and its remembrances.

Edmund Hardy’s ‘A Forest Set’ is another cento-like text which marks the importance of Echo to the technologies of the modern form of ‘citational poetry’ or ‘iterative poetry’, to which Jed Rasula is referring when in Shadow Mouth he writes that poetry is ‘a tautology that challenges’. The text has no new words, but is an experimental record constructed from oral accounts contained in Echoes of Epping Forest: Oral history of the 20th century Forest (2004). The civic monument of the forest captured in these autobiographical wartime accounts is disjunctively, fragmentarily re-cited. Unlike the former Echoes of Epping Forest, Hardy’s redoubled citations have no identifiers of non-authorial voice. By obliterating any linguistic boundary between the voices, and giving no guidance from a supra-historical context (as editor Rachael Holtom did in the original narrated volume), Hardy exacerbates issues around the property of memory and the copyrighting of public trauma. The deliberate solecisms and eliding of grammar in the mashing together of the source texts also problematise the earlier text’s positings of collective identity and unified narrative, which can be traced through other British social histories of the forest and their presentations of its historical voices.


There are more specific forest echoes which couldn’t be addressed in this talk: the widespread use of LIDAR, the echo-technology used to map and measure the inside of forests; the forest as the space of trans-species communication, ‘bolving’, and the echoing of animal and deer cries; the typologies of hunting horn resounding in the forest in music and literature, as treated by Murray Schafer. There are also other relevant projects; Kyle Spratt’s “treeverb”, a technique of digital sound-scattering for achieving the reverb-like impulse of the forest, and the resulting Forest Reverberation Modeller; other projects using forest amplification to determine space; ecological monitoring and the Tuning Into Trees project; poetic installations by Alec Finlay, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and Rhodri Davies which treat the woods as ‘a form of instrument’ and broadcast eery wind-songs from the canopy; other radio installation projects, including poet Jamie Wilkes’ walkie-talkie project for disembodied voices in the woods as part of Charter of the Forest (2011).

However, the sonification of the woods in the post-individualistic poetry of the mediatised age is striking in the above-mentioned texts. Their navigation of the forest as the space of dislocution uses its auditory worlds to refuse allegiance to the idea of an absolute language or vocality. To talk in the forest is to solicit a response – to invite infiltration, translation, or sonic feedback. This is vital within the wider context of my research into the question of language in the forest, in my PhD chapter, ‘The Logos Industry’. Debates around the discursiveness of competing definitions of forested land, and its modelling of the boundaries between state and civil society, are a crucial context to poetic texts which display the antinomy of the forest’s voices – and use the echo trope to set the forest up as the space where language fails to fulfil its mandate of univocally legislating space and defining identity.


~ by amycutler on December 10, 2012.

3 Responses to “‘Sung through the forest mirror’: the forest echo and non-singular language”

  1. Fascinating aspect of forests and a lot to ponder on here.

  2. […] David R J Stent – You Hear Intimate Proximity Michael Pisaro – A lot of silence Amy Cutler – ‘Sung through the forest mirror’: The forest echo and non-singular language Daniela Cascella – Listening, Reading, Writing Patrick Farmer – Asymmetry By Gone Done […]

  3. […] The ‘Writing Sound’ symposium – combing cultural geography, experimental composition, and sound theory, as part of the Sonic Art Research Unit’s Significant Landscape series in Oxford – is now all available online, with sound recordings of the other papers and materials from the day (including Michael Pisaro on Francis Ponge and Oswald Egger), and a link back to my paper here on forest echo. […]

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