A Conversation: With Steven Feld on The Tao of Wood

I’ve talked wood, drums, and sounds with sonic anthropologist Steven Feld since 1983. Some of our conversations are reported in my books Drumming at the Edge of Magic, Planet Drum, and Songcatchers, and our CD Voices of the Rainforest, an acoustic portrait of a day in the life of the Bosavi people and their Papua New Guinea rainforest world. I recently asked Steven his thoughts on “The Tao of Wood.

MH: Steven, how does this sound to your New Guinea rainforest ears?
SF: Very resonant. Insects may be the architects of what looks like a slow and continual demise. But the life-giving force is there in substance, and you and Zakir tap into it, literally and metaphorically, to resound the wood’s presence. That work of making creative life force out of what other people might think of as “dead wood” really speaks to creative soundings in the rainforest. There I came to see and hear wood everywhere, in many states of life-giving relations with Bosavi people. I mean “life-giving” in the sense of wood being the material of houses, the material of fires for cooking and warmth, the material of drums and instruments. And of course life-giving in the sense of always sounding, whether swaying in the winds, dropping leaves, dripping from the rains, bending and breaking and resonating the movements of rain and mud on the forest floor. That’s why this sounds familiar and resonant. In Bosavi I came to hear the forest as something plural, always in transformation, always present, a world of wood resounding. A recent book by anthropologist Eduardo Kohn has a provocative title that gets into this territory, How Forests Think. Have you seen that one?

MH: Great title, and it connects nicely to that great William Blake quote I chose for the post. Where is he coming from?
SF: I’m reading it slowly now. It’s as dense as the forest itself! But what I like is that in a South American indigenous rainforest community he takes up themes very much like ones I took up in Bosavi. This is about living and inter-animating relationships between people and the material conditions of their home environments. It is about what people ponder of the world around them, the way they tune in to that world as a sensibility about co-living, about relating and knowing across species. It’s very similar to Bosavi where I realized that people do not think of trees as a category of being that exists independently of relating. Trees live in relation to multiple forms of surrounding life, including human life, human consciousness. In terms of living together, a tree is not just an “object” when viewed or heard or touched by humans. One of the reasons that Bosavi people name and know relate to so many trees is that they understand the many ways that trees feed, house, clothe, protect, and sustain birds. And birds are human ancestors, what humans become after death. So relating to trees, what trees have seen, what they know, what they’ve witnessed, what they give, is essential to human consciousness. Knowing trees is not just about knowing a world “out there;” it is about relating as a participant to the immediate world of living and ancestors. I think the “Tao of Wood” sounds out a similar principle. Got wood? Relate to it! Sound it! Check out its consciousness!

MH: Do you think the Kaluli are actually making music to and with the rainforest trees when they cut and cultivate for gardens?
SF: Definitely! Imagine forestry as composition!  Or more precisely: imagine forestry as a fine-tuned play of improvisation and composition.
 Playing the wood, sounding it, strikes me as kin to other activities of planting, cultivating. There is an attunement, an attention there, a way of searching both in deep play, and in deep acknowledgement. Listen back to Voices of the Rainforest. The longest track on the whole CD is the one called “Cutting Trees.” Remember what a great time we had laying that down? With those incredible sounds of one hundred foot high trees crashing down in song? There is a deep story about musical improvisation and composition to be heard there in all of that overlapping of trees and axes and yodels and whoops and song and birds as people make a garden.
MH: Anything else?
SF: I find it very meaningful that you chose the concept of Tao for the title. Tao signifies a principle in the manner of a road, a path, a way, a route. The Bosavi word “tok” means the same, and this word describes the essence of song or poetry in the rainforest. A song moves through trees like a bird, its poetry tracing flight ways through forest watercourses. Like wood resounding, the rainforest is a path, a route composed of song and poetry. Very resonant; love it.

You can read more about Steven Feld’s anthropology of sound research at www.stevenfeld.net.