This Old Tree with Doug Still
Guarding the Cedars: Gilgamesh, and John Perlin’s “A Forest Journey” (Transcript)
Season 1, Episode 10
Published February 13, 2023
Gilgamesh reading: [00:05]
Gilgamesh seated himself on his throne. In the street of Uruk the City, the crowd was sitting before him. Thus, Gilgamesh spoke to the elders of Uruk the City. "Hear me, O Elders of Uruk the City. I would tread the path to ferocious Humbaba. I would see the God of whom men talk, whose name the lands do constantly repeat. I will conquer him in the forest of cedar. Let the land learn Uruk's offshoot is mighty. Let me start out, I will cut down the cedar. I will establish forever a name eternal!"
Doug Still: [00:49]
That is a passage from The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian myth from the third and second millennium BC. The story takes place in ancient Mesopotamia, and it's the earliest piece of literature to have been recovered anywhere. I know what you're thinking. What does this have to do with our show? It turns out that trees play a central role in this tale. Will Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, succeed in killing Humbaba, God's fearsome guardian of the sacred forest? Will he cut down all the cedars? If he does, will he be a hero? Or will there be tragic consequences to pay? What will be left, and what will it mean for his kingdom?
These themes can be found in John Perlin's newly republished book, A Forest Journey: The Role of Trees in the Fate of Civilization. Trees and the abundance of wood have been an overlooked driver of the rise and the fall of the world's great societies. Perlin highlights the Gilgamesh story. In fact, his title A Forest Journey is from the epic. But his fascinating, wide-ranging book investigates the patterns of wood consumption and depletion across the globe and throughout history. Forest conservation has great implications for the fight against the climate crisis, and therefore our survival. So, why are we so bad at it?
John Perlin is here with me today to talk about his book about trees and civilization and the story of Gilgamesh and the Cedar Forest. I'm Doug Still and welcome to This Old Tree.
[This Old Tree theme]
Doug Still: [02:41]
John Perlin is an intellectual, author, and historian who currently serves as visiting scholar within the Department of Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he lives. He's written three books on the history of solar energy, and with David Kennard, he co-wrote the documentary, The Power of the Sun. He also wrote A Forest Journey: The Role of Trees in the Fate of Civilization. It was first printed in 1989 when it won all sorts of accolades. It was chosen as Book of the Year by the Chicago Geographical Society and a classic in science and world history by the Harvard University Press. The very impressive new edition is available now through Patagonia Press, soon to be available everywhere. But at the start of our interview and before I could even welcome John to the show, he was often running. Keeping up with the workings of John's mind is like holding back the great deluge.
John Perlin: [03:37]
What happened was after 1989, so much has happened in forestry and so many new discoveries that Patagonia let me run, as I was telling you earlier, with all this new information that I was gathering. It began 385 million years ago with the first true tree. This is what I call This Old Tree, right?
Doug Still: [04:03]
John Perlin: [04:05]
Archaeopteris, which because there was one land mass, there was only one land mass called Gondwanaland, it easily spread throughout the entire terrestrial world. It helped initiate the great drawdown of CO2 and the great increase in oxygen, which made our living earth for large terrestrial creatures. So, wherever you find Archaeopteris, you usually find fossils of the first four-legged creatures.
Doug Still: [04:41]
John and I met on a previous call when we must have talked for over an hour. That's when he first told me about Archaeopteris, the first real tree and now the topic of the first chapter in the revised edition of his book. He excitedly showed me fossils of Archaeopteris, from Pennsylvania that he had in his collection. They were really cool.
Well, I appreciated seeing the fossils of Archaeopteris that you sent me via email.
John Perlin: [05:06]
It was amazing. I spent like two weeks every day digging. The reason why that site is so good is because the Department of Transportation of Pennsylvania had widened the road. So, they made a cut, it turned out, into this ancient lake and all this Archaeopteris material and ancillary animals like fish deposited slowly in the bottom of the lake. What I really discovered is you have these two events juxtaposed to each other that really tells us about the value of trees, is the one is the Archaeopteris story.
Doug Still: [05:50]
John Perlin: [05:51]
And then the End-Permian extinction, where the two factors of the extinction when we almost lost life both on land and sea, was increased CO2 and increased deforestation are the two factors that caused this catastrophic event.
Doug Still: [06:12]
Before getting to the meat of his book, I had a random question. I know from our previous conversations and what you've been telling me now, that you've traveled the world to bolster your research. When I was searching online, I saw a quick mention about a surfboard in one of your bios.
John Perlin: [06:31]
All right. I brought the first surfboard to Israel.
Doug Still: [06:35]
[laughs] In addition to reading ancient texts and drawing connections between world cultures through the history of science, are you also a surfer?
John Perlin: [06:44]
Yeah. You have to understand, I grew up in Southern California, and when I was 11, I did my first surfing in Baja. One of the perks of being at the University of California, Santa Barbara as an undergraduate is they have some of the best waves in the world.
Doug Still: [07:04]
Yeah, you were living the life.
John Perlin: [07:06]
But also learning how to write science at the same time.
Doug Still: [07:12]
Well, I greatly enjoyed reading the book. Its content has a huge reach. Combined with the fact that parts of your book are about ancient history and also about forestry, well, I just gobbled it up.
John Perlin: [07:25]
Well, forestry played such a role. The only reason Greece initially was interested in Rome, for example, was because of its vast woodlands, which actually caused an Italian friend of mine to just laugh for about, like, an hour, because there aren't any trees where the big forests in Rome that fed the war machines of Greece, for example.
Doug Still: [07:52]
The book is basically a comprehensive history of how forests have shaped human life and civilization, specifically the exploitation of forests.
John Perlin: [08:00]
Well, let me interrupt you. Also, this was for me the aha moment, was few people realize the role forests play in past civilizations as far as their development, because you would have no Middle Ages if there wasn't wood fuel. Even in the neanderthal, when they developed wood handles for their tools, was a great revolution. Then, think of the ships that most of the cargo to this day is transported in. Until, what was it, 1861, 1862 with Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack, ships were all wood.
Doug Still: [08:49]
Well, your methods of examination are a combination of scientific studies, art, oral histories, and sometimes millennial old literature. That's what's going to bring us to the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is- [crosstalk]
John Perlin: [09:04]
Doug Still: [09:04]
-one of my high-time interests here but we're going to get back to that. I'd like to take a look at what I thought were the three key ideas in your book. And you can correct me if I'm wrong. [laughs]
John Perlin: [00:09:17]
Doug Still: [09:18]
First off, as you were just saying, trees have been a principal fuel and building material for just about every society over the millennia. And we kind of knew this but your point is that it's an under-appreciated fact.
John Perlin: [09:31]
Correct. Well, sometimes what's most recognizable, people don't see. In fact, I gave several lectures at Oxford on A Forest Journey, and I went to the Ashmolean Museum, which is the gem of Oxford, and they showed all the artifacts that could have never happened without wood, but they never show the wood or its derivative, charcoal.
Doug Still: [10:04]
John Perlin: [10:05]
But what I'd like to emphasize is that it was just looking at me, staring at me, and I didn't understand why nobody had gone into it.
Doug Still: [10:15]
It's one of the basics of society.
John Perlin: [10:18]
Yeah. Just like back in Greece, say, you could not transport anything without amphorae, and you couldn't have amphorae without heat, and you couldn't have heat without wood fire.
Doug Still: [10:37]
Homes, public buildings, even if the buildings were marble or stone or brick, the structures, scaffolding, they needed wood.
John Perlin: [10:45]
Well, not only that but just think on that point right there. You couldn't have like-- I was seeing that the other day, an aqueduct is made primarily of stone, but you had to-- [crosstalk]
Doug Still: [10:56]
To form it.
John Perlin: [10:57]
You had to paste the-- I guess you had to put the stones together and you required lime, and that lime required to be removed from limestone, which required a tremendous amount of wood fuel.
Doug Still: [11:14]
Yeah. And the list goes on and on. To create bronze or create weapons, you needed heat. Glass, pottery, ships. I think you made this point, even currency to make coins.
John Perlin: [11:28]
Yeah. For example, the mines of Laurion, which financed the building of the ships that defeated the Persians at [unintelligible 00:11:37]. If they didn't have wood fuel to turn the silver ore into silver, we would all be speaking Persian.
Doug Still: [11:52] After the break, more from John Perlin and how forests shaped human civilization. You're listening to This Old Tree.
Gilgamesh reading: [12:09]
Find the table box of cedar, release its clasp of bronze, lift the lid of its secret, pick up the tablet of lapis lazuli, and read out the travails of Gilgamesh, all that he went through. Gilgamesh, so tall, magnificent, and terrible, who opened passes in the mountains, dug wells on the slopes of the uplands, and crossed the ocean, the wide sea, to the sunrise.
Doug Still: [12:43]
Which brings us to idea number two.
John Perlin: [12:45]
Okay, glad to do that.
Doug Still: [12:48]
[laughs] As civilizations grow, forests recede.
John Perlin: [12:52]
Well, yeah, that's straight out of the Bible. I mean, it's in Isaiah where Isaiah talks about how Sargon the Great has been killed. Isaiah takes the-- Oh, you might say, the personification of a tree, and says how happy he is and his fellow trees are, that you don't have civilization coming in. I'm just showing you things I never knew before. Did you know that because of the great forest in the Middle East at that time, there was a plethora of, say, elephants? So, you have all these-- what do they call, stele bragging about how many elephants I killed. But what really sealed the deal was they found bones of ancient elephants in Northern Syria.
Doug Still: [13:48]
And their habitat was eliminated.
John Perlin: [13:51]
Yes, so that's another part, just to add to it, is when you eliminate the forest, you eliminate the habitat.
Doug Still: [13:58]
You quoted Ovid when you were talking about forest receding and civilization. Do you remember that quote?
John Perlin: [14:04]
Oh, yeah. He said that basically, oh, "The pine sails away when we reach the Iron Age."
Doug Still: [14:15]
[laughs] I have it here.
"Even the pine tree stood on its own very hills. But when civilization took over, the mountain oak, the pine were felled."
John Perlin: [14:25]
Yeah. Also, Lucretius says the same thing where he talks about how he watches almost all the trees running up the hills as they remove them. This is an issue too for vineyards. Cicero was really angry because he said, "I would rather see no drink in Rome than to lose all our great oaks for the grapevines."
Doug Still: [14:55]
Which brings me to point number three.
John Perlin: [14:57]
Doug Still: [14:58]
As forests recede, civilizations recede, or at least they enter a stage of a crisis--
John Perlin: [15:06]
Or they enter-- or I would like to add too to be accurate, we find-- sometimes, like England and like the United States, they made the leap from wood to fossil fuels. But we know that does not bode well either.
Doug Still: [15:24]
Yeah. If there's a crisis, then whatever society we're talking about has some options, I guess. Either territorial expansion, the Romans were a really good example of that and the movement into Gaul and Germania.
John Perlin: [15:41]
Well, just to add, remember, the Greeks actually did the first where they moved into Sicily for the wood. Magna Graecia.
Doug Still: [15:50]
So, that would be depending on how you term it, expansion or movement of peoples or at least a portion of them.
John Perlin: [15:57]
Just to interrupt you. Also, the whole movement from England to North America.
Doug Still: [16:04]
Yeah, absolutely. Or it could be collapse. Some societies just didn't make it and they were absorbed by a neighbor.
John Perlin: [16:12]
Totally correct. That's what happened with Greece, as Greece became dependent on wood from Sicily and Rome.
Doug Still: [16:22]
Well, I know it's all very complicated, and there are many different forces - climate change, food, the need for silver or gold or slaves or whatever. But the wood, the forest is an underappreciated reason for explanation.
John Perlin: [16:40]
You serve like my shill because you take the slave trade. I went to a conference on iron and slavery at UCLA. And I learned from there that Africa, unlike what we learned in the history of books, was not dark Africa. They actually developed steel 1000 years before the Europeans. They, to produce iron, really deforest. What happened was about the 16th century or 17th century, iron meant power. Weapons. If you had iron weapons, you could like really kick ass.
Doug Still: [17:28]
Right. You can go get somebody else's forest.
John Perlin: [17:30]
Exactly. They started running out of fuel, meaning trees, in parts of Africa. So, they started trading people for iron from Sweden.
Doug Still: [17:44]
Yeah. Very sad. Interesting you bring up Africa as we're talking about the pattern of civilization growth, deforestation, scarcity, and then displacement or movement. There was a story on NPR yesterday. I don't know if you heard about it, but it was about the forest of Liberia. The title of the story was How forest guards in Liberia protect the sacred rainforests. It mainly was focusing on how important the forests are and sacred to many people. But Global Forest Watch determined that there's a loss of 100,000 hectares of natural forest in West Africa due to deforestation. And so, they've set up guards, and these people are heroes.
John Perlin: [18:38]
Actually, what happened is, this how large powers, for example, today export deforestation. The Chinese, for example-- and this is Liberia too. You're really a good host because you bring up issues that I really want to talk about, is the Chinese would have boats out in the ocean by Liberia. You've heard of the dictator, Taylor? He was the real monster in Liberia. This is about 20 years ago, and the Chinese would trade arms right to the dictator for trees. This is how the Chinese have been able to reforest their country by exporting deforestation in other countries.
Doug Still: [19:30]
Well, that's what the British did and that's what we did in New England.
John Perlin: [19:35]
That's why what makes A Forest Journey universal is because the story continues.
Gilgamesh reading: [19:44]
Gilgamesh, the perfect in strength, suckling of the august Wild Cow, the Goddess Ninsun! Who scoured the world ever searching for life, and reached through sheer force Uta-napishti the Distant; who restored the cult-centers destroyed by the deluge, and set in place for the people the rites of the cosmos. Who is there can rival his kingly standing, and say like Gilgamesh, "It is I am the king?"
John Perlin: [20:23]
Your mention of the value of force, forest are even more valuable today than they were in times past, because-- and this is what really makes the book new, is there's a whole section on current discoveries from, say, the 1990s, when the book was published, to current, and it turns out that forests-- okay, people believed for the longest time that ocean evaporation was the way we got rain. But now, new research shows that about 40% of the precipitation in the world comes from the forest through evapotranspiration.
Doug Still: [21:03]
John Perlin: [21:04]
And also that forests, they serve as relays of rain to like rivers to very far off places. For example, the rainforests in the Congo contribute about 40% of the water to the Nile.
Doug Still: [21:22]
John Perlin: [21:24]
And also, we learned, and this is the part that really fascinates me, is since 1994, we're really learning the value of roots and the role they play in carbon sequestration, for example. We knew that they were valuable in creating soil.
Doug Still: [21:45]
Describe, then, the processes when the forest is cleared.
John Perlin: [21:49]
Until the 1990s, people had anthropomorphized old growth in that they thought that, well, when a tree gets older, right, it's like someone in a skilled nursing home. While that has proven to be totally false and they are the best sequesters of carbon, and that destroyed the rationale for timber harvests. Like treating them like crops.
Doug Still: [22:19].
Right. Like the younger trees grow faster, so they're sequestering more carbon. That's not true.
Just to be clear, sustainable forestry practices have come a long way in the last half-century. We know how to do it, and it's practiced in some parts of the world. And yet, from the year 2000 to 2020, there was a 2.4% net loss in tree cover globally. According to Global Forest Watch, the total area of humid primary forest decreased by 6.7% in about the same period. Also, through soil erosion, the carbon that's just in the soil.
John Perlin: [22:59]
Oh, yeah. Well, I'm glad you brought up that point because you can have as much-- I think it's in the boreal forest, like 60% or 70% of the carbon is in the soil.
Doug Still: [23:09]
You're not just removing the carbon that's embodied in the trees. It's the whole system.
John Perlin: [23:16]
Well, actually, that's the tragedy of the United States, for example, is in the 19th century removing all the trees-- from the Atlantic to almost the Mississippi, it was one great forest. Once we removed that great forest, then we went into deep plowing. So, we not only destroyed the sequesters, but we added carbon from the soil.
Doug Still: [23:48]
I've come into close contact with it on Cape Cod. I lead forest walks in the summer in the outer Cape. And they're interesting forests. They're not as diverse as they once were. It was completely cleared in the 17th and 8th to the mid-19th century. They needed fuel for their homes and to clear agriculture. And then, Thoreau describes it as just this waste land. He is in Truro, and he can see all the way to the Provincetown, and not a tree in sight.
John Perlin: [24:23]
Doug Still: [24:24]
It's hard to imagine when we're walking through the forest that it was like that. But if you can see the signs because there's mainly pitch pines and black oak and white oak but it's not the diversity that they used to have. And so, there it is. It's hard for us to imagine now the forest that we have in New England that was completely cleared.
Gilgamesh reading: [24:50]
Gilgamesh was his name from the day he was born. Two-thirds of him God, but one-third human. Four cubits was the width of his chest. A triple cubit was his foot. Half a rod his leg. Six cubits was his stride. Three cubits long the curls at his cheeks.
Doug Still: [00:25:15]
Well, let's get to Gilgamesh.
John Perlin: [25:16]
Okay, let's get to Gilgamesh.
Doug Still: [25:17]
John Perlin: [25:18]
I love Gilgamesh. That's how I got the title of the book.
Doug Still: [25:22]
Yeah, I was going to say it's probably your key case study if you want to call it that.
John Perlin: [25:27]
Doug Still: [25:29]
Because it's the earliest known piece of literature.
John Perlin: [25:33]
Doug Still: [25:35]
You take the title of the book from-- was it tablet five?
John Perlin: [25:39]
Right. I owe the author of Gilgamesh, what, a use fee?
Doug Still: [25:44]
[laughs] Whose translation do you use?
John Perlin: [25:48]
The greatest scholar of cuneiform, Andrew George.
Doug Still: [25:56]
The Epic of Gilgamesh was written on clay tablets that were only discovered in the mid-19th century. The script is called cuneiform, a writing system of markings in the clay used for a number of languages in the ancient world. Tablets with different iterations of Gilgamesh were found in the Sumerian language but more completely in Akkadian, written by Babylonian scribes around 1800 BC. After their discovery, scholars deciphered the script, but the tablets were in hundreds of fragments found in different locations. Through the decades, they were pieced together, but there are still missing parts. Old as it may be, the tale is relatively new to modern appreciation.
Who were the Sumerians and how did Uruk fit into their…?
John Perlin: [26:41]
Well, Uruk was the first Sumerian stronghold. It's hard to imagine, but at that time, and that was about 5000, 6000 years ago, Uruk was the first town among a wilderness. It's hard to think of Iran and Iraq being wilderness and that's because we removed all the trees. But at that time, there were gazelles, there were elephants. It was just lush, with monkeys. It was a paradise.
Doug Still: [27:19]
So, the forest wasn't just in the mountains originally. It was also in the plains?
John Perlin: [27:24]
Right. But the big trees were in the mountains. Actually, what happened, and this is the interesting thing about Gilgamesh, the story, is originally, where Gilgamesh went was in Eastern Iran. But other episodes that other monarchs used to compare themselves to Gilgamesh were in South-Central Turkey in the mountains. And then, after a couple of 1000 or 2000 years, it became the cedars of Lebanon.
Doug Still: [28:01]
John Perlin: [28:01]
So, it's really interesting. You can actually follow the deforestation by the various iterations of the epic.
Doug Still: [28:09]
So, the cedar forest, which consisted of cedars of Lebanon, extended into Iraq, over to Iran-- [crosstalk]
John Perlin: [28:17]
Right, in the mountains.
Doug Still: [28:19]
In the mountains. So, it's more of a mountain species?
John Perlin: [28:22]
Right. It's like the same story once again, like the Americans in North America, the forests were a magnet to power.
Doug Still: [28:33]
Describe a cedar of Lebanon. Why was it valuable to them?
John Perlin: [28:37]
Because it's a very, very big tree. It has lots of lumber. Like the big trees of California, they were the big trees. They were a builder's dream. Also, they had this odor that was considered aroma for the Gods.
Doug Still: [29:07]
Now, in the story of Gilgamesh and I imagine in Sumerian society, these cedar forests were sacred.
John Perlin: [29:14]
Well, that's the whole story and that creates the story, is they were off limits to humans and they were sacred. The Gods made heaven on earth in the forest. It was like paradise. And that's where we get Genesis. In fact, in Genesis, Adam's first requirement from God is to-- I can even say it in Hebrew, but I'll say it in English, is to guard the trees.
Doug Still: [29:46]
Please say it in Hebrew.
John Perlin: [29:48]
Okay. [speaks in Hebrew]. Which means-- it almost means, like, defend, because in Israel, [Hebrew word] is used militarily. And it brought the waters-- they realized that it was the mother of the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates which made the areas very rich and-- what do we say? The fertile crescent. Right?
Doug Still: [30:17]
John Perlin: [30:18]
Okay. Without the trees, they realize at a very early time that-- I just read a paper on this actually, the trees were the mother of the waters that made civilization happen there.
Doug Still: [30:37]
You have a good quote, I wanted to read it.
John Perlin: [30:39]
Go ahead. Go for it.
Doug Still: [30:41]
"The Gods, according to the epic, had chosen this primeval forest as their home. Heaven was on Earth, just as it was in the Garden of Eden. There was always shade to temper the scorching sun of summer. The scent of cedar and juniper sweetened the surrounding air. Winds made celestial music as they played upon branches and leaves. Rivulets turned into brooks, brooks turned into streams, and then roared as great rivers into the Persian sea. The joy of living in the forest anchored the Gods to the earth."
John Perlin: [31:13]
Yeah, that's straight out of-- I was just paraphrasing Gilgamesh where-- and this was the really-- you asked me, well, how good a guy is Andrew George. Well, actually, in 2014, he published a new tablet with an Iraqi colleague. It's called the Ecological Gilgamesh. That text that was found in the first part of the 21st century, and then translated, showed a real ecological sensitivity where it talks about the monkeys, the insects, and the smell of the resin. It's just like heaven.
Doug Still: [32:04]
Gilgamesh reading: [32:05]
His cheeks were bearded, dark as gleaming lapis lazuli. The locks of his hair grew thickly as barley. When he grew tall, his beauty was consummate. Most handsome was he by the standards of men.
Doug Still: [32:22]
Who was Gilgamesh?
John Perlin: [32:23]
Gilgamesh was actually, they believe, one of the founding kings of that area of Uruk. It's like history begins at Uruk, and Gilgamesh begins at Uruk.
Doug Still: [32:38]
How would you describe Gilgamesh's personality?
John Perlin: [32:42]
Gilgamesh represented all the hubris of civilization.
Gilgamesh reading: [32:47]
In Uruk, the sheepfold, he walks back and forth like a wild bull, lording it, head held aloft. He has no equal when his weapons are brandished. His companions are kept on their feet by their contests. The young men of Uruk, he harries without warrant. Gilgamesh lets no son go free to his father. By day and by night, his tyranny grows harsher. Gilgamesh, the guide of the teeming people.
John Perlin: [33:18]
Doug Still: [33:22]
The alpha force.
John Perlin: [33:24]
Oh, yeah. Actually, there are scholarly papers on that, on the alpha force, on the macho-ness of not only-- he represented an ethos of the rulers for thousands of years, including today.
Doug Still: [33:40]
He's the protagonist, and he has a companion, Enkidu.
John Perlin: [33:46]
Okay, Enkidu, he was put on the Earth by the Gods to counter Gilgamesh's schemes.
Gilgamesh reading: [33:55]
The Goddess of Aruru, she washed her hands, took a pinch of clay, threw it down in the wild. In the wild, she created Enkidu, the hero, offspring of silence, knit strong by Ninurta. All his body is matted with hair. He bears long tresses like those of a woman. The locks of his hair grow thickly as barley. He knows not a people, nor even a country. Coated in hair like the God of the animals, with gazelles, he grazes on grasses, joining the throng with the herd at the watering hole. His heart delighting with beasts in the water.
Doug Still: [34:42]
He's the alter ego.
John Perlin: [34:43]
Alter ego. Right. And he's real hairy. He has hoofs, but he has a human brain. But what happens, and I don't-- I mean, it's really X-rated, is the way Gilgamesh was able to co-opt Enkidu was bring the loveliest of women-- [crosstalk]
Doug Still: [35:06]
John Perlin: [35:09]
…out to where Enkidu is playing with his animal friends.
Doug Still: [00:35:12]
And there was a sexy scene.
John Perlin: [35:13]
You cannot believe it, what I mean, I would be banished from this podcast if I really-- in the writings, she does everything for him, and he's just like-- seven days of total pleasure. But suddenly, what happens is he sees that his relationship with the woman totally changes him, and none of his animal friends want to be with him anymore.
Gilgamesh reading: [35:41]
When his delights were fully sated, he turned his gaze to his herd. The gazelles saw Enkidu, they started to run, the beasts of the field shied away from his presence. Enkidu had defiled his body so pure, his legs stood still, though his herd was in motion. Enkidu was weakened, could not run as before, but now he had a reason and wide understanding.
John Perlin: [36:12]
And he's very weepy and all that, but she says, "Listen."
Doug Still: [36:15]
She humanizes him.
John Perlin: [36:16]
Yeah, right. She civilizes him. She says, "But listen, we have a great thing you can come to Uruk." But there, Gilgamesh and Enkidu have this big fight. Once again, alpha males. What happens is like a homoerotic story where they fight to a standstill and fall on the ground in each other's arms.
Doug Still: [36:44]
Sort of like a trial, in a way.
John Perlin: [36:46]
Yeah, right. It's a typical epic. Gilgamesh is actually dreaming of a great sword coming to Iraq. It's an amazing story. The long shot of it is they become buds.
Doug Still: [37:07]
What is the motivation for Gilgamesh to go and say, "I want to kill Humbaba"? First of all, let's talk about Humbaba.
John Perlin: [37:15]
Okay, Humbaba, for people in Uruk, Humbaba was like a demon. But for the people who lived in the forest, he was their God.
Doug Still: [37:28]
So, he was created or put there by a God.
John Perlin: [37:32]
To keep them out of their abode.
Doug Still: [37:36]
I think it was Enlil.
John Perlin: [37:37]
Enlil. He's the guy. He's the great Sky God.
Doug Still: [37:40]
Who loves the forest, the sacred forest. And Humbaba is there to protect it.
John Perlin: [37:45]
Correct. And so, what happens-- You ask the motivation. Okay, so what happens is Enkidu and Gilgamesh become lovers, but they start to get-- especially Gilgamesh gets bored.
Gilgamesh reading: [37:58]
Gilgamesh opened his mouth, saying to Enkidu. "Ferocious Humbaba, let us slay him so his power is no more. In the forest of cedar where Humbaba dwells, let us praise him in his lair."
John Perlin: [38:14]
Suddenly, Gilgamesh gets this bee in his bonnet, but he wants to go and make his name last forever once he learns he's only like two-thirds God, and then he's mortal, and Enkidu keeps on telling, "You don't want to go to that forest. You're full of dangers."
Gilgamesh reading: [38:33]
Enkidu opened his mouth, saying to Gilgamesh, "I knew him, my friend, in the uplands, when I roamed here and there with the herd. For 60 leagues, the forest is a wilderness. Who is there would venture inside it?" Gilgamesh opened his mouth, saying to Enkidu, "I will climb, my friend, the forest's slopes."
Enkidu opened his mouth to speak, saying to Gilgamesh, "My friend, how can we go to the forest of cedar?" "So to keep safe the cedars. Enlil made it his lot to terrify men." "That is a journey which must not be made. That is a man who must not be looked on. He who guards the forest of cedar, his reach is wide. Humbaba, his voice is the deluge. His speech is fire. His breath is death." He hears the forest murmur at 60 leagues distance. "Who is there would venture into his forest?"
John Perlin: [39:36]
But Gilgamesh starts like a typical Semitic and guilt trips Enkidu by saying, "Look, if you don't go with me--" because Enkidu had been to the forest before, he said, "If you don't go with me, I'll probably die. Your best friend won't be alive. You should Shithead." [Doug laughs] And all the elders tell-- this is really telling of how forested this area was, is all the elders say, "Gilgamesh, don't go to the forest. Each way direction, it's like 10,000 leagues." But Gilgamesh, he's on it.
Doug Still: [40:14]
So, this is the heroic journey.
John Perlin: [40:17]
Doug Still: [40:18]
They're going to go up, and Gilgamesh wants to kill Humbaba, remove his head, and cut the trees down. He declares this before they go.
John Perlin: [40:27]
Yeah, but what happens, it's typical. It's like when the first people saw the giant sequoia, when they got to the cedar forest, they were so awestruck that they stopped for, like a day or two just to admire the great growth.
Gilgamesh reading: [40:45]
They stood there, marveling at the forest, gazing at the lofty cedars, gazing at the forest's entrance. Where Humbaba came and went, there was a track. They saw the mountain of cedar, seat of Gods and Goddesses, thrown on the face of the land. The cedar proffered its abundance. Its shade was sweet and full of delight. Thick tangle was the thorn. The forest a shrouding canopy. Cedars and gum trees all entwined, left no way in. For a league on all sides, cedars sent forth saplings. Cypresses grew thick for two-thirds of a league. Cedars scabbed with resin grew 60 cubits high. The resin oozed forth, drizzling down like rain, flowing freely for ravines to bear away.
Through all the forest, a bird began to sing. Hen birds gave answer. A constant din was the noise. A solitary tree cricket set off a noisy chorus, sing a song, making the pipe loud. A wood pigeon moans. A turtle dove calls an answer. At the call of the stork, the forest exalts. At the cry of the francolin, the forest exalts amid plenty. Monkey mothers sing aloud. A youngster monkey shrieks like a band of musicians and drummers, daily they bash out a rhythm in the presence of Humbaba.
Doug Still: [42:21]
They were shocked how beautiful it was.
John Perlin: [42:23]
And the aroma and-- [crosstalk]
Doug Still: [42:25]
They had to pause.
John Perlin: [42:26]
A pause. In that Ecological Gilgamesh, they're listening to all the-- you might say songs of the forest. But then, after a day Gilgamesh gives the battle cry.
Doug Still: [42:44]
Yeah. What makes him decide? Let's continue on.
John Perlin: [42:48]
Well, let's put it this way. They're avarice or their hubris always overshadows any kind of positive emotion. They've come their way-- weeks, they've been traveling. They're not going to go empty-handed. This talks about the universality of the poem, because we see all this repeated in North America, we see it repeated in the giant sequoia. At first, with the giant sequoia, people were just in awe. And then, they started to get real. "Let's get our axes." I have all those images, like the cotillion dancing on the base of a beheaded giant sequoia. Actually, I could go on and on, but anyway.
Doug Still: [43:48]
It's like this urge to conquer something.
John Perlin: [43:51]
Doug Still: [43:52]
If it's a natural object or if it's an elephant or it's a whale, it's a huge tree, you're in awe, you love it. But they still have to cut it down. This seems to be some awful universal impulse that humans have had.
John Perlin: [44:08]
Anyway, so there they are, and they see at first the beauty, but then they see the temples that they can build to perpetuate their name forever and forever.
Doug Still: [44:20]
They first start cutting down some trees, and then Humbaba comes out, right?
John Perlin: [44:25]
Right. Because he has ears that can hear 100 miles away. He has a fire that can strike you 100 miles away. He has a breath like a hurricane. But the thing is-- what really pacifies him, is he sees his old pal, Enkidu.
Doug Still: [44:45]
Well, actually, he starts tossing insults to the two of them, with extra vitriol for Enkidu, who has turned on him.
Gilgamesh reading: [44:52]
Humbaba opened his mouth to speak, saying to Gilgamesh, "Let fools take counsel, Gilgamesh, with the rude and brutish, Why have you come here into my presence? Come, Enkidu, you spawn of fish who knew no father, hatchling of terrapin and turtle, who sucked no mother's milk. In your youth, I watched you, but near you, I went not. Now, in treachery, you bring before me Gilgamesh, and stand there, Enkidu, like a warlike stranger. I will slit the throat and gullet of Gilgamesh. I will feed his flesh to the birds of the forest, ravening eagle and vulture."
Doug Still: [45:39]
But Gilgamesh and Enkidu engage Humbaba in a ferocious battle, smiting the bedrock and breaking up the mountain. With assistance from the God Shamash, they end up seizing and subduing Humbaba.
John Perlin: [45:52]
He actually begs for his life, and he starts to try to make-- what do they say? A deal with a hangman. "If you don't hang me, I'll give you this and this amount of timber." But Enkidu, who is sort of like a convert, converts are more extreme than the regular person. Enkidu says, "Gilgamesh, this guy is just bullshitting you."
Doug Still: [46:20]
Just do it.
John Perlin: [46:21]
Just do it.
Gilgamesh reading: [46:22]
Enkidu opened his mouth to speak, saying to Gilgamesh, "Do not listen, my friend, to Humbaba's words of pleading. Why should his pleading even enter your mind? If he returns to his home, we shall be as unborn. He will bind us fast in the forest of cedar, then enter the grove and put on his auras. My friend, Humbaba, who guards the forest of cedar. Finish him. Slay him. Do away with his power."
Doug Still: [46:52]
They kill Humbaba. Gilgamesh stabs him in the neck, and Enkidu rips out his heart and lungs. But just before he dies, he leaves them with a curse.
Gilgamesh reading: [47:03]
Humbaba heard how Enkidu abused him. Humbaba lifted his head, weeping before Shamash, his tears flowing under the rays of the sun. "May the pair of them not grow old. Besides Gilgamesh, his friend, none shall bury Enkidu."
Doug Still: [47:19]
In victory, Gilgamesh and presumably his men proceed to cut down the trees in the cedar forest and send the wood down the Euphrates to Uruk to build temples, walls, and other works.
John Perlin: [47:31]
What's beautiful about the Ecological Gilgamesh is the trees all the way from Iran to Israel start to weep, because they know this is going to happen to them someday, which it did. It's beautifully done. Then, they start piling the timber. And they make rafts. It's exactly what Mark Twain writes in the 19th century, the great pines from Minnesota traveling down the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn is all about that.
Doug Still: [48:08]
The loss and destruction shocks even Enkidu.
Gilgamesh reading: [48:12]
Gilgamesh went trampling through the forest to take resin from the cedars for the table of Enlil. Enkidu opened his mouth to speak, saying to Gilgamesh, "My friend, we have reduced the forest to a wasteland. How shall we answer Enlil in Nippur. In your might, you slew the guardian. What was this wrath of yours that you went trampling the forest?"
Doug Still: [48:36]
According to John Perlin, this moral questioning of their act in defiance of the God, Enlil, is the first ethical critique of the deforestation that has led to the dilemma we face today. It is one reason why the Epic of Gilgamesh is a masterpiece.
John Perlin: [48:53]
When they get back to Uruk--
Doug Still: [48:56]
How are they received?
John Perlin: [48:58]
Well, we don't know how the people receive them, but we know that Gilgamesh is partying like a frat guy with all these babes. He thinks he's quite the dude. "Wowie, zowie. I'm the dude. I've conquered the cedar forest." He doesn't realize that the Gods are in conference about what we should do with these assholes, who've ruined our place. So, what they do is they decide to invoke Humbaba's curse, and Humbaba's curse is, "Now that you're killing me, one of you is going to die and then there'll be no one to mourn the other's passing." And finally, they come to a decision where Enkidu will be killed.
Doug Still: [49:51]
Enkidu is chosen to die by the Gods. He sees it in a dream. He dies from illness, and Gilgamesh feels the loss. For a while, he wanders the earth, pondering the meaning of his own mortality. Both Enkidu and Gilgamesh have faced the consequences of their deeds.
Gilgamesh reading: [50:10]
Said the tavern keeper to him, to Gilgamesh, "If you and Enkidu were the ones who slew the guardian, destroyed Humbaba, who dwelt in the forest of cedar, killed lions in the mountain passes, seized and slew the bull come down from heaven, why are your cheeks so hollow, your face so sunken, your mood so wretched, your visage so wasted?"
Doug Still: [50:34]
In its context, do you think Gilgamesh was a hero, or was he a transgressor, or was he some of both?
John Perlin: [50:42]
Well, I think it depends on whose eyes. For the rulers of the areas in the Middle East, for about 1000 years, they all tried to replicate and to legitimize their rule by repeating the feat of Gilgamesh. Like I said before, that's really interesting because the geography of where the forest is in transition because they cut down one area, so they have to go to another area. So, they go all the way from Eastern Iran to Lebanon in like a couple of thousand years. But it's celebrated. You'll see in my book, I have the illustrations of the celebration of repeating Gilgamesh's foray into the forest.
Doug Still: [51:38]
And what about Humbaba? He's a scary, terrible monster. He’s an awful…
John Perlin: [51:47] In the eyes of civilization.
Doug Still: [51:49]
Right. But his mission was to guard the sacred forest.
John Perlin: [51:53]
In the statuary of the Sumerians, say, "Humbaba was a demon to be conquered." But then, the idea of the indigenous people in Eastern Iran and in the eyes of God-- and this is what makes the whole story so beautiful. In the eyes of God, he was the person who acted as the boundary of civilization to protect the natural beauty.
Doug Still: [52:26]
Right, from civilization. So, it's not all black and white, is it?
John Perlin: [52:31]
Well, that's why it makes it such a great story. [agreed] If it were just black and white, it would not have lasted. It's a very nuanced story. What's most amazing about it, there's at least 50 or 60 different versions that were created over the millennia.
Doug Still: [52:51]
So, even from this time, the ancients understood that these forests should be protected, on one hand. And on the other hand, they're perfect to build our temples with and to build ships and everything else.
John Perlin: [53:07]
And now you have the entire story of the yin and the yang of A Forest Journey. That's why I say Gilgamesh is like a cliff note or something like that of what's going to happen in the entire book. That's what makes the Gilgamesh story so great, is because we have never changed.
Doug Still: [53:26]
Overall, that's a pretty scary ecological message.
John Perlin: [53:31]
Basically, it's avarice and self-interest that guide civilization.
Doug Still: [53:40]
So, what does this mean for us today? How can we possibly stop this cycle that has gone on for 5000 plus years? Or how do we at least alter the cycle in favor of protectionism?
John Perlin: [53:54]
Well, if we can reflect on the stories that I present, possibly some people will clue in, especially now that we know-- we didn't know until recently all the amazing services that trees provide-- In fact, it's an existential question, actually, whether or not we want to survive as a species. But we don't have a very good record. My whole hope is that we discover a new ethos where it might be better not to do anything.
Doug Still: [54:34]
I do think that there's power in storytelling and understanding ourselves, and that's why telling the story of Gilgamesh, and all of these other stories that you include in your book, is so important.
John Perlin: [54:47]
Well, that's why I really believe, like you say, in storytelling, storytelling empirical fact.
Doug Still: [54:56]
We need that, but we need to get people to understand it and feel it for action to occur.
John Perlin: [55:03]
And that's why I wrote the book.
Doug Still: [55:05]
Do you see hope?
John Perlin: [55:07]
Hopefully, it'll bring a new ethos where we see Humbaba as the hero.
Doug Still: [55:14]
Yeah, we need more Humbabas.
Doug Still: [55:18]
And I'm going to leave it there. I'd like to thank John Perlin for a fascinating, enjoyable discussion. That was a lot of fun. His book, A Forest Journey: The Role of Trees in the Fate of Civilization, is available now. It is gorgeous, and it comes with a QR code that links to interactive maps, timelines, a teacher's guide, and a reader's guide to deepen the experience. I'd also like to thank Martha Douglas-Osmundson for her mesmerizing reading of passages from Gilgamesh.
Once again, thank you, tree lovers, for listening. I have one small ask. If you've been enjoying the show, please share the link with friends to help get the word out. Your support is so appreciated. You can also tell them that we need more Humbabas. Let them ask what that means. I'm Doug Still, and this is This Old Tree.
[This Old Tree theme]
Gilgamesh reading: [56:30]
Ever do we build our households. Ever do we make our nests. Ever do brothers divide their inheritance. Ever do feuds arise in the land. Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood, the mayfly floating on the water. On the face of the sun, its countenance gazes. Then all of a sudden, nothing is there.
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