Sketch 2: Cultivating Placefulness

Over the next few weeks, I will post a series of sketches of some ideas I have kicking around in my head. With luck, they might become longer essays or full-length books! Apologies in advance for any grammatical errors or sloppy syntax!

Prelude

Toward the end of writing the manuscript for my book about the monastic sense of place, a simple turn of phrase occurred me: Placefulness. This seemed to sum up in a simple word how monks in the Benedictine/Cistercian monastic tradition related to the landscapes of their respective monastic communities. The were present not just to abstract theological notions, or the love of God, but to the intricacies of their surrounding environments, which were often extensive rural properties.

I googled the phrase. A workshop called Into the Mountain mentioned it, seeking an embodied encounter with the land. A travel writer named Vanessa Walker named her website after the word, and it appears to be a new site dedicated to travel writing. There were a few other hits, but nothing that explored the word as an academic concept or spiritual practice.

The word felt useful. So, in December 2022, when I was invited by the Multifaith Network for Climate Justice in Bellingham to give a talk on contemplative ecology, I thought I would think through the idea out loud. The talk was well attended, and I gave a follow up in Vancouver at Simon Fraser University’s Institute for the Humanities. This Sketch is an outline of that talk.

We seem to me living in the -fulness of times. You are probably familiar with the term Mindfulness: Meditation practice rooted in Buddhism; moment by moment awareness of sensations, thoughts and feelings without judgement. But there is also an emerging alternative called Bodyfulness, articulating the somatic therapist Christine Caldwell’s paradigm for a more embodied contemplative practice. Geologist Marcia Bjornerud has recently written a book called Timefulness which argues that as temporal creatures we are embedded in earth’s deep time cycles. Placefulness then would be something along the lines of the contemplative practice of attending to what is and what arises in our places, especially during troubled times. So, like any spirituality worth its salt, that means integrating the good, the bad and the ugly in the places we live, especially as climate change takes a deeper hold on the world.   

To Be in Place

The Greek philosopher Archytas (4th century BCE) is reputed to have said that “To be is to be in place.”[1] This positioned place as a central ontological notion in Greek thinking that was all but obliterated with the advent of geometric space during the Enlightenment and the seeming social construction of everything with the semiotic turn of the 20th century. Starting in the 1960s sense of place began to reclaim space (so to speak) in the theoretical circles of geography and the social sciences. For example, an early re-examination of place is found in Yi Fu Tuan, a geographer, who used the term Topophilia to explore the “feeling-link” between people and places (1974). This can be compared with EO Wilson’s Biophilia: The idea that we are biologically rooted to feelings of affinity with life. Edward Relph’s Place and Placelessness (1976) examines the importance of em-place-ment, and the malaise of place-less-ness that set in during the late modern period. One of my favorite explorations of place and perception is by anthropologist Tim Ingold, who developed a “Dwelling Perspective” on environmental perception that drew from the phenomenology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, who were overtly opposed to the Cartesian project that had favored space over place. Echoing this ontological turn, anthropologists began to see that as Christian Norberg-Schulz writes, “To dwell means to belong to a given place.”[2]

A few examples:

Aboriginal Song Lines

Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines (1987) explores settler and aboriginal understandings of place in Australia. In the publicly available sources, Aboriginal sense of place can be described as relating to the Dreaming. During the Dream Time (Every-when), the Ancestors of all life sang the world into being along tracks, called Songlines. during the Dreamtime. A Dreaming is one’s first Ancestor whether it be Kangaroo, Lizard, Bandicoot, Honey Ant, or Badger. Most Dreamings are animals, a few are plants or trees. An initiated person receives a portion of a Songline that traverses the first track of their Dreaming. The tempo and melody of the Songline express the topography of the place. So, forms of the land are a remnant of the first ancestors first movements, and each place is stacked with stories from that sacred canon.

Moral Place-scapes Among Western Apache

Indigenous placenames in the American West are often made up by afforded features of the landscape: Trees, mountains, valleys. Or they speak of activities that take place there like harvesting, council, or hunting. For example, in Western Apache place names, Tséé Chiizh Dah Sidilé means Coarse-Textured Rocks Lie Above in a Compact Cluster. This is a descriptive name for the features of that place.

In short, places teach Western Apache how to live. The collective history of the Apache has accumulated in these places, and they speak their lessons to the people. For example, at one such place a man attempted to commit incest with his stepdaughter. In Keith Basso’s account of these places in his amazing book Wisdom Sits in Places, his informant Ruth gets visibly uncomfortable as they pass this place in their car, and says, “I know that place, it stalks me every day.” In Ruth’s case the place reminded her of an assault she suffered by someone close to her. Not a romantic notion, but the wrongness of the act is written in the landscape which gave her strength. To put a person in their place so the speak, one need only recite a particular place name and its lessons will shoot like an arrow into the mind of one’s interlocutor.

Well Known Coast Salish Transformer Sites

In my part of the world, Cascadia, where Coast Salish peoples have lived and flourished for thousands of years, Transformer Spirits such as Xáays among the Squamish are responsible for certain prominent features of the landscape. A few publicly available examples: The Lions Peaks / Twin Sisters (Ch’ich’iyúy Elxwíkn) on the North Shore Mountain range were transformed for negotiating a peace treaty. The Stawamus Chief (Siám’ Smánit) in Squamish was a Long House where people and animals met for ceremony. Skalsh Rock in Stanley Park was an ancient chief turned into stone for insisting on purifying himself before his child’s birth. Additionally, obsidian deposits were understood as places where Thunderbird shot lighting out of his eyes. These sites were not only moral lesson, but monuments to their deep ties to place.

To be Rooted

Place is a richly textured part of Indigenous spirituality and lifeways. However, despite a reputation for Platonic otherworldliness, the Christian contemplative tradition has deep roots in a biblical sense of place. Simone Weil once wrote that “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”[3] Rootedness was a central idea for Weil, whose life was cut short by her own radical asceticism.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann (2002) wrote that “In the [Bible] there is no timeless space, but there also is no spaceless time. There is rather storied place, that is, a place that has meaning because of the history lodged there.”[4] The Peoples of the Levant were covenanted to the Divine through places: Jacob/Israel wrestled with an angelic person, and the placename Penuel means Face of/facing Adonai. Many passages in the Hebrew Bible either begin or end with a reference to the name of a place, or the origin of that place’s name. Stone altars, groves, and mountain peaks were places of contact with the Divine or the history of the Patriarchal period. This is not a reverent nature spirituality, but a sacred geography where a peoples’ claim to the land was rooted in encounters with the Divine. Layered over this history, is the motif of the tension between the Paradise-Garden and Desert-Wilderness, starting with the very first chapters in Genesis where Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden. The entire arc of the story of Israel is God alluring them back to the garden through covenant, obedience and justice.

The story of Jesus of Nazareth is told through particular places. The arc of his vocation as Messiah recapitulated the places of Hebrew tradition: Bethlehem, Egypt, Jerusalem, Mount Tabor, and finally the Tree of Life (cross) and the Garden (tomb). Jesus consistently leaves the towns and cities to pray in the desert. Early Christians recognized certain places as sacred based on their association with Hebrew prophets, Christian martyrs, monks and ascetics and the life of Jesus. The early hermits and monks fled to the desert as means of radical asceticism, but also because the desert is an ideal place to practice a spirituality of silence.

The Christian relation to place becomes more ambivalent as it weds Greek metaphysics. As Saint Augustine wrote, “Our heart is restless until it rests in You.” Christian writers often portray humanity as a wandering pilgrim on earth, much as Plato saw the Forms as the really real. Belden Lane (2001) and John Inge (2003) show that despite a rich sense of place throughout Hebrew and Christian sacred writings, there is a tension with the mystic placelessness of Christian eschatology: Lane writes, “…one finds a continuing tension between place and placelessness, between the local and the universal. God is here—in this place at Bethlehem, Lourdes, Iona, even Boston and Salt Lake City.”[5]

The Monastic Sense of Place

My book Dwelling in the Wilderness: A Liturgy of Place for the Anthropocene (2023) will explore how contemporary monastic communities are invited into a rich sense of place. Rather than being born from the place as Indigenous peoples are, monks take a vow of stability that encourages them to become ‘lovers of the place;’ to root their whole spiritual life of seeking God in a place and a community of imperfect monks. That life is punctuated by daily and seasonal liturgies that can attune the monks to the cycles and seasons of their places. Manual work balances a life of prayer by engaging the body and can enrich spiritual development by linking tasks to places and teaching vital lessons about the spiritual life. A monk’s time spent in formation, work and leisure means that over many years memories and lessons accumulate in place, giving shape to a personal spiritual ecology that connects place, spirituality and theology. And while some monks may return to certain places over and over, it was often the ‘Charged Moments’, as one monk put it, that ended up being most significant. By Charged Moments the monk was referring to times when a feeling of communion, or a spiritual insight comes out of nowhere. Those unexpected places are then integrated into a monks’ spiritual ecology, or moral landscape: places of rich memory, lesson or insight that then continue to teach monks how to be monks. As one monk said, “You become part of the land. Our vow of stability grounds us, and an image that was really helpful for me was the idea of these trees [points] taking root; you know we’ve got thirty feet of topsoil, and the roots go deep… So that was the image of stability that I had. The longer I stay here, the more I can see myself growing in ways I never thought possible. It’s of course not always easy, staying in one place, but the [longer] you stay the [the higher you can] reach.”

Placefulness as Contemplative Ecology

European descended peoples in North America live with a devalued sense of place. It has been re-placed by mobility, commodity and sentimentality. We see uprootedness, placelessness, dis-placement. The troubling loss of place can been seen through the post-modern attempt to respond to a deep yearning for rootedness in the culture. As philosopher Vince Vycinas wrote, “[W]e are homeless even if we have a place to live”[6] Often, new architecture seeks to emplace us by building homey Town Centres that mimic public or even domestic spaces, flashing a sense of place to our meaning-hungry hearts. Consumerism is as much driven by manufactured needs as it is a sense of belonging or self that has been expertly packaged and sold back to us. The Anthropocene, the so-called geological epoch of human domination, is as much a crisis of meaning as it is a crisis of ecology and extinction.

As parties gather in international conferences to discuss emissions reductions targets, many activists have also been looking for ways to heal a wounded sense of meaning, purpose and sacredness in a world on the brink. In the scholarly world, tracking this movement is often called Religion and Ecology or Religion and Nature. But activists tend to use terms like Spiritual Ecology or as Pope Francis does in his encyclical letter Laudato Si, Integral Ecology. These broad movements represent the spiritual wing of environmentalism that sees ecological issues as moral issues, the earth as sacred. As Sufi teacher Llewelyn Vaughn Lee expresses, “The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong. The world is part of our own self and we are a part of its suffering wholeness. Until we go to the root of our image of separateness, there can be no healing.”[7] Separateness and displacement from earth are roots of our ecological crisis.

This sense of oneness is echoed in the non-religious but deeply spiritual ethnographic memoir of anthropologist Richard Nelson, which takes places on the island of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia. He writes,

“There is nothing in me that is not of earth, no split instant of separateness, no particle that disunites me from the surroundings. I am no less than the earth itself. The rivers run through my veins, the winds blow in and out with my breath, the soil makes my flesh, the sun’s heat smolders inside me. A sickness or injury that befalls the earth befalls me. A fouled molecule that runs through the earth runs through me. Where the earth is cleansed and nourished, its purity infuses me. The life of the earth is my life. My eyes are the earth gazing at itself.”[8]

Without reference to God, religion or even spirituality, Nelson describes a realization that is perhaps obvious to Indigenous peoples, and those who are rooted in place, whose ancestors nourish the land they harvest their food from. For Nelson, it was an ecological Apokalypsis, a great revealing of a truth hidden before his very eyes.

My own writing at Holyscapes has been oriented toward a contemplative spiritual ecology that reflects on the relationship between inscape and landscape. Really what I am interested in is to learn the liturgy of my place. My walks attend to the cycles of the stars, sun and moon; I am even learning the rudiments of the astrological archetypes and Greek stories that accompany the constellations. I want to attune to the cycles and patterns of season and weather, the features of topography and surficial geology. The Latin, common and/or Indigenous names of plants, animals and fungi. The lifeways of food, medicinal plants and fungi. The soundscape and seasonality of local and migratory birds. And a growing awareness of the memories, lessons, experiences, symbols and rituals that embed themselves in the places I visit.

In addition to learning the liturgy of place, I think it is essential that we engage and support ecological restoration projects. While ecological restoration has its critics, one of its potential benefits is not just to local biodiversity or ecosystem function, but to our sense of place. As ecologist Stephanie Mills (1996) writes,

“[The act of restoration] gives [people] a basis for commitment to the ecosystem. It is very real. People often say, we have to change the way everybody thinks. Well, my God, that’s hard work! How do you do that? A very powerful way to do that is by engaging people in experiences. It’s ritual we’re talking about. Restoration is an excellent occasion for the evolution of a new ritual tradition.”[9]

Ecological restorations’ biggest potential might be in its ability to restore people to a deeper relationship with our places.

Caution I: Beware Spiritual Extractivism

One of the core moral lessons of the conservation movement, was that industrial civilization’s hunger for converting the earth into cash or calories has devastated ecosystems and caused a culture-induced mass extinction. Many of those who are interested in shifting the conversation toward a more sacred sense of the world have started many wonderful projects such as retreat centres, Wild Churches, or Forest Bathing circles. As I shift my mind set of seeing the world as a background to one of home, I want to say that caution is in order. In some ecological spirituality circles, workshops or liturgies I have attended, there is often a circle sharing exercise in which we are encouraged to go out into the forest and find a natural object that speaks to us, or to have a conversation with a tree, etc. We are charged, dismissed and given 45 minutes to soak up the forest’s spiritual lessons and the pressure is on! As I talk about Placefulness, my first caution would be to beware of a taking our extractivist cultural instinct and simply shifting it toward what I am calling a spiritual extractivism. Theologian Belden Lane’s words are a much better caution:

“The challenge is to honor the thing itself, as well as the thing as metaphor. When [Ralph Waldo] Emerson declared in 1836 that ‘every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,’ he sent people racing to the woods, anticipating the voice of God in the call of every thrush. But too often they paid scant attention to the songbird in their anxiousness to hear some transcendent message. They returned home full of nothing but themselves, their pockets stuffed with metaphors. As the imagination reaches relentlessly for a timeless, interior soulscape, it is easy to sail over the specificity of particular landscapes” –Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (1998, 17)

Caution II: Beware Dissociative Jargon

This one’s for me. In academia, we are coming up with some important terms to describe what is happening to our world, words like Solastalgia, coined by Glenn Albrecht has gotten a lot of traction because it speaks to a feeling that is becoming more common, and just as potent as nostalgia was thought to be during the 1700s, where it was diagnosed as serious illness due to longing for one’s homeland. Solastalgia is the feeling of loss and longing for one’s home place as it changes before our eyes. This kind of language, though abstract and new, is powerful for describing our feelings. What I mean by dissociative jargon is more in line with words like environment, ecosystems and even ecology. Ecosystem is a word for places coined by a culture without a home. I learned this caution from a hero of mine, agrarian writer Wendell Berry. I have a lot to learn from this caution. As Berry writes:

“No settled family or community has ever called its home place an “environment.” None has ever called its feeling for its home place “biocentric” or “anthropocentric.” None has ever thought of its connection to its home place as “ecological,” deep or shallow. The concepts and insights of the ecologists are of great usefulness in our predicament, and we can hardly escape the need to speak of “ecology” and “ecosystems.” But the terms themselves are culturally sterile. They come from the juiceless, abstract intellectuality of the universities which was invented to disconnect, displace, and disembody the mind. The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes roads, creatures, and people.” –Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (1993, 35)

Troubles: Therapizing Place and NIMBY-ism

In addition to these cautions, I am also interested in the troubles on the horizon, troubles for which I don’t have direct prescriptions to solve. These are troubles that I want to think out loud about in future writing and if possible, public gatherings.

First, there is a strong tendency to assume that developing a place is space is a kind of wellness technique. For example, forest-based therapists often see places through a therapeutic lens (this is often good). We develop a practice of deep attention to place as a means of de-stressing, unwinding, or spiritually tuning in to the happenings of a forest. However, I must insist that just as mindfulness is not just to be practiced when we are happy, a practice of Placefulness is not just practiced when our places are lush, or when we are comfortable and happy, or simply in need of cheering up. Forests are places of predation, decay, rot, parasitism, suffering and pain. If we go to the forest and only see vibrant life, interconnection and cooperation we are missing half of the experience.

Sense of place can also become something of a classist project of protecting a strict view of land that elevates places that are primarily in wild states, lined with walking trails and recreational areas. Working landscapes are often excluded, which tends to bias our notions of places worthy of our attention toward those that fit the narrow aesthetics of urban and wealthy recreators, retirees, or second homeowners. NIMBY-ism (Not In My Backyard) can even kill renewable energy projects that threaten a cherished viewshed. Some communities value places primarily for wellness, aesthetics, spirituality and leisure and these are important values. But Placefulness needs to wrap its arms around the reality that many people have to make their livings from the land, as foresters, miners, loggers, truckers, farmers, ranchers and many other professions and many of them are trying their best to do a good job, usually small scale, independent operators. This is tricky, because we need to radically transform our economy, but the answer isn’t simply building a wall around some places while others go to shit.

With Trebbe Johnson’s Radical Joy for Hard Times, we need to be prepared to love damaged places. We need to witness and resist cultures of destruction but also as Donna Haraway encourages us, to “stay with the trouble”. This means resisting either/or narratives that trade in either apocalyptic or techno-optimistic storylines. It means attuning to our neighborhoods as well as our local wild forest parks. It means supporting and celebrating a stream restoration project and grieving an oil spill in the bay. Our places are wounded, so are we. Attention, holy grief and acts of beauty in wounded places are integral to Placefulness.

Troubles: Weaponizing Place

Another important trouble is that deep reverence to places are caught up in human conflicts all over the world. Control over (sacred) places is often enlisted by ethno-nationalist agendas. For example, Hindu nationalists (VHP) demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992 because they claimed it was built by Muslim invaders on a sacred Hindu site. Sacred Groves in India, which are often pointed to as examples of ancient conservation projects, are often caste-restrictive, gender restrictive and include taboos that look nothing like the egalitarian access Westerners expect from protected areas. Sense of place is often accompanied by knowing one’s place in a social hierarchy. In addition, Israel/Palestine continues to be a conflict between those who are deeply invested in their identities and home places. Zionism is a place-based movement. Placefulness needs to grapple with this toxic dimension of sense of place.

Troubles: Reconciling Place

Last, sense of place is not communing with Nature with a capital N. In the pacific West where I live, he beloved forests where I walk, the parks and neighborhoods are all the traditional territory of the Musqueam people. To go into the forest and see only nature is to negate that these are cultural landscapes whose ancient stewards have been stripped of their claims by force. There is a political ecology to Placefulness.

There are some very encouraging large-scale trends: The BC Treaty Commission, Indigenous protected and conserved areas; the advancement of Rights and Title settlements; co-management, profit sharing agreements. The Land Back, Land Guardians, Indigenous land trusts, revitalization movements, Voluntary Land Tax projects like the Reciprocity Funds program. These are all gesturing in the right direction, but reconciliation and decolonization are not the same thing, and Placefulness needs to grapple with what that means for settler and immigrant peoples who love where they live. A post-colonial “Cascadia” should be able to include settler and immigrant peoples, but Indigenous peoples need to be treated with the historical justice that making right deserves. How far does that go? I don’t know. Perhaps I should start look into immigrating back to England after 7 or so generations of ancestry in North America? Or, perhaps my practice of Placefulness needs to be able to sit with discomfort, ambivalence, and the historical wrongs that I had no part in carry out, but whose privileged fruits I unquestionably benefit from. As Nigerian Post-Christian Yoruba writer Bayo Akomolafe says:

“I like to say that, sometimes the best answer to a pressing question is bewilderment. It’s not the answer itself, it’s not the correct answer, it’s the gift of bewilderment, it’s a gift of straying away from the algorithms of easy arrival. And my Elders always taught me that…the answers are not always going to be available…thank you for holding the space for queer questions, and uneasy arrivals for tending to the tense fields where new kinds of beings and becomings can thrive and grow…”[10]

Placefulness is about making space for the unknown, cultivating holy grief for a rapidly changing world, and loving our places even when it might be uncomfortable.


[1] Edward Casey, Getting Back into Place, 1993, 14.

[2] Christian Norbert Shultz, The Concept of Dwelling, 1993, 109.

[3] Simon Weil, The Need for Roots, 1949, 41.

[4] Walter Brueggemann, The Land, 2002, Pos. 3051, Kindle edition.

[5] Belden Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred. 1996, 242.

[6] Vincent Vycinas, Earth and Gods, 1969, 268.

[7] Llewelln Vaugan Lee, Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, 2013, 7.

[8] Richard Nelson, The Island Within, 1989, 249.

[9] Cited IN: Gretel Van Wieren “Ecological Restoration as Public Spiritual Practice” Worldviews 12 (2008) 237-254.

[10] For the Wild Podcast: https://forthewild.world/podcast-transcripts/dr-bayo-akomolafe-on-slowing-down-in-urgent-times-encore-285

Sketch 1: An Emerging Christian Mythodoxy

Over the next few weeks, I will post a series of sketches of some ideas I have kicking around in my head. With luck, they might become longer essays or full length books! Apologies in advance for grammar and spelling errors…

Living in Vancouver I have always felt a bit lonely in my Christianity. I love the catholic tradition, but I have serious hesitations about a full-throated enthusiasm for being part of the Roman Catholic Church. Recently, I learned that two men I admire converted (or in one case reverted) to Christianity. This has made me feel a bit less lonely and pointed to something I see happening among some spiritual but not religious ecological types. Paul Kingsnorth and then Martin Shaw, both British, and both frequent speakers on podcast and YouTube circuits, converted to Christianity in 2021. Paul converted directly into Eastern Orthodoxy, and Martin, after being baptized by an Anglican priest, has entered catechesis with a local Orthodox church in Exeter.

Shaw grew up in the Baptist tradition, with a preacher as a father, but in his teens became a musician and eventually left the church (very familiar to my own story). He was raised not just with theology but the telling of fairytales and myths. Now in his late 40s, at the end of a 101-night vigil in the forest, Shaw saw a multicolored star-like aura of light moving toward him which pierced the ground like an arrow. He heard a voice that said “Inhabit the time in Genesis of your original home.” He says he felt the presence of “the mossy face of Christ.” Thereafter, entering the lockdowns of COVID-19, he had series of dreams in which a clear message was conveyed. Podcasters Mark Vernon and then Justin Brierley have observed that many in the West are seeking for deeper meaning beyond the fuzzy post-Christian spiritual but not religious landscape of the liberal and progressive West. They have cautiously suggested that Christianity is entering a new phase.

Paul is a talented novelist, who for many years, was a front lines environmental activist. He always had a spiritual side and spent time in Buddhism and Wicca as an unapologetic Deep Ecologist and critique of industrial civilization. His book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist was a public break with his career in the mainstream environmental movement and a manifesto of slowing down, staying put and giving up on the “carbon game.” His response to environmentalism, and his lavish praise for writers like Wendell Berry always sounded to me quasi-monastic. His decision to move to a small farm in Ireland sealed that impression. Kingsnorth continues to rail against “the machine” but he is now doing so within a consciously English, even Celtic, Christianity that shares very little of the New Age trappings of the Neo-Celtic visions of folks like Matthew Fox or John Phillip Newell.

In both of their Substack threads Kingsnorth and Shaw have been thinking out loud about their newfound Christian practice. One thread of Shaw’s is entitled “A Liturgy of the Wild” and in it Shaw curates several wonder stories and archetypal hero journeys that are accompanying him as he learns the rhythms of the Christian liturgical calendar. I have always admired both men, and I feel a deeper kinship with their stories. I don’t always agree with Kingsnorth’s politics, but I certainly have taken heart in my own lonely journey with the catholic contemplative tradition.  

My pilgrimage into catholic Christianity began when I stumbled onto the writings of Thomas Merton, the Trappist writer-monk who spent much of life writing about contemplative spirituality from his monastery in Kentucky. When I attended my first Easter Vigil (Saturday evening service before Easter Sunday), I felt the power of the liturgy through the candle-lit depth of anticipated resurrection. It was a powerful, aesthetic, and affective experience. As the warmth of the liturgy sank in over the days and weeks thereafter, I realized that for me the power of the Christian tradition lay not just in creeds and atonement for sin, but in an ability to invite us into a participation with the cruciform nature of the cosmos. By this I mean that through a liturgy that aligns with the seasons of the Norther Hemisphere’s waxing and waning and the earth’s own resurrection, we bring our own bodies to the pascal mystery: birth, death, and resurrection. Coming to believe in the resurrection of Christ was made possible for me by experiencing first a real attention to the resurrection of the earth. Thereafter, the resurrection of Jesus was not an exercise in intellectual ascent to the proposed truthfulness of an enchanted version of History, but to the reality of resurrection that spoke out of every flower and tree and my own circadian pilgrimage through the year. Jesus distilled and recapitulated that rhythm with his life.

I recount this here because what I am observing and learning from Kingsnorth and Shaw is that to a large extent they too were drawn to the archetypal, storied mysterious depth of the tradition. Their hearts were caught in the fisher’s net, and they have lived to tell the tale. Like the mystics, who classically emphasize direct experience, they are speaking from their own bewildered walk with a wild Christ. Not the buddy Christ of contemporary mainstream Christians, but a dark figure who broods in the wildlands and rails against convention.

Shaw for example specifically states that he was drawn back to Christianity because of the strangeness and wildness of Christ and the story. He calls Christianity “the last great mystery”. And now he is a on a mission to reclaim the contemplative, wild, ecologically rich texture of the faith. Whereas many converts to Orthodoxy I have read about tend to emphasize coming to some ascent to its authenticity in relation to some imagined original or continuous Christianity, what I hear Kingsnorth and Shaw doing, is, walking in the tracks of the mystics, drawing close to the warm glow of the power of Christianity’s stories and liturgies.  

They are in short espousing what I want to call a Christian Mythodoxy. Mythos: from a root that comes from mouth, myths are not untruths to be busted, but the stories and deep human truths in which we see ourselves participating; not just moral lesson or entertainment. Doxy: meaning praise is our orientation toward the Divine, how do we soak up the rays of the Divine? It constitutes our spiritual practices, our liturgy and worship.

In the wider orbit of ecological spirituality, there are a lot of wonderful conversations that are trying to reconnect with the earth’s rhythms, place, archetypes, myths and even astrology. Adaya’s ecological spirituality courses, the School of Mythopoetics, the now defunct Seminary of the Wild, and many more. Yet while many of these courses can feel quite hostile to Christianity (speaking from personal experience), several renegade threads have been seeking to rewild the Christian lifeway.

For example, Franciscan Ilia Delio has showed that Catholic, from the Greek Kata-holon, according to the whole, must catch up with the facts of evolution and the implications of the discoveries of quantum physics regarding matter-energy as a continuous reality. Others like philosopher John D. Caputo have talked about post-modern Christianity as an exercise not in theology as science, but as a kind of Theo-poetics. As I often tell my students, religion done well is poetry about a mystery, meaning that theology for the most part is not meant to be an exercise certainty, proofs and evidence, but one of awe, wonder, praise and sometimes lament. Others such as writers Bayo Akomolafe and Sophie Strand are doing fascinating things with the possibilities of a wilder, earthier, porous Christianity. These two seem to be more on the outside margins of the tradition, but they speak eloquently about the wild origins of Jesus’s teachings, parables, and connections to the natural world in first century Palestine. Brie Stoner’s podcast Unknowing has also been the grounds for some interesting conversations about what comes after a rigid, denominational Christian identity at the dawn of the Anthropocene.

What I see happening more and more in these discoveries or reimaginings of Christianity does not fit into any denominational category. It is rather a kind of diffuse gesture, posture or dare I say (leaderless) movement. A Christian Mythodoxy seems to be one possible green shoot germinating out of the compost pile of a religion in decline (at least in the West). Stoner’s series on composting Christianity, and Sophie Strand have used that wonderful metaphor to talk about living on the edge of something that feels like both a death rattle and a birth pang (Romans 8). The so-called Anthropocene is bringing about great harm but is also opening space for something new.

What I am experiencing and observing is the idea that to be a Christian is not just to ascent to a platform of beliefs and then check one’s life against it. Rather, beyond theology (not in opposition to it), there lies a move toward a mythic praise, a mytho-doxy, grounded in the body and grounded in the cycles of the earth, that is the tangled fabric of our messy faith, which is always, already embedded in the liturgy of the cosmos, the good earth, and the breathtaking beauty of the pascal mystery.

A Communion of Earthly Saints

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

–The Apostles Creed

“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls.”[1]

–Thomas Merton

A Communion of the Saintly

Toward the end of the Nicaean and Apostle’s Creeds, Christians from many denominations affirm the belief in the Communion of the Saints. In practice, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Oriental, and Easter Orthodox traditions commonly integrate saints into our liturgies, calendars and even patronal names at baptism. My own patron saint is Saint Kevin of Ireland. Not only is he the patron saint of very ordinary names like mine, but as a hermit, he embodied the deep love of Creation at the heart of Irish Paganism and Christianity.

The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church defines a saint as someone who is closer or more united with Christ in heaven. Intercessory prayer, which seems to pick up where Pagan polytheism leaves off, sees this proximity to heaven as a legitimate and effective way of amplifying one’s prayers. It emphasizes the idea that the church is a communal structure that is not confined to the living.

Saints are also culture-heroes that elevate our eyes toward heavenly virtues through the prism of their unique gifts. Saints are the celebrities and athletes of the spiritual life. They are role models and icons of holiness and character. For example, sounding a bit like a Catholic Bodhisattva, 19th century French Saint Therese of Lisieux wrote, “I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth.”[2] Saints are heroic in virtue, and yet they are often keenly aware of their own woundedness. Contemporary Catholic commentator and YouTube evangelist Bishop Robert Barron uses the analogy of a pane of glass to describe the saintly heart. As it becomes more directly illuminated by light, even the slightest smudges and blemishes become readily apparent. As Barron puts it, saints are simply people who know they are sinners. Saints don’t earn this merit, they simply orient their lives toward the light already there.

In a broader sense, all Christians, or even all people, are saints. In his letters, the Apostle Paul refers to the ordinary members of his churches as Saints—as contemporary Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, continue to do. For Paul, the Saints (Gk: hagiois, holy ones) were those who had chosen to bask in the Grace of the risen Christ.

This notion of ordinary folks being Saints shouldn’t surprise us. Think of Paul’s stark transformation from a persecutor of the church to a Christic visionary; or of Peter’s penchant for cowardly self-preservation at the time of the crucifixion, to a miracle working evangelist-martyr who tradition holds was crucified upside down. From the earliest moments of Christianity there is a notion that each of us are saints in embryo, holy not just through extraordinary feats of virtue, but through our createdness, our belovedness, and our utter dependence on God, who brings us into being and sustains us in each moment.

Making Room for Creation in the Communion of the Saints

For most of Christian history, Sainthood has been seen as a human affair. However, it seems like the time has come to decenter the human person as the only creature in Creation worthy of the title. I don’t want to devalue us, I want to decenter us, there is a difference. I want to think about this with the help of 20th century spiritual writer and monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the patron saint of ecology Saint Francis of Assisi, and a few other geologians.

It isn’t actually that much of a leap to go from the notion of a primordial sainthood at the heart of our human createdness, which emerges from no merit of our own, to the saintliness of the rest of Creation with whom we share our evolutionary morphology and instincts. As a monk explained to me on retreat regarding his belief in animal souls: “Do we have the same Father? Ok, then we are siblings!”

In his poem Canticle to Creation, Saint Francis of Assisi affirmed this close kinship with creation in the 12th century. In writing with the reconciliation of two rival cities in mind, Francis declared with the Psalms that all of creation rightly gives God praise. However, he also went a step further by referring to Sun, Moon, Water, Plants, Earth, and Fire as our siblings. He wrote: “Praise be to you Lord God through Brother Sun…”[3] This kinship language is striking for a pre-ecological age that affirms the interrelatedness of all creation. And yet, there is no confusing Creation and Creator, only a more directly aligned prism that is able to see God’s loving presence in Creation.

In his foundational book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton meditates on the depth of contemplative spirituality in the Catholic tradition. Merton’s writing had a great deal to do with bringing mysticism and contemplative spirituality to an entirely new generation of Catholics, and his influence has reached into the generations of the 21st century through the efforts of the International Thomas Merton Society. One of the most startling and beautiful passages in New Seeds beautifully amplifies saintliness beyond the more than human Creation in a way that would have turned Henry David Thoreau’s scruffy head. Merton writes:

“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him. It “consents,” so to speak, to His creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.”[4]

A tree’s substance, its tree-ness, is its praise, and because that substance owes its very being to God, it is fundamentally united with God, or, in other words, a Saint. Merton continues:

“The forms and individual characters of living and growing things, of inanimate beings, of animals and flowers and all nature, constitute their holiness in the sight of God. Their inscape is their sanctity.”

Here, Merton alludes to a word coined by Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The Inscape for Hopkins is a creature’s most intimate uniqueness, which bears the very finger print of God. As Dan Horan has written, this is a deeply Franciscan idea, which echoes the heady theology of 14th century theologian John Duns Scotus. Merton, say on!

“The special clumsy beauty of this particular colt on this April day in this field under these clouds is a holiness consecrated to God by His own creative wisdom and it declares the glory of God. The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this window are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God. This leaf has its own texture and its own pattern of veins and its own holy shape, and the bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river are canonized by their beauty and their strength.”[5]

Swoon. This is one of my very favorite passages from Merton, and when I first read it as a seasonal forester in Utah in 2012, it changed the way I saw the woods. It is recalling this passage that I affirm the idea that the Communion of Saints is ready for an update.

Extinction is Martyrdom

Death is a fact of evolution. Most species have an ecological life span of about a million or so years. Human beings may be no different if we don’t shape up. Extinction, the death of a species, happens naturally. Admittedly difficult to calculate, the background rate of natural extinctions is about one species per million species per year. The industrial machine is speeding up that rate so by estimates of between 100 to 1000 times the background rate. There have been five major extinctions of life on this planet, reducing species diversity by 75-90 per cent. Human expansion out of Africa, but especially the activities of industrial humanity initiated what some are calling the Sixth Extinction event.

For those of us who see the world as more than a God-given grocery store, extinction caused by human beings is a travesty. Extinction has been likened to the silencing of an instrument in the symphony of Creation. Said another way, if each creature is a word of God, unique and singular in its particularity and bespokeness, a species, is an epic cosmic poem. Extinction at the hands of human expansion impoverishes the vocabulary of this cosmic epic that makes up an earthly Communion of Saints. Just as murder is not just death, extinction by our hands is a kind of martyrdom.

Escha-ecology

In his Letter to the Romans chapter 8:22, Paul writes that “all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth.” There is a sense that Christ is a cosmic event, and salvation an earthly affair. In the famous John 3:16, “God so loved the world”, after all. Eschatology is the study of last things, final words, and end times. For many Christians, only humans will accompany God into post-moral eternities. But in an era of ecological conscience, eschatology needs an earthy reassessment. As ecological theologian Sallie McFague has written, “Salvation is the direction of all of creation, and creation is the very place of salvation.”[6] Salvation was not just a single event, but an ongoing trajectory of Creation as the Body of God.

Theologians like the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin and his contemporary interpreter Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, see Big Bang cosmology as affirming the idea that Creation is moving toward its fulfillment in God. For Teilhard the Omega point was synonymous with the Logos of John Ch. 1, where the author states that the Word (Logos) was with God from the beginning and is God.

Omega is the last letter in the Greek alphabet, and Teilhard used this as an image of the entirety of Creation being drawn into God through the humanity of Christ (Logos). Of course for Teilhard, the Omega point insinuated that the Noosphere, or mental realm, would become independent of the physical world, but Delio’s writings make a stronger claim that all of creation is involved in this ongoing cosmic soteriology. She writes, “Rather, reality is a single, organic, evolutionary flowing.”[7] The lives of Saints are powerful because they give us a taste of heaven on earth. To expand the Communion of Saints is acknowledge that like the Our Father prayer, salvation is the ongoing process of earth merging with heaven.

Finally, if a human can be a saint, perhaps we should consider whether or not her gut flora, eye mites, viruses, lice, skin and mouth bacteria, fungi, and parasites might be as well. Perhaps as well, we should wonder whether the species that have been domesticated with us are Saints: Heather, corn, wheat, barley, millet, cows, chickens, dogs, pigs. Perhaps as well those that have accompanied us as we made our cities: Cats, rats, mice, cockroaches, pigeons, squirrels, starlings, coyotes, dandelions, and crows. And perhaps those species and ecologies that provided the materials, medicines, and wild foods that nourished us. And all those that populated our symbols, languages and stories. Perhaps the Communion of Saints is nothing less than an ongoing Being-One-With the Holy-Ones-of-Creation.  

A Litany of Ten Salish Sea Rainforest Trees

Saint Western Red Cedar pray for us…

Saint Douglas fir pray for us…

Saint Western Hemlock pray for us…

Saint Grant Fir pray for us…

Saint Sitka Spruce pray for us…

Saint Amabilis Fir pray for us…

Saint Big Leaf Maple pray for us…

Saint Red Alder pray for us…

Saint Paper Birch pray for us…

Saint Yew pray for us…


[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions. Kindle Edition, 1961/2007), 27.

[2] St. Therese of Lisieux, The Final Conversations, (Washington: ICS, 1977), 102.

[3] Here is a link to the whole poem! https://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=3188

[4] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions. Kindle Edition, 1961/2007), 31.

[5] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions. Kindle Edition, 1961/2007), 32.

[6] Sally McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Fortress Press: 1993), 287.

[7] Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, (Orbis Books 2020), 176.  

Encounters with Coyote

In many plains and southwestern cultures, Coyote is an ancestral kin. In many stories, Coyote’s antics introduce pain, suffering and chaos into the world. In comparative mythology, Coyote-like characters are often portrayed as Tricksters. A Trickster often subverts the norm, plays tricks, and holds secret knowledge. Coyote can also be a Hero figure where he slays a monster like Thunderbird. The astrological season of Gemini (May 21-June21) is also Trickster sign, at least according to the folks at the School for Mythopoetics where I have just enrolled as a Founding Member.

Today, I was walking home from the library through Queen Elizabeth Park. I was walking slowly up a hill, and was mostly in my head as I thought about the day’s tasks. As I came to a fork in the steep path, I looked right, and there squatting in the middle of the path was a large coyote taking a shit. We locked eyes as the turd flopped to the ground. I recoiled in disgust and started laughing hysterically. Had I arrived seconds earlier or seconds later and I would have avoided the encounter, and probably felt more of a sense of wonder than of aversion.

I love to find beauty and meaning in the natural world, my writings at Holyscapes is all about this. But today, I was reminded not to take myself too seriously. Reminded that our plans don’t always go the way we expect. Seeing the Trickster in the act of defecating was the ultimate overturning of order and my expectations of natural beauty. Love live the Trickster!

Easter Vigil

On Maundy Thursday

I will wash my feet in the riffle of a creek

On Good Friday

I will lament the crucifixion with the dear earth

and venerate the weeping wood of too many crosses born by still living trees

On Holy Saturday

I will sit in vigil

at the tomb under a night sky

greyed by a shroud of sleepless electric lights

And on Easter Sunday

I will wander and worship

the resurrection body

in the cherry petals

that bloom and waft all over my garden city

More on Embodied Contemplative Spirituality

In a previous post I discussed the ethical questions of borrowing spiritual practices from the Hindu and Daoist traditions. Wary of inappropriate cultural appropriation, I have resisted adopting practices outside of a general contemplative Christian framework. However, I realized that Christianity simply does not have the resources for an embodied spirituality that many other traditions such as Yoga and Daoism do. Some may disagree, but this has been my experience. In this post I just want to add a bit more context to the question of embodiment in spiritual practice.

For many years I have been a somewhat consistent practitioner of what has been called contemplative spirituality or Centering Prayer. Fully fleshed out by Trappist monks like Fr. William Meninger, Fr. M. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating in the 1970s, the practice modernizes the musings of the medieval author of the Cloud of Unknowing. This form of prayer is Apophatic, in that it attempts to move beyond words, images and ideas about God and into a place of unknowing, or forgetting the world of self, sacrament and matter. Apophatic prayer moves beyond Cataphatic prayer, from creation to creator, from world to heaven. The writer of Cloud states, “During contemplative prayer all created things and their words must be buried beneath the cloud of forgetting.”[i] (The author imagines a Cloud of Unknowing above and a Cloud of Forgetting below the novice meditator.) The practice strives to move the practitioner into the Cloud of Unknowing, the very presence of God’s being, toward a sort of objectless awareness beyond guided meditations, mantras, rote prayers, petitions, visualizations. This is of course a form of (neo) Platonism, moving from body and world to Source and God. And even if the author maintains the goodness of creation, as they do with words, the ultimate experience of God is beyond all words and things.

Centering Prayer is meant to train us in the slow lifelong spelunking to the cave of the heart, to the core of our being where God is actively creating us in each moment. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk largely responsible for popularizing contemplative spirituality in the 1950s and 60s, in his book Contemplative Prayer wrote: “Monastic prayer begins not so much with ‘considerations’ as with a ‘return to the heart,’ finding one’s deepest center, awakening the profound depths of our being in the presence of God.”[ii] For Merton, contemplative prayer was a practice for achieving the ultimate communion with God, who could be conceived as dwelling at the inmost space of our being, much like the Atman/Brahman (Soul/Source) theology of the Hindu Upanishads. Catholic critics of Centering Prayer however, claim that Centering Prayer is not prayer at all but a form self-hypnosis or even self-worship.[iii]

In recent years, writer Cynthia Bourgeault and Franciscan Father Richard Rohr have become the most visible advocates of Centering Prayer through the Center for Action and Contemplation. They teach the method as a form of prayer and self-discovery.[iv] In recent years, there has been some lovely discussions of the method taking forms not narrowly influenced by the more sedentary Zen sensibilities of the practice. For example, Barbara A. Holmes in her book Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (2017) surveys the history of contemplative practice in the black church in North America (Mostly the United States) which takes place in spaces that are saturated with the charismatic worship of black churches and the vital spaces of political activism in the wake of Black Lives Matter.

So far I have described spirituality in at least two senses:

Spirituality 1: “The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things” (Oxford Dictionary). In this sense, spirituality is a dualized concept that sets spirit in opposition to matter. The intuition behind aphorisms like: “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Spirituality 2: “An understanding of how life should be lived and an attempt to live that way” (Gottlieb 2012). In this sense, spirituality is a method or practice designed to achieve a religiously-minded goal. Contemplative Prayer it seems is often framed in this way. We engage in the practice to achieve some state of mind or being but also with a hope in some end goal, usually communion with God, enlightenment, Moksha, Nirvana.

However, beyond these two senses of contemplative spirituality, a broader definition is emerging that blurs boundaries between ontological and methodological senses. Many in North America have begun to adopt a more “immanent frame” to borrow Charles Taylor’s phrase from his landmark book A Secular Age. This sense can defined this way:

Spirituality 3: “Spiritual but not Religious”. No longer as concerned with Transcendence, we claim to be spiritual in this sense when we have a vague notion of the world’s sacredness, or when we are in a zone of body-mind synchronization (Flow States or In the Zone). This “New” spirituality is expressed most often in the surge in popularity of the vaguely spiritual athleticized forms of North American Yoga.

It would see that Senses 1 and 2 are compatible, and Senses 2 and 3 are compatible, but Senses 1 and 3 are not compatible. In North America the assumption that one could be spiritual without the trappings of a specific religion is almost an article of faith. We have seen books and seminars on Bodifulness rather than Mindfulness. Art, music, performance, dance, craft, sex, rock climbing, surfing are spoken of as a kind of spiritual practice in Sense 3 above.

Forest Bathing as a therapeutic and spiritual practice has also rocketed into the collective imagination. Zero Waste, Green, Sustainable and Vegan lifestyle-isms have taken not only a moralizing character but a sort of green monastic asceticism. And attending to the dying and death practices has also become an area for discussion both as a form of ecological activism, critique of capitalist professionalization the death industry, and a form of accompaniment-based spirituality.

For me, the exploration of Yoga and Qigong (still very amateur) are motivated by a blending of Senses 2 and 3 of spirituality. Because Centering Prayer tends to have a strong Sense 1 and 2 motivation, engaging the body has been less a part of the conversation in contemplative prayer circles in my experience. We focus on the power of silence and stilling the monkey mind. Of slowing down and not being in movement all the time. Centering Prayer finds God in the center of our being. This is powerful stuff! I think practicing stillness and silence will always be important to my practice. But could an Embodied Contemplative Spirituality help us de-center the Self and thus de-center the presence of God? Not only found in some core Essential Self, but within the wider Ecological Self that is hopelessly entangled, hybrid and open to the more-than-human world. Rather than contrasting Transcendence and Immanence, to speak of Inscendence as the intertwined threads of the tapestry of Being.[v] Not as distinct domains of reality but as folds and contours in the evolving fabric of Cosmos.

Does Embodied Contemplative Prayer resonate? What practices do you engage with that you would consider a form of Embodied Spirituality?


[i] The Cloud of Unknowing (Image Classics) (p. 65). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Merton, Thomas (2009). Contemplative Prayer (First paperback ed.). New York: Crown Publishing Group. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-0-307-58953-8.

[iii] https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=234

[iv] https://cac.org/

[v] https://www.contemplation.com/inscendence-and-deconstruction/

Questions for the Forest Therapy Guides

Rice Lake

In 1982, the Japanese Forest Agency began promoting ‘forest therapy’ as a form of preventative medicine. Shinrin Yoko as the practice came to be known means Forest Bathing and the idea is that spending unstructured, unhurried time in forest, temple and park spaces could contribute to positive health outcomes.

In the 1990s, peer reviewed studies seemed to corroborate these findings. Walking in forests increases immune system function, lowers blood pressure and lowers stress hormones. There is a positive impact on symptoms of PTSD, stress, focus and general wellbeing.[i]

These findings are well documented and while they are not necessarily conclusively causative, they are absolutely resonant with increasing our health through lifestyle choices and time away from screens. However, some spokespeople for forests and forest bathing such as Diana Beresford Kroeger, an Irish-Canadian who has a bold vision of reforestation, can speak of the benefits hyperbolically. For example, during an interview on the Wisconsin Public Radio program To the Best of our Knowledge, Diana claimed that just touching certain leaves or plants could prevent leukemia or certain types of cancers.[ii] For example, she claims that by simply touching the green fruits of Black Walnut trees the ellagic acid absorbed through the sweat glands will protect children from leukemia. I couldn’t find anything close to proof of this, so it seems dubious.

In North American, a growing number of organizations are offering trainings to become “certified” Forest Therapy Guides. These trainings typically cost anywhere from $3000-$4000 for a six month program that often includes an in person immersion. When I learned about this practice, I was very interested. But the more I thought about it the more concerned I became. Despite a danger of over-exaggerating the benefits of walking in the woods, what worries me about the increasingly popular phenomenon of Forest Bathing in North America is its flagrant exoticism and the monetization of certification programs.  

The first point. It seems that whenever eco-spiritual seeker types get ahold of a concept from “The East”, we immediately read into it a sort of ancient, ecological wisdom. Japan does indeed have a strong sense of identity connected to trees and forests. They have one of the highest rates of forest cover of any nation. Shinto shrines are often located among sacred groves, some of which can be quite ancient. However, Shinrin Yoku as a concept only started in the 1980s. Why is it that despite a massive cannon of poets, naturalists and forest walkers in the Western European and Transcendentalist tradition, many of my fellow Westerners of European descent feel the need to appropriate a modern Japanese practice in order to lend legitimacy to a practice they are eager to monetize?

This brings me to my second question. Why do we need Forest Therapy Guides? Why not just offer a one hour training in Forest Bathing and invite people to do it in small groups that are self-facilitated? Why turn an open source skill into a product? Why charge money to become a certified mediator of the forest space? This seems like it crosses a line.

In an official video linked through the Forest Therapy Guide Association website, the speaker states that guides are needed to slow us down and engage us in “sensory activities that will be unlike anything you have ever experienced before.”[iii] Really? Sure its great advice to put my phone away, to forget about a destination, to open my senses to the forest around me, to slow down and wander; but unlike anything? That sounds like snake oil to me. It sounds like the Transcendental MeditationTM folks who sell Sanskrit Mantras© with the promise of a transformed work-life balance.

So maybe folks who are invested in this movement could share their experience. I know plenty of wonderful folks who are Guides, so this critique is not a personal attack. It’s a serious concern and a question that has been building in me for a while. Let me know what you think.

Post Script: While it seems that Japan does have specific trainings for Forest Therapy programs, I am doubtful that these are standalone programs apart from other essential healthcare services. I would be happy to speak with someone who knows more about the movement in Japan. Are Forest Therapy programs in Japan similar to the ones in North America? I know that there are certification schemes for forests and walking trails in Japan, but I am not sure what the training system looks like for anyone who would be the equivalent to a “Guide” in North America.


[i] Li, Qing. “Effect of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) on human health: A review of the literature”, Santé Publique, vol. no. HS1, 2019, pp. 135-143.

[ii] https://www.ttbook.org/show/can-science-be-sacred

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxLbmMwlI4U

Give Me That Old Growth Religion: Finding Common Ground in the War in the Woods

Framing a Conflict  

I have a very cool job. I get to teach a mix of environmental studies and humanities courses at Simon Fraser University, in beautiful British Columbia, Canada. This includes courses from ‘World Religions’, to ‘Environmental Ethics’, and ‘Religion and Ecology’ to ‘Forest Ecosystem Management’. When I tell students that I studied forestry and theology in graduate school, I get looks that range from skepticism to amazement. This spring I taught, what to me, was a dream course. It was entitled ‘Sacred Groves: Trees, Forests and the Human Imagination’. The curriculum explored the entanglement between human cultures and forest ecosystems through readings in anthropology, ecology, ethics and sacred texts. The students were from many different faculties and backgrounds, and by the end of the course it was clear to me that we had just scratched the surface of the intersections and material in this interdisciplinary field.

During this time, the so-called War in the Woods had heated up in a remote old growth forest on Vancouver Island. Activists were defending road blocks from a court injunction that gave Teal Jones the right to log several areas of forest identified by activists as old growth in the Fairy Creek Watershed within unceded Pacheedaht First Nation territory. News outlets recycled familiar tropes about jobs versus ecological integrity, and we have witnessed numerous videos of RCMP officers aggressively extracting activists from precarious tripods or underground arm holds and enforcing illegal exclusion zones near cut blocks.

This skirmish was happening in the wake of the Province of British Columbia having revealed an official timeline for enacting a so-called “paradigm shift” in the way forestry is done. The Province has even endorsed all fourteen recommendations from the most recent Old Growth review panel. The report is entitled “A New Future for Old Growth: A Strategic Review of How British Columbia Manages for Old Forests Within its Ancient Ecosystems” written by long time foresters Garry Merkel and Al Gorely.[1] The report includes yet another call for the province to shift toward “ecosystem-based management” that includes protecting some of the Province’s remaining old growth forests, especially in the most productive site classes within the Coastal Western Hemlock (CWH) biogeoclimatic zone which covers some 10.8 million hectares of BC (11.4%).[2] The recommendations even includes recognizing forests “intrinsic value for living things.” The term intrinsic value being a term that is typically only heard in environmental ethics courses, or invoked to critique the mechanistic, utilitarian approach to forestry embodied by industrial logging.

On June 17, 2021, during the peak of media coverage of the Fairy Creek blockades, Narwhal journalist Sarah Cox interviewed co-author of the Old Growth Strategic Review, Garry Merkel. The conversation was entitled “What are the real solutions to old-growth logging?” Throughout his comments Merkel continually returned to the fact that a successful paradigm shift in forestry would not be achieved only through advocating for top down policy changes. His thesis was essentially that only when we can start to think differently will we be able to act differently. And then the clincher:

A paradigm shift is a fundamental shift in thinking. It’s essentially a revolution in thinking…Think about it in your own life. For those of you who might have a certain religious orientation. Change your religion tomorrow and think like that. That’s what a paradigm shift is. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of work to help people work through that (43:10).[3]  

It is not often that forestry and religion are discussed together, so Merkel’s comments lit up both parts of my brain. Merkel’s comments also resonated with historian Lynn White Jr.’s criticism of the anthropocentric wing of the Abrahamic faiths, in which the emphasis on a transcendent God at a distance from creation enabled Western civilization to think of the world as so much material given to humanity for our flourishing which has correlated with (if not precipitated) our current ecological crises.[4]

Political theorists may find fault with Merkel’s paradigm shift approach because of its emphasis on the importance of ideas and thinking over structures of power and economic pressures. This is a valid critique, but I fundamentally agree with Merkel’s view that our approach to old growth is as much about worldview as it is about money or jobs. The War in the Woods is not just about territory and power any more, it is also about ideas. It is largely a continuation of a culture war that has been waged for many decades.

In this essay, I will outline the context and complexities of the most recent skirmish in the battle to protect old growth forests in British Columbia at Fairy Creek. I will make the case for the quasi-religious nature of this conflict and assess Garry Merkel’s suggestions around orchestrating a Province wide paradigm shift. I argue that the essentially religious dimensions to the current old growth conflict mean that any kind of paradigm shift toward more ecosystem-based management will need to incorporate elements of the various conflicting worldviews to succeed.

Holy Wars

The most famous battle of the War of the Woods was fought in the late 1990s when activists blockaded access to a timber license on Meres Island near the town of Tofino on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. This protest resulted in over 900 arrests, the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history (until Fairy Creek Protestors surpassed this record in 2021). Counter protests, called Ucluelet Rendezvous, attracted thousands of people as well, and vocalized frustration with the protests and support for the industry that continues to provide for over 60,000 livelihoods in BC.

Eventually the timber company MacMillan Bloedel agreed not to log the forests and First Nations’ forestry companies took over the major timber licenses in the area. In 2000 the area was designated as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, but much of the bioregion remains without Provincial protected status despite the good faith agreements between First Nations logging companies and environmentalists. Emerging First Nations land management programs are re-embedding traditional and spiritual values into their land use plans.

In August of 2020 activists began to quietly blockade several access points to the Fairy Creek Watershed, just north of Port Renfrew, Vancouver Island. Then, in May of 2021, the BC courts issued an injunction against the blockade giving logging company Teal Jones the right to access and harvest trees in the timber license area. Teal Jones was founded in 1946 by Jack Jones as a cedar shingle mill in New Westminster, BC and the company owns mills in the United States and Canada. Some activists have targeted the company and organized protests outside their current headquarters in Surrey, BC. Teal Jones responded by giving away tree saplings to the protestors as a token of their view that the industry is a leader in environmental sustainability.

The group primarily responsible for leading the protests and blockades is called the Rainforest Flying Squad. A Go Fund Me campaign associated with the group has raised over $700,000.[5] Theirs is a deep devotion to protecting one of the few remaining unlogged watersheds in southern Vancouver Island. A quick Google Maps search reveals just how unique the site is to the surrounding patch work of clear cut harvests in various stages of recovery, which appears as an ovate shaped valley of continuous green. 

In the meantime, the leaderships of the Huu-ay-aht, Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations have issued statements requesting that activists respect their territories and essentially pack up and leave. Each of the tribes has been devastated by colonialism, and standard procedure has been for logging companies to enter their territories, which are officially designated as “Crown Land”, and extract timber for the open market. However, in the new era of truth and reconciliation, rights and title, and treaty commissions, First Nations are winning more and more battles for greater control over how land is managed within their territories. The Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations are negotiating a treaty with the Province together, as on-reserve populations are comparatively small. They are also slowly gaining more economic ground by purchasing local businesses such as a resort and a gas station. Forest tenure agreements, which enable third parties to harvest timber from Crown Land are also being rearranged to ensure tribes get a fair share of timber revenues. The Pacheedaht have even opened up a local saw mill that processes old growth cedar trees for specialty products.[6] The Huu-ay-aht leadership has also been vocal about the importance of forestry to their local economy, and do not see ecotourism as a viable alternative (though perhaps a supplement) to forest harvesting.

However, not all the members of these nations agree with their leadership. For example, Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones has been a vocal defender of the Fairy Creek old growth forests, saying that activists are his guests. He has even stated publically that Frank Jones who claims to be the Pacheedaht hereditary chief was not officially passed that title by his father, making hereditary leadership contested among the Pacheedaht. Jones emphasizes that disease and colonial violence disrupted their traditional governance which included decisions over natural resource management. The Canadian Indian Act, which mandated democratically elected councils to be the nations’ official representation to the state were designed to disrupt systems of kinship and usufruct rights. This means that communities are often divided with respect to the legitimate leadership of their interests, and as in any community hold diverse views on controversial environmental issues.

Media portrayals of the War in the Woods in the 90s as now, often frame the debate about old growth as one between jobs and preservation, economic growth and ecological integrity. Even academic treatments trace these familiar songlines through the landscape. Geographer Bruce Braun wrote an analysis of the conflict in his book The Intemperate Rainforest (2002). In it Braun argues along social constructionist lines that the forest is a contested space. Nature’s impenetrable otherness absorbs our socio-political projections. In this case loggers and environmentalists clash over the contested meaning of forests as zones of ecological integrity versus resource extraction. Caught in the middle were the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples who had dwelt in the Clayoquot Sound by their own reckoning since time immemorial.[7] Braun assesses the forests through a political ecology lens that might be accused of erasing the agency, materiality and objectivity of the forest. Nevertheless, his argument shows how deeply contested a forest can be within a contemporary pluralist society.

In their own public relations materials, timber and forestry organizations boast BC’s high environmental standards and regulations, tree planting practices and the carbon sequestration potential of wood products used in buildings and furniture. Environmentalists argue that old growth have intrinsic value and harbor unique biodiversity. Old forests are also massive sinks of carbon and therefore provide a rich array of ecosystem services which makes them “worth more standing”, a common slogan among activists. Indigenous peoples and their relationships to forests are often marginalized from these dominant storylines, and have expressed resistance to both. At Fairy Creek, we are once again trapped between divergent views of what forests are for, and who gets to decide how we manage them. Yet social science and media portrayals miss altogether the deeply seated quasi-religious commitments of the various interested parties. In the next sections I will explore at least three of these commitments.

The Gospel of Efficiency

In forestry school, we learned that the succession of a forest begins with a phase called “Stand Initiation.” This could of course get going through natural disturbances such as fire or windstorms, but in a commercial forestry setting, this means planting trees in a harvested area.[8] In BC we plant somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-300 million seedlings each year on around 190,000 hectares of harvested area. Learning forestry, it always felt as though this first phase had a somewhat biblically Ex Nihilio—out of nothing—ring to it. Just as the Abrahamic god had created the world through words, benevolent foresters re-create the forest through an act of Stand Initiation—harvesting and re-planting. ‘In the beginning there was a perfectly spaced stand of commercially valuable trees…’

As historian James C. Scott has written in his book Seeing Like a State, the history of industrial forestry in Europe and North America is rooted in the rise of capitalist efficiency and the royal pronouncements of the 16th and 17th centuries.[9] As European wood supply began to dwindle with the rise of the industrial revolution, kingdoms and then secular governments sought ways to more efficiently manage trees and forests for a steady stream of an increasingly narrower range of commodities, primarily timber.

German forestry especially turned vast networks of medieval forest commons into agricultural cropland. Through the application of the sciences, they sought to simplify the forest community to maximize the growth of desirable species and to eradicate the presence of so-called pests and non-economic trees and shrubs. Mathematical equations were developed to calculate the volume of standing trees in a given stand, and estimate the trees’ growth rate. This of course enabled a predicable model of the steady flow of timber resources, and therefore cash. This worked out well enough for 1-2 rotations, but then the soil began to exhaust. Fertilization was often needed, and the forest had to be protected from fire. Bark beetles and other boring and defoliating insects were also more likely to swell in population due to the even-aged character of the forests, which essentially provided a vast arboreal buffet. Some areas after harvest didn’t recover well on their own so nurseries and replanting were needed to supplement natural regeneration. Forest commons were gradually converted into plantations, managed as intensively as any agricultural crop.

In North America, forests were ravaged by waves of agrarian settler colonists (many who were refugees from Europe) and timber operations. With an impending timber famine, forestry in the United States became institutionalized through the political muscle of Theodore Roosevelt. In 1898, Roosevelt appointed Gifford Pinchot, a Europe-educated forester, to lead the Division of Forestry. In 1900 Pinchot was instrumental in establishing the first forestry school in North America at Yale. Pinchot was later appointed the first head of the US Forest Service. Pinchot’s approach to forestry and conservation in general had a major impact on the development of the forestry profession in North America.

In Canada, the first forestry school was established in Toronto in 1907, but the University of British Columbia did not open its forestry school until 1921. What began in BC as a corrupt and unregulated industry, was eventually tamed into the provincial timber tenure system still in place today. A major milestone in this process came in 1909 when Fred Fulton published his “Royal Commission Report on Timber and Forestry” known as the Fulton Commission. The recommendations for this report were institutionalized in the 1912 Forest Act.[10]

Rather than a focus on what we would now call conservation, early forestry legislation in BC was primarily aimed at ensuring the efficient harvesting of timber, the prevention of fire, and the ability to generate public revenues. Instead of allowing for the extraction of only the largest trees, tenure holders were required to harvest all available timber over a certain diameter.

Even the creation of forest reserves which eventually became the Provinces system of protected areas, was not initially about preserving forest ecosystems, rather, it was about ensuring economic sustainability and a supply of timber to future generations. From a functional linguistic standpoint, ‘ecosystems’ did not really exist yet and forests were seen as an inexhaustibly renewable resource that should be managed according to rational scientific principles. Forests did not exist for their own sake, but for ours. Yes, the National Park systems were getting going, but these were primarily about the beauty of Nature, and allowing those who could afford it access to experiences of the Sublime and Transcendent a la John Muir. Which, as we will see in the next section, are the roots of the quasi-religious views of contemporary ecological activists. 

However, it is not the case that this scientific approach to forest management was the opposite of a more spiritual, preservationist perspective that was emerging. Economist Robert H. Nelson convincingly argues that in fact the industrial approach too can be characterized as quasi-religious. While there are many narrower definitions of religion in the field of Religious Studies which restrict religion to its institutional or identitarian expressions, Nelson defines religion broadly as a “comprehensive worldview” or moral vision that is basically understood as true, or how the world works.[11]

Nelson argues that 19th century conservationists sought the fair distribution and utilization of resources for their “highest good” as a way to provide the most amount of benefit to society. This utilitarian view holds that using resources efficiently will maximize the benefits to the greatest amount of people through jobs and economic growth and using forestry techniques to meticulously measure and grade the forests ensures that a certain amount of timber volume will be available indefinitely.[12] The highest good therefore is the benefit of society. The vision of utilitarian conservation became the dominant framework for interpreting the forests of North America and guided legislation and management strategies that focused on the efficient use of timber.[13] Nelson dubs this utilitarian view the ‘Gospel of Efficiency’ as being a quasi-religious devotion to enlightenment rationality and a firm faith in the infinite abilities of humanist Science.

Nineteenth century progressives such as Gifford Pinchot and Fred Fulton saw forestry as a correction to the wasteful and plundering style of colonialism, and efficient use of the earth’s bounty as a sacred duty. They wanted to use science to effectively measure and manage the forests and pass laws that protected them in perpetuity for the use of future generations. Therefore it is essential to make a good account of the quantity of our forest resources and manage them efficiently for the good of the whole society.

For a forester or logger trained in traditional silviculture, an ancient forest may be beautiful, but from a management perspective, it is ‘decadent’, past its prime. It has entered into what is perceived to be a stagnant phase of growth where the trees are no longer growing vertically, secondary growth has slowed to nearly zero, and root and heart rots threaten the quality of the tree’s wood and structural stability. Certainly temperate old forests are places with high biodiversity, but they are not necessarily the places with the world’s or even the region’s highest biodiversity. Nor do old forests represent the full range of habitats of an intact forest ecosystem which would typically include stands at all stages of growth depending on the ecosystem’s disturbance regime, fire return interval, or Indigenous land management practices.[14] An old forest is not in itself an isolated ecosystem, but part of the wider ecological landscape.

In other words, according to the Gospel of Efficiency, cutting down old forests outside of protected areas in not a sacrilege, it is a duty. It is part of full cycle good stewardship of the land. It is the final phase that allows the whole forest’s growth to start over again (Ex nihilo). If efficient use of resources is your modus operandi, leaving those trees to rot and fall over (as they see it) is the real sacrilege. As loggers and foresters are often heard to say: trees grow back! Thus, for many rooted in this paradigm, rather than shifting the forestry sector toward wholesale ecosystem management, the system should continue to fine tune the constraints on forestry practices in order to account for previously unaccounted values, leaving old growth management to flourish in designated protected areas. Riparian buffers, proper drainage and culvert placement and replanting trees ensure harvesting does not impact salmon or biodiversity. With these forestry practices in place, and in some cases third party certification to ensure these practices are followed, it is believed that the forest industry can continue to provide wide ranging benefits to society as a whole.

Gaian Devotees

As a young forest grows, trees compete for light. After “Stand Initiation”, the forest passes through a phase of growth called “Stem Exclusion” in which the trees race to capture available growing space. The canopy becomes dense and the understory becomes dark with hardly any other plants able to grow. Eventually, some of the trees are out-competed and the forest begins to self-thin, which passes the forest into the “Understory Reinitiation” phase. Dead trees lose their needles or fall over during high winds and light begins to filter through the canopy. Eventually, there is enough light to support a vibrant understory of small trees, shrubs and ground cover. In the Pacific West, even long lived trees like Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga Menziesii) begin to lose space within the canopy because they cannot regenerate in the lush shady understory they have helped create. More shade tolerant trees such as Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) and Western Hemlock (Tsuga Heterophylla), which have been hanging around in the understory begin to fill in the gaps. But their seeds are able germinate amidst the mossy duff and fallen logs. After the last Ice Age as plants recolonized the Pacific West, what is now classified as the Coastal Western Hemlock Biogeoclimatic Zone reached its current ecological complexity about 15,000-12,000 years ago. The slow maturing of a coastal forest can last hundreds or even thousands of years before a fire comes along and opens up enough new growing space for less shade tolerant species such as Douglas fir, Shore Pine (Pinus contorta var. contorta) or Red Alder (Alnus rubra) to recapture a site.

This story of how trees grow understands trees as primarily individual organisms in competition with each other. It was the dominant view during my time in forestry school, inherited from Gifford Pinchot and the Gospel of Efficiency. This approach was a conscious and empirically founded alignment with a view of trees that favored silvicultural treatments. In fact, during my forest succession courses, views that hinted at the special status of old growth trees, or forests as interconnected biomes were not so subtly mocked as so much sentimental nonsense.

Starting as early as the 19th century, the scientific silvicultural views advocated by conservationists such as Pinchot, came into conflict with what were we might now call preservationist views which valued aesthetics and wild nature. These understandings were classically embodied by John Muir’s movement to protect Hetch Hetchy Valley from being dammed to supply San Francisco with water. In fact, initially allies, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot had a very public falling out over the fate of Hetch Hetchy. Muir wrote of the plan:

That anyone would try to destroy [Hetch Hetchy Valley] seems; incredible; but sad experience shows that there are people good enough and bad enough for anything. The proponents of the dam scheme bring forward a lot of bad arguments to prove that the only righteous thing to do with the people’s parks is to destroy them bit by bit as they are able. Their arguments are curiously like those of the devil, devised for the destruction of the first garden. . . .

These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.

Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.[15]

Muir’s religious allusions are clear and were meant to stir up the imaginations of American Transcendentalists and Christians alike. By setting his own affinity for Nature against the idolatry of Capitalism he delineated not progress as sacred by the world as a place of encounter with the Divine. He also makes reference to what I am calling the Gospel of Efficiency who propose that the utility of the parks is their highest good. While Muir’s recent reputation has been stained by his overt racism against Indigenous peoples, his ecological spirituality inspired generations of environmental activists who have come to see forests as sacred space, whose primary value is intrinsic rather than instrumental.

The preservationist view was influenced by the transcendental writings of Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In that view, Nature was maintained as a domain distinct from Culture, but was invested with sacredness as a foil to the anxiety-inducing drudgery of the industrial city. In contrast to the utilitarian view which saw a sacred role for humans in managing the forest, the Transcendentalist vision, elevated the experience of an imagined untouched Nature as a potential encounter with the Sublime qualities of the Divine. Said another way, in the utilitarian view wilderness needs redeeming, and in the Transcendentalist view wilderness does the redeeming.

Among Muir’s disciples in the west, old growth forests were valued primarily for their sacred quality, and the majestic size of their trees. John Muir’s advocacy for the Mariposa Grove and the Save the Redwoods League, worked to preserve these groves from the ax and saw. Many more activists across the world have done similar work as a labor of love in service of something greater than themselves, a common religious virtue.

Paradigms of Ecological Succession as Myth

Before we can discuss Muir’s contemporary successors in old growth preservation activism, I need to make a short detour through one of the most contentious debates in the biological sciences: Ecological Succession. The sides of this debate make up the cultural DNA so to speak of the current conflict. The debate revolved around the question of how ecosystems evolve over time. The term ecosystem, an abstract word describing the relationships between “organisms and their abiotic environments” was coined by Sir Arthur G. Tansley in 1935.[16] The main contenders in the debate regarding how ecosystems develop were ecologist Henry A. Gleason (1882-1975) and Frederick Clements (1874-1945). Gleason saw plants as essentially individual organisms thrown together at random by evolution and making their way through their unique adaptations. The Clementsian view was that forests were in fact climate-determined super-organisms, who moved through phases of growth much like our bodies. This meant that disturbances like fire or logging were outside forces to the delicately balanced climax ecosystem. A climax ecosystem was the state that could hypothetically be sustained indefinitely without a disturbance. After World War II, as the Western world debated the merits of capitalism and socialism, Clement’s views fell out of favor in North America, both due to sufficient empirical evidence to support it within the existing academy, but perhaps also because it did not align with the individualistic, market-based civil religion of the era which was bogged down in Cold War with China and the Soviet Union.[17]

Among silvicultural and commercial forestry circles, Gleason’s view has essentially won out. However, environmentalists, and even many conservation biologists embrace the Clementsian view, which takes for granted the intimate, individual-blurring interconnectedness of forest ecosystems. During the first battles of the War in the Woods, ecologists enlisted this interconnected, super-organismic language to advocate for setting more old growth forests aside, arguing that species like the Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis) and the Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) depended on these “climax” (late successional) forests to survive. In the late 1990s, some ten million hectares in California, Oregon and Washington were set aside from commercial harvest as part of the Northwest Forest Plan, which drastically reduced logging in publicly owned forests and shifted official policy toward ecosystem health.[18]

Despite the dominance of the utilitarian vision of forestry that overwhelmingly shapes forestry on crown lands in BC, the so-called Biogeoclimatic Ecological Classification System (BEC) which is used to categorize these lands is rooted in a Clementsian view of ecosystems. This means that the names given to forest types with this classification system enlist climax species as the climatic token of the forest type. My own forest ecosystem is the Coastal Western Hemlock because Western Hemlock is the shade tolerant species that persists through the late successional phase of forest growth, and barring disturbance would maintain dominance in the canopy in perpetuity. Yet, despite this classification, the region is dominated by mostly planted Douglas fir forests that will never reach their late successional old growth phase.

The more organismic understanding of forests embodied in the Clementsian view has been bolstered by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelocks Gaian Theory (sometimes referred to as merely a hypothesis), which, starting in the 1970s affirmed that the earth’s complex interlocking lifeforms act as a sort of single self-regulating organism through a complex web of positive and negative feedback loops which maintain the conditions which are optimal for life.[19] The Greek myth of Gaia is used to bolster the contemporary science-based myth (story) of the earth as organism, or the forest as commune.

Scholar Bron Taylor has classified those who have translated Gaia Theory into spiritual terms, as a subset of adherents to what he classifies as “Dark Green Religion”, the way of life that affirms that nature, life itself, has intrinsic value and is therefore sacred.[20] For Taylor, this is a legitimate religious position outside of organized or institutionalized religion, but religion nonetheless.[21] Religion that enlists ‘bricolage’, the melding of spiritual and scientific understandings of the world into a meaningful worldview and praxis. Environmentalists in this camp have been consistently accused by conservation-oriented foresters of being neo-pagan nature worshippers. If the world is alive, if forests are complex ancient living creatures, then to destroy them is sacrilege. Gaian ethics would assert that we do not just live on planet earth, we are within and among the earth and their myriad creatures.[22]

In recent years, a slew of new studies in plant behavior and ecological science has affirmed the mythos that ecosystems are deeply interconnected.[23] The work of forest ecologist Suzanne Simmard for example, has become enormously popular. Through her rigorous and novel experimental methods, Simmard has documented loquacious tree communication networks that are facilitated through aerosols and most often through mycorrhizae, or fungi who form mutualistic relationships with plant roots of all sorts.[24] A real life ‘Avatar’, forests have been shown to be intimately connected with each other through these webs of fungi that Simard calls the Wood Wide Web. Popular writers and TED Talk manifestoes by Peter Wohlleben and Monica Gagliano have also echoed these messages, which mix science and storytelling.[25]

Activists who have adopted the Gaian stance are putting their bodies at risk to save large, old trees in the Fairy Creek watershed, understand their mission with the zealous urgency of crusaders defending a holy land from infidels. Just as sacred sites are more than just a collection of buildings, or strategic locales but rather places imbued with holiness, an old growth forest is not simply a unit of marketable timber, or even primarily a provider of human valued ecosystem services. Forests are unique and sacred places to those who have come to cherish them, even without having visited. With climate change advancing faster than many worst case scenario models, 1,900 species at risk in BC alone, and shrinking stands of easily accessible ancient coastal rainforest, activists can’t be blamed for their desire to take direct action while provincial leadership engages in what feels like so much “talk and log” tactics—commissioning another study, or employing an independent oversight body, while timber licensing continues unaffected.

Despite the economic value of large trees, and the sacred quality of old groves, there is controversy surrounding just how much old growth forests are left in BC. The Province’s data shows that nearly 23 per cent of BC’s 60 million hectares of forestlands belong to their definition of old growth which is defined by a standard age class cut off: 250 years old on the coast and 150 years old in the interior. However, conservation organizations such as the Ancient Forest Alliance and Sierra Club suggest that only 3 per cent of the remaining primary forests fit the age and structural qualities associated with this old growth phase. This is because forests in BC are stratified by site quality or productivity, which is ranked by measuring the average tree height at 50 years old on a given site. Thus forests that are both old and that contain large trees make up a very low percentage of the remaining primary highest productivity sites in our resource management area.[26]

Interestingly however, it would seem that activists are not merely interested in identifying and preserving old trees or intact ecosystems per se. There are many old trees in the interior or in more inaccessible areas like ridge tops or vast tracks of stunted boreal forests. But these trees do not grow to the same impressive size and girth as the coastal productive forests and are thus less valuable to both loggers and environmentalists. However we define old growth, there is enough volume left in these uncut stands that Garry Merkel admits that with current legal contracts and economic forecasts in place, the timber industry cannot survive without cutting at least some of the remaining coastal and interior old growth trees. To give you an idea of why, one well-formed, relatively rot-free ancient Western Red Cedar can bring in over $30,000. This economic irresistibility, and the kind of devotion these trees kindle from Gaian activists means there will almost certainly be more battles in the War of the Woods on the horizon.

Whereas the efficient management of forests is primary within the Gospel of Efficiency, and cutting old trees is a public good, in the Gaian mythos of many activists, cutting an old forest would be akin to tearing down a cathedral for its stones. The value of old trees and forests is inherent, and the ability to experience what is understood as an intact, integral ecosystem that is free of human tinkering is sacrosanct and our birthright as citizens. They are sanctuaries, and are upheld as a foil to the urban, industrialized places many of these non-indigenous activists hail from. 

Sacred Relations

The Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) is revered as the Tree of Life by many Coast Salish peoples. According to some publically available tellings, Cedar used to be a generous man, who was always giving people gifts. The Transformer Being turned the man into Cedar so he could continue to give gifts. Cedar is at the heart of many Coast Salish cultures and provides both material and imaginal resources.

If loggers and environmentalists represent two extremes in the poles of old growth religion, the religiosity of First Peoples stands out as a unique third way that neither commoditizes old trees nor fetishizes them into sacrosanct precincts/objects. Rather, First Peoples on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, as I understand their publicly available teachings and statements, view old trees as non-metaphorical kin whose relationship is held in a tight reciprocity among peoples, non-human and human.

In Western environmental ethics we often speak in terms of forests being valued either for their intrinsic value, in and of themselves, or for their instrumental value, the value they have for human’s which for the last 200 years has typically been measured in board feet of timber, but can include aesthetical or ecological values important to humans as well. First Peoples, who are often caught between this binary, hold to their own sacred principles which could be said to include aspects of both intrinsic valuation and instrumental use. This has been referred to as a kind of Relational Value.[27] This means that trees and forests can simultaneously be intrinsically and instrumentally valued. A Western Red Cedar can be a person and a resource when embedded in a social relationship of gift giving, exchange and reciprocity. This mixing of subject/object categories has been inherently difficult for Western resource managers and activists to wrap their arms around. In English speaking venues, one can often hear advocates of First Nations’ management techniques fluidly moving between the language of kinship and natural resources as they attempt to break down their relational worldview for outsiders.

First Peoples have not embraced the narrow view of forests as merely timber resources, but they do not view old growth forests as pristine wilderness. The forest is a place of abundant gifts, taken with gratitude and reciprocated with good feelings, prayer and offerings. First Nations revere the Cedar as a relative, and yet they also depend on Cedar as a source of fiber, timber and totem poles. The prayerful, elder-directed selective logging of some Nations looks very little like industrial forestry, though there are many Nations who are developing more revenue-oriented forest operations constrained by their own sacred teachings. And while preservation activists tend to use terms such as ‘virgin’ or ‘pristine’ rainforest to bolster their claims that the groves are untouched, intact, untrammeled and sacred, the groves they are advocating for often have a long history of anthropogenic influence and care. Reflecting this ontological disconnect, long time Tla-o-qui-aht activist Gisele Maria Martin said speaking of old growth forests, “We don’t have a word for ‘wilderness’ in Nuu-chah-nulth languages…The closest translation is ‘home.’”[28] This means that many places which have been advocated for using words like pristine, untouched and wild, are in fact often former resource gathering sites.

This is because as archeologists are now recognizing, thousands of so-called Culturally Modified Trees (CMT) up and down the coast have been intensively managed for their gifts. Many are Western Red Cedar that have been managed for cedar bark or cedar plank harvesting. Many of the old growth forests that remain such as those in Pacific Rim National Park, were once intensively managed ‘orchards’ of Cedar whose bark, wood, roots and leaves were harvested for a variety of uses. Some trees were left to grow to very large sizes so they could later be harvested as totem poles, canoes or long house beams.[29] This does not mean these trees were valued merely as commodities, nor does it allow for the view that Indigenous land management systems were a kind of proto-wilderness protection system. And as Nations reclaim sovereignty over their territories through the treaty process, activists seeking to lock up remaining old growth trees in expanded traditional wilderness areas will have few enthusiastic supporters among a major contingent of Coast Salish Indigenous peoples.

Ritual Protest and Reconciliation 

In an era of reconciliation, the widely successful strategy of building public pressure on a primary resource management agency through both lobbying and direct action is getting complicated. There is a ritual dimension to these strategies which focuses on the symbolic re-creation of the forces of darkness versus the forces of light, in which the supporter and activists are stand in for cultural hero. I do not say this cynically, but descriptively. The bravery of activists is admirable and the optics are undeniably favorable to their cause.

For many years activists have used these urgent public awareness campaigns to pressure and shame leaders into actions with success. The most recent campaign at Fairy Creek is often called “The Last Stand” and evokes the urgency of protecting old growth forests as non-renewable sacred sites with ecotourism, climate change and biodiversity enhancing perks. As in past campaigns they have enlisted petitions, call in scripts, and celebrity endorsements. In recent years, social media has allowed vivid daily reports that include photographs, videos and tallies of arrests with far reaching calls for action across a wide network of supporters and sympathizers. As I mentioned above a Go Fund Me Campaign associated with the blockades at Fairy Creek has raised over half a million dollars.

Activists are calling on Premier John Horgan to immediately defer old growth logging, and to permanently fund the protection of all remaining coastal stands. However, Horgan has said that in a time of reconciliation, the Ministry of Forests cannot simply make this decision without consulting with First Nations, a politically correct, but convenient dodge indeed. And yet, the Pacheedaht leadership have asked activists to leave their territory. They have also asked that the province defer cutting in yet unprotected cut blocks in and around Fairy Creek so that they can write their own resource management plan. Activists have not headed the call to leave their encampments, and the Province has agreed to defer some areas while others have still gotten the go ahead. Even after the deferral of some 2,000 hectares of cut blocks that include old trees, activists remain stationed at several blockades around the Fairy Creek watershed as of this writing. In fact, it appears that arrests are set to exceed the history making civil disobedience of the Clayoquot Sound protests of the 1990s.

After the deferral of the 2,000 hectares, the leaderships of the Huu-ay-aht, Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations released the Hišuk ma c̕awak Declaration which can be read online. The document celebrates the Nations’ sovereign right to manage their lands according to their own three sacred principles: ʔiisaak (utmost respect), ʔuuʔałuk (taking care of), and Hišuk ma c̕awak (everything is one). While the media has often portrayed the conflict as primarily between the timber industry and environmentalists, First Peoples at the heart of the conflict are often enlisted by the different sides to support their positions as is the case with activists siding with Pacheedaht Bill Jones or Teal Jones pointing to the Hišuk ma c̕awak Declaration as a justification for their own extractive form of logging.

First Peoples on the West Coast of Vancouver Island are not monolithic, yet the leadership has tired of settler colonialists from both sides assuming they know what is in First Peoples’ interest. In a long piece for the Narwhal, Sara Cox asked Huu-ay-aht Chief Robert Dennis what he thought about the blockade’s messaging. He said,

For years we’ve been subject to colonial policy…Some outside force — mainly the federal government — comes onto our land and says ‘we’re going to take care of you and we’re going to do things better than you’ve been doing.

Now I’m seeing some outside force saying, ‘oh you know what, we want to halt old-growth logging. And when we do that we want to halt the First Nations’ rights to harvest cedar for cultural purposes … we want to infringe on their Treaty Rights … I’m seeing systemic racism continuing. ‘You Indians don’t have the ability to carry yourselves, so we’re going to fight for you and we’re going to protect the old-growth whether you like it or not.’ That’s what they’re doing, that’s what they’re saying. [30]

This is not to negate the tremendous harm that colonial resource management, which views forests through the lens of the Gospel of Efficiency, has effected on First Peoples. But mostly white, Western, and predominantly urban activists can sometimes simply invert the binary by asserting their own Gaian view of forests that don’t actually harmonize with the more relational land ethic of First Peoples.

            In this way, the performative, purposeful campaigns of Fairy Creek, while they present inspiring optics are oriented around a political tactic that was born within the colonial system. More Fairy Creeks are likely to occur in coming years, and activists, who claim to be on the side of decolonizing everything, will have to be more diplomatic with their messaging and tactics, and where possible play a supporting role to Indigenous led protest, blockade and campaign.

Will the ‘New Age’ of Forestry Ever Arrive? 

For now it looks as though the Province’s NDP government and public opinion are moving toward broadening the values that shape forest management in the province. It is not clear however if this will be a continuation of an essentially industrial forestry model with restraints, or a more totalizing transition toward a primarily ecosystem-based management. The Province has committed to implementing all of the recommendations of the Old Growth Strategic Review panel, but this is easier publicized than done. Despite the momentum, and major public support in urban centers along the southern border, there are still many thousands of people who work for and depend on the forest industry especially in the Province’s east and north. These communities rely on organizing forests around a more rapid harvest rotation which does not typically see forests develop into the old growth phase outside of protected or other specially designated areas.

During the webinar with Sarah Cox, Gary Merkel suggested that the most difficult task ahead lie not just in getting top town legislation passed, but in getting buy-in from people who don’t want to see the Province change the way we do forestry too radically. In essence, Merkel seems to suggest that to accomplish this, what is needed is a kind of ecosystem-based evangelization campaign. Merkel recommends a three-pronged strategy:

1. Build understanding of the new ecosystem management paradigm by ingraining the paradigm shift and management strategies into local knowledge, experience and livelihoods.  

2. Build structures that reflect the new thinking, and document examples of where the emergent management strategies are being implemented successfully.

3. Take time to recognize the progress that has been made. Come together to relish in the art and culture inspired by the new thinking about forests, come together to share experiences, and celebrate (and I would add grieve what we have lost).

In addition to pressure for better legislation and funding for protection, Merkel envisions ending the War in the Woods by engaging in a war of ideas and building a network of institutions and events dedicated to the ecosystem-based vision of forestry. Yet, as Merkel admitted above, converting people to a new religion is hard work. Merkel is essentially arguing for an intergenerational struggle to marginalize the ideas of industrial forestry and the Gospel of Efficiency and embrace the integral ecosystems paradigm, which though not explicitly Gaian, lends scientific credibility to the Dark Green character of Old Growth Religion.

With the three perspectives discussed here all seeking to maintain or implement their visions of forestry, it is interesting to me that “A New Future for Old Forests” recommends shifting toward a three-zone management scheme for forests that roughly accounts for these three approaches. The first is protected areas, where forests are managed primarily as ecosystems and their associated biodiversity. The second is intensively managed timber zones, where productive forests and rural communities can continue to sustain a rapid rotation approach to forestry. The third, is less clearly delimited, and is defined as areas where some resource harvesting could happen, but with a much lighter footprint. This could include watershed lands, special biodiversity protection zones, community forests and Indigenous co-management or newly acquired harvesting licenses or agreements within traditional territories. It may well be that the future simply looks like a demarcated tentative co-existence between the three quasi-religious approaches to forest management, rather an full system conversion to ecosystem-based management, at least in the near and medium term.

For now it seems that top down political proclamations are not going to fully resolve this conflict no matter how well aligned the Provincial government becomes with ecosystem-based management. As Merkel has suggested, we will most likely need broader conversations about the nature of our worlds, “Inter-faith” style dialogues which seek for mutual understanding and common ground.


[1] Garry Merkel and Al Gorely, “A New Future for Old Growth: A Strategic Review of How British Columbia Manages for Old Forests Within its Ancient Ecosystems” https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/farming-natural-resources-and-industry/forestry/stewardship/old-growth-forests/strategic-review-20200430.pdf

[2] https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/pubs/docs/srs/Srs06/chap6.pdf

[3] Interview with Garry Merkel by Sara Cox, “What are the real solutions to old-growth logging?” https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=162617789229535&ref=watch_permalink Facebook Live link. Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[4] White Jr., Lynn. ‘The Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis.’ Science, Vol 155, Issue 3767, 1967 pp. 1203-1207. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.155.3767.1203

[5] Rainforest Flying Squad Go Fund Me Campaign, https://www.gofundme.com/f/direct-action-for-ancient-rainforests Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[6] Government of Canada, 2020. ‘Successful Indigenous-industry partnerships in the forest sector: The People of the Seafoam’ https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests-forestry/state-canadas-forests-report/successful-indigenous-industry-partnerships-forest-sector-people-seafoam/21197 Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[7] Bruce Braun, The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada’s West Coast. (University of Minnesota, 2002).

[8] Ashton, Mark S., and Matthew J. Kelty. The Practice of Silviculture: Applied Forest Ecology. (John Wiley & Sons, 2018).

[9] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. (Yale University Press, 1999).

[10] The Fulton Commission, https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/pubs/Docs/Mr/Rc/Rc002/Rc002.pdf  Accessed on Nov. 29, 2021.

[11] Robert H Nelson, ‘Multiple-use forest management versus ecosystem forest management: A religious question?’ Forest Policy and Economics 35 (2013): 9-20.

[12] Nelson, ‘Multiple-use forest management versus ecosystem forest management’.

[13] Nelson, ‘Multiple-use forest management versus ecosystem forest management’.

[14] Nancy J. Turner, Dana Lepofsky, and Douglas Deur. “Plant management systems of British Columbia’s first peoples.” BC Studies: The British Columbian Quarterly 179 (2013): 107-133. https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1077&context=anth_fac Access Nov. 29, 2021.

[15]  John Muir, The Yosemite (New York: Century, 1912), 255–257, 260–262. Reprinted in Roderick Nash, The American Environment: Readings in The History of Conservation (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1968).

[16] Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. (Cambridge University Press, 1994). . 

[17] Michael G. Barbour, “American Ecology and American Culture in the 1950s: Who led whom?” Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 77, no. 1 (1996): 44-51.

[18] Spies, Thomas A., Jonathan W. Long, Susan Charnley, Paul F. Hessburg, Bruce G. Marcot, Gordon H. Reeves, Damon B. Lesmeister et al. “Twenty‐five years of the Northwest Forest Plan: what have we learned?.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 17, no. 9 (2019): 511-520.  https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/fee.2101  Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[19] James Lovelock. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. (Oxford University Press, 2000).

[20] Taylor, Bron. Dark Green Religion: Nature, Spirituality and the Planetary Future. (University of California Press, 2009).

[21] Taylor, Dark Green Religion.

[22] David Abram, ‘Perceptual Implications of Gaia’ https://wildethics.org/essay/the-perceptual-implications-of-gaia/ Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[23] Matthew Hall, Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. (Suny Press, 2011).

[24] Suzanne Simmard, The Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. (Allen Lane, 2021).

[25] Peter Wohlleben, The hidden life of trees: What they feel, how they communicate—Discoveries from a secret world. (Greystone Books, 2016).See also: Monica Gagliano, Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants. (North Atlantic Books, 2018).  

[26] Sierra Club, 2020. BC’s Old Growth Forests: A Last Stand for Biodiversity. https://sierraclub.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/bcs-old-growth-forest-a-last-stand-for-biodiversity-report-2020.pdf Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[27] Kai Chan, Patricia Balvanera, Karina Benessaiah, Mollie Chapman, Sandra Díaz, Erik Gómez-Baggethun, Rachelle Gould, ‘Opinion: Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 6 (2016): 1462-1465. https://www.pnas.org/content/113/6/1462

[28] Serena Renner, 2020. ‘The Deep Roots of BC’s Old Growth Defenders’, The Tyee, https://thetyee.ca/News/2020/09/16/Movement-In-Woods/ Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[29] Nancy Turner et al., ‘Plant Management Systems of British Columbia’s First Peoples’

[30] Sarah Cox, 2021. ‘Inside the Pacheedaht Nation’s Stand on Fairy Creek Logging Blockades’, The Narwhal, https://thenarwhal.ca/pacheedaht-fairy-creek-bc-logging/ Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

Unbraiding Sweetgrass

A Rocky Start

I’ll be honest. When I read Braiding Sweetgrass by bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer for the first time, I wasn’t impressed. The introduction had said the book was going to braid Indigenous and Western wisdom together in the service of a more ecologically oriented culture and relationship to earth. Kimmerer is a botanist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation who is trying to re-learn her language and cultural knowledge. Rather, what I read in the first chapter felt like a polemic against the entire Western tradition embodied in the creation myth of the Abrahamic religions.  

For Kimmerer, both her own and the Abrahamic creation stories involve the planting of a garden. In one, the earthlings are exiled from the garden and in the other, Skywoman descends from on high to plant it. Despite the complexity and multiple versions of the creation story, Kimmerer clearly elevates her own as a parable of ecological care and gift giving. She then simplistically contrasts this with the biblical myth. She writes:

On one side of the world were people whose relationship with the living world was shaped by Skywoman, who created a garden for the well-being of all. On the other side was another woman with a garden and a tree. But for taking its fruit, she was banished from the garden and the gates clanged shut behind her. That mother of men was made to wander in the wilderness and earn her bread by the sweat of her brow, not by filling her mouth with the juicy fruits that bend the branches low. In order to eat, she was instructed to subdue the wilderness into which she was cast (6-7).

So much for braiding. Instead, this felt more like the drawing of a line in the sand.

In Kimmerer’s telling, we meet Skywoman as she is already falling to earth with a small bundle of seeds. The animals below rescue her. Her fall is broken by the Geese. Muskrat sacrifices himself to bring earth to the surface so that she might have a place to stand on the self-giving back of Turtle. The earth-dappled shell expands, and Skywoman goes to work seeding the new world with plants.

Kimmerer does not mention however, how Skywoman fell from the sky. There are of course many widely available versions of the Skywoman creation story. She is a member of the Sky people, who inhabit a land in the sky. In most, she is pregnant. In one Iroquois telling, Skywoman is sent by the Sky Father through a hole at the base of the Tree of Life; in another she is pushed through the hole, which was made when her enraged husband knocked down the Tree of Life. In Haudenosaunee and Mohawk tellings of the story, either Skywoman or her husband are greedily digging at the root of a sacred tree in order to make tea from it, a hole opens in the sky and Skywoman is alternately pushed, falls or jumps through.

Kimmerer suggests that at the heart of our destructive ecocidal culture is a myth about shame, fear and exile. A story about the fall from grace. A story of the denial of earthly gifts. Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden for disobedience and then commanded to subdue the earth. However, as different as the two stories seem from Kimmerer’s telling, her story is the one that actually involves a literal fall. Skywoman begins as an exile and becomes native to earth. Adam and Even begin as native to earth and become exiles. In both cases, humans are not entirely at home in the earth. And yet, Adam and Eve were fashioned from the very flesh of Mother Earth herself. Adama literally means earth in Hebrew, and Chavah, Eve,means to give life. They are earthlings, not celestial sky beings.

While Genesis 1 contains an admonition to exert dominion over the earth as a just ruler might, Genesis 2 commands them to dress and keep the garden in a way that is absolutely harmonious with Kimmerer’s continual theme throughout the book of the fact that the vocation of humans is as gardeners. Yes the Genesis creation story has been used to justify destruction in the name of human supremacy; but it does not compel that destruction, which is rooted in the dark shadowy vices of greed, selfishness and lust, that were ignited by the Enlightenment and industrial revolution from the fuel of Greco-Roman Christian civilization. These same vices we are told, are later embodied in one of the twin sons birthed by Skywoman after her arrival on earth. So the motif of exile and return in Genesis, of dominion and tending, is mirrored by the motif of light and dark, generosity and greed in Kimmerer’s Skywoman.  

I also like to point out that Indigenous myths and stories are not immune from anthropocentrism, sexism and even racist elements. One Potawatomi creation story speaks of Earthmaker making people by baking them out of clay. ‘White’ people turned out to be undercooked, ‘black’ people were overcooked, and ‘red’ people were apparently cooked just right![1] But this of course does not mean that Indigenous peoples are therefore constrained by these singular elements for all time and eternity. They do not diagnose some deep rupture in their very existence as Kimmerer seems to suggest of the Abrahamic myth to Western civilization. By telling the story the way she does, Kimmerer sets up a binary between modern and Indigenous that she has just professed to want to blur.

The Break Through of Grace

In Kimmerer’s chapter ‘Witch Hazel’, I wept. This story from Kimmerer’s own life felt like the most beautiful of braids. While living and teaching in rural Kentucky, Kimmerer befriended her elderly Christian neighbor, Hazel. Told in the voice of Kimmerer’s daughter, despite their differences, Kimmerer and Hazel eventually connect over gardening and become close.

Hazel, a settler with deeper roots than Kimmerer in Kentucky, had cultivated her own sense of place and had accrued her own ecological knowledge—often by gardening in her slippers. Hazel had formed a deep connection to witch hazel, a native tree with myriad health benefits. Her simple theology came from her connection to place,

That witch hazel…it’s not just good for you outside, but inside too. Land sakes, flowers in November. The good Lord gave us witch hazel to remind us that there’s always somethin’ good even when it seems like there ain’t. It just lightens your heavy heart, is what it does ().

I pictured Hazel was an elderly and tired Eve, exiled from her childhood home-garden, longing to return. Her Adam is long gone, and her son Sam is now a retired coal miner, disabled by breathing the toxic dust of the substance that powers Western civilization—coal. He worked by the sweat of his brow to get ahead, to make a life for his family, only to remain in relative poverty, unable to work. His offering was accepted by the god of capitalism. Hazel had come to live with her son after he had a heart attack on Christmas Eve, a holy-day that Hazel loved.

Kimmerer felt to me like a stand in for Skywoman, though I don’t imagine she intended this, who is able to reconcile the feud she started with Eve in Chapter 1. Kimmerer is able to see that even in exile, Eve was a loving and kind human being who had stayed close to her dear Mother Earth, despite the hardships of her life, and the necessities of her friends and family working in an industry that has taken Genesis 1’s dominion to the most radical extreme in human history. At one point, Kimmerer takes Hazel to her former home, a place she deeply missed living with Sam. It was mostly ramshackle, and they spent a little time tidying up before leaving. Hazel had left the place almost as it was the Christmas Eve she went to live with her son.

As time passed, Kimmerer noticed that Hazel was depressed. When she asked, Hazel admitted that she wanted to spend one more Christmas in her “dear old home.” Kimmerer too had come to cherish and celebrate Christmas, but that year she were not going north to spend time with family. So Kimmerer with her daughters devoted hours to secretly cleaning up Hazel’s old home, getting the electricity turned back on and inviting neighbors to a beautiful surprise Christmas dinner. Like the 1987 film ‘Babette’s Feast’, where Babette, a French refugee in a strict Christian Reformed Danish town, wins a large sum of money in the lottery only to spend it on a sumptuous multiple course meal for the small village. Like Babette, Kimmerer prepared a sumptuous Christmas dinner for Hazel who beams with joy on entering her cherished home which has been decorated and filled with friends.

Eve-Hazel, filled with joy, had returned to the garden from her long exile. She is showered with the undeserved, unexpected grace at the heart of her faith, who Kimmerer, an Indigenous woman, quite naturally embodied through her kind, selfless action. It is a perfect parable of both Christian virtue and the abundance of earthly gifts which Kimmerer highlights throughout her book. Grace, like the gifts of the earth, is generous and beautiful. Grace calls us into deeper relationship with its source and entangles us with the world in a never ending cycle of life, death, and resurrection. That is the seasonal cycle at the heart of Kimmerer’s gift economy, and it is also at the core of the Christian Pascal Mystery. So even when our stories open up pathways to greed and exploitation, as many do, there is always the possibility of choosing grace instead. As Kimmerer later says to her daughter, “There is no hurt that can’t be healed by love.” This felt like a good braid.


[1] http://railsback.org/CS/CSPotawatomi.html

Memento Mori

I want life to teach me to become better acquainted with death.

During the more strict days of quarantine, I would go for a walk every day in the Mountain View Cemetery. I watched the cherry blossoms bloom and then fade.

I watched the tulips, irises and lilies blossom and then fade. But this undeniable beauty was foregrounded by deep anxiety and fear about the ravages of COVID-19.

There are some headstones in the Mountain View Cemetery with a name and a birth date. The date of death is still not etched into the stone.

This got me thinking.

What if when we were born we received a grave stone and a plot in the cemetery? What if every year on our birthdays we took a pilgrimage to our graves? Would we learn something? Would we be better prepared for death when it came?

A tree in the forest is born and dies in the very same place.

I marvel at that simplicity, that certainty.