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.
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.
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.
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. 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%). 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).
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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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. For Taylor, this is a legitimate religious position outside of organized or institutionalized religion, but religion nonetheless. 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.
In recent years, a slew of new studies in plant behavior and ecological science has affirmed the mythos that ecosystems are deeply interconnected. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.’” 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. 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. 
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.
 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).
 Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. (Cambridge University Press, 1994). .
 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.
 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.
 James Lovelock. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. (Oxford University Press, 2000).
 Taylor, Bron. Dark Green Religion: Nature, Spirituality and the Planetary Future. (University of California Press, 2009).
 Matthew Hall, Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. (Suny Press, 2011).
 Suzanne Simmard, The Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. (Allen Lane, 2021).
 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).
 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
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! 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.
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.
REVIEW OF: Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on our National Parks (Saint Louis: Chalice Press, 2019).
Written by journalist Brad Lyons and Disciples of Christ Minister Bruce Barkhauer, America’s Holy Ground is something of a Holyscapes guide book. The authors are rooted in the Christian tradition, and present readers with 61 meditations on US National Parks through. Founded in 1916, the National Park Service began as a way of preserving some of the US’s most beautiful places. Recently celebrating its 100th anniversary, the National Park Service has since shifted its focus from making beautiful places accessible, to caring for the ecological health of some of North America’s most complex and biodiverse ecosystems.
America’s Holy Ground makes an excellent companion to any bird, tree, geology or insect guide book. At 256 pages it is a slender volume, with durable (but not weather proof) pages. It is packed with full color images, and easy to use alphabetical entries. There is also a resources section in the back and blank journal pages for writing notes while you are out on the trail or at a sit spot.
The book begins with an Invocation and ends with a Benediction, each of which contain an eclectic mix of scripture passages and quotations. A few of my favorites:
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28-29, NRSV)
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
Let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord. (Psalms 96:11-13, NRSV)
Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter. (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring)
The purpose of the book is to explore the connection between theology, spirituality and the natural world as experienced in the National Parks. It is premised on the Christian notion that to contemplate beauty is to enter into the presence of God. That to be fully present to a Creature is to be present to the Creator. To listen to the symphony of crickets and frogs is to invoke the voices of angels. To enter a grove of towering redwoods is to enter a cathedral. To be in the presence of something wild, is to be in the presence of our wild God. To experience the seasons of life, death and resurrection, is to enter into the paschal mystery. That to be fully alive is to grasp our vocation as Imago Dei. And that to look up into a night sky in its full velvet darkness, away from the blingy obscurity of city lights, is to ask the only question worth asking: Why all this?
The guidebook is best used as a kind of devotional, read before and after one has experienced a given park. It is a kind of supplement to a lectio divina of the land, stimulating questions, themes and resonances with scripture. It can also be a means of guiding a group discussion or Bible study.
The anatomy of each passage is quite simple. The park is named, located and dated to its founding. The park is associated with a spiritual theme such as Beginnings, Endings, Life, Signs, Community, Language, Reflection, Movement, Adaptation, Faithfulness, Grandeur, etc. Then, each theme is elaborated by a short passage from the Bible related to the theme, and the park and theme are woven together in an entry that ranges from 1-4 pages.
I have many fond memories from childhood camping trips in Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks. I have spent time in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico’s National Parks and public lands. But the National Park closest to my home is North Cascades National Park, located in Northern Washington and founded in 1968. The theme of the chapter is ‘Place.’ The scripture reference is from Psalms 104:18: “The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.” The passage and entry reflect on the biblical notion that the world appears to be arranged in an ordered way, poetically attributed to the creating power of God. It asks the reader: What does it mean to be in the right place? Of course, evolutionarily we know that the world did not come into existence all at once, even Genesis 1 poetically expresses creation as process. Yet to our tiny lives embedded in the eternity of geological deep time, the world seems to be stable, eternal, and balanced. The National Parks were founded as monuments to this stability, this grandeur. They are the Sacred Groves of a kind of Nationalist Paganism, where Nature capital ‘N’ is stand in for the Transcendent God of the Bible.
I recently saw filmmaker Taika Watiti’s Jojo Rabbit. The premise is based on Christine Leunens’s book Caging Skies. The film has received some negative reviews for its lighthearted nature; but the film was picked by the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute as one of the ten best films of the year in 2019. It has also received six Oscar nominations.
The controversy surrounding the film arises from its parody of Adolf Hitler as the imaginary friend of Johanes (Jojo) Betzler, a young member of the Hitler Youth. Jojo attends a summer camp where he learns how to be a good Nazi (which includes burning books). At one point, after being humiliated by some older kids for not being willing to kill a rabbit by snapping her neck, Jojo earns the nickname Rabbit. Emboldened by a pep talk with his imaginary friend Hitler, Jojo rushes into a grenade throwing drill, grabs a grenade from Wehrmacht Captain Klenzendorf and throws it with gusto. The grenade bounces off a tree and blow up in his face.
After a short but painful convalescence, Jojo returns to work as an errand boy for Captain Klenzendorf. One day after returning from work, he hears a noise upstairs and discovers that his mother, who is overtly anti-Nazi throughout, has been hiding a young Jewish woman named Elsa Korr in the crawl space of the room of Jojo’s deceased sister Inge. Jojo, a dedicated Nazi is horrified, but reaches an agreement with Elsa that will keep he and his mother out of trouble. In the meantime he decides to learn all he can about the Jews so he can write a book, in service of the Reich, that will expose the insidious ways of the Jewish race. As you might expect, in the process, in his conversations with Elsa, he falls in love with her. Hitler is of course concerned, but Jo Jo convinces him that he is using reverse psychology on her to get her secrets. When the Gestapo unexpectedly shows up at Jojo’s house, Elsa pretends to be Inge, and Jojo is visually upset and worried that she will be found out. She narrowly escapes detection, and Hitler is furious that Jojo didn’t turn her in.
The surprising twist, comes when Rosie, who has been active in the resistance, is seen hanging from a scaffold in the public square. She has been hung for treason. Jojo is crushed and even tries to stab Elsa, but collapses in grief. After a fierce last stand, the war is lost, and Jojo and Elsa walk outside into the new world.
The film obviously seeks to straddle comedy and tragedy, but does this humorous portrayal minimize the seriousness of the Holocaust? This is a question critics have levelled at the film. In my view, the film is a brilliant achievement. The film wraps its arms around the beauty and pain of life. The horror and mundane of war.
Specifically, the parody of Hitler works for several reasons. First, the film shows how a hateful ideology can be shattered through an encounter with the other. Second, our stereotype of Hitler as an unalloyed evil is challenged by his apparent lightness and his friendliness is underlain by a deeply insidious uncompromising ideology of hatred. The imaginary Hitler is as absurd in his whimsy as the real Hitler was in his brutally hateful ideology. In the final encounter between Jojo and Hitler, and in a nod to Quinton Terentino’s cathartic alternate histories, a post-suicide Hitler is triumphantly kicked out of the window by a Jojo who has finally learned the lesson that Hitler’s ideology is deeply destructive.
However, it is the character of Rosie, Jojo’s mother, who supplies the pathway for Jojo’s transformation. Rosie is fully alive, passionate and resistant to injustice. She dances, lovingly teases Jo Jo, dresses in bright clothes and red lipstick, and drinks wine at news of the imminent end of the war. At one point she even dresses up as her absent husband to comfort Jojo during a tense argument about Nazism. She is, throughout the film giving of herself in the care of Jojo, and putting herself at risk in sheltering Elsa. She is killed by Nazism, but her son is eventually transformed, born again, by her act of love and his encounter with Elsa.
In the final scene, as Jojo and Elsa emerge into the post-battle city, a sunny sky illuminates the quaint town, and people are trashing Nazi paraphernalia. Jo Jo asks Esla what they should do, they lock eyes and begin to dance.
“And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”
“When you see my corpse is being carried Don’t cry for my leaving I’m not leaving I’m arriving at eternal love.”
–Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī.
I am always up for visiting a new church or religious service. So when I read the syllabus for a class I taking on liturgy at the Vancouver School of Theology, the assignment I was most excited about was the opportunity to visit an unfamiliar tradition’s worship service. As a professor of religious studies and world religions in Salt Lake City from 2011-2013, I have visited many churches, meeting houses, temples and synagogues. I have even studied the Vedas in a custom pyramid with a front door that opens like the DeLorean from Back to the Future. (At the end of the service, I was casually handed a glossy illustrated manual about giving your partner the perfect orgasm).
After two weeks of trying to attend various Pentecostal and Evangelical churches that did not conflict with my current Sunday obligations at Saint James Anglican Church, I decided to write about my experiences at this year’s Night for All Souls, a thoroughly secular community art project put on by resident artists at the Mountain View Cemetery, Vancouver proper’s only cemetery. The grounds buried their first European immigrant in 1886, and encompasses 106 acres, with approximately 92,000 grave sites and 145,000 buried remains. It is a lovely place with views of the mountains, and gorgeous Victorian headstones among various elderly trees. In North American culture generally, there seems to be a difficulty talking about and dealing with death, and a lack of significant rituals within or outside traditional religious institutions. The artists of Mountain View Cemetery hope to change that. In the following I will reflect on my own experience at the multi-day event, its liturgical elements, and its potential for greater engagement with the religions.
Night for All Souls
The purpose of the Night for All Souls event is to engage the ancient holy days of All Saints and All Souls. The atmosphere is essentially post-religious, but the general public is invited to bring their own ideas and beliefs to the event and interact with several shrines and stations, where they can make art, candles, or write notes to their beloved dead. The website for the event explains:
“In many cultures around the world, the days at the end of October and beginning of November are considered an important time for honoring the dead in our lives. In our modern, urban, and relatively transient culture, traditional “village” customs have been left behind, though not the human impulses that led to these traditions. All Souls at the Mountain View Cemetery is a non-denominational sacred event, and an opportunity for people to share their own customs and experiences.”
‘Many cultures’ and ‘non-denominational’ scrubs the event of any hint of an endorsement of the holy-days Pagan and Christian origins. Yet despite the inherent fear of mentioning the R-word, the residents are confident that the role of the artist is to create a safe container for people to bring what traditions they may have left to the space.
Samhain and Allhallowtide
In Europe, indigenous traditions developed with the cycles of the Northern hemisphere’s seasons. The festival of Samhain (pronounced Saw-win), marks the Gaelic transition from the harvest to winter darkness. It was a time when the veil between the worlds was thinnest, and the ancestors and faeries could move between worlds more easily. James Frazer, in The Golden Bough suggests that the date is less important to farmers than to herds’ people. Some important tombs in Ireland are also aligned with the date of Samhain, which falls between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice.
In Neo-Pagan and Neo-Shamanic practices, Samhain is the day for connecting with the ancestors, and visiting the land of the dead through trance. I am fascinated with this time of year, and European traditions around marking the passing of time. That is why, though I am not planning to attend this year, for the last several years I have attended Reclaim Vancouver’s annual Samhain celebration which includes a circle casting, guided meditation, and a circle dance.
Of course in secular North America, Halloween (All Hallows Eve) is the most popular equivalent to this day of transgressive world bending. During Samhain and many other fall festival rituals that honored the dead, people would dress up as spirits or ancestors or saints or gods and go house to house in exchange for food, offerings, fuel for bone-fires or presents.
While today the Christian Triduum of All-Hallows-Tide, the Christian feasts of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, correspond with these feasts, they did not emerge directly out of their earlier Pagan equivalents. It was not until 609 that All Saints Day was designated to honor all the martyrs of the church and her Saints. Originally celebrated on May, or in April by the Irish, All Souls Day was not celebrated until the 11th century.
In North America, while Halloween is a popular secular holiday, the religious significance has faded. And while Neo-Pagan circles are reviving the pre-Christian traditions, North American Christians do not have a strong tradition of honoring and remembering the dead with festive celebrations. We often look to syncretic practices like Dia De Muertos in Mexico, Day of the Dead, as morbid, cult-like and strange.
My Experience at Night for All Souls
In order to get a close up look at the event I decided to volunteer. The opening night was on Saturday October 27. I was a tea runner, so I helped out cleaning and stocking tea cups for the Celebration Hall where there were tables to sit, and stations to make crafts, or weave small messages into a community tapestry. I also ran hot water out to the Chinese Pavilion where there was a shrine and bonfire.
It was quite beautiful to see families and people of all ages coming in from the rain for tea, sitting at tables and talking about death, dying, and the ancestors. They could look up ancestors buried in the cemetery at one station, or write notes to the dead that were later woven into a tapestry on the wall.
Out in the cemetery, there were station dedicated to missing indigenous women, those who had died by suicide and overdose, one to pets and one to infants and children; but as one of the organizers said, most of the shrines are not themed, because people are not defined by their death. There was also a large tryptic with candles, incense and a marker so that people could leave pictures and write the names of the dead. The event spanned over a week.
On Tuesday, October 30, 2018, I attended a choral performance by the Little Chamber Orchestra that Could, a Vancouver fixture that often performs at Cemetery cultural and seasonal events. The performance was “The First Stage” by Joelysa Pankanea, a piece that grapples with the sudden death of her mother to cancer. During the song, the choir elevated into heavenly harmonies, and breathy pauses signifying life’s last gasps of air. They were accompanied by a quiet marimba and upright bass cello. It was a beautiful performance, bare bones harmonies and poignant dialogue pointing to the tragic end of the composer’s mother. No matter how we dress it up, in art, or theology, death is the gritty, breath taking, sweat inducing price of knowing that we are alive. The event wrapped up on Thursday night with a closing procession, where a contemporary big band ensemble visits each of the shrines, each heavy laden with custom candles, messages and notes written to the beloved dead.
What struck me about this event was how its form, structure and content were all referring to various religious and cultural markers surrounding honoring the dead and the saints, but all of the obvious religious symbols or references were nowhere to be seen. The event was “non-denominational” and thus participants could hold their own private views of death, but nothing in the art or setting or programming suggested what to believe about its finality or the continuity of life beyond. There was no Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. The event was an open container for participants to fill however they saw fit. Many had abandoned religion, were immigrants from other countries now living in Canada. The sometimes trite, even trivial assurances of organized religion were absent.
Each of the familiar elements of a religious service were present: Music, procession, fire, candles, images, notes and messages hung from string and trees, incense, prayer flags, and of course shrines/altars. The one shrine that did feel vaguely religious, was, far from the main shrine, at the Chinese Pagoda in the North section, a bon fire for burning rice paper silver and gold bars to bless the ancestors with wealth and riches in the afterlife and ask for their favor in return. This practice, of offering the dead life like and practical items, cuts across Chinese folk religions, Confucianism and Taoism. Otherwise, participants were on their own.
I am very grateful for this event. I think all of us, religious and non-religious need more and better rituals and practices around death and dying. We need more frank conversations about the pain of loss, and more engagement with our grief, regardless of our theologies of an afterlife. Death needs to be brought out of the shadows. It is liturgy, even in this most stripped down and symbolically sterile examples, that can help us through this process.
However, despite my enthusiastic endorsement of Night for All Souls, I feel off about its overall lack of religious voices. I wonder how many people coming to the space would like to hear what actual religious traditions have to say about dealing with life’s most difficult truth. I applaud the effort and the art and the interest, but I want to see more religious people involved. Precisely because religious people, despite having rich theological and ritual traditions, still need help working through death, we all do, every generation does. I want to know how religious and non-religious people grapple with death and dying, what poets and scriptures they look to for solace, what networks they rely on when the grief is too much to bear; what communities bring them food when they are too sad to cook.
We have all heard the story. Christianity, with its embrace of Greek metaphysics and its longing for the Kingdom of God, drove a wedge between humanity and the earth, between Creator and creation. A wedge that became a full-fledged dualism under Enlightenment and Protestant iterations that emphasized rationality and nature’s objectivity. What had once been an enchanted cosmos, was now a vast and mostly empty universe.
Yet, despite this ambiguous lineage, Christianity is having something of an ecological renaissance, with theologians, ministries and parishes responding to the call to ‘re-enchant’ the earth, and to lend our weight to reversing course. The ecological crisis is thus necessarily being framed as a moral crisis, and it is generally agreed that a perception of the world as sacred, a perception that was intentionally dismantled under modernism and capitalism, should be reclaimed. The favored model of God as transcendent, distant, removed and patriarchal, is giving way to an experience of God as immanent, sacramental, and feminine.
In my own life, I have boomeranged between these models; from Christianity to a sort of pantheistic nature spirituality and back again over the last several years. However, it was something Pope Francis wrote in his recent encyclical letter Laudato Si, and an experience I recently had in a cherished forest that got me thinking about the value of the transcendent in our approach to the sacred in the age that is increasingly being christened the ‘Anthropocene,’ the age of human domination.
It was partly because of Christianity’s complicity in the ecological crisis, and a host of other reasons, that I had broken with the faith of my upbringing. While I was in graduate school, an inner tumult developed into a full scale crisis of faith. I became depressed and nihilistic. Perhaps, I thought, the world and our existence were meaningless, that there was no value, beauty or purpose outside of our tiny little human minds. It seems part of the human vocation to grapple with questions of meaning and purpose at some level, and I didn’t necessarily expect a resolution. But as I tried to put the pieces of a broken faith back together, I somehow knew that God would still be among them or between them.
Bit by bit, my experience of God began to change, and I became more and more convicted of God’s immanence to the world. In theology and philosophy, immanence, from the Latin for ‘remaining with,’ specifically refers to God’s presence or expression within the created order. For example, in Greek philosophy the Logos was thought to be the logic, or rational pattern behind the stuff of the world. Philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza, and later Gilles Deleuze, postulated a metaphysical monism in which all things were one substance in various states or forms within the vast event of the cosmos. Rather than speak of essences, the cosmos was an unfolding event. Specifically for Spinoza, God and Nature were the same, Pan– all, –theism, God.
However, beginning with the monotheistic writers of second temple Judaism, and later affirmed by Christianity, it was argued that if God is all powerful and the creator, God cannot be encapsulated by the world, contained by it or synonymous with it. God is imagined to be the source and ground of being, within which the universe and being itself comes to be. Theologians such as Dominican Friar Thomas Aquinas postulated that God’s radical transcendence from creation could only be met with analogy, metaphor and iconography.
Growing up, I had been taught about God’s otherness or beyondness, a creator in stark contrast to creature. However, throughout my life, and particularly as I emerged from my short-lived faith crisis, it was encounters with silence, wild and urban nature, and the poor that drew me deeper into an experience of the sacredness of the world, especially through trees and forests, and the underlying divinity that shines through when I remember to look up from my philosophical musings and pay attention long enough to listen, watch, feel, wait. God ceased to exist as a being in a heavenly realm, or as a nebulous force acting on the world from a distance. I began to perceive, in a flitting crow, a soft breeze, a dangle of moss, a dapple of light, a configuration of bodies in a crosswalk, that God was the very fabric from which the world was made and that the sciences took on their own sacred dimension as a tool both for understanding as well as communing with an utterly pantheistic God-world. The world came alive in a way that it had never been before, and began to reclaim something of the magic of an enchanted world that was as Thomas Berry famously wrote, a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects.
After I completed an eclectic mix of Master’s degrees in forestry and theology, I landed two adjunct teaching jobs back in Salt Lake City, and a seasonal summer position as a forester. I began to read more about pantheism, to meditate, and to consciously explore the city and mountain forests of my Utah home, the home of at least some of my ancestors. I began to regain hope in a this-worldly ecological spirituality that sought the divine in nature, and my purpose in the present moment, and for the most part, it was working. However, it was an experience I had while attending a Midnight Easter Vigil at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City that unexpectedly set me back onto the Christian path, and an encounter with the value of transcendence in my experience of God.
One of the courses I was teaching in Salt Lake was ‘World Religions’, and I had decided to attend Holy Week services at the Cathedral as a way of experiencing other branches of Christianity. I had heard they had beautiful music, and that the space was breathtaking. I arrived a few minutes late, and quietly pushed through the heavy wooden doors at the front of the towering sandstone gothic edifice. An usher immediately greeted me with a smile, and handed me a candle. I thanked him and found a spot to stand at the back of the nave.
The voluminous space was mostly dark, but the bodies of the reverent devotees were glowing in silhouette with the collective illumination of hundreds of tiny candles. Someone offered me a light, and I looked around in awe as the Gregorian chant of the choir filled the frescoed forest of stone columns and vaulted canopy arches. As I took in the beauty, I thought to myself, that it sort of felt like a funeral. Just as quickly it seemed, I realized, it was a funeral. On Good Friday, Jesus had been crucified and laid in the tomb, and throughout Holy Saturday, Christians waited in suspended, silent animation for the moment when life would once again triumph over death. As the readings proceeded, spanning the width of salvation history, we came closer to the moment of Christ’s resurrection, until finally, the Lenten poverty was broken by a string of cacophonous ALLELUIAS! Suddenly the lights of the cathedral came on in a sudden flash. Christ was risen, and something beyond me stirred my soul.
Going to Mass for Easter will sound familiar, even mundane to many, but for me on that evening, having grown up in a different tradition, for the first time, a familiar story took on a deeply cosmic dimension, and that I was participating in it with others. That my life was somehow embedded within that story, and that I was wedded in one way or another to its outcome. We were ritually celebrating, not just sermonizing the hope that suffering and pain are not meaningless, that death is not the end; that creation, birth, life and death are the archetypal structures that pervade the universe. That somehow, we will come out the other side. Standing at the back of the cathedral with a tiny candle, the hope and power of the Christian story hit me all at once like an unexpected wave. The world really was filled with mystery, beauty and holiness. While it would seem that the universe is headed for a cold extinction, Christianity insists on celebrating life through death. Our gaze is fixed with unflinching hope on life, but squarely in the middle of that gaze is a tortured corpse hanging on a tree. Christianity’s hope is not a naïve or vapid one, but one rooted in the realities of pain and suffering both personal and evolutionary which are not threats, but the very seeds of continued hope and life. That inner landscape I had been trying to access and cultivate began to germinate with tiny fragile seedlings that I continue to clumsily nurture as I write these words. God’s presence in the world, which I had just learned to experience as a pantheist, began to once again trickle back into the sacraments especially the Eucharist, icons, choral music and sacred space.
In a Dark Wood
It was getting harder for me to discern the contours of the last few meters of a familiar forest trail. I was on my way home to Vancouver, British Columbia from Lacey, Washington after a short retreat with the Benedictine monks of Saint Martin’s Abbey. I stopped in Bellingham for food, and a quick hike through a favorite grove of trees to stretch my legs before I pressed northward. In my haste, I had slightly miscalculated the amount of remaining daylight, and how long it would take me to walk the 4.5 km trail before the closed canopy forest became thick with darkness.
I was already in a dark mood, and the cold, dead vegetation of muddled greens and plentiful browns, chilled me to the bone as I stumbled over the squish of decomposing leaves speckled along the path. The deciduous trees were naked, and the conifer branches loafed in their winter dormancy. As I reached a critical fork in the trail, I started in the wrong direction, and had to double back to find the trail again. As my feet finally touched down on the familiar gravel of the parking lot, I felt a small pang of relief and embarrassment for almost getting lost in such a familiar place.
Yet, despite my love for being in the forest, as I got into my truck, I finally acknowledged a sense of foreboding, sadness and longing that I had felt as I walked in the waning light of that winter day. As someone who loved to preach about God’s presence in the world, it was actually hard for me to admit that I didn’t feel anything but awe, wonder, amazement and gratitude in the forest. The place is as familiar and sacred to me as any church, or my prayer space, and I have spent many hours on the trail, staring with slacked jaw up into the canopy; or on hands and knees smiling into the stoic face of a rough skinned newt. But that night, I could not shake a feeling of deep unease.
As I sat tending to the wound in my heart, a wound with no particular source, I remembered something Pope Francis wrote in his 2015 Encyclical Letter Laudato Si. In an authoritative Encyclical Letter, Pope Francis had officially acknowledged the seriousness of climate change, the importance of caring for the earth not just as a gift to humans from God, but as a web of living creatures endowed with intrinsic value independent of their usefulness or beauty to human beings. Yet, he also affirms the traditional Christian understanding of God as not being coterminous with the world (I.e. not pantheistic) and Pope Francis warns against what he calls pantheism’s “stifling immanence.” When I first read this statement, the part of me that is still a pantheist took exception. Even as a new-ish revert to Christianity, God’s immanence in the world is crucial to my faith, and the foundation upon which I have built the bridge between my faith and my understanding of ecology. But as I turned the keys and began to back out of the small roadside parking lot, the meaning of this simple phrase began to come into focus.
Toward a Spiritual Ecology of the Transcendent
As is well known, in response to the excesses of early industrialism nurtured by the transcendent model of God, the Romantics and poets and later the Transcendentalists of the 19th century, took issue with the plunder of the natural world for profit, and the notion that God was a distant fatherly being. Writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that nature pointed to spiritual truths, and conservationists began to find God in Nature, a domain of reality held as opposition to Culture. Wilderness took on a new vibrancy and holiness and God became wholly immanent to creation. Preservationism then, became about protecting a sacred Nature from a ravenous Culture. For example, early American conservationist John Muir, in a letter to a friend written in 1868 proclaimed that Yosemite Valley was “by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” And for Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau and many others of his generation, the wild places became the sacred sanctuaries held in opposition to the establishment Protestant Christianity with its emphasis on scripture, doctrine and getting to Heaven. Thoreau wrote in his essay ‘Walking’: “I enter a swamp as a sacred place –a sanctum sanctorum.”
Unfortunately, this dualistic approach to the natural world has led to an impoverished ethic with respect to our relationship to those areas that fall outside of the more charismatic protected areas. As William Cronon controversially wrote in his 1996 essay ‘The Trouble with Wilderness’, the so-called wilderness ethic that the preservationist movement has promoted not only failed to prevent our most serious ecological crises, it has tended to de-valued places closer to home that do not fit a narrow aesthetic of wilderness. Certainly there is value in places of transcendent beauty; but there is also an immanent sacredness to places more familiar, rich with memory and closer to home.
My experience in the Cathedral had been of God’s unexpected presence; and my experience in a grove revered as sacred had been one of God’s unexpected absence. It would seem that God is something of a Trickster; not always present to the world in the ways we expect. We cannot just go to church, pray, meditate or go even to our favorite spot in the forest and expect a holy moment to be waiting. As theologian Belden Lane reminds us in his book Landscapes of the Sacred, the sacred (God) often choses before is chosen. God’s immanence to the world may be real, but it is not a vending machine to which we can keep coming back for the same encounter, experience or fix.
An encounter with the sacred (God), can, paradoxically be experienced as absence. Religious life is not a kind of spiritual aerobics that makes us feel warm and fuzzy all the time, and the natural world is a place of both beauty and pain. The spiritual life is also about facing our failures, suffering and that of the world. To frame immanence as ‘stifling’ as Pope Francis does in Laudato Si, is not to argue that God is absent from the world, but, to say that unless we are sometimes faced with the feeling of God’s absence, we will never move, grow or seek change. This is what Saint Augustine meant when he wrote that “our hearts are restless Lord, until they rest in you.” God’s transcendence, or beyondness can teach us that we are not self-sufficient on our own. If everything is God, rather than everything being in God (pan-en-theism), the mystery of the other has nothing whatsoever to teach us about the Other that is God.
There is of course many more theological reasons to balance God’s immanence and transcendence. However, for those of us invested in the project of reenchanting the world as a moral response to the ecological crisis, the way we frame the sacred in relation to the world has consequences within the increasingly fragmented environmentalist landscape that we have inherited from the preservationists and conservationists which are being increasingly critiqued as ineffective or overly romantic.
We seem to be on the verge of something new. Though much contested, some have proposed that we are entering the ‘Anthropocene’, a term coined by climate chemist Paul Crutzen in 2003 to describe the increasingly pervasive impact human beings have on the planet. Currently being debated by geologists as to whether or not it makes up an actual new geologic epoch, there is no agreement about when it might have started. Do we date it to the advent of intensive farming? The peak of the so-called First Axial Age roughly 2,000 years ago? The dawn of the industrial revolution in the 1800s? Or, with the first nuclear explosion in the mid-20th century? What is clear, is that human beings are the culprit for much of the ecological changes being tracked by scientists across the board. What is not clear is how to respond.
What I have noticed in these ongoing debates about how to proceed, is that models of the immanent and transcendent aspects of the sacred have not been properly addressed by both sides of a hotly contested debate within the environmental movement between so-called Ecomodernists on the one hand, and Ecocentrists on the other. It would seem that a way forward will require a better balance between notions of immanence and transcendence, not necessarily of God per se but of the implications of to what extent we acknowledge the sacredness and transcendent value of the world in our strategies for lessening the destructiveness of the human presence on the planet.
With the recent publication of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, the authors align themselves with a growing number of environmentalists who think traditional conservation strategies have failed. These “new” environmentalists are confident that the Anthropocene will be a step forward not backward:
“As scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens, we write with the conviction that knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene. A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.”
Human genius will save us, and we can expect, with the proper adjustments to institutions, economies and technologies, a Tony the Tiger-styled “grrrrreat!” Anthropocene.
Ecopragmatists, New Conservationists or Ecomodernists as they variously self-identify, have more confidence in human genius than human heart, and for many of them, solving the ecological crisis is not a moral imperative but a practical necessity. Thus for many, the language of the sacred is a human construct at best, and a romantic diversion at worst. For the writers of the Ecomodernist Manifest, environmentalism’s sacred cow, Nature has got to go, and we need to embrace technology, State-centered decision making, an emphasis on Ecosystem Services, and a human-values centered approach to ecological sustainability. This is because Ecomodernists, like classical Modernists, are confident in human rationality and genius as an effective tool for managing the planet as a whole wherein both social justice, biodiversity and ecological integrity can be achieved.
This approach has often dodged the possibility that anything is inherently sacred, or that biodiversity and ecosystem have transcendent value outside of human valuation. It is what we make it, what we value, what we desire. If we want wilderness we need to justify it through human values and priorities. As futurist Yuval Harari writes in Homo Deus, we are now gods, on the brink of immortality, and capable as ever to manage the planet for the good of all life (as seen through human eyes). Traditional conservationism, founded on a theology of beauty and the transcendent is deluded and impractical in its romantic attempts at preserving, as Ecomodernist Peter Kareiva suggested, “islands of the Holocene” in the midst of a rapidly evolving and advancing human race.
Opposed to Ecomodernism, and continuing the legacy of the great Romantics, are a growing number of environmentalists who claim to be either Ecocentrists, or Spiritual Ecologists. Rooted in the intuitions of the Deep Ecology movement of the 1970s and 80s, these folks insist that the totality of the earth-system, biotic and abiotic, carry intrinsic worth beyond human usefulness (even spiritual usefulness), and are therefore of primary ethical concern and imperative. Advocates of Ecocentrism, the idea that individuals should be subservient to the greater ecological whole, suggest that we need a new religious sensibility that will enshrine this ethic in its worldview. They insist that the earth has value apart from human perceptions. That biodiversity and intact ecosystem regardless of their value to human economies or aesthetics should be preserved as close to intact as possible, and that the only viable option for humanity is to radically downsize our population and footprint.
Ecocentrists often join forces with other strands of environmentalists, poets, nature writers and ecotheologians who have been calling for a “reenchantment” of the world; a world that is wholly sacred; a sacredness that is immanent to the world, and does not appeal to a distant Creator. Rather, its sacredness comes from its very existence, complexity and fecundity. In his edited volume Spiritual Ecology, the editor, Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, writes that “The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong.” Lee’s book features voices from the world’s major religious and spiritual traditions, each singing in a different octave the song that the earth is sacred and that we must return to a meaningful commitment to this reality if we are going to overcome the daunting troubles we now face as a species. This intuition, that our bodies, and our very existence is part and parcel to the wider world, but not another world, is a core intuition of a pantheistic theology where the world’s sacredness is wholly immanent. In describing his connection to an island off Haida Gwaii, anthropologist Richard Nelson captures his own embeddedness to the earth and her processes:
“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…I am the island and the island is me.”
Human beings are the earth gazing back at itself, and to find ourselves embedded in her webs of life is to come face to face with the sacred. We must therefore protect life, protect ecosystems, and protect the earth from the savage assault of Homo industrialis by developing an entirely new approach to our relationship with the earth. We need a new approach. But the approach advocated by Ecocentrists seems to be simply an inversion of traditional binaries: Rather than the sacred space of church, we want the sacred space of the forest. Rather than a Transcendent God, a wholly Immanent Divine. Rather than a world filled with objects we wish to return to a world of interconnected subjects.
We seem to be endlessly caught pinging between opposites put in place by the Enlightenment and the Protestant reformation. It seems we are pressured to choose between either nature as god, or the human being as divine. And while I agree that we need a return to an immanent framing of the sacred, and a stronger sense of reverence for the world, we should not lose hold of the beautiful and productive aspects of the transcendent. Rather than swinging between the sentimentalism of Spiritual Ecology and the cold calculated pragmatism of the Ecomodernists, might there be a third way?
While journalist Emma Marris is often accused of being an Ecomodernist, in her book Rambunctious Garden, while she does take aim at traditional conservation strategies such as wilderness areas and invasive species, her approach in the final chapter of the book seems to strike a balance between values as being both transcendent and immanent, and the possibility that sacredness is as well. For example, while critical of ironclad definitions of nature and wilderness, she is not opposed to recognizing and managing landscapes for their sacred value to human beings, or the intrinsic value of ecosystems and species. However, what she insists is that it is human beings who will inevitably make decisions with respect to these values. If we are too focused on enhancing ecosystem services, which many Ecomodernists are, we may lose sight of the importance of protecting the intrinsic value of endangered species. If we are so focused on saving a species from extinction by preserving it in labs (such as is the case with some frog species in Central America being wiped out by an invasive fungus), then we may forget to protect the ecosystem it evolved to thrive in. If we affirm the rights of every species to thrive and flourish, we may tie our hands when a particularly aggressive species threatens an endangered species such as is the case with certain invasive trees, plants or mammals on island ecosystems. Marris, though she does not say so in these terms, seems to be suggesting a more balanced approach to the transcendence and immanence of the sacred with respect to the life of the world. There are values beyond human values; but we shouldn’t be afraid to participate in the world for fear of violating the sacred precincts of the domain of Nature we have shored up to alleviate our guilt for the desecrated places under the plow of human Culture.
Of course, these debates are complex and the stakes are high. In advocating a middle ground, one that balances transcendence and immanence in relation to value and the sacred, I am not claiming that the way forward is simple, straightforward or free of pain. But from where I stand, along with the movement to make the world sacred once more, we should not discard the sense of absence, longing, and transcendence at the heart of the world from which we emerged and to which we are wedded. As conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote, “To be a good tinkerer you need to keep all the pieces.” As we enter the Anthropocene, we will need the language of the sacred and the profane, the language of presence and absence, the language of death and life. As we march into an unknown future, a future that often looks bleak and without hope, it is essential to celebrate big victories, to be present to small beauties, but also to mourn the losses great and small. Even in the midst of darkness, despair, of loneliness, pain and loss, life, the earth, and God have a way of turning shit into compost.