Over the next few weeks, I will post a series of sketches of some ideas I have kicking around in my head. With luck, they might become longer essays or full-length books! Apologies in advance for any grammatical errors or sloppy syntax!
Toward the end of writing the manuscript for my book about the monastic sense of place, a simple turn of phrase occurred me: Placefulness. This seemed to sum up in a simple word how monks in the Benedictine/Cistercian monastic tradition related to the landscapes of their respective monastic communities. The were present not just to abstract theological notions, or the love of God, but to the intricacies of their surrounding environments, which were often extensive rural properties.
I googled the phrase. A workshop called Into the Mountain mentioned it, seeking an embodied encounter with the land. A travel writer named Vanessa Walker named her website after the word, and it appears to be a new site dedicated to travel writing. There were a few other hits, but nothing that explored the word as an academic concept or spiritual practice.
The word felt useful. So, in December 2022, when I was invited by the Multifaith Network for Climate Justice in Bellingham to give a talk on contemplative ecology, I thought I would think through the idea out loud. The talk was well attended, and I gave a follow up in Vancouver at Simon Fraser University’s Institute for the Humanities. This Sketch is an outline of that talk.
We seem to me living in the -fulness of times. You are probably familiar with the term Mindfulness: Meditation practice rooted in Buddhism; moment by moment awareness of sensations, thoughts and feelings without judgement. But there is also an emerging alternative called Bodyfulness, articulating the somatic therapist Christine Caldwell’s paradigm for a more embodied contemplative practice. Geologist Marcia Bjornerud has recently written a book called Timefulness which argues that as temporal creatures we are embedded in earth’s deep time cycles. Placefulness then would be something along the lines of the contemplative practice of attending to what is and what arises in our places, especially during troubled times. So, like any spirituality worth its salt, that means integrating the good, the bad and the ugly in the places we live, especially as climate change takes a deeper hold on the world.
To Be in Place
The Greek philosopher Archytas (4th century BCE) is reputed to have said that “To be is to be in place.” This positioned place as a central ontological notion in Greek thinking that was all but obliterated with the advent of geometric space during the Enlightenment and the seeming social construction of everything with the semiotic turn of the 20th century. Starting in the 1960s sense of place began to reclaim space (so to speak) in the theoretical circles of geography and the social sciences. For example, an early re-examination of place is found in Yi Fu Tuan, a geographer, who used the term Topophilia to explore the “feeling-link” between people and places (1974). This can be compared with EO Wilson’s Biophilia: The idea that we are biologically rooted to feelings of affinity with life. Edward Relph’s Place and Placelessness (1976) examines the importance of em-place-ment, and the malaise of place-less-ness that set in during the late modern period. One of my favorite explorations of place and perception is by anthropologist Tim Ingold, who developed a “Dwelling Perspective” on environmental perception that drew from the phenomenology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, who were overtly opposed to the Cartesian project that had favored space over place. Echoing this ontological turn, anthropologists began to see that as Christian Norberg-Schulz writes, “To dwell means to belong to a given place.”
A few examples:
Aboriginal Song Lines
Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines (1987) explores settler and aboriginal understandings of place in Australia. In the publicly available sources, Aboriginal sense of place can be described as relating to the Dreaming. During the Dream Time (Every-when), the Ancestors of all life sang the world into being along tracks, called Songlines. during the Dreamtime. A Dreaming is one’s first Ancestor whether it be Kangaroo, Lizard, Bandicoot, Honey Ant, or Badger. Most Dreamings are animals, a few are plants or trees. An initiated person receives a portion of a Songline that traverses the first track of their Dreaming. The tempo and melody of the Songline express the topography of the place. So, forms of the land are a remnant of the first ancestors first movements, and each place is stacked with stories from that sacred canon.
Moral Place-scapes Among Western Apache
Indigenous placenames in the American West are often made up by afforded features of the landscape: Trees, mountains, valleys. Or they speak of activities that take place there like harvesting, council, or hunting. For example, in Western Apache place names, Tséé Chiizh Dah Sidilé means Coarse-Textured Rocks Lie Above in a Compact Cluster. This is a descriptive name for the features of that place.
In short, places teach Western Apache how to live. The collective history of the Apache has accumulated in these places, and they speak their lessons to the people. For example, at one such place a man attempted to commit incest with his stepdaughter. In Keith Basso’s account of these places in his amazing book Wisdom Sits in Places, his informant Ruth gets visibly uncomfortable as they pass this place in their car, and says, “I know that place, it stalks me every day.” In Ruth’s case the place reminded her of an assault she suffered by someone close to her. Not a romantic notion, but the wrongness of the act is written in the landscape which gave her strength. To put a person in their place so the speak, one need only recite a particular place name and its lessons will shoot like an arrow into the mind of one’s interlocutor.
Well Known Coast Salish Transformer Sites
In my part of the world, Cascadia, where Coast Salish peoples have lived and flourished for thousands of years, Transformer Spirits such as Xáays among the Squamish are responsible for certain prominent features of the landscape. A few publicly available examples: The Lions Peaks / Twin Sisters (Ch’ich’iyúy Elxwíkn) on the North Shore Mountain range were transformed for negotiating a peace treaty. The Stawamus Chief (Siám’ Smánit) in Squamish was a Long House where people and animals met for ceremony. Skalsh Rock in Stanley Park was an ancient chief turned into stone for insisting on purifying himself before his child’s birth. Additionally, obsidian deposits were understood as places where Thunderbird shot lighting out of his eyes. These sites were not only moral lesson, but monuments to their deep ties to place.
To be Rooted
Place is a richly textured part of Indigenous spirituality and lifeways. However, despite a reputation for Platonic otherworldliness, the Christian contemplative tradition has deep roots in a biblical sense of place. Simone Weil once wrote that “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Rootedness was a central idea for Weil, whose life was cut short by her own radical asceticism.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann (2002) wrote that “In the [Bible] there is no timeless space, but there also is no spaceless time. There is rather storied place, that is, a place that has meaning because of the history lodged there.” The Peoples of the Levant were covenanted to the Divine through places: Jacob/Israel wrestled with an angelic person, and the placename Penuel means Face of/facing Adonai. Many passages in the Hebrew Bible either begin or end with a reference to the name of a place, or the origin of that place’s name. Stone altars, groves, and mountain peaks were places of contact with the Divine or the history of the Patriarchal period. This is not a reverent nature spirituality, but a sacred geography where a peoples’ claim to the land was rooted in encounters with the Divine. Layered over this history, is the motif of the tension between the Paradise-Garden and Desert-Wilderness, starting with the very first chapters in Genesis where Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden. The entire arc of the story of Israel is God alluring them back to the garden through covenant, obedience and justice.
The story of Jesus of Nazareth is told through particular places. The arc of his vocation as Messiah recapitulated the places of Hebrew tradition: Bethlehem, Egypt, Jerusalem, Mount Tabor, and finally the Tree of Life (cross) and the Garden (tomb). Jesus consistently leaves the towns and cities to pray in the desert. Early Christians recognized certain places as sacred based on their association with Hebrew prophets, Christian martyrs, monks and ascetics and the life of Jesus. The early hermits and monks fled to the desert as means of radical asceticism, but also because the desert is an ideal place to practice a spirituality of silence.
The Christian relation to place becomes more ambivalent as it weds Greek metaphysics. As Saint Augustine wrote, “Our heart is restless until it rests in You.” Christian writers often portray humanity as a wandering pilgrim on earth, much as Plato saw the Forms as the really real. Belden Lane (2001) and John Inge (2003) show that despite a rich sense of place throughout Hebrew and Christian sacred writings, there is a tension with the mystic placelessness of Christian eschatology: Lane writes, “…one finds a continuing tension between place and placelessness, between the local and the universal. God is here—in this place at Bethlehem, Lourdes, Iona, even Boston and Salt Lake City.”
The Monastic Sense of Place
My book Dwelling in the Wilderness: A Liturgy of Place for the Anthropocene (2023) will explore how contemporary monastic communities are invited into a rich sense of place. Rather than being born from the place as Indigenous peoples are, monks take a vow of stability that encourages them to become ‘lovers of the place;’ to root their whole spiritual life of seeking God in a place and a community of imperfect monks. That life is punctuated by daily and seasonal liturgies that can attune the monks to the cycles and seasons of their places. Manual work balances a life of prayer by engaging the body and can enrich spiritual development by linking tasks to places and teaching vital lessons about the spiritual life. A monk’s time spent in formation, work and leisure means that over many years memories and lessons accumulate in place, giving shape to a personal spiritual ecology that connects place, spirituality and theology. And while some monks may return to certain places over and over, it was often the ‘Charged Moments’, as one monk put it, that ended up being most significant. By Charged Moments the monk was referring to times when a feeling of communion, or a spiritual insight comes out of nowhere. Those unexpected places are then integrated into a monks’ spiritual ecology, or moral landscape: places of rich memory, lesson or insight that then continue to teach monks how to be monks. As one monk said, “You become part of the land. Our vow of stability grounds us, and an image that was really helpful for me was the idea of these trees [points] taking root; you know we’ve got thirty feet of topsoil, and the roots go deep… So that was the image of stability that I had. The longer I stay here, the more I can see myself growing in ways I never thought possible. It’s of course not always easy, staying in one place, but the [longer] you stay the [the higher you can] reach.”
Placefulness as Contemplative Ecology
European descended peoples in North America live with a devalued sense of place. It has been re-placed by mobility, commodity and sentimentality. We see uprootedness, placelessness, dis-placement. The troubling loss of place can been seen through the post-modern attempt to respond to a deep yearning for rootedness in the culture. As philosopher Vince Vycinas wrote, “[W]e are homeless even if we have a place to live”Often, new architecture seeks to emplace us by building homey Town Centres that mimic public or even domestic spaces, flashing a sense of place to our meaning-hungry hearts. Consumerism is as much driven by manufactured needs as it is a sense of belonging or self that has been expertly packaged and sold back to us. The Anthropocene, the so-called geological epoch of human domination, is as much a crisis of meaning as it is a crisis of ecology and extinction.
As parties gather in international conferences to discuss emissions reductions targets, many activists have also been looking for ways to heal a wounded sense of meaning, purpose and sacredness in a world on the brink. In the scholarly world, tracking this movement is often called Religion and Ecology or Religion and Nature. But activists tend to use terms like Spiritual Ecology or as Pope Francis does in his encyclical letter Laudato Si, Integral Ecology. These broad movements represent the spiritual wing of environmentalism that sees ecological issues as moral issues, the earth as sacred. As Sufi teacher Llewelyn Vaughn Lee expresses, “The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong. The world is part of our own self and we are a part of its suffering wholeness. Until we go to the root of our image of separateness, there can be no healing.” Separateness and displacement from earth are roots of our ecological crisis.
This sense of oneness is echoed in the non-religious but deeply spiritual ethnographic memoir of anthropologist Richard Nelson, which takes places on the island of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia. He writes,
“There is nothing in me that is not of earth, no split instant of separateness, no particle that disunites me from the surroundings. I am no less than the earth itself. The rivers run through my veins, the winds blow in and out with my breath, the soil makes my flesh, the sun’s heat smolders inside me. A sickness or injury that befalls the earth befalls me. A fouled molecule that runs through the earth runs through me. Where the earth is cleansed and nourished, its purity infuses me. The life of the earth is my life. My eyes are the earth gazing at itself.”
Without reference to God, religion or even spirituality, Nelson describes a realization that is perhaps obvious to Indigenous peoples, and those who are rooted in place, whose ancestors nourish the land they harvest their food from. For Nelson, it was an ecological Apokalypsis, a great revealing of a truth hidden before his very eyes.
My own writing at Holyscapes has been oriented toward a contemplative spiritual ecology that reflects on the relationship between inscape and landscape. Really what I am interested in is to learn the liturgy of my place. My walks attend to the cycles of the stars, sun and moon; I am even learning the rudiments of the astrological archetypes and Greek stories that accompany the constellations. I want to attune to the cycles and patterns of season and weather, the features of topography and surficial geology. The Latin, common and/or Indigenous names of plants, animals and fungi. The lifeways of food, medicinal plants and fungi. The soundscape and seasonality of local and migratory birds. And a growing awareness of the memories, lessons, experiences, symbols and rituals that embed themselves in the places I visit.
In addition to learning the liturgy of place, I think it is essential that we engage and support ecological restoration projects. While ecological restoration has its critics, one of its potential benefits is not just to local biodiversity or ecosystem function, but to our sense of place. As ecologist Stephanie Mills (1996) writes,
“[The act of restoration] gives [people] a basis for commitment to the ecosystem. It is very real. People often say, we have to change the way everybody thinks. Well, my God, that’s hard work! How do you do that? A very powerful way to do that is by engaging people in experiences. It’s ritual we’re talking about. Restoration is an excellent occasion for the evolution of a new ritual tradition.”
Ecological restorations’ biggest potential might be in its ability to restore people to a deeper relationship with our places.
Caution I: Beware Spiritual Extractivism
One of the core moral lessons of the conservation movement, was that industrial civilization’s hunger for converting the earth into cash or calories has devastated ecosystems and caused a culture-induced mass extinction. Many of those who are interested in shifting the conversation toward a more sacred sense of the world have started many wonderful projects such as retreat centres, Wild Churches, or Forest Bathing circles. As I shift my mind set of seeing the world as a background to one of home, I want to say that caution is in order. In some ecological spirituality circles, workshops or liturgies I have attended, there is often a circle sharing exercise in which we are encouraged to go out into the forest and find a natural object that speaks to us, or to have a conversation with a tree, etc. We are charged, dismissed and given 45 minutes to soak up the forest’s spiritual lessons and the pressure is on! As I talk about Placefulness, my first caution would be to beware of a taking our extractivist cultural instinct and simply shifting it toward what I am calling a spiritual extractivism. Theologian Belden Lane’s words are a much better caution:
“The challenge is to honor the thing itself, as well as the thing as metaphor. When [Ralph Waldo] Emerson declared in 1836 that ‘every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,’ he sent people racing to the woods, anticipating the voice of God in the call of every thrush. But too often they paid scant attention to the songbird in their anxiousness to hear some transcendent message. They returned home full of nothing but themselves, their pockets stuffed with metaphors. As the imagination reaches relentlessly for a timeless, interior soulscape, it is easy to sail over the specificity of particular landscapes” –Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (1998, 17)
Caution II: Beware Dissociative Jargon
This one’s for me. In academia, we are coming up with some important terms to describe what is happening to our world, words like Solastalgia, coined by Glenn Albrecht has gotten a lot of traction because it speaks to a feeling that is becoming more common, and just as potent as nostalgia was thought to be during the 1700s, where it was diagnosed as serious illness due to longing for one’s homeland. Solastalgia is the feeling of loss and longing for one’s home place as it changes before our eyes. This kind of language, though abstract and new, is powerful for describing our feelings. What I mean by dissociative jargon is more in line with words like environment, ecosystems and even ecology. Ecosystem is a word for places coined by a culture without a home. I learned this caution from a hero of mine, agrarian writer Wendell Berry. I have a lot to learn from this caution. As Berry writes:
“No settled family or community has ever called its home place an “environment.” None has ever called its feeling for its home place “biocentric” or “anthropocentric.” None has ever thought of its connection to its home place as “ecological,” deep or shallow. The concepts and insights of the ecologists are of great usefulness in our predicament, and we can hardly escape the need to speak of “ecology” and “ecosystems.” But the terms themselves are culturally sterile. They come from the juiceless, abstract intellectuality of the universities which was invented to disconnect, displace, and disembody the mind. The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes roads, creatures, and people.” –Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (1993, 35)
Troubles: Therapizing Place and NIMBY-ism
In addition to these cautions, I am also interested in the troubles on the horizon, troubles for which I don’t have direct prescriptions to solve. These are troubles that I want to think out loud about in future writing and if possible, public gatherings.
First, there is a strong tendency to assume that developing a place is space is a kind of wellness technique. For example, forest-based therapists often see places through a therapeutic lens (this is often good). We develop a practice of deep attention to place as a means of de-stressing, unwinding, or spiritually tuning in to the happenings of a forest. However, I must insist that just as mindfulness is not just to be practiced when we are happy, a practice of Placefulness is not just practiced when our places are lush, or when we are comfortable and happy, or simply in need of cheering up. Forests are places of predation, decay, rot, parasitism, suffering and pain. If we go to the forest and only see vibrant life, interconnection and cooperation we are missing half of the experience.
Sense of place can also become something of a classist project of protecting a strict view of land that elevates places that are primarily in wild states, lined with walking trails and recreational areas. Working landscapes are often excluded, which tends to bias our notions of places worthy of our attention toward those that fit the narrow aesthetics of urban and wealthy recreators, retirees, or second homeowners. NIMBY-ism (Not In My Backyard) can even kill renewable energy projects that threaten a cherished viewshed. Some communities value places primarily for wellness, aesthetics, spirituality and leisure and these are important values. But Placefulness needs to wrap its arms around the reality that many people have to make their livings from the land, as foresters, miners, loggers, truckers, farmers, ranchers and many other professions and many of them are trying their best to do a good job, usually small scale, independent operators. This is tricky, because we need to radically transform our economy, but the answer isn’t simply building a wall around some places while others go to shit.
With Trebbe Johnson’s Radical Joy for Hard Times, we need to be prepared to love damaged places. We need to witness and resist cultures of destruction but also as Donna Haraway encourages us, to “stay with the trouble”. This means resisting either/or narratives that trade in either apocalyptic or techno-optimistic storylines. It means attuning to our neighborhoods as well as our local wild forest parks. It means supporting and celebrating a stream restoration project and grieving an oil spill in the bay. Our places are wounded, so are we. Attention, holy grief and acts of beauty in wounded places are integral to Placefulness.
Troubles: Weaponizing Place
Another important trouble is that deep reverence to places are caught up in human conflicts all over the world. Control over (sacred) places is often enlisted by ethno-nationalist agendas. For example, Hindu nationalists (VHP) demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992 because they claimed it was built by Muslim invaders on a sacred Hindu site. Sacred Groves in India, which are often pointed to as examples of ancient conservation projects, are often caste-restrictive, gender restrictive and include taboos that look nothing like the egalitarian access Westerners expect from protected areas. Sense of place is often accompanied by knowing one’s place in a social hierarchy. In addition, Israel/Palestine continues to be a conflict between those who are deeply invested in their identities and home places. Zionism is a place-based movement. Placefulness needs to grapple with this toxic dimension of sense of place.
Troubles: Reconciling Place
Last, sense of place is not communing with Nature with a capital N. In the pacific West where I live, he beloved forests where I walk, the parks and neighborhoods are all the traditional territory of the Musqueam people. To go into the forest and see only nature is to negate that these are cultural landscapes whose ancient stewards have been stripped of their claims by force. There is a political ecology to Placefulness.
There are some very encouraging large-scale trends: The BC Treaty Commission, Indigenous protected and conserved areas; the advancement of Rights and Title settlements; co-management, profit sharing agreements. The Land Back, Land Guardians, Indigenous land trusts, revitalization movements, Voluntary Land Tax projects like the Reciprocity Funds program. These are all gesturing in the right direction, but reconciliation and decolonization are not the same thing, and Placefulness needs to grapple with what that means for settler and immigrant peoples who love where they live. A post-colonial “Cascadia” should be able to include settler and immigrant peoples, but Indigenous peoples need to be treated with the historical justice that making right deserves. How far does that go? I don’t know. Perhaps I should start look into immigrating back to England after 7 or so generations of ancestry in North America? Or, perhaps my practice of Placefulness needs to be able to sit with discomfort, ambivalence, and the historical wrongs that I had no part in carry out, but whose privileged fruits I unquestionably benefit from. As Nigerian Post-Christian Yoruba writer Bayo Akomolafe says:
“I like to say that, sometimes the best answer to a pressing question is bewilderment. It’s not the answer itself, it’s not the correct answer, it’s the gift of bewilderment, it’s a gift of straying away from the algorithms of easy arrival. And my Elders always taught me that…the answers are not always going to be available…thank you for holding the space for queer questions, and uneasy arrivals for tending to the tense fields where new kinds of beings and becomings can thrive and grow…”
Placefulness is about making space for the unknown, cultivating holy grief for a rapidly changing world, and loving our places even when it might be uncomfortable.
 Edward Casey, Getting Back into Place, 1993, 14.
 Christian Norbert Shultz, The Concept of Dwelling, 1993, 109.
“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
–The Apostles Creed
“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls.”
A Communion of the Saintly
Toward the end of the Nicaean and Apostle’s Creeds, Christians from many denominations affirm the belief in the Communion of the Saints. In practice, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Oriental, and Easter Orthodox traditions commonly integrate saints into our liturgies, calendars and even patronal names at baptism. My own patron saint is Saint Kevin of Ireland. Not only is he the patron saint of very ordinary names like mine, but as a hermit, he embodied the deep love of Creation at the heart of Irish Paganism and Christianity.
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church defines a saint as someone who is closer or more united with Christ in heaven. Intercessory prayer, which seems to pick up where Pagan polytheism leaves off, sees this proximity to heaven as a legitimate and effective way of amplifying one’s prayers. It emphasizes the idea that the church is a communal structure that is not confined to the living.
Saints are also culture-heroes that elevate our eyes toward heavenly virtues through the prism of their unique gifts. Saints are the celebrities and athletes of the spiritual life. They are role models and icons of holiness and character. For example, sounding a bit like a Catholic Bodhisattva, 19th century French Saint Therese of Lisieux wrote, “I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth.” Saints are heroic in virtue, and yet they are often keenly aware of their own woundedness. Contemporary Catholic commentator and YouTube evangelist Bishop Robert Barron uses the analogy of a pane of glass to describe the saintly heart. As it becomes more directly illuminated by light, even the slightest smudges and blemishes become readily apparent. As Barron puts it, saints are simply people who know they are sinners. Saints don’t earn this merit, they simply orient their lives toward the light already there.
In a broader sense, all Christians, or even all people, are saints. In his letters, the Apostle Paul refers to the ordinary members of his churches as Saints—as contemporary Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, continue to do. For Paul, the Saints (Gk: hagiois, holy ones) were those who had chosen to bask in the Grace of the risen Christ.
This notion of ordinary folks being Saints shouldn’t surprise us. Think of Paul’s stark transformation from a persecutor of the church to a Christic visionary; or of Peter’s penchant for cowardly self-preservation at the time of the crucifixion, to a miracle working evangelist-martyr who tradition holds was crucified upside down. From the earliest moments of Christianity there is a notion that each of us are saints in embryo, holy not just through extraordinary feats of virtue, but through our createdness, our belovedness, and our utter dependence on God, who brings us into being and sustains us in each moment.
Making Room for Creation in the Communion of the Saints
For most of Christian history, Sainthood has been seen as a human affair. However, it seems like the time has come to decenter the human person as the only creature in Creation worthy of the title. I don’t want to devalue us, I want to decenter us, there is a difference. I want to think about this with the help of 20th century spiritual writer and monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the patron saint of ecology Saint Francis of Assisi, and a few other geologians.
It isn’t actually that much of a leap to go from the notion of a primordial sainthood at the heart of our human createdness, which emerges from no merit of our own, to the saintliness of the rest of Creation with whom we share our evolutionary morphology and instincts. As a monk explained to me on retreat regarding his belief in animal souls: “Do we have the same Father? Ok, then we are siblings!”
In his poem Canticle to Creation, Saint Francis of Assisi affirmed this close kinship with creation in the 12th century. In writing with the reconciliation of two rival cities in mind, Francis declared with the Psalms that all of creation rightly gives God praise. However, he also went a step further by referring to Sun, Moon, Water, Plants, Earth, and Fire as our siblings. He wrote: “Praise be to you Lord God through Brother Sun…” This kinship language is striking for a pre-ecological age that affirms the interrelatedness of all creation. And yet, there is no confusing Creation and Creator, only a more directly aligned prism that is able to see God’s loving presence in Creation.
In his foundational book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton meditates on the depth of contemplative spirituality in the Catholic tradition. Merton’s writing had a great deal to do with bringing mysticism and contemplative spirituality to an entirely new generation of Catholics, and his influence has reached into the generations of the 21st century through the efforts of the International Thomas Merton Society. One of the most startling and beautiful passages in New Seeds beautifully amplifies saintliness beyond the more than human Creation in a way that would have turned Henry David Thoreau’s scruffy head. Merton writes:
“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him. It “consents,” so to speak, to His creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.”
A tree’s substance, its tree-ness, is its praise, and because that substance owes its very being to God, it is fundamentally united with God, or, in other words, a Saint. Merton continues:
“The forms and individual characters of living and growing things, of inanimate beings, of animals and flowers and all nature, constitute their holiness in the sight of God. Their inscape is their sanctity.”
Here, Merton alludes to a word coined by Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The Inscape for Hopkins is a creature’s most intimate uniqueness, which bears the very finger print of God. As Dan Horan has written, this is a deeply Franciscan idea, which echoes the heady theology of 14th century theologian John Duns Scotus. Merton, say on!
“The special clumsy beauty of this particular colt on this April day in this field under these clouds is a holiness consecrated to God by His own creative wisdom and it declares the glory of God. The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this window are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God. This leaf has its own texture and its own pattern of veins and its own holy shape, and the bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river are canonized by their beauty and their strength.”
Swoon. This is one of my very favorite passages from Merton, and when I first read it as a seasonal forester in Utah in 2012, it changed the way I saw the woods. It is recalling this passage that I affirm the idea that the Communion of Saints is ready for an update.
Extinction is Martyrdom
Death is a fact of evolution. Most species have an ecological life span of about a million or so years. Human beings may be no different if we don’t shape up. Extinction, the death of a species, happens naturally. Admittedly difficult to calculate, the background rate of natural extinctions is about one species per million species per year. The industrial machine is speeding up that rate so by estimates of between 100 to 1000 times the background rate. There have been five major extinctions of life on this planet, reducing species diversity by 75-90 per cent. Human expansion out of Africa, but especially the activities of industrial humanity initiated what some are calling the Sixth Extinction event.
For those of us who see the world as more than a God-given grocery store, extinction caused by human beings is a travesty. Extinction has been likened to the silencing of an instrument in the symphony of Creation. Said another way, if each creature is a word of God, unique and singular in its particularity and bespokeness, a species, is an epic cosmic poem. Extinction at the hands of human expansion impoverishes the vocabulary of this cosmic epic that makes up an earthly Communion of Saints. Just as murder is not just death, extinction by our hands is a kind of martyrdom.
In his Letter to the Romans chapter 8:22, Paul writes that “all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth.” There is a sense that Christ is a cosmic event, and salvation an earthly affair. In the famous John 3:16, “God so loved the world”, after all. Eschatology is the study of last things, final words, and end times. For many Christians, only humans will accompany God into post-moral eternities. But in an era of ecological conscience, eschatology needs an earthy reassessment. As ecological theologian Sallie McFague has written, “Salvation is the direction of all of creation, and creation is the very place of salvation.” Salvation was not just a single event, but an ongoing trajectory of Creation as the Body of God.
Theologians like the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin and his contemporary interpreter Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, see Big Bang cosmology as affirming the idea that Creation is moving toward its fulfillment in God. For Teilhard the Omega point was synonymous with the Logos of John Ch. 1, where the author states that the Word (Logos) was with God from the beginning and is God.
Omega is the last letter in the Greek alphabet, and Teilhard used this as an image of the entirety of Creation being drawn into God through the humanity of Christ (Logos). Of course for Teilhard, the Omega point insinuated that the Noosphere, or mental realm, would become independent of the physical world, but Delio’s writings make a stronger claim that all of creation is involved in this ongoing cosmic soteriology. She writes, “Rather, reality is a single, organic, evolutionary flowing.” The lives of Saints are powerful because they give us a taste of heaven on earth. To expand the Communion of Saints is acknowledge that like the Our Father prayer, salvation is the ongoing process of earth merging with heaven.
Finally, if a human can be a saint, perhaps we should consider whether or not her gut flora, eye mites, viruses, lice, skin and mouth bacteria, fungi, and parasites might be as well. Perhaps as well, we should wonder whether the species that have been domesticated with us are Saints: Heather, corn, wheat, barley, millet, cows, chickens, dogs, pigs. Perhaps as well those that have accompanied us as we made our cities: Cats, rats, mice, cockroaches, pigeons, squirrels, starlings, coyotes, dandelions, and crows. And perhaps those species and ecologies that provided the materials, medicines, and wild foods that nourished us. And all those that populated our symbols, languages and stories. Perhaps the Communion of Saints is nothing less than an ongoing Being-One-With the Holy-Ones-of-Creation.
A Litany of Ten Salish Sea Rainforest Trees
Saint Western Red Cedar pray for us…
Saint Douglas fir pray for us…
Saint Western Hemlock pray for us…
Saint Grant Fir pray for us…
Saint Sitka Spruce pray for us…
Saint Amabilis Fir pray for us…
Saint Big Leaf Maple pray for us…
Saint Red Alder pray for us…
Saint Paper Birch pray for us…
Saint Yew pray for us…
 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions. Kindle Edition, 1961/2007), 27.
 St. Therese of Lisieux, The Final Conversations, (Washington: ICS, 1977), 102.
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
Falling to my knees, I found myself at an unexpected altar. I may have pushed a little too hard to arrive in Santiago before the crowds became unbearable; and then eaten some questionable local seafood for lunch. All of which induced a temporary but debilitating stomach upset. I could hardly stand let alone walk around the city. My arrival in Santiago was supposed to be a joyous and cathartic release after so many miles of prayerful walking. Instead, I was vomiting in a shared bathroom at an overpriced nightly pension just behind the Plaza de Obradoira. I could overhear the jubilant cheers of groups arriving at the cathedral from my bed.
Earlier that morning, when I had arrived in the Plaza, I had taken a wrong turn in the city’s labyrinthine city corridors and walked into the open rectangular plaza from the south, rather than through the small portal on the north side where a bagpipe busker plays swelling Celto-Galician melodies for the arriving pilgrims. When I stepped into the plaza, rather than feeling elation, I felt slightly confused. In the photographs it was weathered, and lichen covered and had the character of an ancient baroque cathedral, now it was immaculately clean, like the stone had just been laid. For a second I wondered if I was in the right place. Then, seeing some other pilgrims arrive and begin to celebrate I knew that of course I was in the right place. It turns out the façade had just been restored, and the scaffolding had only come down the day before. It was beautiful, lacking the characteristic grit and age I expected, the years of chips, pocks and stain had been lifted to reveal its true and youthful self. A beautiful metaphor for the spiritual life.
Entering the cathedral, a pilgrim’s Mass was wrapping up, and I waited at the back until the crowds began to reverently disperse. Wandering the nave, it felt smaller and less assuming than one might expect. It certainly felt much different than the classically gothic cathedrals of León and Burgos. Its baroque motif and adornments were a bit dusty and worn down, there was scaffolding above the altar, a few pigeons flew about the rafters, and its arches and ceiling were in desperate need of repair and restoration. And yet, despite its unassuming and worn appearance, the space exuded a kind of sacred expectation. A cue of people lined up to hug a golden statue of Santiago, Saint James behind the altar, and another waited to pray at the reliquary holding his reputed remains.
I did both rituals with a smile. I had finally arrived at the cathedral and, despite a wobbly landing, I began to fill with the satisfaction and joy of a pilgrimage completed. I then sat in the pews waiting for the next Pilgrim’s Mass and tried to be as open as possible to the reality of what was before me: the goal accomplished, the eccentric beauty, the diversity of my fellow pilgrims. The cathedral Mass was well orchestrated, the Bishop spoke a slow and discernable Spanish, and the music added to the reverent atmosphere. I lingered in the cathedral after the Mass snapping pictures, craning my neck at the Romanesque arches.
As I say, that night I fell ill, but by the morning I was OK enough to go back to the cathedral and walk around the city, visiting its many other treasures, churches and plazas over four days. As I rested from thirty days of intensely regimented walking, my heart filled with the romance and beauty of the place. I also began to reflect more deeply on the meaning and impact of pilgrimage in general, and my first walk on the Camino de Santiago.
Elaborate Camino trail marker.
What is a Pilgrimage?
When I was ten or eleven, I jumped into a big van with a dozen or so of my fellow Mormon youth and headed to San Diego for an overnight trip. We were going to walk a section of the Mormon Battalion Trail, the historic route which the US Army-appointed Mormon Battalion marched before the end of the Mexican-America War. This march never saw combat, but it helped open a southern route to California as the US annexed much of the Southwest from Mexico.
We wanted to experience firsthand what it was like to walk the same trail our ancestors had walked. We were told of the hardships and inconveniences they had to endure. We walked to show gratitude to their sacrifice and build character. This pioneer pilgrimage is not uncommon in Mormon culture, and pioneer treks, reenactments and historic sites are a big part of forming Mormons in their own heritage and identity as America pioneers with a unique claim to the nation and its promises. In 2008, Mormons from across the US participated in a reenactment of the entire Mormon Battalion trek, a journey of over 2,000 miles. As an erasable teen, I just remember feeling annoyed, and wanting more snacks. But even then, my self-centered brain managed to muster some measure of reflexivity on just how difficult life must have been for those who came before me.
At the beginning of my pilgrimage to Santiago, one thing that surprised me was just how secular and recreational everyone’s motives seemed to be. As a religious person, I was frustrated by this. I even heard a Catholic priest say he was walking the Camino to get away from his hectic and busy life as an urban parish priest! I am not opposed to recreation or cool experiences, but to me, for a pilgrimage to be a pilgrimage, it must in some way connect the self with the sacred.
Wandering through the Pilgrim Museum in Santiago, a central display defined pilgrimage as a universal human phenomenon, existing in many religions and cultures. A pilgrimage is an allegory for the human experience, it is a holy path to a holy place; “a journey in search of spiritual meaning.” It is both destination and journey. In Spanish, ‘Camino’ simply means ‘way’ or ‘path’, and Christianity was initially described as The Way. Tao, the central concept of the constellation of folk religions and philosophies often referred as Taoism, also simply means the ‘Way’. Both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhisms embrace an eight-fold path to Nirvana, or enlightenment. The Psalms frequently refer to God’s law as a ‘path’, the path which the righteous follow. “Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths” (Psalms 24:5).
For the Medieval Christians, braving the dangers and toils of the path, was not about having an experience or about leisure. It was about seeking forgiveness for wrongs, self-denial in the service of spiritual growth, healing from a debilitating illness, for petitions for family and friends that could not make the journey. It often involved great expense and great risk. The path was an objectively sacred path, to an objectively sacred place. Saint James was a spiritual force whose intercession was hoped to effect actual things in the world. He was no archetype or whimsical character from Christian myth. Pilgrimage was a spiritual technology in a world where life was short, difficult and dangerous.
With the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, and the Reformation’s emphasis on grace over works, pilgrimage began to lose its force and meaning. Catholic superstition and idolatry was looked down upon, and for many Protestants, there was no path to walk since we are only saved through God’s grace, not through the Sacraments, or through our efforts.
Today, I would say a majority of those who walk the Camino are not affiliated with any particular religion, or have left the religion of their upbringing. At first I felt lonely in my religious and spiritual motivations. I became a little more judgmental and self-righteous than usual. For many the Camino was undeniably a social experience, or an athletic challenge. But despite my cynicism, it was an overwhelmingly positive and healing experience for many as well. The Camino can be life changing, life restoring, and so much more than just an interesting get away. The Camino has the ability to heal a part of people that isn’t readily available in daily life; that was nourished by the movement, the friendship and the sunshine.
I would not say that my experience was particularly life changing or healing. My pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was definitely not what I expected. What going in promised to be a conventionally spiritual experience that traversed some beautiful country, turned out to be a very raw encounter with my most persistent demons. However, even though at several moments I thought of quitting, or at least wanted the experience to be over, I am so grateful that I did it. I am so grateful for the privilege of being able to take this time to just walk. The lessons I gleaned are still bubbling up. But I learned so much about the heritage of Christianity, about Spain, art and architecture; and yes, about myself. Here are a few of the major themes that emerged as I reflected on my walking pilgrimage between Pamplona and Santiago de Compostela during the month of June, 2018.
Pilgrimage is an Embodied Spiritual Practice
I am grateful for the revival of pilgrimage as a spiritual practice, and despite my cynicism toward its popularity, I really do believe that it is ultimately a good thing. I do however worry that we (inclusive we) focus too much on the external aspects of pilgrimage, with the temptation to broadcast our experiences to the world via social media in order to garner admiration and praise. I certainly wrestled with metering my own use of social media during the trip. Use of social media aside, I feel that in order for one to really be a pilgrim (peregrino) rather than a tourist (turi-grino), awareness, attention and interest in the spiritual dimension of the journey should be primary. Pilgrimage is not just experience, hiking or athleticism.
Pilgrimage is an important and rare embodied spiritual practice indigenous to Christianity. Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) has long neglected the body in our worship and spiritual practice (we don’t have our own version of Yoga). Thus, pilgrimage is an important way of re-incarnating Christianity, bringing us back to the body. Pilgrimage is powerful because it is fully embodied, but at the same time perfectly mirrors the spiritual dimensions of life itself as a spiritual journey.
The phenomenology of pilgrimage as spiritual practice is captured by the slow step-by-step-by-step walking of which it is made. It should not be rushed. Patience is a virtue. It is an ongoing encounter with the world as we slowly move through it. It is boredom and exhaustion and sickness and discomfort and social awkwardness and silence and monotony. It is ugly and beautiful places. It is moving at a primordially human pace. It is stopping to sit, stare, listen, cry, feel, pray, poke something strange, smell flowers, kick stones, wave at cows, laugh, remember, lament, worry, jot down an idea, think about the future, find a place to pee, and say ‘Buen Camino!’ for the 50th time. It is the sound of wind through cottonwoods, rain drops on the small leaves of a hedgerow, our own heart beating, speeding semi-trucks, distant wind mills, planes over head, pilgrims discussing in a language not our own. Pilgrimage is walking through a land of deeply embedded cultural memories, none of which were my own. The hilltops wink at their former pagan worshippers; the brittle ruins of the Roman Empire poke out like dry bones; there are whispers of the long ago Muslim conquest. The farmland exudes the long slow dwelling of a thousand generation of farmers, peasants and artisans.
And yet, there were several moments on the Camino that transported me back to places I have lived in my life. Walking toward León from a high hilltop, the view of the cathedral spires and the open arid valley behind it looked uncannily like Salt Lake City, Utah with the spires of the Mormon Temple and the Great Salt Lake Basin in the background. The semi-arid landscapes of the Meseta, and the smell of eucalyptus plantations in Galicia reminded me of my first home-place, California. There was a sort of present-invoking-the-past quality to these places. Unfamiliar landscapes they might have been, they still triggered many of my own past selves and experiences. These memories and thoughts then become part of the fabric of embodied reflection, lesson and landscape. This phenomenology of walking is an important aspect of any spiritual practice that engages not just our minds but our whole person and pushes and challenges us in new ways.
There is also a ritual aspect to pilgrimage as spiritual practice. To be a pilgrim is to do more or less the same thing every day: wake, pack, eat, walk, eat, walk, find lodging, wash clothes, eat, sleep. At times I found this monotony, even with the constantly new scenery and company, to be tedious. One of the podcasts I listened to while walking from Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron’s show Word on Fire shifted my perspective on the monotony of pilgrimage, and its ritual connection to the Mass. He quoted the 20th century Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton in his famous work Orthodoxy where he celebrated ritual repetition as an attribute of God’s ongoing creation of the world. Chesterton wrote:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
Like the Mass, which follows more or less the same pattern every time, ritual repetition is a way of returning to and reinforcing essential spiritual truths. This repetition with change, doing the same thing every day in slightly different places under slightly different circumstances is part of the holiness of pilgrimage. The slow change of the day mirrors the slow ripening of our own souls. The mistakes and sin which we continually find ourselves making are opportunities to return to God yet again, to do it again.
Magnificent ornate Retablo at Ascension church in Navarrete.
Sacred Spaces are an Essential Component of Pilgrimage
Early on in my walk, it was clear that there was a spectrum of feelings about the ubiquity of Catholic sacred spaces on the Camino. Most of the churches, if they were open, offered stamps for our pilgrim passports; and most of the must-see destination along the Camino were historic monasteries, hermitages, chapels and cathedrals. It was sad to see so many pilgrims simply hurry past an open church door, or shrug at a suggested donation sign. Those who made it inside often strolled through the aisles and side chapels as if in a museum, or simply stamped their passports and left. To a certain extent I get it, there is a need to conserve one’s energy with so many churches along the way. I too found myself in a sort check off mode in all too many minor churches or hermitages, but sacred space is an important dimension to walking a pilgrimage.
The animosity toward churches and cathedrals went deeper for some folks I met. I would sometimes overhear pilgrims say that the sacred spaces were a waste of money—monuments to corruption and feudal extraction of wealth, first from the Spanish peasantry and then the ‘New’ World. One day, early in my Camino, I walked for a kilometer or so with two men from Mallorca and for them churches were a sign of the church’s earthly power, nothing more.
Another man admitted that the churches were great and all, very beautiful, but that he had long since stopped going to Mass. He balked at the notion that he needed a priest to forgive his sins, or that somehow the sacred began once he stepped one foot inside the church. He didn’t need a church to pray to God; wherever he knelt was his church.
I am sympathetic to these stances; the church has at many times been too focused on power, wealth and prestige. And, as someone who experiences God’s presence in the natural world, I am not opposed to viewing the world as sacred. However, what I would say to these arguments (and what I said to these pilgrims as we walked) is that sacred spaces are monuments to beauty, and an important centering complement to the diffusing nature of walking.
First, to suggest that the legions of people who participated in building these structures were merely either compelled or motivated by worldly power is too cynical a view to capture the ornate attention to detail, story and affect that these spaces undeniably afford. As we learn from our mistakes, I think that the church can be dedicated to beauty and equity. Being dedicated to social justice does not exclude a commitment to beauty as a tool for evangelization and encounter with God. As 19th century labor organizer Rose Schneiderman famously said in a speech, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”
To the second criticism, I tend to agree in principle that the world itself is sacred because it was made by God. However, our awareness of God’s presence is not spread equally throughout our lives. It is like saying that fitness can happen any place, not just the gym; sure it can, but they sure help! What is powerful about sacred spaces is that they are set aside (the root of sacred means set aside) to amplify the sacred dimensions of life, and push us to the boundaries the sensible world. They are places where we practice the presence of God; where we train ourselves to discern the sacred in the world, each other and ourselves.
Dedicated sacred spaces, spaces that take beauty seriously, are in my estimation the best places to bring together the paradoxical aspects of spirituality: material and spiritual, tangible and intangible, temporal and eternal, universal and particular. Their arches, height, columns, symmetry, depth and focal points participate in an objective beauty that is universally appealing. Yet, with their insistence on corporality through painting, statuary and iconography they stubbornly insist that the viewer not get lost in the transcendent, but take into account the bodies and lives and stories of the saints and the central figures of Christianity. Cathedrals and churches are filled with statues of triumphant and ecstatic saints yes, but also broken, beaten, bleeding, breast feeding, crucified, tortured and burnt alive saints. Catholic sacred space points to resurrection and eternity, but they do so through the brutalized body of a Jewish peasant. Sacred spaces point to the transcendent with a finger made of flesh and bone.
In one particularly striking example, on a tour of a 16th century Franciscan convent, there was a life sized statue of the bleeding body of Jesus laid to rest in the tomb. In the wound in his side was a monstrance and tabernacle. A monstrance is a small clear case for a consecrated piece of Eucharist bread, and the tabernacle is where the left over consecrated bread is stored after Mass. The monstrance is used in Eucharistic Adoration, and in processions. For Catholics, once consecrated, these hosts are the actual body of Christ under the appearance of bread. In the gruesome statue at the convent, rather than decorated in abstract design and flourish, as is typical, it was in the side of Christ. While I often find baroque statuary to be distasteful and hokey, even grotesque, this statue perfectly exemplified Catholicism’s insistence on both the transcendent and immanent aspects of God. God is utterly beyond our comprehension, and utterly within our grasp. God does not cause our suffering, he endures it with us.
Another way sacred spaces bring together the paradoxical aspects of religious life by blending objective and subjective dimensions of beauty. I think that one of the reasons so many people are drawn to massive gothic cathedrals is that their presence, size and forms participate in objective beauty, beauty whose affect comes from outside human construction. The perspectives, arches, domes etc. are affecting, they act on the human consciousness and draw one toward the transcendent. On the other hand, the motifs and décor, the styles of the adornment and statuary are often framed within a particular period or style whether Romanesque, Gothic or Baroque which appeals to a more subjective sense of beauty through historic and cultural cues.
There is also a spiritual ecology to Catholic sacred spaces, especially cathedrals. Living in the age of national parks, protected areas and wilderness, it is easy to overlook that Catholic sacred spaces are also stylized homages to the sacramental quality of the world itself. They are monuments to the transcendent, to the eternal, but undeniably celebrate the particular beauty and sacredness of this world. Cathedrals were built as microcosms of the medieval macrocosm, as cosmic-spiritual observatories of sorts. They are oriented along an east west axis, with the altar facing east, the direction of the rising sun, a symbol of Christ. They are often cruciform in shape, which is symbolic of the cross, but also of the human person, or even the personhood of the world. The church is the mystical body of Christ of which we are member, and with the resurrection, that body extends into the entire universe.
The priest, in his vestments, recapitulates all of creation and brings the bounty of creation and work of human hands (our offerings, and bread and wine) to the altar. The Sanctus prayer is a way for human beings, led and symbolized by the priest to join the prayer of the universe and creation, not to speak over it. The priest’s vestments change color with the seasons, and the liturgy is meant not only to reflect the praise of God that is happening all the time in heaven, but to participate in the archetypal cycle of the earthly seasons of birth, life, death and resurrection.
The cathedral itself is designed as an early paradise, a Garden of Eden. The columns are trees whose tops are often adorned with stylized leaves. The ceilings are sometimes adorned with stars, or at least lead the eye to heaven. The moldings are bursting with flowers, vines and leaves. The stained glass, statuary, retablos and paintings are filled with birds, trees, mammals, grottos, light and seasons. It is also very common for the altar retablos column’s to feature sheaves of wheat and spiraling grape vines.
On the outside, many Spanish churches were often literal bird sanctuaries. Walking into a new town, sometimes the easiest way to find the church was to watch where the swallows were flying. Often placed on small rises or hilltops, church bell towers were almost always bustling with bird life. Purple martins and barn swallows were the most abundant, but there were also pigeons, sparrows and sometimes colonies of storks.
I also found that elements of my walks were reinforced within the décor of the cathedrals. For example, the rose windows of the Leon cathedral felt so much more powerful because all along the Camino, the wild roses were in full bloom. And, one cannot help but notice the thousands of acres of vineyards and grain along the Camino, elements which are daily lifted on the altar during the Eucharist. Walking through oceans of grain, and row after row of vineyard took on a special significance when I knew that in the evening I would attend Mass.
In sum, sacred spaces at their best are meeting places for inner and outer landscapes, between transcendent and immanent, between mortality and eternity. For this reason, they are such an important complement of our walks. Sacred space is a focal point and a place to practice of the presence of God. It is a ritual of repeatedly coming to God as we are, and then trying to take a little more of God with us into the world when we leave.
Carmelite Monastery where John of the Cross is Buried.
Seeking God Often Includes Periods of ‘Darkness’
Before I flew back to the states, I took a train to Segovia, just northwest of Madrid to visit the final resting place of Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), a Carmelite mystic who I had read before the Camino, but who became increasingly important to me as I realized just how much my own experience of the Camino was reflected in his phases of spiritual development. My first official pilgrimage felt very much like what John of the Cross would call a Dark Night of the Soul, a period of purification (purgation) where despite being immersed in spiritual practice, we feel a strong sense of God’s absence and spiritual desolation rather than consolation. The world famous and now canonized Saint Mother Teresa experienced nearly 50 years of this darkness, after a very vivid experience of hearing the voice of Jesus call her to start her work in the slums of Calcutta.
I am not glorifying this sort of experience, or wearing it as a badge. I am not saying that I suffered anything all that dramatic; but, my experience on the Camino de Santiago was surprisingly difficult. I did not connect as easily or readily with my fellow pilgrims as I expected; I felt more pain and discomfort than I thought I would. It was also an expectedly direct encounter with many longstanding insecurities, fear, depression, temptation, feelings of deep unworthiness and religious doubt. I did not often feel an obvious sense of God’s presence, of my own goodness, of the going-to-be-alright-ness of the world, or even of the truthfulness of Christianity.
When the mystics talk about spiritual darkness, or I say that I encountered it on the Camino, we are not talking about a force in opposition to goodness. Darkness is a shade of spiritual experience so to speak; it tries to capture the fact that the spiritual life is not always marked by reward, positive emotions or blessing. The spiritual life is not a vending machine. For some reason when it comes to religion this lesson seems to be out of vogue. We don’t always feel a direct correlation between spiritual growth and current mood. I feel confident that if we insist on correlating Gods presence with good feelings, we are in danger of turning spirituality into a sappy TV commercial.
Everyone knows that if you want to be a better runner, athlete, artist, writer, politician, or just about anything, that you often have to give up certain pleasures in order to grow; that one must push and stretch oneself to make progress. Pilgrimage as a spiritual practice is not just about the positive experiences and the sweetness of feeling God’s presence in places, people and nature (though it certainly is that too), but also learning to work through the absence of these consolations as well. Faith is being able to keep going even if we don’t feel a reason to. In The Divine Comedy, Dante wanted to immediately climb the Holy Mountain to get to God, but before he could, he had to pass through hell and purgatory. His path showed him the spectrum of human suffering and sinfulness and the ways that we turn away from God.
Catholic spirituality intuits, sometimes gruesomely, the idea that suffering is redemptive. The Camino was filled with statuary depicting the suffering the martyrs, with statuary of the Sorrowful Blessed Mother with knives stabbing into her heart, and the brutalized body of Jesus. As I have said, while I find these statues mostly disturbing and sometimes hokey, they made a certain kind of sense as a pilgrim. Archetypal suffering didn’t seem as foreign to me when I limped into a church soaked in sweat.
An important part of pilgrimage as a spiritual practice then is being willing to subject oneself to difficulty and discomfort so that God can effect growth in the soul, even if we are not aware of it. On a pilgrimage we do not accomplishing anything other than opening ourselves to what God is seeking to accomplish through us.
The Spiritual Life is Ultimately about Love
I was mostly annoyed by the obnoxious tagging and graffiti along the Camino, but one day as I walked, for some strange reason I stopped and read one of the hand-written scrawling’s on one of the many Camino signs. It read: “We only accept the love we think we deserve.” The words struck me very powerfully. I have always struggled with self-acceptance. I have lived much of my life believing that I would be loved only for being smart, or nice, or morally worthy. My religious life has been in large measure a hoped for equation between pious works for God-given blessings. Part of my ongoing process of healing these deep wounds will simply be learning to trust long enough to unclench my defenses and feel just how much love has always been and is already around me. Not resolving to work harder, to be better in these bullet pointed areas, accomplishing these goals by this date in order to validate my existence. My family already and always will love me. The people who call me friend, already love me. God already loves me. It is amazing just how difficult it is for me to accept this reality! To use a symbol from the Camino, my heart is so often like a closed shell, I use most of my energy and strength keeping the shell tightly shut, my walls up, and myself safe from hurt, disappointment and rejection.
The spiritual life is not about earning God’s love through works, pilgrimage is not about showing God how dedicated we are, it is about putting ourselves in a position of vulnerability so that love freely flows from outside to inside, from inside to outside. At so many times as I walked along the Camino, the calcified shell around my heart cracked open ever so slightly—walking before a magnificent sunrise or sunset, experiencing the peace of solitude, listening to the birds sing, watching butterflies waft in the breeze, getting a kind smile or kind work from a fellow pilgrim, during the Mass, listening to a Podcast, reading a Psalm that spoke perfectly to my state of mind, standing before a piece of art, or ancient retablo—only to promptly shut again when difficulty arose, someone was unkind, or I felt vulnerable.
One day, after arriving at my Alberque and walking around the small village of Villafranco de Los Montes de Oca, I approached the ancient stone church. It was closed, but I noticed that there were bees flying in and out of a small hole above the door of the church. There was a beehive in the church, and I smiled, remembering a familiar poem I had once read, and would later see posted on the Camino. It was a verse from Antonio Machado’s poem, ‘Last night as I was Sleeping’:
“Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.”
The church at its best is a sanctuary for the slow and messy work of becoming holy. The spiritual life at its best, is the ongoing acceptance that this work is already underway. There is a delightful legend about a local saint who lived not far from where this church was located. Saint John of Ortega (1080-1163), after surviving a shipwreck, devoted the rest of his life to improving the Camino de Santiago through the notoriously dangerous Oca Mountains. Saint John established a monastery and a hospital for pilgrims, and was nicknamed ‘Ortega’ which means nettles, because he lived as a hermit in the mountain forests. Some years after his death and burial, his tomb was opened and to the amazement of the crowds, a pleasant aroma wafted out along with a swarm of white bees. This was taken as a sign of his blessedness, and he became a patron saint of children, hospice care and fertility.
In William Faulkner’s story about a man hunting an elusive and legendary bear it is not until the hunter puts down his gun that the bear reveals herself to him in the woods. We often think that we are seeking God, but really it is God who is seeking us. Much of my spiritual practice, I realize, has been about trying to control God, on my terms, when I am ready, when I feel spiritual, when I want something. The Camino has taught me that this is an idol. God cannot be caged, Holiness is messy. All of our liturgy, ritual and practice is but an exercise in learning to be open to God, not a spiritual technology for manipulating or binding God into our timelines or will. If I only accept the love I think I deserve I muzzle the effusive grace of a wild God.
Of course, I certainly did leave the Camino with a to-do list, with priorities, with ideas, with things I want to accomplish, with resolutions; but I also left with the reassurance that the essence of the spiritual life is to live in love, and love can only be felt and given in the measure that it is first accepted.
The Ending is the Beginning
There is a common phrase on the Camino de Santiago: The end is the beginning. Ringing of paradox, this cliché has come to resonate with me as I reflect on my experience. In Christianity, the end of life is the beginning of eternity. The moral of the story is the story itself. The destination and journey are part of the same sacred whole. The Cathedral of Santiago is sacred, but so are the many paths that lead there. Now more than ever, reflecting back on my original motivations to be a pilgrim, I realize that I am only at the beginning of the spiritual life. Pilgrimage was far more difficult than I expected, I went hoping to find something new, but what I discovered is that pilgrimage is not about getting something, but opening ourselves to the wealth that is already within us at each blessed moment whether filled with joy, sadness, pain or anxiety.
I attend a High Mass Anglo-Catholic Parish in Vancouver called Saint James. There are sometimes 12 people in the Chancel at a time, attending to the consecration of the Eucharist, swarming in dervish like semi-circles around the eastward facing priest. Priests, deacons, sub-deacons, acolytes, thurifer, torch bearers and crucifer. No single one of us, even the priest makes the dance complete. We are each an integral part of the liturgical ecology.
This is of course not a food chain, but food is involved. Our oikos is the altar, the place where we bring the fruits of the land, the work of human hands, and ourselves, and to turn it, ever so slowly, into God. As an ecosystem transfers energy from up the trophic hierarchy from simple to complex organisms, so we during the liturgy, move the desires of our hearts into God’s desires; a little more each day.
It is true, that if we stay on the surface, the liturgy can be boring and repetitive. But just under the surface, the intricate dance that turns bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ on the altar, is an icon for the everyday intricacy that turns our food into our bodies; bodies that make up the mystical body of Christ.
I recently did an interview with three Zoroastrians who live here in Vancouver. As I was preparing for the interview, I learned the fascinating history of the death rituals practiced by ancient and some modern Zoroastrian communities.
Briefly, Zoroastrians are followers of the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra, or Zoroaster in Greek, who is thought to have lived some time between 1,500 and 650 BCE. They are probably the first monotheistic religions with a great reverence for the elements, especially fire, which is a kind of incarnation of wisdom.
However, because of a dualistic cosmology, with the forces of good and evil forever at odds, dead bodies are believed to be quickly tainted by evil spirits. Because the elements are holy, death must be dealt with in such a way that the elements are not tainted by the corpse. This means no burial, no cremation, or setting out to sea. Traditionally then, Zoroastrians have conducted what is often referred to as ‘sky burial.’ The corpse is taken to a place called a Tower of Silence, where carrion eaters such as vultures devour the corpse. The technical term for this is excarnation, and it is also practiced by certain sects of Tibetan Buddhism, and in Mongolia, Bhutan, and Nepal.
Mumbai Tower of Silence Entrance Source: Wikipedia
One particular case that drew my attention, was the Zoroastrian community in Mumbai, whose Tower of Silence called the Doongerwadi, is surrounded by 54 acres of unmanaged forest, creating a small oasis. The Tower was built in the late 1600s, but is located in what is now an upper middle class neighborhood.
However, in the 1990s, the vulture population, which traditionally devoured the corpses in short order, collapsed due to the use of a drug administered to cattle, which was then ingested by the birds who had eaten the remains of treated cows. In some places, the vulture population was decreased by 99%.
This decrease in the vulture population, has meant that there are not enough birds to properly decompose the corpses of Mumbai’s Zoroastrian community, and there are worries about the public health implications of half decomposed corpses sitting around, even with the forest buffer.
In response, Zoroastrian activists have begun experimenting. There is a vulture breeding program in the works that is having some success, but others have began experimenting with solar concentrators which direct the suns heat onto the decomposing corpses which dries them out and speeds up decomposition time.
Imagine the most common of trees, the Christmas (or Solstice) tree, decorated with globes, lights and a star on top. Allow that tree to grow in your mind so that it fills the sky.
The bright star at the very top of the tree merges with the North Star, Polaris.
Now imagine that the gold and silver globes become the sun, the phases of the moon, and the other planets moving through the sky, appearing to pivot around the North Star.
Imagine that the twinkling lights are billions and billions of stars.
The Christmas tree is a microcosm of the macrocosm.
The Norse pagans placed the ash tree at the center of their cosmology.
Its sprawling roots descended into the underworld; its trunk and branches passed through the mortal realm, ascending to heavenly.
The Maya imaged the cosmos as a great Ceiba tree, which also descended to the underworld and ascended through thirteen levels of heaven, each level with its own god.
The sun and moon made their way along the Ceiba’s trunk, and the spirits of the dead moved along its rough bark.
The naturalist and pantheist John Muir used to climb to the top of large pine trees during rain storms. About trees and the universe he mused:
We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and [humans]; but it never occurred to me until th[at] stormy day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings—many of them not so much.
The Tree of Life
In the beginning, the tree of life emerged as a tiny seedling.
Soon, it branched out into everything we call living: microbes, fungi, plants, trees, animals.
The seeds of humans germinated in the trees.
Our mammalian and primate ancestors made their homes in their bows.
Eventually, our curiosity compelled us down from the safety of their branches and out onto the savanna.
Yet, the trees never left us;
They continued to provision us with gifts on our long walks.
They gave food, fodder, shelter, tools, medicine and stories.
They appeared in our dreams.
It was here, in a forest, that Zoroaster in Persia saw the Saena Tree in a vision emerging from the primeval sea, a tree from whose seeds all other plants would grow.
It was here that Yahweh, Semitic sky god, came to earth and planted a garden of trees, pleasing to the eye and good for food.
It was here that Inanna, Babylonian goddess of beauty and love, nourished the Huluppu tree on the banks of the Euphrates River.
It was here that Kaang, creator god of the Batswana Bushmen, created the first mighty tree and led the first animals and people out from the underworld through its roots and branches.
It was here that the sacred tree gave light to the Iroquois’s island in the sky—before the sun was made, before Sky Woman fell through a hole in the island in the sky, and before the earth was formed on the back of a great turtle.
It was here that the Mayan Tree of Life lifted the sky out from the primordial sea, surrounded by four more trees that hold the sky in place and mark the cardinal directions.
It was here, in a forest, that the first whispers of the divine spoke to human consciousness.
It was here that Jacob wrestled with angels and beheld visions.
It was here that Hindu seekers learned the wisdom of gurus.
It was here, seated beneath the Bodhi tree, that Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha.
It was here that Moses fasted, prayed, and received God’s Law.
It was here that Muhammad sought refuge in mountain caves and spoke the words of the holy Koran.
It was here that Guru Nanak experienced the Oneness of God.
It was here that Nephi of the Book of Mormon communed with angels and beheld the glorious fruit of the Tree of Life.
It was here, in a forest, that we built our first temples and worshipped God without priesthoods.
It was here that Asherah, Canaanite goddess of all living things, was worshipped.
It was here, as Sycamore fig, that Isis of Egypt was lavished praise.
It was here, in grove of sacred oak, that the Druids passed on their knowledge, and sacrificed human flesh to the gods.
It was also here, in the forest, that, after civilization blossomed, we looked for inspiration—
Temples of stone with their pillars, columns, and cathedral arches were all made to resemble the trunks of trees, carrying the eye upward to God.
And yet, it would seem that these temples of stone confined God to one place, one people, one faith.
It was here that we fell from grace.
It was here that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of a misunderstood tree.
It was here that civilization bloomed.
It was here that we logged, burned, mined, clear-cut, developed.
It was here that the old stories were forgotten and new ones were written;
Stories in which creation was no longer sacred, enchanted, animate, subjective.
In an age of climate chaos and heart breaking extinction, it is here, to the forest, that we must return.
Not only as skiers, hikers, campers, birders, hunters, and foresters, but as devotees.
Because it is here that we see the universe in microcosm, where we get our bearings.
It is here that creation awes.
It is here that we experience the divine.
It is here that we can bring our questions.
It is here that we can dwell in mystical solitude.
It is here that we are now—The global forest.
To return to the forest, we must become familiar with it.
I invite you to go to a mountain grove or a city park and take off your shoes.
When you are comfortable and alone, close your eyes.
Begin by focusing on feeling—as a tree might—the sun, the wind, the earth beneath your toes and on your skin.
If you wish, stretch your arms up and out like branches seeking the light.
Imagine drinking in the caramel rays of the sun as nourishment.
Focus on your breath by letting the air pass through your nostrils and fill the arboreal-patterned branches in your lungs.
Feel your lungs slowly fill with oxygen.
Feel them slowly empty as your body expels carbon dioxide.
Focus on the entire process of breathing and how each moment changes.
In and out.
As you breathe in, imagine that the oxygen, conceived in the leaves of trees, is gently birthed from the leaf’s stomata, wafting through space, and entering your lungs.
As you breathe out, imagine that the CO2, re-born in your lungs, is gently wafting through the air and entering the receptive stomata of the leaves.
In and out.
The air becomes us, becomes them.
It is a sacrament; we take it upon us, into us, and they upon themselves.
As we breathe in, the trees breathe out.
As the trees breathe out, we breathe in.
We are their lungs and they are ours.
In and out.
This is not a supernatural idea; it is an ecological reality.
May we dwell in this reality!
The mystic monk and (one time monastery forester) Thomas Merton said:
We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.
What we are is not all that different from trees.
And so I offer you this prayer for your walks and sits among the trees.
Forest, Trees. May we sustain you as you sustain us.
It is near sunset at Christ in the Desert Benedictine monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico. This is the last of four monastic communities I am visiting as part of my PhD dissertation research. I have found a beautiful bend in the Chama River to watch another day pass into night. A mostly full Sister Moon slowly peaks her face over the eastern yellow mesas to watch in silence as Brother Sun sets beyond the red mesas in the west.
I am fatigued from so many miles on the road. Moreover, for about a week before arriving I had spiraled into a strange, dark place that has surfaced intense fear and feelings of unworthiness and that old demon-friend, anxiety. My heart still feels tender from the emotional self-flagellation of the imagined emotional distance of someone I love very much. Yet, I am grateful to be in such a beautiful place and my feet feel heavy with a longing to root into the very banks of the river and to cast my lot with the ebb and flow of the Chama for the rest of my days; or to wade in and float down the river for as far as it will take me.
I kneel down and squish fine clay between my fingers from the tea-with-cream colored river. She whispers rumors of summer, and the buds of the willow and the cottonwood and the scrub oak whisper back. My heart pounds with nervous thoughts, and struggle to return to the present lapping of water against muddy shore, only to be lifted up again into stories of loss, loneliness, jealousy and unworthiness.
I stand up and shake my head, fingers throbbing from the cold water. Tree swallows appear out of nowhere and begin to flit and warble around me like the water that caresses the unseen stones of the riverbed. Two dozen or so fly upstream, pause, and then work their way back down. I pray that the tiny birds could, in an instant, make my own rough crags smoother, bit by precious bit.
A single bat appears, fluttering awkwardly against the acrobatics of the swallows and a pang of sympathy fills my tired heart and a smile comes to my lips. Some of us move slower than others I reassure myself. Brother Wind blows pink and tin colored clouds up and over the striped cliffs that wall in the river, whose brick and mortar are made up of layer upon layer of ancient tropical soils and primordial sandy seas. My heart sinks again with a pang of absence and loneliness. Standing still I mutter ‘Holy One’, over and over again. The sun disappears behind me, the blue sky fades to grey, the moon shines fluorescent and I walk back to my guest house cell in silence. My heart aches, but is somehow stronger, deeper, more open and receptive, ready to be filled.
The next day, as I am gathering my few effects after a wonderful interview, the Brother I was speaking with recalls a story about two Tibetan monks who had once visited the monastery. They loved the community so much that they stayed for over two months. “They fit right in,” said the Brother. During a conversation he had with them, one of the Tibetan monks asked what the river was called that ran through the monastery. “Chama,” the Brother had said, which he explained was a Spanish pronunciation for Tzama, which means a place of contest, or wrestling in a Puebloan language. He told them that the eastern confluence of the river had been a center for Puebloan competitions and games before Europeans arrived. The Tibetans nodded and said that in Tibetan Chama (which they must have heard as Tara) was the name for the Goddess of Mercy, the feminine aspect of Buddha. The Brother looked at me, smiled and paused, “So,” he said, “mercy flows through the monastery.”
I thanked the Brother for his time and left his small office. His story tugged at the memory of the night before on banks of the Chama. I recall the mysterious passage from the Book of Genesis, where after his family has crossed the Jordan River, the Hebrew Patriarch Jacob remains behind alone. That night he is visited by a mysterious figure who wrestles with him until dawn. The assailant knocks Jacob’s hip joint out of the socket, but Jacob is able to extract a blessing just before dawn. He is renamed Israel: the one who strives (or wrestles) with God. Jacob called the place Penuel, he saw God (sometimes rendered as Angel) face to face and lived.
The spiritual life is often allegorized through this imagery of wresting or struggling with God. Many thousands of people come to places like Christ in the Desert each year to wrestle with their complicated lives, emotional demons, their health problems, relationships, or to seek the presence of the Divine. Though I am here for academic research, my monastery visits have also been deeply nurturing, and part of an ongoing vocational discernment in my life. And though a lot of my time during these visits involved working, chanting, interviewing the monks, or writing notes, I still had time to reflect or take long walks.
I am used to wrestling with anxiety, fear and self-worth, I have for most of my life. Contemplative prayer has taught me however that there is an important dimension to wrestling with God: Mercy. In the past, I have been tempted to see contemplative prayer as a kind of medicine for anxiety, a means to the end of not feeling anxious. If I am feeling sad, I should pray so I do not feel sad. This view of the spiritual life is common enough, but it misses an important dimension of prayer. In Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, the author blends Western psychology with Buddhist mindfulness to help readers see that our pain can be a tool for transformation. The method of Radical Acceptance involves learning to be radically present to whatever we are experiencing without judging or by allowing it to feed the stories we tell ourselves about why we are sad, anxious or fearful. Rather than a means of suppressing or alleviating our suffering, contemplative prayer can also be a tool for harnessing it in the service of personal transformation and growth. Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr often says that “if we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” I have certainly transmitted my share of pain by hurting people I love, but most of this pain seems to be directed most often back at myself.
For so long I have seen my pain as a symptom of my own failings: I am anxious because there is something wrong with me, fear is a defect, I am lonely because no one likes me, etc. Yet in addition to being aware of our suffering, Radical Acceptance teaches us to begin to look on our suffering with compassionate eyes, or in Christian language, with mercy. Mercy is that undeserved, ever-present grace that is at the core of our being. In Christian language it is the Holy Spirit, for Buddhists it is Buddha-Nature, for Hindus it might be an aspect of the Atman. Over the past several months, and again on the Chama River, my own pain and anxiety, the stories of unworthiness and fear of rejection that I continually tell myself are still there, but their power over me is decreasing. The pain is real, but I am getting better at not avoiding it or channeling into self-destructive narratives. It is in this wrestling to face my pain, fears and doubts with mindful awareness that I am finding deeper and deeper wells of mercy. But paradoxically, when I stop wrestling against my pain and allow it to teach me, I feel like I am more open to change. There is a River of mercy running through all of us, it is wild and beautiful, and once we realize we are already in its flow, it will take us as far as we are willing to let it.
What is Spiritual Ecology? And what relationship do spirituality and ecology have with place?
My current residence, Vancouver, BC is only the latest layer in a deep cultural geology that emerged after the glaciers melted from what is now being called the Salish Sea—the watersheds that drain into the Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Georgia Strait. Coast Salish peoples number over 60,000 souls today making up over 50 tribes, bands and kin groups. By many of their own accounts, they have dwelt in this place from the beginning of time. I cannot speak for them, but I know that for many, place is not an inert geometric space that has over the years produced fond feelings of attachment; it is not an object outside themselves that they have learned to appreciate through meaning-making. Place is the ground of their being; it is an oikos—a dwelling-place, a habitation. The sea, mountains, forests, salmon, deer, plants, air and sky are woven into their be-ing. The stories, myths, rituals, ceremonies and dangers spoken of by First Peoples are not metaphors projected onto otherwise meaningless physical terrain; they are the grammar of dwelling; they do not make up a worldview, they make up the world (See Eduardo Kohn, 2013, How Forests Think).
For my people, the new-comers, the settlers, the children of colonials seeking a better life under the watchful eye of God and Progress; the Salish Sea too nourished our bodies, but also our love of money. Only later did it nourish our souls. Having laid our hands to ax and plow, we were proud of our work and our sweat, we dedicated it to God, built places of worship in His name. We brought ‘savage’ peoples a saving ‘religion’. We too were immersed in not only a worldview, but a world; one that we believed would bring peace to earth and eternal life to souls. Only within the last few years have we begun to wake up to the savagery of our world; to the violence of what we thought was love, to the folly of what we thought was progress. We the learned, have much to learn, much to undo, and much to apologize for.
One way we sought to right our wrongs was by offering up large swaths of the land to healing, contemplation, beauty and solitude. Today, the Salish Sea has become our Spiritual Ecology too. In the 1800s we fell in love with Nature and sought to protect it from our advancing cult of Progress. But our Spiritual Ecology had a flaw, a difference to that of the First Peoples: it was dualistic. By dualistic I mean that the West dwells in a schizophrenic world of distinct domains: culture and nature, subject and object, traditional and modern, spirit and matter. This orientation to the world separates our dwelling places from our soul places: work and worship, city and country. Nature became a place that we went to after a long day; a refuge from civilization, a recreation. Non-humans became objects for our perception and manipulation (whether that be for food, money or beauty). Being ejected from the Garden, we tried to bring the Garden back to us through protected areas, National Parks and National Forests. Ecology meant Nature, and Spirit meant the non-material aspect of our all too materialistic world.
This ontology is killing the world. It is killing our Religion. It is killing our Souls. But things are changing.
For many of the rising generation, spirit is not so much a shimmery version of ourselves that lives inside us like the driver of a car. Spirit is anima, breath. Spirit is Life. Being spiritual is nothing more or less than being fully alive; being present to life and it’s flourishing. The religions most of us grew up with felt like rules and beliefs, and in-group out-group posturing. But within all religions there is always a spirituality of life. Religion, religare—to bind together—can be about our connection to God and each other, but also about our connection to Life. Religion properly practiced is a response to life. It is not an answer to the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’, for as Philosopher John Caputo would say, life is the meaning of life.
Ecology is not Nature as a separate domain of reality. Ecology is the scientific study of organisms in their environment; but it is so much more than this, for there is no such thing as an environment. There is only a great web be-ing, an intricate web of life, life-ing. All life, even the life that is not yet life in the air, rocks food and water; even the life no longer living. Being present to life is being present to both the beauty and the pain of life. Yes there is tremendous suffering in the web of life and death, but even in the predator, disease and parasite there is life and the continuation of life, the evolution of life, the creativity of life. Spiritual Ecology then is a celebration of life in all aspects, both beauty and pain. A Spiritual Ecologist mindfully witnesses to this beauty and pain and acts accordingly.
Spiritual Ecology is one part perception, one part practice and one part ethic.
Perception: For a long time in the West, Spiritual Ecology was about appreciating the beauty of Nature, or protecting Nature from Culture. In light of Climate Change, we are realizing there is no such thing as Nature. This is not to say that the world does not exist, or even that it is a social construction; but that if we are looking for hard facts about the world, a place, a thing called Nature outside and apart from Culture it is just not there. Nature is a disembodied spirit, a ghost that has haunted us for 200 years. But our perception is changing, through both the wisdom of religion and the propositions of science we are waking up to a different world. Theologian John Caputo gives us a glance of that world:
“The cosmos opened up by Copernicus collapse the distinction between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’…The earth is itself a heavenly body, one more heavenly body made up of stardust, as are our own bodies. We are already heavenly bodies, which means that ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ must report back at once to headquarters for reassignment, where they turn out to be ways of describing our terrestrial lives here ‘below’. Every body—everybody, everything—is a heavenly body. Heaven is overtaken by the heavens. Dust to dust, indeed, but it is all stellar dust. Our bodily flesh is woven of the flesh of the earth, even as the earth itself is the debris of stars, the outcome of innumerable cyclings and recyclings of stellar stuff, all so many rolls of the cosmic dice. We are not ‘subjects’ over and against ‘objects’, but bits and pieces of the universe itself, ways the world is wound up into little intensities producing special effects of a particular sort in our bodies in our little corner of the universe” (Caputo, 2011, The Insistence of God, 175).
Caputo expresses a deep call calling from beyond our Western world. Science and Religion, who have been temporarily separated due to irreconcilable differences, are starting to warm up to one another again. We need them both, but not as complementary institutions concerned with facts on one hand and values on the other; not as two coins that add up to 1.00, but two sides of the same coin. There is no objective knowledge outside of human experience, and human experience is not the unreliable black box subjectivity. Our bodies, minds, souls and science emerged from this planet. As Caputo again states, “our power of vision, as well as the particular structure of the color spectrum available to sight, is a direct and precise effect of the astronomical composition of our sun, which has set the parameters of vision which we and other animals forms have evolved. To ask whether what we see, as if it were inside our head, ‘corresponds’ to what is out there, ‘outside our head’, is to ask a question not only without an answer but without meaning” (Caputo 2006, The Insistence of God, 176).
Spiritual Ecology then does not involve going to Nature to find spiritual meaning or connection. This keeps nature separate from culture, spirit separate from nature. Spiritual Ecology is cherishing life, and witnessing to the beauty and pain of the world wherever we are. Yes it is about interconnection, but also the connections that hurt, that threaten us with harm; and the connections that threaten others. The virtue of Christian hospitality is not only welcoming the known, the familiar; but the wholly (Holy) other. Being open to life is to see it, really see it, in all its complexity and to let our lifeways emerge accordingly. This can happen in the ocean, the forest, the savannah, a farm, a city, or a slum. Spiritual Ecology is our communities, our places of worship, our prisons, our hospitals, our schools, the blackberry patches on the side of the roads. It is wherever we are present to the unfolding of life.
This presence is not the appreciation of an aesthetic object. Anthropologist David Abrams helps us shift our gaze in this respect: “To touch the course skin of a tree is thus, at the same time to experience one’s own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree. And to see the world is also, at the same time to experience oneself as visible, to feel oneself seen” (Abrams 1996, The Spell of the Sensuous, 68). This is not a relationship between knowing subject and known object, it is the relationship between two waves in an ocean.
Practice: Once we realize with Theologian Thomas Berry that “The natural world is the maternal source of our being…the larger sacred community to which we belong.” (Berry 2006, Dream of the Earth, 81), our spiritual practices will reflect that fact. I was raised in the Mormon Church. I greatly admire the Mormon faith and its people; however, my own religious path has called me to a more Contemplative Christianity. For me, the Mass, the Eucharist, prayer, churches and the saints all enhance and give particular form to my celebration of life. Yes there is much to criticize in the Christianity, but through liturgy that centers on the person of Jesus, my appreciation for life, my love for others has only increased. To say that Christ is in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, is to ritualize the presence of Christ in the cosmos from the moment it flared forth at the Big Bang. To shout Christ is Risen, Alleluia! at Easter is to ritualize the emergence of tiny beautiful buds from the limbs of every tree. To bring the body of Christ into my body prepares me to see God in everything I eat, in everyone I come into contact with. This celebration will be different for each person, each tradition.
Ethic: Once we realize in body and mind that we are the world we seek to experience, our actions should not take the form of a rigid dogma, a Puritanical obsession with recycling or turning off the lights. I do not mean that these are wrong, I only mean that they are not ethics, they are dogmas. Green purchasing is just another marketing scheme to Western individuals that want to consume an identity. We do it all the time. I do it all the time. An ethic is a practice that carries moral weight, it is more complicated than rule. Anthropologist Richard Nelson, writing of his connection to an island off the coast of British Columbia, captures the spirit of how an ethic might emerge for a Spiritual Ecologist:
“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” (My emphasis, Nelson 1989, The Island Within, 249, 250).
All of our decisions have consequences that eventually return to us. How and whether we are able to turn this culture around is an ongoing debate, but it will require more than carbon markets, stricter regulations, expanded protected areas, or planting more trees. It will require a deep shift in our perception and practice of the world from which emerges an ethic that refuses to see one more species go extinct, one more child starve, one more woman abused, one more First Nations’ sacred site destroyed, one more mine tailings pond burst, or, most recently, one more fuel leak in the ocean. How we get there is part of a long difficult conversation. Spiritual Ecology is only one aspect of that conversation, but it needs to be part of it.