By Gary Kenny
When 19th century American philosopher and poet Henry David Thoreau wrote those words, he’d just emerged from two years of self-imposed solitary living in a Massachusetts forest. His 1854 essay Life in the Woods is a record of what he called his “experiment” as a lone forest dweller.
In the essay, Thoreau touted the values of simple living and communion with nature. “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.”
Thoreau’s poetic words suggest something of the mystical. That’s not happenstance. He was an advocate of transcendentalism, a philosophy that asserts the primacy of the spiritual over the material. He found walks in the woods to be a source of spiritual enlightenment and a release from the self-indulgence and materialism of the Western capitalist society of his time.
It was in the forest (and also in the mountains, beside lakes and rivers and in the immensity of a starlit sky) where Thoreau mindfully met the divine. One should look “through” nature, he counselled, not merely “at” her.
Thoreau understood the value of spirituality as a means of transforming the way we regard the other-than-human world. He believed spirituality could also change conservation ethics resulting in practices defined more by principles of cooperation, stewardship and gratitude than those driven by a mindset geared toward the domination of nature as an exploitable resource.
His words and sentiments are echoed today among a growing number of woodland enthusiasts, both lay and professional; people who in some way have “reawakened,” to use his term, from a detached, mechanistic and reductionist way of viewing the natural world. As Indigenous people have for millennia, they see the earth as a living being; alive not only biologically but also spiritually; as sacred and instilling awe and summoning reverence.
In recent years popularly written and acclaimed books by Diana Beresford-Kroeger (The Global Forest), Suzanne Simard (Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest), Peter Wohlleben (The Hidden Life of Trees) and other experts in woodland science have helped to vault the ecological and spiritual attributes of forests into greater prominence. But so too have the efforts of many citizens working at local community levels.
“Forests provide so much more than wood for burning and building, decorations at festive times, food for sustenance of other living things, and protection from the cold winds,” says Linda Willson, co-owner of RavensWing, a 50-acre farm and woodland near Ice Lake on Manitoulin Island.
Willson is a board member of the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy (EBC), a registered charity that creates nature reserves in Ontario for sustainable, low-impact recreation. She played a significant role in having large swaths of forest in Manitoulin and Sudbury District placed under the EBC’s trust. They include the forests hosting Manitoulin’s popular Cup and Saucer Trail and Heaven’s Gate Trails in the district’s La Cloche Mountains.
“Forests are a haven of peace and solitude where just walking through a woodland trail transforms our emotions, transcends us to a spiritual awakening, calms us down at the end of a harried day, helps us to become more centred and makes us feel connected to something greater than our physical beings,” she says.
Forests are also a place of spiritual nurture for Neil Baldwin. He stewards 50 acres of woodlands near the village of Keady in Grey County. Several years ago the retired public college counsellor built a seven-circuit, Chartres-style labyrinth in a plantation pine forest on his property.
Building a labyrinth in a forest seemed like “a natural pairing,” Baldwin said. “The outcomes of so much up-close, intense work amongst trees enhanced the connection with both their practical and mystical elements.”
Baldwin experiences the forest as “something that is both tangible and real but also more than just the sum of its parts,” he says. “Trees – especially in density of numbers found in a forest – can have a unique almost mystical feel to them.”
A member of the Bruce Grey Woodlands Association, Baldwin says it’s not uncommon for people to tell him they felt protected by the trees while walking his labyrinth’s meandering paths. “And they’re not talking about being sheltered,” he adds. “They’re saying they felt protected. It fascinates me to see how many people like to touch, or brush, or hold a tree as they walk through the labyrinth.”
Mindfulness, the intentional contemplation of the forest environment and one’s interaction with it, is considered an important aspect of the spiritual connection to trees and forests of which Willson and Baldwin speak. “One is invited to let go, to feel, to use our senses to the utmost and in that way, nature guides our connection with the Spirit,” Willson says.
Trees and forests have long held profound meaning for humans. Historically trees were venerated as symbols of fertility, wisdom, power and renewal. At the core of the mythologies of many ancient civilizations was a Cosmic Tree, or Tree of Life, the stories of which explained and gave meaning to human existence. In some countries, Ethiopia and India among them, entire forests have long been considered sacred.
Beginning with the industrial revolution especially, that harmonious relationship with trees and forests was altered, especially in Western societies. Forests became valued more for utilitarian purposes to meet material needs and to accumulate personal and corporate wealth. Timber, food, medicines, spices, shade and shelter came to define the global forest marketplace.
In recent decades, the ecological and life-sustaining values of forests have gained in appreciation. The urgency of the climate crisis and the dire prospect of mass extinctions – including potentially of us humans – has magnified the intrinsic value of forests. Their capacity to capture carbon and provide planetary oxygen makes them irreplaceable in moderating the earth’s climate.
It is also in this context that the public education efforts of woodland enthusiasts like Willson and Baldwin have become more vital. But what about the modern forestry industry?
Sustainable forest management efforts could greatly benefit from an enhanced awareness of the spiritual attributes of forests, writes researcher William C. Clark. In his article “Clarifying the spiritual values of forests and their role in sustainable forest management,” Clark says that, since the 1980s, many forestry professionals and researchers have paid greater attention to “the less tangible forest values, including spiritual.” They believe they may play an important role in sustainable forest management and forest stewardship, he adds.
Indigenous perspectives on sustainable forest management have much to do with this development. In the 20 years he’s worked in the forest industry, Ojibwe forestry professional Dean Assinewe says he’s witnessed the beginning of “a shift” in how forests are fundamentally perceived and valued among his network of non-Indigenous forestry professionals.
A member of Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation in northern Ontario, Assinewe grew up “in the bush” learning traditional Indigenous ways of perceiving, valuing and interacting with the natural world. He credits his Sagamok Anishnawbek community of elders and more specifically the teachings of his father, a logger and a trapper and “a very spiritual man.”
“We spoke quite a bit about his spiritual relationship with the land,” Assinewe says of his father. “In our culture, everything is connected” and “everything has a spirit – the trees, the animals we hunt, the water, the mountains, the stars in the sky. We had ceremonies to pay respect and give thanks to the Creator for all that exists,” he adds.
“We were the original forest managers” in North America, Assinewe says of Indigenous peoples. “We weren’t managing in the conventional Western extraction-oriented way,” he adds, but in a manner that avoided over-exploitation and ensured nature’s bounty for future generations.
The recognition that everything is ecologically and spiritually connected has shaped Assinewe’s work as a forestry professional, he says. He’s been pleased to find that many of his non-Indigenous forestry colleagues are curious about his experience, and has taken advantage of opportunities to share his Indigenous knowledge and wisdom with them.
In the last 10 years especially, “the door has been opening,” Assinewe adds. Conventional forest industry viewpoints have been slowly undergoing a shift away from a primarily utility and production point of view to one in which the metrics of sustainable forest management include, not only ecological values, but also values that could be said to be spiritual.
Among the reasons for this shift, Assinewe thinks, is the climate crisis. It’s forcing the natural resource sector to take the need for conservation and the carbon-capture potential represented by forests more seriously.
He wonders too if publicity around the tragic history of the former Indian residential schools has helped to open the minds and hearts of Canadians, forestry professionals included, to Indigenous peoples’ ways of seeing the natural world and our place as humans in it.
Registered professional forester Mike Fry resonates with Assinewe’s observations. An employee of the Owen Sound-based Grey Sauble Conservation Authority, he’s worked across the spectrum of forestry environments. Early on in his career, in Alberta, the prevailing ethic was one of profit-motivated large-scale industrial production. It seemed like an “extractive” industry like mining, he says. There was little consideration of forest ecology and the long-term consequences of a high-volume approach.
In southern Ontario where Fry now works, the scope of values associated with forests are many and “not so volume oriented,” he says. They aren’t just focused on money, he adds. “Individual trees take on an importance not found in industrial forestry.”
“Maybe it’s just the local circle I interact with, but foresters ask questions like ‘what will happen to the forest in five years.’ They take a longer-term view. The decisions they make are not strictly financial,” he says.
It seems like “a shift in mindset,” Fry says. But it’s “a hard balance” between revenue generation and the conservation of wildlife, plant life, soil health and all the other ecological values associated with forests. “But you do your best,” he adds.
While explicit metrics of spirituality may not yet be part of the goals and objectives of the forest industry or many local woodlot associations, the seeds of such have been planted. Cathrien de Pater, a researcher at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands, has done extensive research into the relationship between spiritual values and forest management. When interviewing foresters about why they chose their profession, she found they disliked the term “spiritual.”
Yet, de Pater adds, they “elicited a profound connection with nature and a strong ethic of responsibility for the green world. That tells me that “the deepest core of forestry is surely spirituality.”
For woodlands enthusiasts, those are encouraging words. Modern culture conditions us “to take trees for granted, tune them out, and act as though we are separate from them”, says eco-therapist and writer Kai Siedenburg. “Most of us habitually walk by trees without registering their presence, let alone pausing to appreciate them or connect more intimately,” she adds. Seidenburg encourages woodlands enthusiasts, lay and professional, to deepen their personal connection to trees.
Baldwin cites the experience of awe as key to that pursuit. “I believe that one of the major conduits between natural environments and spiritual experience is feeling awe. Awe is when we don’t just know, but deeply feel there is something greater than us; that our existence is relatively insignificant or inconsequential.”
We can experience awe “while gazing up at limitless stars in the sky, across the vast expanse of large bodies of water, or from a vista up high on a cliff or mountain…or in a forest,” Baldwin adds.
Or to paraphrase Thoreau, we can take a mindful walk in the woods and, inspired by wonder, emerge taller than the trees. ◊