Sacred Groves

1: First Visions

Triumphantly posing over another successful waterbar!

Walking along a narrow dirt road flanked by lush hardwood forest, a pickax in my right hand and a canteen in the other, I scan the road for water bars in need of repair and culverts in need of cleaning. I am careful not to step on the wriggling flame-orange bodies of the red spotted newt— I’ve already seen four today. I have just completed a three year joint master’s degree program between the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Yale Divinity School in forestry and theology in New Haven, Connecticut and will be spending the summer working at the Yale-Myers forest in Eastford, Connecticut as an apprentice forester. People often ask me, “You mean you’re going to be a park ranger?” “Not exactly,” I tell them, although working for either the Park Service or Forest Service is certainly an option. No, a forester, for me at least, is a mix between an ecologist, a farmer and an anthropologist. We manage forests based on scientific data, but what we manage for changes as our societies’ values change. In the case of Yale-Myers, we manage about 8,000 acres of mixed hardwood forest for wildlife that live in young, middle aged and old-growth forests, each forest type creating its own special niches. Understanding how assemblages of trees and the species that thrive among them progress through time while at the same time extracting useful products for human needs (water, timber, firewood, game, beauty, solitude, clean air and recently carbon sequestration) is the art of forestry. But before we start measuring trees, we have to repair and maintain the roads where we will be working; which is what we are doing on this soggy May day.

My fellow apprentices and I stop at a sloped section of dirt road with a trickling stream running down the middle—the point of a water bar is to get water off the road quickly so that it doesn’t create gullies. Without speaking, I start picking at the stony dirt in a line that runs 30 degrees from perpendicular to the direction of the road, while my companions follow with shovels and hoes to build up a berm. The roads are remnants from when this area was mostly farmland. It was purchased in 1930 by The Yale School of Forestry is one of the oldest forestry schools in the country, started by Gifford Pinchot—who later became the first head of the US Forest Service—in 1900 as part of the emerging conservation and scientific forestry movements.

As we dig, the sun breaks through a patch of grey sky, painting shapes of light all around us. Staring up at the sun through the green canopy, I can almost see the mystic Joseph, crouched in prayer. As a Mormon missionary in the Dominican Republic, I must have repeated Joseph Smith’s account of the first vision thousands of times without thinking about the forest it took place in, near his home in Palmyra, New York. It probably looked a lot like this one. The Mormon story began in the forest, and so too does mine.

It was 2006, and I was standing on a misty hillside looking out over patches of highland pine forests nestled among undulating quilt-squares of maize. I had come to Guatemala as an undergraduate-anthropologist to study the traditional forest management institutions of the Maya. In studying the complex interaction and conflict between traditional Maya forest management and university educated forest technicians, I had found my passion: the nexus of ecological and social systems. Traditional Mayans saw the forest as a life giving entity, imbued with power, while the technicians saw the forest as so many hectares, board feet, and cubic meters. It wasn’t a case of good versus evil, both groups had a lot to teach each another, but the cultural barriers ran deep. Standing on that misty hillside, I was hooked. I knew whatever academic or vocational path I took would involve people and forests.

Fixing a small stone wall near camp

Kneeling in mud, I muster all the strength I have, take a breath and lift. I am rebuilding an old stone wall at the Yale-Myers base camp, and after three days of digging water bars the small creativity this task affords me is refreshing. The stone fits perfectly in a narrow gap, and I grin with satisfaction. When Europeans settled this area in the early 1700s, they quickly dispensed with the Native peoples and began the work of clearing the forests for agriculture. As they labored, they encountered thousands of rocks left over from the last glaciations when million-ton ice cubes scraped along the bare rock creating a soil type know as glacial till. Some of the land was cleared for pasture, some of it for grain crops. By 1850, almost two-thirds of the land had been cleared for agriculture. Walking through the forest today, one would hardly believe that the area used to be a densely populated colonial civilization. Then one comes across a stretch of stone wall, seemingly in the middle of the forest and realizes that at one time this was someone’s cow pasture or corn field. There are practically no primary forests left here, certainly nothing that compares with the towering giants of the Pacific North West. Yet they forests have recovered and are resilient.

When Joseph Smith’s family arrived in Manchester, New York they promptly began clearing the forest as well. The Mormon Sacred Grove was probably in the process of being cleared when Joseph had his first theophany. Here, then, is my writing topic for the summer: Is the Sacred Grove only sacred because of the event that occurred there? Like a battlefield or memorial, does the sacred grove simply commemorate time, rendering spatial dimensions so much background scenery? Perhaps for Mormons the grove is only part of a sacred chronology that validates the prophesies of the past and turns our minds to the millenarian future. Or can a grove of trees truly be a sacred place? Is the spatial sacredness of the Sacred Grove as important as the temporal sacredness? If so, could the sacred grove become an archetype for a processual Mormon spirituality? Then perhaps as a people we might start the work of making the forests, deserts, prairies, dunes, parks, woodlands, mountains, scrub oak, and sagelands sacred as well. But how? What does sacred space look like in the 21st century? I ask this because I have a problem with the word sacred. It tends to mean set apart, separate. Does this mean that in order to be sacred, a forest must be off limits to anything but prayer and meditation? Can a working forest, in which humans take an active role in managing it for our own sustenance still be sacred? And if so, what are our criteria for sacredness? There are certainly plenty of other examples of sacred groves in other cultures. What can we learn from them?

This summer I will be spending a lot of time in the forest. I will be working at the Yale-Myers forest. I will be visiting European forests in Germany, Austria, Croatia and Slovenia. I will be visiting Palmyra and speaking with Mormon pilgrims.

For the rest of the summer I will write about one post every other week reflecting on the nature of sacredness and forests. I’ll also spend time on broader ecological issues, highlighting interesting species. I will also take the readers through the process of managing a forest, in addition to others skills I pick up along the way. Most importantly, I will be working though my own Mormon heterodoxy and making propositions, asking questions and wrestling with Mormon theology and culture. I’m not sure what I will come up with, but I hope you’ll join me on what proves to be a fascinating exploration.

Yale-Myers forest in Eastford, Connecticut


21 responses to “Sacred Groves

  1. Nicole I May 28, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Because my husband is from western NY and I’ve lived in Ohio, I’ve had the opportunity to traipse through forests similar to JS’s sacred grove. I remember the first time I was in one such place near, but not in, the Smith farm and could see/feel the speckled light coming through the canopy of trees…. just like the famous first vision picture. It was certainly an ah-ha moment in terms of feeling connected to that specific event even though I wasn’t in the exact place. I’d have opportunities later to return to Palmyra several times but the connection didn’t feel as strong as that first time.

    In that respect, the forest in general – and not even an exact replica or specific piece of land – connected me to a sacred event. I had similar experiences as a child on the plains of Nebraska. But then again, I’ve always said that I feel more connected to God in nature – whatever the form – than any time I’m in a chapel or temple.

    This is interesting to me because my personal experiences with ‘Mormon Nature’ are actually very different from my professional beliefs about people’s connection to specific (urban.. because that is my discipline) space. Hmmm…

  2. mfranti May 28, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Jason, Great post!

    “”This is interesting to me because my personal experiences with ‘Mormon Nature’ are actually very different from my professional beliefs about people’s connection to specific (urban.. because that is my discipline) space. Hmmm…””

    Nicole, what is Mormon Nature? And what are your professional beliefs about people/place?


  3. burmaty May 28, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    I love this so much Jason – the question of what does sacred space look like in the 21st century is such an important question. I’m reading through the PoGP right now – and the sections on how everything has a living soul – yes yes yes – keep the work going – I love the path you’ve chosen

  4. John Edvalson May 28, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Excellent post Jason, I liked how you wove both religious and ecological themes together. I am sure this is a credit to your education and experience. I look forward to hearing how you suggest living sustainably off the forests in the abundant world in which we live. More and more I am tired of following suit with the world in my consumption patterns and want to live differently for both spiritual and ecological reasons. I will be in touch and best of luck!

  5. Lia May 28, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    For me, sacred doesn’t mean set apart/separate, it means whole unto itself, as well as appreciated for its wholeness and for my interactions with it. Gratitude and awe. And sacred space is everywhere. (I am partial to forests in particular.) =)

  6. Ashley May 28, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    Jason, great post. I remember the first time you taught me that sacred spaces could be spaces of use, as well. We were in Oregon, driving by a lake, and you told me that you were abandoning the idea of nature a set-apart space and finding all sorts of commonalities with people who use the forest to meet certain needs–people many environmentalists often pit themselves against. I have thought of that conversation many times since then, and it has dramatically changed my perspective. I realize that, as a suburban girl growing up in the 21st century–and consequently having paid very little attention to natural processes–I got bogged down in a “pure-nature” ethic that refused humans altogether. I am very interested in the question of what is natural and what our responsibility is to what is natural, since I think a lifetime of surubia has given many of us some dangerous but well-meaning intentions when we go to fix our societies monumental mistakes. I really look forward to seeing you use your expertise and observation to help chart a mutually beneficial and interactive relationship between humans and “nature.” Speaking of which, read thi:

    It is a very interesting article in Orion about the nature of nature and “authentic” spaces. It is snarky–meaning it is a delightful read but provides very little direction. But enjoy!

  7. Nicole I May 28, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    By Mormon Nature – I guess I am thinking of all these very natural/environmental spaces that bring us back to our Mormon roots…the Sacred Grove, the Mormon trail, the Mississippi River at Nauvoo, Lake Erie at Kirkland, coming out of Emigration canyon and seeing the SL valley below. But I don’t think we need to be in the exact place to experience this connection. I can be in a similar grove in upstate NY or crossing the Mississippi River frozen over on I-80 to imagine the awfulness of leaving Nauvoo mid-winter, etc.

    In urban sociology, there is a lot of work about the connection of space & identity. This is often introduced in the social capital literature, but I think it is bigger and more diverse than that.

    Attachment to place is one of the ways to define community. While the concept of place (often defined as the lived experience in a space) and its importance is hotly debated, I tend to fall in the ‘specific space matters’ camp. It is likely reflective of my emphasis in urban health because that line of research has shown that health benefits – generally psychological leading to reduced stress and better health behaviors – accrue from a sense of community and place.

    Because I do believe specific spaces hold significant psychological benefit, I’m surprised to find myself saying that the specific space in a forest (or on a river) does not need to be faithfully (ha ha) maintained/recreated/utilized to remain sacred.

  8. Ashley May 28, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    Oh, and by the way, the tone of your post is very reporter-on-the-scene NPR style: “I am standing amidst a clump of scraggly elms..” I can almost here the birds cooing in the background. You have arrived!

  9. missy. May 28, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    I am so excited about this series, Jason. I think it will encourage all of us to reflect more about whether and how and why we honor the sacredness of all the natural spaces around us. Thank you, thank you.

  10. Devn Cornish May 28, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Dear Jason,
    Thank you for this introspective and illuminating post.
    I believe that you have helped a lot to define “sacred” both in the content and the structure of your piece. Sacred scenes seem to require both the internal awe and reverence and worship and wonder as well as the external awe-inspiring setting. It is striking how the same space can be so commonplace for one person and so hallowed for another. So it cannot just be about the space but about what is happening inside the participant when in that space.
    I look forward to your ongoing posts. I feel honored to be included.
    J. Devn Cornish

  11. Thailer May 28, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    Jason, Great post.
    I remember when I learned from Mayan people in Chiapas that the reason why urban folk are ok with the destruction of the forest is because they we live apart from the forest. We only see some parts as a place to visit now an then if we have the time. Something to admire for a bit then return to our central air and monitors. We draw borders from what is “nature” and what is ours. I remember them actually using the examples of national parks in the US an EcoTourism in Chiapas. Those that live with and off the ecosystems around them are not ok with the destruction of them. I don’t think they are not only not ok with its destruction because they are dependent on it for their survival but by them living in direct contact with “nature” they have a constant reminder and understanding how much intrinsic value it really has. An understanding that can only be gained by years of living in immediate contact with these system. I think the same reasoning can be applied to why humans are ok exploiting other humans.
    JB Please remember to send out email reminders when there are new post I would love to follow your wrestling matches of Mormon theology.

  12. Kristine N May 28, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Lovely post.

    Growing up in Utah my experiences with forests were typically in the pine forests in the Wasatch. I don’t know why, but to this day I don’t really feel the sacredness of the forest, no matter what part of the country it’s in. Beautiful as the forests are, I just don’t feel any closer to divinity.

    On the other hand, the landscape of the desert southwest–the mesas and buttes, the canyons and grottoes and hoodoos–make my spirit soar within my breast. The solitude and the amazing shapes taken by the land give me a feeling of peace that’s more intense even than anything I’ve ever felt in the temple. For me Zion National Park, Canyonlands, and the areas around there are natural sacred spaces.

  13. mfranti May 28, 2011 at 8:36 pm


    You’re in good company: Abbey, Silko, O’keefe, and my favorite, Kingsolver (just to name a few) felt that way about the Desert.

    I hope you like the new header picture.

  14. missy. May 29, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Ashley, that Orion article is AMAZING. This line especially, wow: “How can we hope to live authentically when we have been compromised by prior experience?” I’m going to put that article in the sidebar.

  15. margie May 29, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    I love the header. Forests do speak to me, but so do the rocks. The strata of time testifies of the breadth and magnitude of existence. I feel drawn into the desert, the mountains, the forests, my zen place in my own backyard. I am excited to read more from you, Jason Brown.

  16. SNeilsen May 30, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    Enjoyed this. Looking forward to further reading.
    Thinking of sacred space reminds me of playing tourist in Japan. Having read Watts and Suzuki at 17, some years later found myself in Kyoto at sterile Ryoanji Temple, staring at gravel. Raked gravel.
    The pond wasn’t much better. A sacred sewer pit.
    Kotoin I liked. The unpredictability of a falling maple leaf gave it a certain zest.
    If I had to be stuck sitting on the floor, this could work. It was raining while I was there and I was fascinated by a chain functioning as a downspout.
    But the place that approached transcendence was on the island of Miyajima. Before Dawn, I hiked to the top of Mt Misen. And as the monkeys ate breakfast, watched the sun rise over the inland sea.
    A favorite memory.
    And bleck to red wooden thingees sitting in the water.

  17. a park ranger June 8, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    cool post, and I look forward to hearing your views… which parts of Mormon belief do you disagree with? I grew up in the church but came to realize i disagreed with too much to feel any desire to be a part of it. the more i distance myself from it, the less it makes sense. anyway, look forward to reading your posts, i too am very interested in forests!

  18. Mac June 16, 2011 at 8:29 am

    Jason, if you’re in the neighborhood in the next year let me know and we’ll take a tour of the Rutgers research forest: while we discuss sacred silviculture.

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