1: First Visions
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.
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.