Sacred Groves

2:  Leaving the Garden

Although I started my summer forester apprenticeship during my last post, from May 24-June 13 I participated in a field tour of European forestry that has been a long standing tradition of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FES) in partnership with the Technical University of Munich (TUM). Pictures are posted on Facebook. While I would love to have written a more detailed narrative, this post incorporates elements of the Europe trip into my ongoing discussion of the nature of sacred groves, particularly the Mormon sacred grove in Palmyra, New York. I am currently back in Eastford, CT at the apprenticeship and my next post will continue the theme of sacred groves while incorporating my forestry work. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to our discussion!

Clanking through a narrow turnstile and handing over our tickets, our group of nearly 40 German and American graduate students files under the Plitvice Lakes National Park signage and past the gift shops. We are about one and a half weeks into the European forestry trip and finishing our time in Croatia. Our khaki-clad guide leads us down a bustling stone path. There is heavy traffic in both directions and I almost lose site of him as we press forward. We end up on a crowded dock where the Tower-of-Babel hum of languages spoken by visitors from around the world echoes off the karst rock walls all around us. When a small open air boat arrives, we file in and take our seats. The water is clear turquoise and moss covered skeletons of trees slumber on the sandy bottom. Reaching the other side of the lake, we spill out onto a creaky chestnut boardwalk that is raised above the ground and begin a single filed ascent up the flank of a magnificent series of rushing cascades rimmed by vegetation. Oos and ahhs fill the air as we loop around the stunning limestone waterfalls that draw over 1 million visitors each year.

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

The limestone tinged water and towering waterfalls fill the air with mist and mysticism. The transcendence is punctuated when every few minutes we are forced to wait patiently while pilgrims ahead of us ritualistically pose in front of taller and taller cascades, we pose too and so on. Like pilgrims at Mecca, slowly circling the Kaaba, we have all come back to the Garden of Eden seeking redemption from civilization. Coming to the top of another set of wooden stairs, the words of William Cronon come to mind: “Wilderness is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilization that has lost its soul” (Cronon 1996). What Cronon is getting at in his famous and controversial essay, is that while wilderness was thought to be the antidote to the excesses of our civilization, it is in fact our own unique cultural creation; one that enforces the separation of humans and nature that has become the core culprit of our current ecological crisis. The irony as Cronon points out is that, “only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land” (1996).

Now don’t get me wrong, I agree with the preservationist tradition of John Muir that many of the places that National Parks protect are sacred spaces. Having been to the Redwood and Great Sequoia groves of California I am exceedingly grateful for those who fought to keep the towering giants out of the loggers’ tally. National Parks also protect vital ecosystem functions and precious biodiversity—Plitvice Lakes, for example, is home to brown bear, wolf, lynx, large predators that are long since gone in the rest of Europe. But what I kept wondering as I made my way around the glassy pools of Plitvice Lakes was whether or not visitors leave the park with not only a sense of appreciation but of connection to the elements, processes and organisms that infuse our bodies with life. Maybe we are more conscious, more aware, more willing to change; but then again, are people who leave Disneyland more committed to the reality of talking mice and dogs? Nature Parks, like amusement parks, are places we go to experience a certain kind of reality. National Parks have come to represent where “nature” is, making the rest of the world fair game for manipulation and exploitation. Cronon’s argument has been bitterly criticized, but more and more I see natural resource management agencies and conservation organizations moving toward an integrationist model of people and nature which is very encouraging. But what does Cronon’s critique mean for our sacred groves? Does the idea of a sacred grove perpetuate the failing dualisms of culture and nature, people and parks?

As many of us may know, the Mormon tradition was not the only religion that began in a grove of trees. Wilderness may be a new world creation, but sacred groves are as old as our oldest stories. The Jewish canon begins in the garden of Eden: “And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden and the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:8-9). Among the myriad orthodox interpretations of this curious story, we certainly gain insight into the deep human longing for a golden age blessed by God’s presence and approval.

In addition to this archetypal allegory of human beginnings, the first patriarchs of the Israelites came to know Yahweh among the trees. Abraham, the first Hebrew made the first covenant with Yahweh among the Tamarisk trees of the Levant. While Genesis 18:1 of the King James Version states, “And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre” other translations are unanimous that Abraham had visions in a grove of trees. They read: “the great trees,” “the oak grove,” “the oaks of Mamre” and even “the holy tree of Mamre.” To commemorate his covenant with Yahweh Abraham “planted a grove in Beer-Sheba, and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God” (Genesis 21:33). Moses too received his visions on Mount Sinai (also referred to as Mt. Horeb), mediating between the wilderness-ridden Israel and the ethereal Yahweh who took the shape of a thunderous cloud. Wilderness could be said to be Israel’s sacred grove, the place where it forged its sacred identity as a covenant people, much like the American frontier served to do with Mormon pioneers.

Despite the consistent message of monotheism that is presented in the Hebrew Bible, Jews of ancient Jerusalem frequently worshiped the female deity Asherah, a Ugaritic consort to El, who may have been adopted as Yahweh’s consort. Like their so-called pagan neighbors, the deity Asherah was frequently portrayed as a tree and there are frequent mentions of Asherah trees or poles in the Old Testament. For an interesting discussion of Asherah in relation to Mormon theology see Daniel C. Petersen’s article.

In first century Judea the wilderness was the cauldron of messianic movements, the place John the Baptist preached and the Essene’s strove for ritual purity. Jesus of Nazareth too went to the wilderness to fast and pray. There he saw visions of the tempter before he began his formal ministry. As Luke tells it, “And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the spirit into the wilderness” (4:1). And as Mark tells it, “And immediately the spirit driveth him into the wilderness and he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him” (1:12-13). The solitude of the desert was the mother of the messianic visionary.

These founding personalities of Judaism and Christianity had their most important visions in the wilderness, apart from civilization. It should be said that wilderness had a very different connotation in the ancient near east. As Roderick Nash shows, wilderness was perceived as a waste place, a place where human beings could not live. Early Christian monastic communities left the city for the eschatological solitude of the wilderness precisely because of its other-worldly character, a place apart. Even during Joseph Smith’s time, wilderness was something to be tamed by the human ax, which is precisely what Joseph’s family was doing at the time of his first vision.

Trees have captured the religious imagination of Christian, indigenous and Pagan peoples since the blossoming of our symbolic consciousness. The ancient world was filled with benevolent and malicious spirits, some of which inhabited trees. In anthropology, this claim is called animism or the belief that natural objects such as trees and stones possess individual spirits. Some of these spirit-possessed trees were protected in sacred groves. At the Temple of Uppsala, pre-Christian Scandinavian peoples maintained sacred groves where every nine years the kings would sacrifice nine male animals per day over nine days. The Celts had sacred groves where Druids venerated their goddess Nemetona. These groves were sacred but also dangerous places that should not be romanticized as a kind of proto-nature park of the ancient world.

St. Boniface cuts down Thor's Oak

During the Christianization of Europe, the groves of indigenous Eurasia and central Europe were often cut down and replaced with churches or monasteries. The most famous case was that of St. Boniface in the 8th century C.E. who was reputed to have cut down Thor’s Oak in Geismar, Germany. Lynn White in his now infamous essay believes it was precisely the Christian approach to the natural world that laid the groundwork for our current ecological crisis. He states: “To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly two millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature” (White 1967).

Despite Christianity’s strict dualism between a transcendent God and his creation, one stop on the European forestry tour gave me a glimpse into a contemporary Christian theology of the sacred grove. While in Slovenia we stopped at the Pleterje Carthusian monastery where the monks practice silent meditation to show devotion to God. The monastery owns about 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of forest. During our tour of the grounds, I pulled the soft spoken forester aside to ask him about his work. He is an employee of the Slovenian Forest Service, but mostly works with the monastery. He is Catholic, but as he put it in his thick Slavic accent, “in my own way.” He told me that he thought the distinction between God and nature was purely semantic. He was quiet and did not make a big fuss about politics, though he admitted that forestry was much easier under socialist Yugoslavia. But, he said: “I am a farmer too, and I pay more attention to the seasons than the politicians.” The monastery has to be self-sufficient, so as forester he is charged with managing the forest to bring in revenue to the monastery to supplement the revenue from making wine. In addition to their manual labor in the vineyards and orchards, once a week the monks take a long walk through the forests of the monastery. The forests make up an important part of the monks’ solitude and in addition to bringing in revenue, the forester must keep the monastery’s forests in good health.

Were these sacred groves? Or mere sources of revenue to the monastery? They certainly did not play any role in the liturgical practices of the monks. And, like most Christians, the monks see the forest a transparent sign of God’s creative power (this theme will be developed more in my next post) in the material world from which they long to escape. So on the one hand, while the Christian dualism between spirit and body allows the believer to appreciate forests as a manifestation of God’s power over the base material world, sacred grove as wilderness simply inverts the binary and emphasizes the forest’s holiness and closeness to God, keeping people as outsiders.

As our group gathered outside the gift shop of the monastery ready to move on to our next stop, I stole away alone and followed the ancient walls of the monastery up a small hill. I walked into the forest a few meters and said a silent prayer. It was humid and cloudy, but the subtle light traced the fractal branches of the over story as they swayed in the cool afternoon breeze. The old elm, spruce and beech trees stood in silent contemplation, and like their brethren monks lifted toward the sky. The forests of Pleterje may not be untouched wilderness, but I could almost feel the monks’ silent prayers mingling with the moisture of the forest as they both rose toward the heavens.

The forest of the Carthusian monastery


Cronon, William ‘The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature’ Environmental History Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan., 1996), pp. 7-28.

White Jr., Lynn The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis Science, New Series, Vol. 155, No. 3767. (Mar. 10, 1967), pp. 1203-1207.


14 responses to “Sacred Groves

  1. laelyn June 27, 2011 at 7:30 am

    You give us so much to think about!

    My comment is specific to para. three and your rhetorical question regarding human connections to nature vs. human connections to Disneyland. There will be those who do connect to the reality of the man-made (if it is to the talking mice, etc. there should be some concern) but it cannot be the same kind of spiritual connection that one can experience in nature, desert or grove. I think it depends on the where the heart is centered. That may be why some man-creations seem to be soulless, where God has been left out and the art, structure, amusement park, etc. has been created simply for the gratification of the physical, temporal. Other man-creations (e.g. art, churches, etc.) have reached out and included God and the spiritual, transcending the temporal. God-creations (nature, the groves, etc.) seem to easily invoke spiritual communion in those seeking the spirit.

    Now to read Cronon!

  2. Kate June 27, 2011 at 10:04 am

    JB! Most excellent post.

    I have been thinking lately about why I am not an environmentalist, o sea, particularly concerned with nature, environmental issues etc, and why I see these abuses of nature so disconnected from human rights violations or abuse of humans (what a speciest!).

    Having read your post, I think it is due, in part, to Cronon’s idea of the fundamental disconnect with land. Love the connection to Disneyland.

    What I mean is, I hate camping because my experience as a kiddo was largely “car camping” in which you drive your car to a spot in the “wilderness” and sleep on the ground next to your car.

    Seemed pointless to me.

    Trained not to notice nature, I am wont to notice her beautiful subtleties, but quick to be inconvenienced by her whims (rain, snow, heat). I think my attitude has been one of “dealing with” nature.

    Appreciate your post and look forward to re-thinking my approach.

  3. Kate June 27, 2011 at 10:39 am

    I think another reason I am not an environmentalist is that I have a secret and entirely unjustified loathing for hippies.

    Perhaps there is a subliminal connection I make between the patchuli, the dreaded dread locks, the parachute pants that I hate and “environmentalists.”

    Really gotta move past this.

  4. Nicole I June 27, 2011 at 11:30 am

    Regarding Cronon – I haven’t read the article (and should), but is it possible that wilderness represents both? I think it might be possible – even good – to both be disconnected and connected to wilderness. The disconnection allows for the sheer awesomeness and reverence for mother earth – a healthy alienation if you would. The connections allow for our human needs to be met; when done thoughtfully, it can also induce an appreciation as we seek to balance our needs with the limited but generous resources provided.

    We spent the weekend at a small little man-made lake – on what used to be the Oregon trail – in the shadow of Mt Hood this weekend. As we sat there fishing this stocked lake (or rather sat there with our poles and watched those around us actually catch fish), we watched a pair of bald eagles fly down every hour or so and take their share of the trout. It was awesome. The majesty of Mt Hood’s reflection on the water was unbelievable; if you looked carefully, you could follow the ski runs down to the lodge on at the tree line. And it is hard to ignore the simple fact that most of the surrounding forest is heavily managed for the logging industry. The weekend was filled with both connection and disconnection – and I think that was good.

  5. missy. June 27, 2011 at 11:31 am

    Kate! You are shocking me left and right here! Are you telling the truth that you hate parachute pants, for one thing? I can’t bring myself to believe it.

    Jason, this is a fascinating post. I will need to read some Cronon because your explanation of his ideas really resonated with me. It is an interesting question, how civilizations move from viewing earth-spaces as “commons” to viewing them as separate “wildernesses.” (And from seeing natural resources as items of stewardship to items ripe for exploitation.) And I think your religious parallel makes a lot of sense: this movement from symbiotic integration to disconnected separateness.

  6. mfranti June 27, 2011 at 12:21 pm


    This is excellent work. I’m glad you linked to the Cronon piece. I read that last semester in an enviro writing class, and it changed how I think.

    I hadn’t ever thought of “Nature” or “Wilderness” as being a man- made idea or a place we created that is separate from the real world (where we live).

    As much as I enjoyed the outdoors, I, too, had the same mindset. I’d been sold on it just like most people. Nature was found in the National Parks, the forests, etc. Nature was a place I visited away from home and often with advanced planning.

    Thanks to a few writing exercises, I can now say that I see things much differently. Nature is all around me. I can find it outside the bus window on the way to class, sitting on my porch with a cup of coffee, or on a simple walk through my garden.

    I love seeing the world this way. Unfortunately, it also makes things more difficult for us sensitive types. I’ve always cared about the environment, but I care more now about what I do and what I see happening all around me.

    Makes a simple drive into the local canyons something that cannot be enjoyed without a heathy dose of environmentalist guilt.

  7. Kate June 27, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    missy! It’s the truest truth. I absolutely despise parachute pants (dreds, fire juggling, general grubbiness, communal living, pot culture/Bob Marley worship, gauges, patchwork anything, anything with peace signs, tye-dye and the like)

    But, hatin’ on hippies can’t explain it all. I’ve got to put my thinking cap on and figure out why environmental issues don’t grab my attention as much as others. I think JB is really on to something.

  8. mfranti June 27, 2011 at 3:37 pm


    I think this is where you start:.. where “nature” is, making the rest of the world fair game for manipulation and exploitation.

    people live in the nature that has become “fair game for manipulation and exploitation”. The people, too, have been commodified and are fair game.

    the injustices that you seek to remedy started by the powerful taking land (natural resources) from the powerless leaving them without the means to care and feed their families. Then we westerners look down our noses at the poor and question why they don’t have the ability to do XYZ to feed their families without giving any thought to how we obtained so much wealth and privilege.

    Do you need an example? I can rattle off 10 from own 400+ years of history.
    It’s a sick, sick, sick cycle.

  9. missy. June 27, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    And, continuing mfranti’s chain of thought, environmental issues are also inextricably connected to human rights issues because the powerless are always the first to be harmed when the powerful exploit the environment. Take climate change, for instance. Americans are the most-polluting, and we also have very little connection to the impacts of our decisions. In the meantime, the “second rainy season” has disappeared in the Ethiopian lowlands, leading to crop failure, a collapse of agricultural methods that have served people for generations, and widespread hunger. Our privilege is the very thing that insulates us from the impact of our choices–we outsource the famine and war and social collapse to populations that bear very little responsibility for the warming of the earth.

  10. Mac June 27, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    Thank you for your post Jason. I have thought similarly about my experiences in ‘nature parks’ (like Yellowstone for example) and I almost always come away feeling that the structure of the tours, boardwalks, signs, and roads has come between me and the very sublime experience that the park is supposed to ‘provide.’ At the same time I appreciate the idea behind perserving such areas and I do enjoy moments of awe while I am there, though maybe not part of the park visit script (eg. smelling the ponderosas on top of Angels Landing in Zion NP). It would be nice if the arguments that Cronon and postmodernists give were based on such obvious signs of culture like infrastructure or discourse but of course they aren’t. They go deeper than that, and for the better, in my opinion.
    While there has been a strong reaction to Cronon, I think many of those whose work considers the reality of a nature/culture dualism appreciate his and other similar contributions because they have helped make the conversation more sophisticated. In my case, though I have often thought and written about the evolution of our relationship(s) with the natural world, after having read many of the nature-as-a-cultural-construct arguments I can still maintain a sense of awe when I contemplate the redbud leaves outside my apartment window or the sound of ocean waves breaking against a shore. That awe, for me, is the sacred quality of our human experience that brings us to worship God and gods through trees and other participants of ‘nature’. How to recognize our capacity to feel this awe and how to respond honestly to it, then, become the essential questions with which we challenge ourselves – whether or not there is a global ecological crisis.

  11. Jason Brown June 28, 2011 at 7:17 am

    mac, thanks for the your amazing insights. Everyone. Thanks for your comments.

    I would love to some musings about where the sacred grove can take our Mormonism. What does it mean to people to be a people of sacred groves?

  12. Aaron R. June 29, 2011 at 7:15 am

    In response to Mac’s comment regarding the experience of the toursof nature parks. Perhaps these tours are both a cause of that alienation and symptom of it. Tourists who have little or no connection to the world they are visiting need to be chaperoned in order to protect and conserve it. This distance allows the visitor to be thoughtless and unaware of the consequences of their actions and yet, as you rightly note, the tours themselves further inhibit the tendency to make that connection in the first place.

    Great work, Jason.

  13. Pingback: Sacred Groves « Our Mother's Keeper

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