Sacred Groves


After my visit to Walden Pond, I felt I had more questions than answers. So a few days after my Walden adventure, when my apprentice duties were done for the day, I went for a walk alone. From camp I headed north on a small dirt logging road with no particular destination. Turning off the main path I came across the wreckage of an old mill whose stone ramparts still flanked a gurgling stream. Beyond the narrow stream was the old holding pond, where earthen dams on either side gathered the stream’s water. The water then flowed over the mill’s wheel. The pool was now a large pond filled with fish, lily pads and riparian plants. These mills are common in New England and were used to power sawmills, grind grain and corn, and even generate electricity in later years. It had been out of commission for some time, but there were still large rusty gears strewn about the stream. Second growth forest, which had recovered beautifully, grew up through the stones. I scrambled along the south side of the stream looking down at where the gears had once crossed. The stone walls were still neatly stacked. Birds chirped nearby, and a pair of bumble bees buzzed in and out of their home in the rocks. Mosquitoes bounced off the black pools of water below occasionally gulped down by the tiny bass and blue gill that populated the stream and pond. The sun was beginning to set, winking at me through wavery bows of hemlock, black birch and sugar maple.

Stone ramparts of mill

I sat cross legged on atop the large stone wall and took a deep breath. I started the summer asking a simple question: Can forests be sacred without the separation of culture and nature? I throw a pebble from my rock perch down to the dark water. To make sacred must somehow become an activity not of separation and delineation, but one of unification and integration. But to declare the forest sacred and dust off my hands doesn’t accomplish anything. There is process here. The rings from my pebbles expand outward and envelop the length and breadth of a small trickling pool. To make sacred…consecration…holy…hallowed. I return to the word consecration in my mind, and throw another pebble.

The word will be familiar to most Mormon readers. Ordinarily, to consecrate means to make something or someplace sacred, to set apart, or to dedicate oneself to something. We consecrate a temple, or our actions to God. But the prefix con- means with, jointly, together. What would it mean to interpret consecration as meaning to make sacred with? Why not? Rather than declaring certain spaces as inherently sacred in opposition to places that are not, consecration could come to represent the process of being in a special kind of religious relationship with each other and the earth. Salvation or eternal progression means moving toward perfection, wholeness; but as Mormons we do not believe that we do this alone. Mormon theology affirms that the eternities will be spent with our families, creation and the earth. Our temples are devoted to creating webs of relationship that are believed to endure throughout eternity. Our early communalist social organization was devoted to fostering a celestial economy free of competition and worthy of the angels. Even today’s Mormon congregations and other spiritual communities are places we go to learn, improve ourselves and serve one another—what Mormons call ‘perfecting the saints.’ Perfection is not an achievement it is a process.

However, consecration as an ecological relationship has not been explored by Mormon theologians. To convince ourselves that to make sacred with is an eternal process, emphasizing the immanence of God seems like an important preliminary step. While Christianity has in many of its larger strains emphasized the transcendence of God, there are many lesser known pan-theistic and pan-en-theistic strains of Christianity that focus on immanence. The distinction is subtle but important; for the pantheist, God is synonymous with the universe i.e God=everything. While critics have struggled with why this is any different from atheism, pantheists like Michael P. Levine insist that pantheism asserts a single divine reality. Panentheism on the other hand asserts that God is both transcendent and immanent; God retains a separation from creation, but also dwells within it. Sally Mcfague’s book The Body of God is an excellent example of a successful articulation of a Christian panentheist theology. The world (i.e. everything that exists) is God’s body, a body in which his spirit dwells.

Mormon theology, as usual, holds a curious middle ground in the discussion between transcendence and immanence. Starting with Joseph Smith’s assertion that God exists within the universe, most Mormon theologians would insist that references to God’s body is no metaphor. So while God is within time and space, s/he is separated by his/her corporeal form from the rest of creation. Yet in the doctrine of the ‘Light of Christ’ we get a sense of how God’s immanence might work within Mormon ecotheology.

“He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth; Which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made. As also he is in the moon, and is the light of the moon, and the power thereof by which it was made; As also the light of the stars, and the power thereof by which they were made; And the earth also, and the power thereof, even the earth upon which you stand. And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings; Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things” (D & C 88:6-13).

The light of Christ dwells in all things but is also likened unto the power by which all things were made. The emphasis on heavenly bodies gives this dwelling a deeply cosmological focus. God is thus immanent in the process of consecration not only through his/her desire for us to be like them, but through the Light of Christ whose immanence draws us toward the good. Another aspect of consecration is related to Mormonism’s unique theology of intelligence(s). “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made neither indeed can be” (D&C 93:29). For Smith spirit is material, and all spirit-matter is imbued with intelligence, i.e. that power by which it was made. Abraham 3:22 provides a slightly different concept of intelligences—less a quality of matter than a pre-mortal characteristic: “Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones.” Intelligence in both cases clearly point to the basic units of the pre-mortal soul. Mormon theologian, philosopher and Apostle Orson Pratt took this idea a step further:

“All the organizations of worlds, of minerals, of vegetables, of animals, of men, of angels, of spirits, and of the spiritual personages of the Father, of the Son, and the Holy Ghost, must, if organized at all, have been the result of the self-combinations and unions of the preexistent, intelligent, powerful, and eternal particles of substance. These eternal Forces and Powers are the Great First Causes of all things and events that have had a beginning.”[1]

Pratt takes Smith’s intelligences in the direction of self-organizing intelligence-matter as the basic unit of cosmological creativity, out of which the myriad forms of the organized universe emerge. Brigham Young also took a radical view of matter when he said:

“There is not one particle of element, which is not filled with life. . . . There is life in all matter, throughout the vast extent of all the eternities; it is in the rock, the sand, the dust, in water, and gasses, and in short, in every description and organization of matter whether it be solid, liquid, or gaseous, particle operating within particle.”[2]

These teachings also harmonize with the creation stories found in Joseph Smith’s Moses 3 in which animals and plants are created as living souls, rather than living creatures as translated in the King James. Enoch also encounters the earth as a living breathing and lamenting living soul in Moses 7. These unique Mormon teachings, give us a glimpse of the importance of embodiment in Joseph’s theology. The idea that all matter is pervaded with active intelligence democratizes the substance of the universe and challenges traditional dualisms of spirit and body, even within God themselves. As Sally Mcfague frames embodiment, it is “[t]hrough our bodies, in their agonies and ecstasies that lie behind and beyond all linguistic expression, [that] we are bound into a network of relations with our natural environment and experience ourselves as bodies with other bodies. Whatever else experience means, it includes bodily experience as a primordial reality, uniting us in ever-widening concentric circles with the entire planet in all its diverse, rich forms of embodiment.”[3]

Existence is embodiment, embodiment is being in relationship, salvation is a process bound by relationships and the goal of that process is consecration—to make all bodies sacred. Thomas Berry believes that in order to authentically participate in this process we must get serious about “fostering mutually enhancing relationships with the earth;” relationships that are not exploitative but mutually beneficial for humans and the earth we rely on; relationships that do not treat humans and nature as separate entities but as a network of embodied creatures moving through the cosmos together. Industrial civilization has long emphasized an extractive and exploitative relationship, the Light of Christ compels us toward something entirely different.

Consecrating the Forests

Ok, so how does this apply to forestry? Stay with me! The best example of how consecration could work ecologically, besides the work I have been doing this summer, comes from a national park in Croatia—one of our stops during my trip to Europe this spring.

Fishing boats on the Sava River at sunset

Lonjsko Polje is a national park in central Croatia which encompasses much of the Sava River basin, a tributary to the Danube. The park is run by a charismatic man named Goran Gugić who spent the day with us, explaining the complex cultural and ecological landscape. Many rural and marginal places, according to Gugić, have developed what he calls “organically evolved cultural landscapes.” By this he means that throughout the almost 2,000 years that humans have occupied this dynamic ecosystem, they have slowly developed unique adaptations to the unpredictable flood cycles that characterize the region. Because the Sava River has several other tributaries that meander through different areas of Europe, there is no predictable flood season. Peasants who have lived in the area have had to come up with creative ways of making a living in such an unpredictable ecosystem. Since it was declared a national park in 1996 this unique “nature park” of 200 square miles (about twice the size of Salt Lake City) has developed a seamless unification between culture and nature that I believe to be a model for an applied theology of consecration.

Traditional wood house in Lonjsko Polje, Croatia

For the people of this region, the Sava River means life; they drink from its water, eat its fish and navigate its courses. Houses are built along the river rather than in clustered villages. Homes are built out of wood, which readily dry when wet. The houses are placed on the crest of the naturally forming levees close to the river; this high point is the safest place to be when the river floods its banks. Stairs are placed on the outside of houses so that residents can easily get to their boats regardless of the water level. If the meander of the river threatens the house, it is simply moved farther away from the river by oxen or horses.

Behind the houses are installed orchards, gardens and fields. Beyond that, flood pasture and hay fields are maintained in common. Riparian forests which are made up of oak (Quercus robur), ash (Fraxinus excelsior), hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), alder (Alnus glutinosa), willow (salix alba) and poplar (populous nigra and populous alba) are mixed throughout these areas, and are used extensively for building materials and animal grazing. These forests are some of the largest intact oak-ash woodlands in Europe and are some of the few places where traditional agroforestry systems have survived.

Croatian pigs in oak forest

Agroforestry is the incorporation of trees into areas of food production and vice versa. Croatian peasants have developed an impressive array of agroforestry systems adapted to the unpredictable flooding of the Sava River. Because crops are easily killed in floods, the pasturing of horses, cows, pigs and geese are the most common agroforestry systems. One particular site we visited was an oak forest where pigs are allowed to graze for acorns. Because pigs graze here it has an open park like feel. The pigs have become perfectly adapted to the unpredictable riparian ecosystem. For example, rather than having ears that flop down and cover their eyes like some domestic breeds, the pigs of Longsko Polje have semi-floppy ears, which allow them to see if they have to swim to higher ground during a flood. They are also adapted to the harsh winters. In the spring, pigs are led to graze in the pasture before the cattle arrive. The rooting they do creates small differences in the soil depth favoring rare plant species; in fact, Gugić claims that Mentha pulegium, Pulicaria vulgaris, Teucrium scordium, Marsilea quadrifolia and Gratiola ofi cinalis are now dependent on pig rooting. Soon after summer arrives, the pigs are led to the forests where they eat acorns and root through the soil. The pigs have learned to recognize the call of their herder, which is important during floods. Silvo-pastural systems like the pig-oak forests have allowed for a mobile harvest that can adjust to flooding much better than crops.

Because these agro-forestry systems have developed over thousands of years, local biodiversity has also adapted with them; so much so that many birds rare throughout Europe are found in abundance in Longsko Polje. The park is home to 103 species of fauna, 54 of which are endemic.  One of the few remaining habitats of the spoon bill in Europe is found in the park. The park also boasts one of the largest populations of the white stork which build their nests on rooftops.

As Gucić puts it, “the man-made habitats generated by the traditional pasturing system are of at least the same importance for biodiversity conservation as the natural flood plain habitats.”[4] This is the holy grail of the sustainability movement and a small example of what I mean when I say consecration is the process of making sacred with; sacred in this framing is embodying mutually beneficial relationships between people and the earth.

Sacred Groves

The flat stone upon which I sat overlooking the stream had been formed over the 4.5 billion years of earth’s life and then stacked neatly by human hands. I had found my sacred grove. The rusting gears and heavy metals slowly degrade but will inevitably leave a scar. This place is sacred not because it is pristine, or because the mill represents a perfectly symbiotic relationship, but because it bears the mistakes we have made along the way. Consecration will never be a place we arrive at, but a process of trial and error.

The law of survival of the fittest in its brutal beauty is responsible for the diversity of life that we find on this fecund planet. But for humans, consecration embodies a new law; a law that draws us toward empathy, cooperation and mutualism. For Christians this law is embodied in the person Jesus of Nazareth. The work of consecration is our charge to make sacred our relationships with each other and with the earth that sustains us by moving our interaction with these domains toward mutualism. The forestry and management practiced at Yale-Myers forest; in Pleterje, Slovenia and Lonjsko Polje, Croatia are for me sign posts that show us the way this new law could play out in the ecological realm. We make things sacred when we unify ourselves to them in inseparable mutually enhancing relations. This is no easy task, but it is my hope that the Light of Christ will give the rising generation the creative energy to solve the massive ecological problems we face by crafting a new relationship with each other and the earth that will unite us rather than further divide us.

Our closing prayer will be offered by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.”[5]

[1] Orson Pratt, “Great First Cause, or the Self-Moving Forces of the Universe” first printed in Liverpool by R. James in 1851. Reprinted in The Essential Orson Pratt, foreword by David J. Whittaker (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991), 196.

[2] Brigham Young, March 28, 1856, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London and Liverpool: LDS Booksellers Depot, 1855–86), 3:279.

[3] Sally Mcfague The Body of God: an Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 86.

[4] Gulan GUGIĆ Managing Sustainability in conditions of Change and Unpredictability – The Living Landscape and Floodplain Ecosystem of the Central Sava River Basin (Krapje, Croatia: Lonjsko Polje Nature Park Public Service, 2009).

[5] Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘The Over-Soul’ in Ralph Waldo Emerson Nature and Selected Essays (New York: Penguin Book), 207.


10 responses to “Sacred Groves

  1. Rebecca August 14, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Wonderfully written. I too hope that we as a people will see the earth as a part of ourselves. Growing up in a pine forest of Eastern Washington, our family had our own sacred grove where we communed with God and his creations. The forest and the mountain in which we roamed have since been exploited for granite and wood products. There must be a better way.

  2. Karmen August 14, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Jason, this has been a wonderful series and I am going to read the posts as a whole. Right now, however, I will read this final consecration again.

    You write in para. 3 about the relationships that Mormons believe will continue through eternity. Here, now, in this life, we build those relationships but not all are, of course, eternal. I, for example, am divorced, raised my children as a single parent and learned that for me, the eternal relationship I needed to develop is that with my Father in heaven. This has been part of the lens through which I see everything else, including my relationship with the earth. I live my life believing that I can be perfected through Christ, doing good things but also making mistake after mistake. I feel the same way about my own relationship with the earth and our human relationship with the earth and all creation. We do good things, we make mistakes. We believe that all can be, and that the other earth creations will be perfected. Ours, however, depends on choice, that agency we were given. What we choose to consecrate will be different, but we can hope that the joining of hands that you refer to will give us common strength to consecrate and protect that which cannot protect itself.

  3. Amy August 14, 2011 at 8:47 am

    As always, Jason, this is beautiful and profound. I have been struck, these past few years, with the importance of mutualism and cooperation, and especially of binding oneself together with others in sacred community. Although my focus has been on people rather than nature, I have become convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about relationships–holy unions–and that only in the context of community can holiness or consecration (or conse-creation) find their full meaning.

  4. SteveP August 14, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    Jason, I’ve loved this series. This was my favoriate though. Like you, I see Mormon Theology as uniquely ecological. That everything is embedded in relationship with each other, God, the world is vital. I get so sad when I see expressed that idea that only exploitive relationships (economic, relational) work. I hope your piece here will be widely read and appreciated. Thanks for sharing this!

  5. mfranti August 14, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    To make sacred…consecration…holy…hallowed.

    Don’t forget “healthy”. It comes from the same root word.

  6. djinn August 14, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    This was really profound and lovely.

  7. reader Rachel August 14, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Jason, thank you for an excellent essay. I first began thinking about the roles of cultivation and conservation years ago when I read Michael Pollen’s book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, written long before he became known as a spokesman for real food in our country. I may have to go back and reread it now.

  8. Mark Brown August 15, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Thank you Jason. This series of post has given me new insights, and I will be returning to each of them.

  9. jason brown August 16, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    Thanks everybody. If anyone has personal experiences with sacred groves I would love to hear about them!

  10. Suzanne Neilsen October 24, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    I really enjoyed this series.
    So I’m still thinking about sacred space and succession.
    When I look at time and change and energy flow and the idea of the Sacred, it seems I’ve arrived in Kali territory.
    So it seems at the moment, I’m conceptualizing Heavenly Mother as Bhavatarini.

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