Forests As Sanctuaries
We all know how intricate are the relationships between a single tree and the forms of life that live with it, and around it. But why are trees so important to human beings who are after all–as forms of life–so distinct and different from trees? Though distinctive and different, human beings are part of the same heritage of life.
Trees and forests are important for deep psychological reasons. In returning to the forest, we are returning to the womb not in psychological terms but in cosmological terms. We are returning to the source of our origin. We are entering communion with life at large. The existence of the forests is so important because they enable us to return to the source of our origin. They provide for us a niche in which our communion with all life can happen.
The unstructured environments which we need for our sanity and for our mental health, as well as for the moments of silent brooding without which we cannot truly reach our deeper selves, should not be limited to forests only. Rugged mountains and wilderness areas provide the same nexus for being at one with the glory of the elemental forces of life. Wilderness areas are live-giving in a fundamental sense, nourishing the core of our being. This core of our being is sometimes called the soul.
To understand the nature of the human being is ultimately a metaphysical journey; in the very least it is a transphysical journey. Transphysical translated into the Greek language means metaphysical. The metaphysical meaning of forests has to do with the quality of spaces the forests provide for the tranquility of our souls. Those are the spaces of silence, the spaces of sanity, the spaces of spiritual nourishment–within which our being is healed and at peace.
We all know how soul-destroying and destructive to our inner being modern cities can be; and actually are. The comparison alone between the modus of a technological city and the modus of a wilderness area informs us sufficiently about the metaphysical meaning of the spaces of forests, of the mountains, of the marshlands.
Though the trees are immensely important to our psychic well-being, not every tree possesses the same energy and meaning. The manicured French parks and the primordial Finnish forests are different entities. In the manicured French parks we witness the triumph of the Cartesian logic and of Euclidean geometry, while in the Finnish forests, immensely brooding and surrounded by irregular, female-like lakes we witness the triumph of natural geometry.
What is natural and what is artificial is nowadays difficult to determine. However, when we find ourselves among the plastic interiors of an airport, with its cold brutal walls and lifeless plastic fixtures surrounding us, on the one hand, and within the bosom of a big forest, on the other hand, we know exactly the difference without any ambiguity. In the forest our soul breathes, while in plastic environments our soul suffocates.
The idea that our soul breathes in natural unstructured environments should not be treated as a poetic metaphor. It is a palpable truth. This truth has been recognized on countless occasions, and in many contexts…although usually indirectly and semi-consciously.
Life wants to breathe. We breathe more freely when there are other forms of life which can breathe around us. Old beams made of oak in an old cottage breathe. Those panelings made of wood in the modern flat breathe. And we breathe with them. Those plastic interiors, and those concrete cubicles, and those tower blocks, and those rectilinear cities do not breathe. We find them ‘sterile,’ ‘repulsive,’ ‘depressing.’ Those very adjectives come straight from the core of our beings. And those are not just the reactions of some idosyncratic individuals, but the reactions of all of us, at least a great majority of us.
A plastic interior may be aesthetically pleasing. Yet after a while, our soul finds it uncomfortable, constraining, somewhat crippling. The primordial life in us responds quite unequivocally to our environments. We have to learn to listen carefully to the beat of the primordial life in us, whether we call it instinct, intuition, or the wholistic response. We do respond with great sensitivity to spaces, geometries and forms of life surrounding us. We respond positively to the forms which breathe life for these forms are life-enhancing. Life in us wants to be enhanced and nourished. Hence we want to be in the company of forms that breathe life.
It is therefore very important to dwell in surroundings in which there are forms that can breathe…the wooden beams, the wooden floors. Lucky are the nations that can build houses made of wood…inside and outside. For the wood breathes, changes, decays…as we do. It is also important to have flowers and plants in our living environment. For they breathe. To contemplate a flower for three seconds may be an important journey of solitude, a journey of return to original geometry…which is always renewing. We make these journeys actually rather often, whenever plants and flowers are in our surroundings. But we are rarely aware of what we are doing.
Forests and spirituality are intimately connected. Ancient people knew about this connection and cherished and cultivated it. Their spirit was nourished because their wisdom told them where the true sources of nourishment lay.
The forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demand for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life’ s activity; it affords protection to all beings, offering shade even to the axeman who destroys it.
Towards a Spiritual Renewal
We are now reassessing the legacy of the entire technological civilization and what it has done to our souls and our forests. Our problem is no longer how to manage our forests and our lives more efficiently in order to achieve further material progress. We now ask ourselves more fundamental questions: How can we renew ourselves spiritually? What is the path to life that is whole? How can we survive as humane and compassionate beings? How can we maintain our spiritual and cultural heritage?
The wilderness areas, which I call life-giving areas, are important for three reasons, Firstly, they are important as sanctuaries. Various forms of life might not have survived without them.
Secondly, they are important as givers of timber that breathes and out of which will be made beautiful panels and beams that breathe life into our homes.
Thirdly, and most significantly, they are important as human sanctuaries, as places of spiritual, biological and psychological renewal. As the chariot of progress which is the demon of ecological destruction moves on, we wipe out more and more sanctuaries. They disappear under the axe of man, are polluted by plastic environments, are turned into Disneylands.
The rebuilding of sanctuaries is vital for the well-being of our body and the well-being of our soul, for the two act in unison. We have lost the meaning of the Temple (Templum) in now deserted churches.
We have to recreate this meaning from the foundations. We have to re-sacralize the world, for otherwise our existence will be sterile. We live in a disenchanted world. We have to embark on the journey of the re-enchantment of the world. We have to recreate rituals and special ceremonies through which most precious aspects of life are expressed and celebrated.
Forests still inspire us and infuse us with the sense of awe and mystery . . . that is when we have time and the quietness of mind to lose ourselves in them. And here is an important message. Forests may again become sacred enclosures where great rituals of life are performed, and where the celebration of the uniqueness and mystery of life and the universe is taking place. It depends on our wills to make the forests the places of the re-sacralization of the world. The first steps in this direction were taken when by the famous Polish director, Jerzy Grotowski, who has abandoned the theatre in order to make nature and particularly forests the sacred grounds for man’s new communion with the cosmos.We must develop a similar spirit of reverence and empathy for the trees and forests. For they are true sanctuaries.
This article by Henryk Skolimowski has been republished from The Deoxyribonucleic Hyperdimension