Sometimes I feel like I was a tree nymph in a different existence. Not that I know much about trees except that I love them. I love them like friends. My most peaceful moments as a child were wandering in the woods, building forts, climbing a grand weeping beech with its voluptuous growths. I could nestle in its limbs for hours reading as if in a mother’s lap. My friend Heidi and I mapped out mystical lands with secret underground caverns as we huddled under her canopy bed with color pencils. Once her mother reprimanded us after we stole tomatoes from a neighbor’s garden to stock supplies for one of our woodland forts along Old West Mountain Road.
I read once that our brains are primed to the color green, an instinctual signal of vitality, growth and life. Children’s cognitive skills are enhanced when exposed to nature. We wonder. We are kinder and more creative. In hospitals and nursing homes, patients fare better and experience less pain when a plant is on the windowsill. There is a psychophysiological effect in the presence of verdant foliage. It doesn’t matter if it is a small patch of weeds, an Ansel Adams poster, a city park, or a Sunday drive through the countryside.
Even if you are a city dweller, you can find some place, perhaps a park or a golf course, where you can observe the mysterious migration of the birds, and the changing seasons.
And with your child you can ponder the mystery of a growing seed, even if it be only one planted in a pot of earth in the kitchen window.Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder
Inner and outer dwellings
One of my most formative experiences was traversing the forests on Mt. Kenya when I was 20 years old when I had to get as far away from home as possible. So I was captivated when I read in my inbox about a short documentary: The Church Forests of Ethiopia by Jeremy Seifert. The words in the subject line grabbed me: A church forest.
I clicked the link. In a short nine minutes I was transported to an ephemeral world, captured by the intimacy of a handheld camera. Old trees, hazy light, monkeys…. and a native orthodox priest. The film zoomed out, an expansive Google map or drone view, over a brambly swatch of old growth forest encased by desolate, overused land. A green oasis in the midst of cattle-eaten countryside.
It was a conservation effort. And as it happens there are many of these small forests spread far and wide, as many as 20,000. They are tended by spiritual gatekeepers who protect these endangered enclaves of biodiversity, like woodland angels. As the story unfolds, there is a foreign conservationist, a local ecologist, and a forest priest. They convened about what to do. At a gathering with the priests, the spiritual leaders came up with an idea of their own: to build a wall. A wall to keep the cattle from eating the seedlings, so that the forest could reseed itself. “The church is within the forest. The forest is inside the church,” explains the priest. The widening walls would protect both.
And it’s working.
In a remarkably short time in one forest, the sounds of birds can be heard, monkeys sway in the canopies, and children come to clamber up the trees to find refuge in the cooler air. It turns out that only the native forests inhabited by priests and hermits are the ones surviving, but barely. The walls, yellow and dusty, are carefully stacked with the stones churned up from the surrounding fields. They are wide enough for children to skip along. The walls are helping in more ways than one. Now efforts are being made to connect these forests, like emerald strands across a bare neckline.
Walls for mending and tending
Walls serve many purposes. The American poet Robert Frost famously wrote about mending walls, questioning whether they make good neighbors. Of course, it’s complicated. There are border walls that separate children from families and bar people from safe havens. Chain link and wireless fences can keep anything in or out. There are those that eventually fall I once sat upon the Berlin wall with traveling companions on a study abroad. I think of the virtual walls we are creating now by sheltering in place, standing in lines six feet apart, flattening the curve as it were. A wall with invisible boundaries.
Separate yet connected
Walls. It all depends on the intention. Is a wall erected out of fear? Or, is a wall erected out of love? And even intentions go awry and can pave the way to hell. We see how the walls of nursing homes, hospitals and prisons can ensnare a novel corona virus, a prolific microscopic invader. Yet, the virus, like the cattle in Ethiopia (and every living organism), seeks to survive. And walls, let’s face it, are porous.
I’m hopeful. The Church Forests of Ethiopia demonstrate what deep listening and caretaking can do. These forest walls arose from a divine partnership: part spirit, part nature, part human. There is no separation. The simple conservation effort brings into view something mysterious, magical, practical (as you will see if you watch the 10 minute film). Now I sit in my home walled off from the world thinking about our intentions. I believe our behavior, our quiet caretaking, matters even more. Compassionate action even with inaction. A paradox that goes against our natural instincts. Most of us are not hermits.
Just like the Ethiopian forest priests tend to the fragile seeds, we are kindred spirits spread far and wide tending to ourselves and each other. It is in our nature to tend and befriend, a beloved term coined by psychologist Shelley Taylor about our survival instinct through affiliation. We are saving ourselves.
It will take time to recover and heal from this pandemic. Let’s take refuge in the dwellings in which we reside.
We all need a kind and wise companion looking after us. I invite you to call on a kindred spirit. The one that lives within you. Here is a meditation to connect with one.
More Matters in Kind:
- I am now obsessed with these church forests. Learn more about Dr. Alemayehu Wassie, a forest ecologist and Dr. Margaret “Meg” Lowman, an American ecologist and canopy biologist. Read an exquisite essay in Emergence Magazine about the church forests of Ethiopia by Fred Bahnson, who himself was transformed on his visit. “Less than three percent of primary forest remains. And nearly all of that three percent, Alemayehu discovered, was only found in forests protected by the church.”
- The Global Oneness Project offers amazing stories and study guides about the earth we tread upon and our connection to the natural world. Its sister project, Emergence Magazine (Ecology, Culture, and Spirituality) is a new favorite of mine.
- Watch the beautiful animation The Man Who Planted Trees, directed by Frédéric Back (1988 Academy Award winner), and based on the French story by Jean Giono about a shepherd’s lone journey to re-forest a barren valley after a devastating world war.
- The Sense of Wonder: A Celebration of Nature for Parents and Children by Rachel Carson, “The patron saint of the environmental movement.”