Getting sacred with trees

Months ago, my church decided that the theme for our annual nature-themed month in September would be ‘trees’, and I agreed to collate some resources for the clergy to help them write their sermons. Four days before the start of Creationtide (a global initiative linking the Orthodox ‘Creation Day’, Catholic St Francis Day, and Protestant Harvest Festival), I have found the opportunity to write it. 

People often liken a forest to a cathedral; but to me it feels more like a congregation. One feels in company amongst trees. Their upright stance, their feet on the ground and their arms held up like charismatic Christians in song, their warm-cool bark, and the gesticulations of their branches, and winking and scowling expressions of their knots, all make them seem more like me than many a furry, four-legged mammal. 

A church choir from Edinburgh in the company of a forest in Cornwall

This sense of company goes back a long way: the Green Man is one of the oldest symbols in our churches, and surely the point is not whether it is ‘pagan’ or ‘Christian’, but that it represented the importance of a connection with the rest of nature at the heart of our spirituality — and I would argue it is no coincidence that our technological society has lost both at the same time. 

Modern biologists tell us that our affinity with trees goes much further than accidental appearances. Trees can count, learn and remember. They send medicine to sick neighbours, keep leafless stumps alive with donations of sugar solutions, and warn of danger with electrical and chemical signals. Perhaps it is a subconscious sense of this sociability of trees that we feel in a forest?

Both the old myth and the new science have been challenged as fanciful anthropomorphism. It is right that the science is questioned — that’s how science works — but this does not mean that the sense of affinity should be written off. 

The biggest myth of all is that humans and nature are separate. Any ecology must include human biology and behaviour (which we call ‘economics’ and ‘politics’). Any economy must factor in the sustenance of the entire biosphere. 

This is the ‘spirituality’ from which my work as an advocate and policy developer for forestry and timber in the UK derives. This is the filter through which I interpret evidence, such as the fact that trees are the only effective carbon capture and storage technology that we possess; that timber is the only large-scale carbon-negative, renewable material we possess, and can replace almost all the steel, concrete, brick, plastic, and oil, in our civilization; that the UK has amongst the lowest tree cover in Europe; and that the UK is the second biggest net importer of timber products in the world: only China has a bigger reliance on the world’s forests. 

This is what leads me to start asking questions, like What are your clothes made of? What is the room you are sitting in made of? What is in front of you? Did it begin in a forest, on a farm, in a mine, or in a quarry? How long will it last? What are you going to choose to buy next? 

The company of trees: next time you are walking through a thick forest, dive off the path and stand in a clearing deep inside.

This is why my spirituality of trees, while it might start with losing my loneliness in the warm green company of the forest, never stays romantic for long, but appears in down-to-earth dreams of planting self-funding ‘commercial conservation forests’; or building ‘carbon sink city regions’ where the mass-timber buildings create giant a carbon sink harvested from large peri-urban forests; or carbon taxes that make concrete, plastic, and deforestation, things of the past. 

And that unromantic spirituality derives from something spectacularly unfashionable: my Christian faith. 

Christianity, in my view, is not mysterious at all. It simply (and not exclusively) teaches that the fundamental thing Love; that you and I, everything and everyone, is loveable and that knowing this makes us act in ways which make it true and life-enhancing. The ‘god’ to which Christians aim to devote their lives isn’t some extraneous existence; it is simply love. You can pick anything for your ‘god’, your rule of life: yourself, your country, your political beliefs, ‘reason’, or the Jedi Force if you like (although I doubt many people have genuinely lived their life by that). But we chose Love, and ‘this God is our God for ever and ever; who will be our guide even to our death.’ (1) 

It is nature, not religion, which is full of mysteries: enough to awaken all the insatiable curiosity and wonder for which nature’s minds (not just human minds) have capacity. 

My task, whether I’m going into a forest, or into a meeting about forestry policy, is to love myself, the people or trees in front of me, and all the world out there, unconditionally and equally and in no particular order. And, like a mycchorizal root network, the inspiration and the strength to set my mind, my time and my resources to the task, is there to be found in them — myself, the people, the trees, the world out there. 

“That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season.” (2)

Timber growing in Angus, Scotland
  1. Psalm 48.14
  2. Psalm 1.3