Second Sunday of the Creation Cycle        September 25, 2016

Today, for the second Sunday of Creation time, we reflect on and give thanks for forests. Particularly and first of all for the forests that surround our beautiful Annapolis Valley; that cover our North Mountain and South Mountain. At this time of year, as the leaves begin to change, we are particularly aware of the beauty of our mixed woodland. It is part of the mighty Appalachian forest that covered Eastern North America when our European ancestors first arrived here. We are so blessed to have so much forest around us in Nova Scotia – much reduced from the mighty old growth forests of just a couple of centuries ago, but still there.

Like the mountains, the forests stand around the valley and protect it. To give only one example, the forests provide a huge reservoir of water, absorbing the heavy rains and the spring’s snow melt, and slowly releasing it to the Valley. In the profound drought of this summer, the streams flowing down from the interior of the South mountain are much reduced – but they are still flowing.

What does our faith tradition have to say about this crucial part of God’s creation? Actually, the biblical story of forests is largely one of exploitation and loss. In the book of Kings, for example, we read how Solomon enlisted Hiram to fell the mighty cedars of Lebanon to build his splendid temple – which is fine in itself, and one might argue an appropriate use of a natural resource. Except that their forestry practices were not what we would call sustainable. The mighty cedars of Lebanon are no more, and the forests that covered large parts of Israel in Biblical times have disappeared. Indeed the same that can be said of most of the Mediterranean region: Greece and Italy as well, once the cradle of European civilization, were stripped bare of their great forests by the end of the classical period, leaving an arid landscape, poor soil, and widespread impoverishment behind. A sobering lesson that history has to teach us.

Interestingly, the Bible has a fair amount to say about trees. Not surprisingly for a semi-desert region, they appreciated trees as a sign of fertility and life: the greenness of their leaves and beauty of their blossoms; the ability of the roots to delve deep in the earth and draw from hidden springs of water; the shade they gave from the beating sun. The Bible says a lot about trees, but not so much about forests, except as part of the background of a story. It’s as though, quite literally, they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

Today’s fun science fact (they were talking about this yesterday on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks show): scientists are beginning to understand just a bit more how forests are more than just a bunch of individual trees, but a community, a complex organism made up of a network between each individual tree. The trees are joined by minute fungal strands, which grow for metres through the soil from the roots of one tree to the roots of others. These strands function like communication wires, or tiny pipelines: they pass chemical compounds from one tree to the next, compounds which function as signals, as well as providing nutrients. As scientists have started to map some of these connections, they notice a pattern: while younger trees will be connected with their immediate neighbours, the older established trees are connected over larger distances with dozens upon dozens of trees, holding the whole section of the forest together. These older trees will pass nutrients along to other trees: favouring their own offspring, but also supporting trees of other species; neglecting damaged and dying trees to support those with a better chance of survival; basically providing leadership in taking care of the community of trees around them. There is a whole world of subtle connections going on in a forest, which we are just beginning to glimpse.

Of course the community of the forest is more than just the trees. Somewhat more obvious than the invisible connections of fungal strands between the roots of trees are the ways in which forests provide environments for entire ecosystems of life, for other plants, fungus, moss; for bacteria and microscopic organisms; for insects, worms, mammals and birds. From the rich soil beneath the forest, to the forest floor itself, the undergrowth, the lower trunks, middle branches, and treetops, forests offer countless niches for different forms of life.

In the presence of this complex web of life, we are reminded that we are part of it. Our conscious minds tend to carry on as if this all had nothing to do with us, as though we brainy humans lived on a level above all this biology. And of course we live so much of our lives in a world of our own making, in our houses, our cars, our malls, on the computer. But when we get out in the woods, our bodies and our senses betray us. The forest calls to the warm living animal deep down inside us, and we respond with a sense of well-being and peace.

The Japanese apparently have a word for the experience of this deep and healthy peace we find in forests: Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Being in the forest relaxes us, relieves stress, boosts our immune system, combats depression, heightens our mental awareness. Here too, scientists are just beginning to understand why forests are so healthy for us. There is the purity of the air, free from pollution, but also enriched with complex molecules given off by the trees. And there is also the theory, which I find very interesting, that forests call forth in us a different kind of attention. So much of our lives in spent in active attention: that is, our minds are racing to make sense of the world around us, to process the words on the cereal box or on our computer screen, to guide us through traffic, to respond to another person’s words and body language. And that gets exhausting. In the wildness of the forest, we can turn all that off, and we are switched to a different, passive form of attention. We become receptive to the shapes and forms and impressions that surround us, but without having to interpret everything and make sense of everything. We can just be. And that is a huge gift, to which the tamed and tired animal of our bodies responds with a grateful sigh of relief. When the book of Revelation speaks of that tree of life, the tree with twelve kinds of fruit, whose leaves will be for the healing of the nations, it is speaking to our primal experience of all that is healing and life-giving about being with trees.

The forest is a place where we come in contact with a hugely complex web of life, far more complex than we can see or understand. Science is only now starting to unravel some of its mysteries. Our minds cannot fully understand it, but our bodies sense it, our instincts tell us that we are in a place that is both vastly bigger than we are, and yet also home. Forests are a place where we can be no longer in the driver’s seat, but just be, where we can enter into the presence of something bigger than ourselves, something healing. That, surely, is what we mean by a religious experience. The name we as Christians give to that experience is being in the presence of God, creator, redeemer, breath of life.

I came across a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden that speaks to this power of the wilderness:

Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness—to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

It is this power of the wilderness to take us out of ourselves, because it is bigger than ourselves, bigger than what we can calculate and master. It is this power which Thoreau says, in another place: “in wildness is the preservation of the world”. It is the wildness of the forest, the otherness of the tree that bears twelve kinds of fruit, whose leaves are for the healing of the nation. For it is there, in what we cannot understand or master, that we can be set free to be who we were meant to be, fellow creatures in this beautiful, terrible, wondrous web of life.