‘Tis the season for bringing nature inside our increasingly civilized confines. Homes celebrating Christmas are filled with evergreen boughs; twined wreaths of holly, mistletoe and ivy decked with dried seed pods, fruits and nuts. And as the centerpiece, the pyramid of an evergreen tree spreads its exuberant, lusty scent of fresh-cut pine throughout musty parlors in Vienna, posh Victorian brownstones in London and funky cabins in the Colorado mountains.
Aaaahhh! Close your eyes and you might be able to sense the sap still rising. Even though this tree has been sacrificed, you feel its living spirit. As the darkest days of winter pass, you know the sun will once again warm the ground and revive the forest. The light is coming. You have hope.
Trust those feelings deep in your bones and gut. What you’re experiencing has developed from millions of years of coevolution with plants that’s led to nature-based solstice rituals in a wide range of religions and spiritual practices. They highlight how forests are valuable in ways that go beyond the material resources they provide into a realm that is sensual and spiritual.
Those are not the easiest things to capture in a scientific study, but recently an international team of researchers explored evolving spiritual values of forests in Europe and Asia. In their paper, published this month in Ecology & Society, the scientists suggested that better understanding of the spiritual dimensions of human relationships with woodlands can help shape more sustainable management of them, and support the growing global effort to restore and protect large forest areas to slow global warming and protect biodiversity.
In the areas they studied, forests that have been sacred for thousands of years often overlap the areas with the richest biological diversity and healthy ecosystems that are more resilient to the effects of global warming.
Finding a connection between spirituality and conservation shouldn’t be too surprising, given humankind’s history, said Georg Winkel, co-author of the new study and chair of the forest and nature conservation policy group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
“I think the entire conservation movement was not initially driven by science, but was driven very much by connectedness to nature, and by the feeling that we are losing a certain type of nature through rationalization, through industrialization,” he said.
People lived for millennia in close physical connection with nature—our species in its original state, he added.
“It’s only very recently that we live in big concrete jungles like Los Angeles and tech cities,” he said. “Our whole body is used to directly interacting with nature, and now that we have lost this, I could well imagine that there is a certain desire to reconnect.”
That desire, he noted, is documented by multiple surveys and studies showing that, for forests, people consistently rank non-tangible values related to their emotions higher than material values like wildlife habitat or supplies of resources. In other words, people cherish forests most for evoking feelings of well-being and comfort; rather than providing wood for houses.
And the satisfaction of connecting with nature “gives people the emotion to fight for conservation,” he said.
Co-author Tobias Plieninger, a professor of social-ecological interactions at universities in Kassel and Göttingen, Germany, said the new study is part of the growing field examining relationships to nature and how they can motivate people toward sustainable lifestyles. Measuring intangible qualities like human feelings, and how they might affect the environment is difficult but important, he said.
“They are the deep leverage points in society,” he said. “They are at the head, at the heart of the whole question of sustainability.”
A Yule Log on the Fire
Late on Christmas Eve, as the candles flicker and wane, it’s time to ignite a big Yule log that will give warmth, light and comfort through one of the longest nights of the winter. It’s impossible to know exactly how far back this ritual goes, but there’s abundant evidence of societies all over the world having similar practices around the solstice. The primal, pressing urge to dispel the darkness has been ritualized by religion, commercialized by the holiday industry and even digitized with video displays of burning logs.
Archeological sites can tell us when logs were burned, and perhaps even what kind of tree the wood came from, but they can’t tell us what was in the hearts and minds of those early humans. It’s those “murky boundaries” of spiritual values that tend to prevent a rational analysis, because spirituality “is perceived as a supernatural, abstract phenomenon,” the authors of the new paper wrote. “These difficulties may explain why forest scientists, experts, and policy makers have been cautious to address spiritual values explicitly,” they added.
In the paper, the researchers established a chronological framework for understanding forest spirituality, or at least how it changed over time.
During the earliest “nature is powerful” stage, forest spirituality was “omnipresent with an abundance of sacred natural sites where spiritual governance prevailed,” and taboos on destroying certain trees. “Nature’s gifts to humans, such as game, mushrooms, berries, medicines, and wood, are appreciated and embedded in a spiritually grounded dependency on nature,” the authors wrote.
In the “taming of nature” stage, forest landscapes were transformed by intensive land-use, major organized religions emerged and “nature worshiping is banned, absorbed or transformed,” with temples or churches often built in sacred natural areas.
In the third, “rational management” stage, religion and spirituality were replaced as guiding forces by science and technology, and the main function of forests became resource exploitation, like sustained timber production to maximize human welfare. This occurred most directly in industrializing countries, but also, through colonialism, spread to the rest of the world.
Happier New Years
In their paper, the team of researchers posited that society could be experiencing a new phase of “post-industrial” forest re-spiritualization, driven by human emotional experiences and desires for well-being, including mental health. Modern environmentalism, as well as a shift in modern religious values, may have helped kickstart the transformation, including the 2015 Laudato Si by Pope Francis, which, among other things, declared Earth’s climate as a “common good.”
Plieninger said there are also numerous studies showing direct health and mental-wellness benefits of being physically closer to nature, such as lower rates of prescription anti-depressant drug use in areas closer to trees.
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The growing wave of forest spirituality is increasingly apparent, but the idea actually never really vanished, said Heidi Steltzer, a professor at Fort Lewis College in Colorado who studies alpine and Arctic ecology and co-authored a mountain section of a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“Yes, I see this already happening and it will continue to grow,” she said. “Healing ourselves and the Earth at the same time—what does this look like?
“For some it is a re-spiritualization, but It has been there for me, for many, and especially for Indigenous peoples all along,” she said. “There are many who walk among us already who can guide us. They bring spirituality and deep caring into the process of discovery and science.”
Teaching at a university where more than 40 percent of the students are Native American, she experiences the symbiotic relationship of nature and spirituality on a daily basis. Co-learning with people “who see and experience the world in different ways” including varied spiritual relationships to forests and nature, may help achieve global climate and biodiversity goals, said Steltzer, who recently started a new retreat center to focus partly on the topic.
Nature Spirituality is Personal
The spiritual connection with nature is often intensely personal, which also makes it hard to measure scientifically, said co-author Shonil Bhagwat, describing his long research at sacred forests in southwestern India, where there is evidence of such connections starting from neolithic times, and continuing in reinterpretations by modern religions to this day.
“I remember often entering these forests during the intense heat of Indian summer and there would be a dramatic drop in temperature and dramatic increase in humidity,” he said. “That sort of sense of transition from intense heat to very pleasant and cool air, in the surroundings of the sacred forest was particularly striking and sort of leads into that extra-sensory feeling about being closer to a super-being of some kind.”
That difference between bringing a tree inside our man-made walls and putting ourselves back into nature and the forest, and the implications for society, are clear, said Catharina de Pater, who studies the relationship between spiritual values and forest management at the University of Wageningen and was not an author on the new study.
Surveys and evaluations by social scientists show that peoples’ spiritual connections with nature are at the core of their inner personalities, helping them gather strength “to cope with all the difficulties in life.” And an outward manifestation of spiritual connections to nature is the growing sense of connectedness to “others in the non-human world,” de Prater said.
“At the moment, we see a trend that we consider the non-human world not as robotic animals and nonliving planets,” she said. More and more people recognize trees as living, sentient beings, and if people see themselves as part of that world, “the supposition is that they also behave more in an eco-friendly way,” she said.
“They adjust their behavior to the needs of nature,” she added. “It implies that we are just a little part of the whole world, and not the center anymore.”