Forests as Sanctuaries
Henryk Skolimowski

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.

    The reason that trees and forests are so important to us, as human beings, has to do with the natural geometry of the universe. We must therefore distinguish between man-made geometry, stemming from Euclidean geometry, the geometry we learn at schools, from the natural geometry, especially the geometry of the living forms.

     When Euclid was inventing his geometry, which has become the basis for man-made forms, the Greek reason was already corrupted by Aristotle's analytical and classificatory approach to the world. With Socrates and Plato the Greek world is still held in unity and harmony. With Aristotle, we begin to divide and chop and atomize--put things into separate compartments, where they are identified by special labels called definitions.

     Euclid and his geometry only reinforces the tendency to atomism, separatism, thinking in neat logical categories--here are the axioms, here are the rules of derivation, here are the theorems derived from the axioms through the accepted rules of derivation. All very neatly and rigorously defined. A triumph of the rational Western mind which is going to depend so much on the power of formal reasoning, on the meaning of axioms which will become the ultimate bricks out of which other things are to be constructed.

     What should not escape our notice, in particular, is Euclid's emphasis on the importance of the point, and of the straight line. Let us be aware that we never see the point because the point as such is invisible; we hardly meet a straight line in nature. Yet the architecture of the human world, or to be more precise of the world as constructed by modern man, is founded on the straight line and those invisible points.

     Let us put the proposition in general terms: the geometry that dominates our lives, when we live in a city, in a modern house, or when we drive an automobile, is the geometry derived from the abstract system of man-made geometry. It is a geometry which, after a while, constrains and suffocates us.

     We have distinguished natural geometry from man-made geometry. But what is natural geometry? The forms by which and through which the universe has evolved, the forms by which life has evolved. What are these forms? These forms are circular, spiral, round, womb-like. When we contemplate the architecture of the universe: the galaxies and the atoms, the amoebas and the trees, then we immediately see that the dominant forms and shapes of nature and of the universe are round and spiral and so often amorphous.

     The dancing universe does not move in straight lines. It moves in spiral, circular and irregular motions. The life dancing in, and through the universe, is not choreographed by the computer and its linear logic. The quintessential symbol of life is that of the womb.

     All life has emerged from the primordial womb which is irregular, amorphous, full of connecting loops and spirals. We individual human beings, were conceived and nursed in the wombs of our mothers. Natural geometry had conditioned our early impulses. Natural geometry has shaped our early growth. Natural geometry has formed our bodies which are but an expression of this geometry. Now, look at your own body and see it in terms of natural geometry. Your body is full of irregular shapes--round, oval, asymmetrical. There is hardly any straight line within the architecture of our body. The head is such a funny irregular egg. The hands and legs are irregular cylinders. The eyes and the mouth, the neck and the stomach are but endless variations on the theme of natural geometry.

     Being nursed and conditioned, shaped and determined by natural geometry, we respond to it in an intuitive and spontaneous manner. Why do we rest so well in the presence of a tree? Because in it we find an outlet for our natural geometry. The communion with the trees, being surrounded and nursed by them, is for us a return to the original geometry of life. That is why we feel so good in the act of this communion. We were born and nourished by natural geometry and to this geometry we long to return. By dissolving ourselves in the geometry of the tree, we resolve tensions and stresses accumulated through, and thrust upon us by artificial geometry. We must clearly see that artificial geometry of man-made environments is full of tension and stress.

     To dissolve in the primordial matrix of life--this is sanity.

     To enter the communion with the shapes which spell out organic life--this is a silent joy.

     To lose oneself in the forms soaked in the substance of life--this is a fundamental renewal.

     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 momenmts 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 forsts 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 ourself 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 occcasions, and in many contexts--although usually indirectly and semi-consciously.

     We go to a lovely old cottage. The old wooden beams supporting the ceiling attract us immensely--as no concrete and iron beams will ever do. We go to a modern flat, undistinguished otherwise except that there is a lovely wooden panelling along the walls of the rooms. We respond to it. We resonate with it. We do so not because we are old sentimental fools, or for aesthetic reasons alone, but for deeper and more fundamental reasons.

     Life wants to breathe. We breathe more freely when there are other forms of life which can breathe around us. Those old beams made of oak in the old cottage breathe. Those panellings 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, the wooden panellings. 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.


Sacred Forests in History

Ancient people were intimate with their surroundings. They so often weaved themselves into the tapestry of life surrounding them so exquisitely that we can only admire their sensitivity and their wisdom. They had a very special understanding of the places, the locus genius of their territory.

     Forests were of course of great importance to ancient people, and almost everywhere in the world trees grow, some forests were to be protected, and never desecrated. In the seminal book of Sir James Frazer The Golden Bough (1935), we have an impressive and eloquent evidence of how people, from the paleolithic era onwards went on about preserving and worshipping their forests; how they set out certain forests as sacred. "In them no axe may be laid to any tree, no branch broken, no firewoood gathered, no grass burnt; and animals which have taken refuge there may not be molested."1

     In the world of classical Greece, and then of Rome, these special groves and forests were usually enclosed by stone walls. This enclosure was called in Greek Temenos, a cut-off place, or a demarcated place. A better translation would be "a sacred enclosure." Indeed a periodical entitled Temenos started to be published in England in the late 1970s explicitly evoking the spirit of Temenos as a sacred enclosure, and calling for the creation of sacred spaces.

     In Latin the term for these demarcated places was templum. Templum was of course the original root of the word 'temple.' To begin with, those sacred enclosures were the sanctuaries in which religious ceremonies took place. They were in fact open air temples. When later on temples were erected as monumental buildings with columns and all, sacred groves and forests did not cease to exist. They were still cherished and protected. They inspired the sense of awe, the sense of the mystery of the universe, a higher sense of in-dwelling, being close to gods. The roman philosopher Seneka so writes in the first century A.D.:

"If you come upon a grove of old trees that have lifted their crowns up above and shut out the light of the sky by the darkness of their interlacing boughs, you feel that there is a spirit in the place, so lofty is the wood, so lonely the spot, so wonderous the thick unbroken shade."2

     This sense of the mystery of the universe, which some places evoked more than other places, led ancient people to celebrate and protect these places. They felt that in those places their life was enriched and deepened. In sacred groves and forests they felt close to gods and other sublime forces of nature. This sense of the mystery of the universe has, by and large, been lost by modern Western man. But not entirely so.

     When we go to Delphi, on a crisp spring day, at the time when the hordes of tourists did not desecrate the place yet, and when in peace and tranquility we identify ourselves with the spirit of the place, we feel a tremendous power emanating from their surroundings.

     The sense of the sacred resides in us all. But now it requires very special circumstances for this sense to manifest itself. Our jaded bodies, our overloaded senses and overburdened minds make the journey of transcendence--to the core of our being--rather difficult nowadays.

     For the ancient people the sense of the sacred was enacted daily. The whole structure of life was so arranged that the human being could not only experience the sacred but was encouraged to do so. It is rather different in our times.

     In the sacred groves and forests of ancient Greece, particular species of trees were dedicated to particular gods. Oaks were in the domain of Zeus, willows of Hera, olives of Athena, the laural of Apollo, pines of Pan, vine of Dionysus. But this identification was not rigid. The ancient Greeks were generous and flexible people. In various localities, due to specific traditions, different trees could be dedicated to different deities. On the island oif Lesbos, for instance, there was an apple grove dedicated to Aphrodite.

     Many of the sacred groves contained springs and streams and sometimes lakes. The pollution of these springs and lakes was absolutely forbidden. There was usually a total ban on fishing, with the exception of priests. It was believed that whoever would fish in the lake Poseidon and would catch fish would be turned into the fish called fisher.

     In Pellene there was a very special sacred grove, dedicated to Artemis the savior, which no man could enter except the priests. This was rather unusual. The common rule was that ordinary people could enter the grove providing they came ritually clean, not guilty of any serious crimes, especiallly blood guilt.3

     The tradition of sacred groves and forests was maintained by the ancient people throughout the world. Sacred groves in India are as ancient as the civilization itself. Indeed they go back to the prehistoric, pre-agricultural times. While the idea and the existence of sacred forests and groves did not survive in the West--as we have progressively become a secular society--those groves survived in India until recent times. However, with the weakening of the religious structure of beliefs, the very idea, and hence the existence of the sacred groves and forests have been undermined in India. Yet there are still some sacred groves in India--left, particularly among tribal people.4

     One of my favorite definitions of the forest is that given by the Buddha. For him the forest was "a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity; it affords protection to all beings, offering shade even to the axeman who destroys it."

     The native Americans or American Indians have been particularly sensitive to the quality of places. For them, to worship a mountain or a brook or a forest was quite a natural thing, for every plant, every tree as well as Mother Earth and Father Heaven were imbued with a spirit.

     In the cosmos infused with spiritual forces, delineating special places as particularly important and sacred was as natural as it was inevitable. These special places were also the places of ritual and ceremony, the ones in which the sacred was enacted in daily life, and in the act, the essential mystery and divinity of the universe reaffirmed.

     In the Western world the churches and shrines served this purpose--of connecting man with the sacred. But that was some time ago. As we had become progressively secularized so we have lost the sense of the mystery of life and the sacredness of the universe. The churches are now hollow and reverberate with nothingness, for the spirit is gone from the people. The churches are being closed. In England alone two thousand of the existing sixteen thousand churches have been closed. It is reported that only three percent of the people regularly attend the Anglican church. And so the Bishop of Durham proclaims: "It is not now the case that England is a Christian country." Is it not similar in other so-called Christian countries?

     The original temple or templum or Temenos have lost their meaning, for our hearts so often are cold, and our minds have lost touch with the mysterious and the sacred. As we have impoverished the universe of the sacred, so we have impoverished ourselves. As we have turned sacred groves and other forests into the timber industry, we no longer have natural temples in which we can renew ourselves.


Toward 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.5...We must develop a similar spirit of reverence and empathy for the trees and forests. For they are true sanctuaries.

Let me finish with a short poem.


Of Men and Forests

Forests are the temples.
Trees are the altars.
We are the priests serving the forest gods.

We are also the priests serving the inner temple.
Treat yourself as if you were an inner temple
And you will come close
To the god which resides within.

To walk through the life as if you were
In one enormous temple,
This is the secret of grace.



  1. Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, Vol. 2, p. 42.
  2. Seneka, Epistoles, 4,12,3.
  3. For further discussion see: J. Donald Hughes, "Sacred Groves: The Gods, Forest Protection, and Sustainable Yield in the Ancient World," in History of Sustained Yield Forestry, N.K. Steen, Ed., 1983.
  4. For further discussion see: Madhav Gadgil and V.D. Vartak, "Sacred Groves in India--A plea for Continued Conservation," The Journal of Bombay Natural History Society, Vol. 72, No. 2, pp. 314-320, 1975.
  5. See Jerzy Grotowski. On the Road in Active Culture, 1979; and his other writings.

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