28 April 2008

Of Sacred Groves and Tree Huggers

From the Tree of Life to the Sacred Grove to columns in a cathedral to a walnut tree in the Conference Center, trees and groves play a significant role in our religious life and worship. Some take this significance too far and worship the very objects created by God. These people are often called ‘tree huggers’ used in a derogatory sense by religious people towards others perceived of as worshipping nature. On the other hand, others will seek to destroy that which is sacred to others where critical beliefs may differ. Latter-day Saint teachings and practices sit somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, recognizing that trees are a means to an end; a vertical axis that links heaven and earth, and that trees, as creations of God, can lead us closer to Him.

Trees and religion
"Trees have played an important role in many of the world's mythologies and religions, and have been given deep and sacred meanings throughout the ages."(source) "Pliny the Elder (ad 23-79) indicated that trees were the first temples of the gods."(source) Additionally, "sacred groves were a feature of the mythological landscape and the cult practice of Old Europe, of the most ancient levels of Germanic paganism, Greek, Slavic, and Roman mythology."(source) Because of this, Christianity viewed this tree-worship as idolatry and as a result, history is full of religious people destroying sacred trees and groves to convert the pagan (atheist) away from worshipping nature. Trees, "as centres of pagan worship…became the objects of Christian zeal…The emperor Theodosius II (5th century ad) issued an edict directing that the groves be cut down unless they had already been appropriated for some purpose compatible with Christianity."(source)

The most famous sacred tree-felling episode involved the ‘Apostle of the Germans,’ St. Boniface. "In the midst of an awestruck crowd, (St. Boniface) attacked with an axe one of the chief objects of popular veneration, Donar’s sacred oak, which as the first blows fell upon it, the huge tree crashed, splitting into four parts, and the people who had expected a judgment to descend upon the perpetrators of such an outrage acknowledged that their gods were powerless to protect their own sanctuaries. From that time on the work of evangelization advanced steadily."(*Roskos, page 483)

Boniface overseeing the felling of Thor's Oak

Books like The Cross and the Rainforest by Robert Whelan still encourage this type of proselyting activity to further the work of God, by chopping right at the heart of paganism, including "deforestation in the name of this ancient, saintly practice of felling the sacred trees."(*Roskos, page 483) Additionally, in the introduction to the book Where Garden Meets the Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate, Rev. John Michael Beers likens the author to Boniface, facing "today’s New Age adherents in the environmental movement, who are not unlike the pagans of a millennium ago."(*Roskos, page 486) Additionally, the current environmental movement has as its representative the website Treehugger.com, arguably the most popular environmental site on the planet with more than 30 posts a day and an archive of over 20,000 articles.

Sacred Grove
Mormons clearly do not worship nature, but interestingly, do have their own grove of sacred trees. In fact, the Sacred Grove is arguably the most sacred site in all of Mormonism. This forested area of western New York in 1820 was the site of a visitation of the Father and the Son to the boy Joseph Smith. It is the most recent site we have record of where all three members of the Godhead have been. Additionally, the golden plates were handled by each of the Eight Witnesses in this grove. President Monson has said, "The boy prophet Joseph Smith sought heavenly help by entering a grove which then became sacred." The term ‘sacred’ means the giving of "religious respect by association with divinity or divine things"(source) The trees, dirt, rocks, and plants all combine to form a sacred ecosystem which is all that now remains of Joseph’s encounter with divinity there.

Sacred Grove by CaptureThem

In discussing the trees of the Sacred Grove, we often personify the trees by giving them the human abilities of eyesight or hearing. "Trees of the Sacred Grove stand as witnesses and sentinels of what took place here."(source) "Mature trees at the time of Joseph still grace the forest."(source) Statements hypothesizing that these trees were here when certain events happened help add to the sacred nature of being in the presence of such trees, i.e. because of what they saw and heard, we will treat them with respect and reverence. In the future, it is probable that even being a seed from a tree that witnessed those events will have significance.

While a visitation of the gods shares a commonality with other sacred groves throughout the world, "The precise location where Joseph prayed and experienced the marvelous vision is not known. This omission on Joseph’s part seems intentional."(source) It appears wise that Joseph didn’t reveal the exact spot where the vision occurred, or we might ourselves have been dangerously close to worshipping nature, with sacred trees and shrines. Think about what we might do if we knew the actual spot where he fell to the ground, or how we would treat those select few trees, especially if they were still alive today. It would be hard not to revere such objects. So it’s good that we only know the general location where the event took place, allowing us to appreciate and take in the beauty of the Creation and revelation while among nature. Not knowing the actual spot of ground or trees involved, frees us to worship God while among the trees rather than worshipping the trees as God.

Fortunately the Church is serious about keeping this a sacred grove for the many pilgrims who visit seeking spiritual uplift and renewal. "The Sacred Grove is currently healthier, better cared for, and more beautiful than it has been for many years. The Church has for some years been directing a program to safeguard and extend the life of this beautiful woodland that is sacred to Latter-day Saints. New growth and plantings are extending the grove’s boundaries to its historic dimensions and strengthening its interior. The Sacred Grove is making a marvelous comeback from the disease and pollution that, until recently, seriously threatened its existence."(source)

Pillar of Light
According to Joseph Smith’s description, his vision in the grove began as a pillar (tree or column) of light descending towards him. Joseph stated, "I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me."(JSH 1:16) A popular hymn describes the experience as "a shining, glorious pillar"(Hymn 26)

Pillar of light by lordicarus

Sun pillar by Shaun Lowe

These images of pillars of light represent a tree in form; a vertical axis bridging the span between the heavens and the earth. One is created by shining a series of lights vertically, the other is "caused by flat fluttering ice crystals reflecting sunlight from the upper atmosphere"(source) In the case of Joseph Smith, a spiritual tree of light is what connected God and man.

Temple at the Sacred Grove
Today there stands another temple at the Sacred Grove. This appears to be the only place on earth where two temples, sacred to Mormons, occupy virtually the same site. One created by God, the other created by man. Both are holy and sacred. Both are the dwelling place, or house of God.

Palmyra New York Temple

The temple plays proper homage to the grove in the details of construction. Trees and nature play a prominent role. Within the temple we have the re-creation of the sacred grove highlighting the events that took place nearby. The builder of the temple stated, "One of the main pieces is of the First Vision, and the overall tree motif (that required the hand cutting and hand notching of the more than 6,800 leaves) gives patrons a feeling like they are in the Sacred Grove."

Front doors of temple

Baptismal skylight of temple

This is not unlike the cathedrals that attempt to achieve a sacred forest-like experience through the structure of the worship space. The very groves destroyed by the early Christians were later used as a model for their cathedrals and sacred spaces. "The sacred grove was at the origin of the temple, whose columns were initially trees, and later of the Christian church which still evokes it by the alignment of its pillars, the semidarkness within it, and the soft coloured light that filters through its stained glass windows."(source)

Fountains Abbey as a sacred grove by Taylor Dundee

Conference Center Pulpit
While the vast interior of the Conference Center was designed without a single column (treeless), there is a single tree that sits as the centerpiece of all our General Conferences: the walnut tree from President Hinckley’s backyard that was formed into the pulpit. A book has even been written about it. "Inspired by President Gordon B. Hinckley’s account, The Story of the Walnut Tree tells a tale of how the wisdom, nurturing, and vision of the prophet of God, the ‘man who loves trees,’ transformed a struggling walnut tree into a focal point of the majestic Conference Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."(source)

Photo by Ravell Call

The walnut-tree pulpit is the best link to nature in this other-wordly spatial experience. The scale of everything is so large in the Conference Center, having a human-sized object as the center point of our attention makes all the difference. Because of its placement and focus, this tree still retains the vertical axis all trees do by linking the heavens and the earth. This axis is the focal point and where all our attention is drawn. How appropriate that the material used in this vast arena is from a single tree grown in the yard of a prophet – planted and nurtured for many years by him. This personal detail is one we can relate to and connect with. It is of the earth, and it is sacred. The words of the prophets spoken from the walnut tree link us to heaven, similar to a pillar of light or a sacred grove.

The Sacred Grove and Conference Center pulpit help define the proper relationship we should have towards trees and nature. While we do not worship the earth or creation, we need His creations in order to properly worship and commune with God. The place or object of sacred experience stands out as one of reverence and remembrance.

The mere existence of a ‘sacred grove’ in the Church would typically be frowned upon by the Christian world. Such sacred groves typically referred to the pagan worship of the earth and were systematically destroyed, while some today still advocate such tactics as the price of conversion.

However, trees and groves in their many forms provide the link between the heavens and the earth. This connection with the divine is vital, and is why we keep returning to the trees. While there are those who deify trees, the religious person will recognize the trees as a means to an end by being brought closer to deity because of the trees.

*Felling Sacred Groves: Appropriation of a Christian Tradition for Antienvironmentalism by Nicole A. Roskos from the book, "EcoSpirit: Religions and Philosophies for the Earth" Edited by Laurel Kearns & Catherine Keller
Fordham University Press, New York, 2007.


PeaceFromTrees said...

Nice work.... Your insights are essential to a future that's more about tree growing instead of tree cutting!

I'm trying to build an alliance of those who see trees and conservation as not just about biodiversity but also metaphysics and spirituality / personal growth.

I do tree poems and photography on one side of the spectrum at http://www.peacefromtrees.org

On the other side of the spectrum I do international forest monitoring at http://olyecology.livejournal.com and also http://forestpolicyresearch.org

Be well, Deane

Mormon Soprano said...

A very insightful and interesting post. Thank you for sharing, and congratulations on making MormonTimes. http://mormontimes.com/ME_blogs.php?id=998

Th. said...


Nice post.

Incidentally, your current avatar -- what is it a photo of, exactly?

green mormon architect said...

Thanks for the great links to your sites. I also feel that art can change lives by inspiring and motivating people to change.

mormon soprano,
Thanks for the heads up on the mormon times article.

The picture is from Silver Falls State Park in Oregon. The trail goes under a waterfall and it is a great place to rest, so I decided to pull out the camera. The view is dominated by water and vegetation. For me it was the highlight of our trip there.