“In the forests are things you could lie in the moss for years pondering about.” (Franz Kafka)
With this quotation from a famous local poet, we started our SINCERE project workshop in 2019 in the city of Prague. Experts and enthusiasts of spiritual and cultural values of forests from across Europe and Asia came together for three days to discuss how the “spiritual values of forests” have been relevant in the past as well as the present.
The result is an exploratory study, based on knowledge from 18 inter-disciplinary experts including natural and social scientists, recently published in Ecology & Society. Funeral forests, forest therapy, and forest bathing: these are all “new” trends, especially in Europe. What is the spiritual fuss over forests about? That’s what we wanted to find out!
But this spiritual interest in forests is not new at all. Humans have had a close relationship with forests and have been intrigued by their magical nature since forever. Societies depended on forests also for their spiritual development, e.g., sacred natural sites (sacred groves), of which some still exist today. We also know that forests and trees are often central in myths and folklore – thinking about the Brothers Grimm fairytales, but also myths including the mystical and magical power of certain tree species such as the oak…. (and again, even in art and films today such as Lord of the Ring’s Treebeard character and Avatar).
So what? – you might ask. Why do we need to care about the spiritual values of forests? We believe “a better understanding of societies’ ancient and present relationships with forests, the use and perceptions of forests, and the related spiritual significance could assist decision and policymaking and address trade-offs in the different application of forests ecosystem services.”
We soon realized, to avoid a Babylonian confusion, that we need to find a common understanding of what we mean when talking about “spiritual values of forests” or, in short, “forest spirituality”. “The intangible nature and murky boundaries of spiritual values tend to prevent a rational analysis since “spirituality” is perceived as a supernatural, abstract phenomenon”, states the study.
Spiritual values are subjective and intangible, which makes them difficult to measure. Although religion is part of the spiritual equation, spirituality is not limited to religion. Also, there is not a clear division between forest spirituality and other forest ecosystem services (FES), such as recreational activities (hunting, collecting berries, etc) or even forest management activities. This might have led forest scientists, experts and policymakers to steer clear of this fuzzy concept.
Attempting to define forest spirituality and reduce its abstractness, we came up with the diagram below. The spheres depicted in it are non-exclusive. A single site may simultaneously have various meanings to one person, or distinctive meanings to different people respectively.
Furthermore, forest spiritual values are relational values. They result from the exchange between ecosystems, humans and their activity (engagement). The environmental space, cultural practices and perceptions we have of forests continually enable and shape each other. To simplify: “Changing perceptions of nature are interconnected with changing attitudes towards forest management and policies, which again transform the landscape and consequently the perceptions of it”.
This changing perspective of nature leads to our Forest Spirituality hypothesis. We divided the continuous transition of forest spirituality into four stages. The stages are non-linear/chronological. Rather we grouped them by common patterns in society’s perceptions of forests. It is also not exclusive – more than one stage can occur at the same time in the same place, and maybe one is more prominent than the other. In some stages, forest spirituality is more visible (or obvious), in others different values take preference.The four stages and their rationale:
- Omnipresence of forest spirituality: “Nature is powerful”. Forest Spirituality is rather obvious. The direct human dependence on forests is high and the spiritual connection to forests is strong. Nature is the highest power and often considered sacred. Spiritual governance protects natural resources. The main way of thinking is that “Nature gives, and nature takes” – respect it and be thankful for its gifts. Animistic religions are associated with this stage (e.g. paganism and shamanism). Example: the sacred tree of Germanic pagans Donar Oak.
- Religion controlling nature and spirituality: “Taming of nature”. Nature is “tamed” to serve humans and god(s). This stage is characterized by the increasing control of humans over nature (and spirituality). The landscape is changed as societies use nature more extensively and control nature more to satisfy their needs (timber, fuel, agroforestry) – often based on religion (the idea in Christianism and Islam that humans are nature’s stewards). A change in needs and perspective, leading to a change in the landscape, is connected to modern religions guiding human-nature interrelations. “People become more detached from wild nature, and gods move from nature to human-made places, fortifying the idea that evil spirits remain in the wild”, according to the study’s authors. The detachment from nature is fired on through the movement of people to settlements and cities. The spiritual connection with forests is absorbed or transformed into a new spirituality where humans are above nature. Examples: sacred natural sites are replaced by religious structures (Donar Oak by a church), wood from sacred forests is used to carve religious structures, tree species are associated with the divine (human-like gods metamorphize into trees like Kyparissos into a cypress, or Goddess Lakshmi resides in sandalwood), and even the well-known Christmas tree. An alternative form of forest spirituality thus exists. The management of forests through an organized religious lens was not always harmful to forests. Some monasteries (and communities) applied forest management in a sustainable way based on the idea that god(s) indeed made nature for humans, but that humans should not waste or misuse nature. Some communities’ sustainable management of forests and natural areas even led to the establishment of protected natural areas (e.g., Sacro Eremo delle Carceri in Italy, Mount Athos in Greece).
- Science and technology replacing religion: “Rational management of nature”. Science and technology are used to optimize nature’s management for the benefit of society. The relationship between humans and forests is continuously demystified as forests are seen as resources to satisfy the needs of society. Monofunctional forests (mainly for timber production) are promoted. Scientific and rational forest management is introduced and formalized (forest codes and laws, management plans, forest schools). To avoid overuse and deforestation, reforestation, often as plantation forests (monocultures) is applied to reforest the depleted land created earlier in stage 2 and earlier in this stage. Forest spirituality is at its lowest point in this stage. We can almost speak of an “economic religion preaching the gospel of efficiency”.
- Immaterial values driving re-spiritualization: “Reconnecting with nature”. Society reunites with nature for its non-material benefits – we can call it a “re-spiritualization” of forests. This is definitely visible at the moment in Europe and in Japan. We think this happens as a reaction to (or maybe even a sort of protest against) the third stage of forest use. Where forests were places of production in stage 3 (and to a certain extent in stage 2), now, in stage 4, forests are a place for the enjoyment of spiritual values, aesthetic values, and recreation. We move from monofunctional forests (stage 3) to multifunctional forests. Examples: increasing activities are forest bathing, forest therapy, and people visiting forests to experience spiritual enrichment and escape urban settings.
Examples of the fourth stage do not only include applying spiritual values into business models such as funeral forests and forest bathing. We also see it in our change of perception of how forests should be managed. For instance, previously, deadwood was associated with forest mismanagement, while now it is seen as a critical part of forest biodiversity and a manifestation of forest spirituality. Furthermore, in a secularized world where “the spiritual has taken over from the religious”, many people go to the forest to find inner peace and recharge their batteries. It is also a place where religious people find a connection with their god(s). We also see a connection between world religions and environmentalism. Religious figures encouraging nature conservation and acknowledging humans’ responsibility (also as religious creatures) towards nature (e.g. Pope Francis’s Encyclical Letter or Sadhguru’s manifestos “A Tree can save the World”).
The fourth stage often goes hand-in-hand with the rising environmental movements, where people become more aware of the risks nature faces. From an egalitarian view, although humans are still in control of nature, there is a realization of its fragility. With climate change and its effects, people have seen that we can’t tame nature, she is in control. Instead, we might have to tame and control our own behaviour towards nature.
We need an improved understanding of how the significance society attaches to forests (in our case specifically spiritual values) could assist in landscape conservation and management practices and how it could improve decision and policymaking, also in addressing trade-offs. By acknowledging the spiritual importance people hold of forests, we could contribute to all aspects of sustainability. Not just the obvious social pillar, but also the economic (e.g. business innovations such as funeral forests) and the ecological pillars, for instance, the role spiritual values could play in forest conservation.
We hope that with our work we can help increase people’s interest in forest spirituality and give it the attention it deserves! If you want to read more about the spiritual values of forests, our forest spirituality theory and how we think it compares to the nature-culture dichotomy or the Forest Transition Theory, have a look at our full article. Also check out a gripping news article by journalist Bob Berwyn and his take on our work.
Roux, J.-L., A. A. Konczal, A. Bernasconi, S. A. Bhagwat, R. De Vreese, I. Doimo, V. Marini Govigli, J. Kašpar, R. Kohsaka, D. Pettenella, T. Plieninger, Z. Shakeri, S. Shibata, K. Stara, T. Takahashi, M. Torralba, L. Tyrväinen, G. Weiss, and G. Winkel. 2022. Exploring evolving spiritual values of forests in Europe and Asia: a transition hypothesis toward re-spiritualizing forests. Ecology and Society 27(4):20. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-13509-270420