Forests as Sanctuaries
by 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.
There is more here.