Seeing The Forest Through the Trees: A UU Primer on Gleaning Wisdom & Wonder from the Woods

What do trees have to teach us about life, love, loss, and everyday enchantment? Ceremonialist and forest friend Danna Schmidt leads us on a magical mystery tour into the woods, with a little help from a handful of renowned poets, ethno-botanists and mythologists, who assure us that when it comes to the forest, wisdom and wonder are always hiding in plain sight. Musical accompaniment by John Chmaj.

Bio: As a Soulsmith and Master-Life Cycle Celebrant® with Waypoint Ceremonies, Danna is all about celebrating the cycles of life from birth to earth through meaningful and artisanal gestures. While her children came of age at East Shore these past 15 years, she could be found teaching in RE, serving on both the children/youth ministry and worship team committees, or leading adult workshops. She is currently an active member of ESUC’s Beloved Racial Justice (BRJ) ministry team and the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF).

A UU Primer on Gleaning Wonder & Wisdom from the Woods

Once upon a time, some 30 months ago to be exact, the uneven ground, toxic soil, and sinking swamplands of our political landscape caused me to lose my footing. Like many, I felt outraged and disillusioned.

And so I embarked on a spiritual quest in search of an ulterior geography. One diverse enough to hold a larger story, inspiring enough to restore me, and one ancient enough to allow me to see how this current landscape, while overgrown and parasitic, is but a temporary weed that hides the perennial beauty of the hinterland beyond it.

Like a good UU, I went into the woods on a tree-ological quest, and what I found there ~ medicine for my soul in these dark times ~ brought me back to solid ground. I unofficially enrolled in forestry school and have emerged better able to see the forest through the trees of this thing called messy human living.

The forest is a veritable university. It is. Each plant is a library, each tree a wise elder and Professor Emeritus; and each fern and fallen leaf, a visionary navigator. To walk a wooded pathway as a student of nature is to lose oneself in a world as enchanting as it is esoteric.

The woods hold many secrets and mystery tales. We’ve always known this. The key to unlocking these mysteries is by tapping into our seldom and unused senses and shifting away from our tried and true ways of knowing.

By learning to lean in listening with all our sensory superpowers, timeslip into the forest’s otherworldly pace, awaken to its spellbinding miracles, and borrow a page from how the forest forms community, we mere mortals can’t help but be re-enchanted and re-enlivened by its unending wonders and wisdom.

The forest invites us to be intra-sensory which is, in part, what the eco-therapeutic practice of forest bathing is all about or as congregant Brett Hill recently quipped, forced bathing.  It asks us to disengage from our usual business and to attune ourselves to its multi-dimensional world. That means looking up to take in the giants in our midst. And crouching down to behold the microcosm at our feet. It means getting tactile and channeling our inner canine to sniff everything along our trail. And pressing our ears to the mist of the sleepy hollow to engage in deep listening.

And it necessitates the courage and willingness to embark on our own divine comedy journey of getting w-h-o/wholly lost as a way to be h-o-l-y/holy found.

Sit awhile in the forest in complete silence and you’ll be amazed – sung to the tune of there’s a kind of hush. When the world begins to get too noisy, which is rather a lot, I’ll often gift myself the pleasure of visiting one square inch dot org to teleport myself to the symphony of the Hoh Forest on the Olympic Peninsula from the digital disconnect of my home.

The woods whisper volumes, yet in a language all but inaudible to us. They speak in code and in riddles, and with discursive gesturing and an uncommon patience. Indeed, even we religious liberals could learn from their counter-cultural ways.

Thanks to tree whisperers Peter Wohlleben and Suzanne Simard, we’re beginning to learn about the hidden alertness and tricks of the trees. We now know acacia trees in the African savannah send silent signals to the trees around them when predators are near by creating a toxic odor that repels insects who prey on them. We’ve come to appreciate how redwoods move and store water for those less than rainy days, and how mother trees can feed hundreds of offspring with the help of mycelium.

Forests also know a thing or ten about aging beautifully, breathing slowly, and thriving within their own distinct time zone. Obviously, because they’ve been around 350 million years, which is a timespan that might well have been just an infancy phase were it not for our unending deforestation and arborcidal ways.

The forest naturally has a pace and patience that we can’t even fathom. Yet if we could harness this same relationship with time, we’d get better at slowing down, being solar powered, and rising more rooted. Most trees in these parts live a few thousand years so they’ve earned their expert status as slow-motion breathers, skilled water conservationists, sustainable growers, and amazing legacy builders.

Can you envision having a few thousand years to help build, feed and shelter a family, community, and earth sanctuary?!

We live in a world where everything is urgent, change is constant, and our individual participation and evolution is mandatory. Some days, it’s like running an uphill marathon in a windstorm. It’s useful then to remember that we can practice what Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing, by standing toe to toe and linking branches to better weather the storms, and by opening ourselves to the other’s unique view.

 Consider filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg’s notion of this. He tells us that, “we need to look at life from the point of view of a redwood tree, a hummingbird, a flower and a flea. From the point of view of a redwood tree, we’re only around for a couple seconds. To the fly looking back at us, we’re a giant hand in slow motion. It gives you this respect and reverence for everything and builds compassion. I can’t step on a bug when I see one now,” he says, “because what a miracle of bio-engineering it is. When you see something for what it truly is, you protect it.”

Seeing the forest through the trees – the myriad IS-ness of all life – also requires that we adopt a bit of Schwartzberg’s stop motion finesse and bring with us a sense of curiosity, wonder, and a childlike, magical outlook. Because miracles and mystery abound in the forest. We know this. Fairy tales aren’t set in forests for nothing – once upon a time and ever after as past and future times are hyper-present in the moment.

Our great mistake is that at some point, we stop believing this. We’ve become disenchanted. What this means, etymologically, is that we’ve stopped singing. And so, our way back needs be through a wholehearted reconnection to our place in the ecology of things, and to our communities. The medicine of soulful time spent in the forest can help reawaken us to the extraordinary hidden in plain sight within our seemingly ordinary days.

To inhale the forest’s potion, which is to say – the spell of all things sensuous – is to rouse from our slumbers of disillusionment, to re-enlist to the active duty of wild soul living, and like all the best woodland tales of spells, to become smitten with agape for the world once again.

This spell-binding initiation that is equal parts hocus, pocus, and focus ~ this wake-up call of the forest is what allows us to believe that mushrooms really are magic, trees really do have faces, and that there is a vast, networked underworld down the rabbit hole below our feet that we ought to be very reverential about because the primeval forest puts our primitive social networking and tech industry to shame.

Forests are the original bestselling, self-help authors on how to live long and prosper. They are alive with a root system and initiated elders who help mentor the young and nurture the sick so that each eco-sibling might thrive. And they abound with fantastic fungi that send sweet elixir to all…and not just on Halloween either!

What the forest has to teach us about valued existence and fierce connection is that as there in the forest so, too, within this church community.

Inherent worth and dignity

equanimity, acceptance and encouragement
higher-level conscience and democracy

peace and liberty in world community

and abiding respect for the interdependent web
of which all are a principled part…

…these rules of engagement are encoded in the forest’s underlying covenant and tree-ology rings and have been for hundreds of millions of years longer than Unitarianism was even a thing in 16th Century Transylvania!

From the lofty heights of the top canopy to the entwined green branches, to the hearty tall timbers, to the rich ground replete with logs that are its fallen ancestors who bring new life with the carpeting of moss, to the deep root systems and mycelium below, the great wonder of the woodland world is this: the forest is able to dream big and flourish because of the actions of its quietest members for whom service is their prayer. 

So the next time you find or even lose yourself in a local old growth forest, don’t look up. Look beneath and below the sacred ground upon which you stand in order to see the forest through the trees.  Listen closely, breathe deeply, and make a point of reaching out, touching,and then hugging that green, velvety tree. Maybe avoid the stinging nettles because ow! ~ but do lend a tender pat to the long-dead stump that continues to feed all manner of life in the woods. See beyond and between to the hidden places, nooks and crannies.

Indeed, as there, so here. Just for fun or a spring dose of spiritual refueling, walk this East Shore corner and tour the grounds and each building sometime soon as you would an enchanted forest. Make a point of noticing not just this pulpit, piano, and big screen here on the chancel, but the ACE Sound crew nestled on the balcony and in the sound room who make services possible. Celebrate Joseph and Celil and all the other staff who turn the lights on and off, and who unlock and lock the doors when you arrive and when you leave.

See with new eyes the smiles of those who greet you at the sanctuary doors, and the diversity of faces you’ve never noticed before like the children and youth ministry teachers, aka the unsung sheroes, heroes, & theyroes. Observe the Zen-like efficiency of those doing dishes and preparing food in the kitchens, or the spiritual math skills of the budget talliers, who are getting real and raw with East Shore’s green acre, and otherwise building a brighter future in committee rooms.

Sit a moment in the memorial garden and pay homage to those who once inhabited this place. Apprentice yourself to the perceptions of first-time visitors who are glimpsing this whole shebang with new eyes and who wish to impart to you their fresh insights. And last but never least are the youngest and freshest faces in the preschool, Sunday morning classrooms, and at the playground. If you would wish to know enchantment, ask them. They will gladly show you how to be extra-sensory, present, engaged, and wondrous. 

This community is a bountiful arboretum in the midst of regrowth. Inch by inch and tree by tree, it’s going to take enduring faith, resilience, kind nurturing, and an ever-evolving and robust team of forest tenders to cultivate its biodiversity. And more to the point, it will take some re-wilding – we are a feral forest, after all! – and a desire to get a whole lot more radical when it comes to acceptance, compassion, and hospitality.

To see and be seen, to hear and be heard, and to celebrate and be celebrated ought not be performative and “play nice” utterances confined to town halls and listening circles. We can find enchantment and right relations with a right here-right now/Oh Tannenbaum affirmation that sings of how lovely are thine branches.

This is a congregation that has been leaning in listening and cohering hearts in community with one another for a long while now. It’s normal to become complacent to one another’s beauty and charms. And it’s natural to feel a tiny bit weary, especially on the other side of this recent Holly House vote.

Brother David Steindl-Rast insists that the remedy to exhaustion is not rest, however, but wholeheartedness. So in the interest of encouraging a kind of doubling down on beloved community in the early days of this brave new season called spring, I invite you to ponder: When was the last time you flung the windows and doors of your gilded and guarded castles wide open, rolled out your moss carpet with flower petals sprinkled upon it in wild welcome, or let down your  bodacious hair with one another, emphasis on other?

The forest inspires us to lose our minds and find our souls by being fiercely curious,  present, and beguiling. And it dares us to fall in love with each other all over again on a moment-by-moment basis, even if that means having to occasionally turn each other into saplings, spruce, and sequoias in order to do so.

Wild, unfettered, seventh principle love.

If we truly wish to be an enchanting church forest ~ let us begin there.