Forest Devotions by Charles Scott - GTEC Reader

Earlier in my life, I spent a couple of year’s off-grid in contemplative solitude in the east Kootenay woods on the traditional, unceded territories of the Ktunaxa peoples. I lived in a small log cabin built circa 1860, in the depths of the forest, largely filled with lodgepole pine, firs, and tamaracks (larch), and an understory of kinnikinick, dwarf bilberry, pinegrass, soapberry, Birch-leaved spirea, Oregon grape, and omnipresent low bush and high bush huckleberry.

Driven by curiosity and a desire to connect, literally, with the land upon which I was living, I once knelt down by a patch of ground in the depths of the forest. Looking intently, I could see, beneath the leaves of grass, kinnikinick and other growing plants, the decaying, old grass, the leaf and twig litter and beneath this, the duff and the forming, topmost humus layer that was crumbly and dark brown in color. I could see ants, beetles nibbling—a grasshopper leapt in and then, just as quickly, was gone. I could smell that slightly sweet, earthy, forest compost smell as I bowed down to sniff. I became literally entranced by this experience, realizing that in this small patch of ground, that I would barely glance at when walking by, was an immense ecosystem whose many players were interacting in a thousand ways, nonstop. And as this realization deepened, a felt sense of immersion in this system stole over me; I felt deeply connected to this universe of few square centimeters.

But that wasn’t the end of it. That sense of immersion now expanded up and outward, rising, spreading so that I now was connecting, not only with this small, grassy patch, but with widening, expanding spheres: the larger meadow, the forest, the air just above with its buzzing and flittering insects, human communities and settlements, larger and larger atmospheres. Whereas I first felt connected to an ecosystem that was beneath me, now I felt immersed as part of something surrounding, engulfing, incredibly vast, a rather global, even cosmic ecosystem that contained, well, everything. There were no distinctions of what belonged or did not; everything was seamlessly connected. It truly was a “spell of the sensuous” (Abram, 1996).

To this day, some 46 years later, that felt sense of being part of something enormous, cosmic in scope, is still palpable. When Whitman (1933) writes in “Song of Myself” “I am large, I contain multitudes,” I understand.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

These lines come near the beginning of the epic “Song of Myself,” and it is this spirit of loafing, lingering, and devotionally inviting the soul to observe, to be present with, and to attend to. Mary Oliver picks up the same theme as Whitman in these lines from her 1990 poem “The Summer Day”:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?

Indeed, what else should she have done? What else should we do? I would suggest that kneeling down, falling down into the grass, prayerfully, devotionally, is exactly what we should do, continually.

That devoted affection contributes to the care necessary to enact beneficial changes. These shifts in seeing, the focus on attending, and the emergence of affection are re-education projects in becoming one-bodied with the earth. Philosopher and theologian Raimundo Panikkar (1990) compellingly puts it, “[n]o ecological renewal of the world will ever succeed until and unless we consider the Earth as our own Body and the body as our own Self” (p. 244).

Such shifts in seeing are part of the process of coming to know, which include a set of sensory and embodied exercises that both are devotional in nature and, as well, engender a devotion toward nature. Poet-philosopher Tim Lilburn (1999) asks what might we need to do in order to “live in the world as if it were home?” His answer is profound as it is simple: “the lunge of eros and by looking” (p. xiii). Forests provide us with a wonderful opportunity to touch the ground literally and figuratively.

Beginning with Attention

If we wish to connect more deeply with any aspect of our biosphere, attention is the way forward into that intersubjective sphere of between. If we long for something or someone, we pay attention. We attend to the other, propelled by longing and use our senses, our minds, our hearts and intuitions. As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (2006) notes about attention: “This consciousness is a totality—reason, feelings, emotions, desires; my body, consciousness of the world and myself, seizes the world toward which it has intention” (p. 94). Attending to the other begins the relationship. We notice.

Notice, says Rumi (Barks, 1995). His poem “Special Plates” is a profound meditation on attention and how careful, devoted attention can reveal not only insights into various elements of the cosmos and our lives but perhaps even more importantly how everything is interdependently connected.

Notice how each particle moves.
Notice how everyone has just arrived here
from a journey.
Notice how each wants a different food.
Notice how the stars vanish as the sun comes up,
and how all streams stream toward the ocean.
Look at the chefs preparing special plates
for everyone, according to what they need.
Look at this cup that can hold the ocean.
Look at those who see the face.
Look through Shams’ eyes
into the Water that is
entirely jewels.
(Barks, 1995, p. 7)

When we learn to attend, deeply, we come to see the sacred, jeweled nature of each particle. In reflecting on her own work as a poet, Mary Oliver (2004) notes:

When I walk out into the world, I take no thoughts with me. That’s not easy, but you can learn to do it. An empty mind is hungry, so you can look at everything longer, and closer. Don’t hum! When you listen with empty ears, you hear more. And this is the core of the secret: Attention is the beginning of devotion. (p. 56)

“Become aware,” writes Martin Buber. In his famous passage of his encounter with a tree in I and Thou, Buber notes (2000) that “[i]t can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I becomes bound up in relation to it. The tree is now no longer an It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness” (p. 23). In his essay on dialogue in Between Man and Man, he writes: “I, the lover, turn to this other human being, the beloved, in his otherness, his independence, his self-reality, and turn to him with all the power of intention in my own heart” (2002, p. 34). Human, trees: the possibilities are endless

Look at her face.
Open your eyes into her eyes….
How long should you look at earth’s face?   
Come back and look again. (Rumi, 2005, p. 186)

If one is open, receptive, and sensitive, one feels as a result of her turning that the tree or person—the beloved—presents meaning, addresses her, reaches out to contact her: an idea not foreign to phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty (1962), who asserted that a thing, whether animate or inanimate, can beckon and respond to or transform me. As David Abram (1996) asserts: “To the sensing body, no thing presents itself as utterly passive or inert” (p. 56). Frank Scott (1981) notes, in “Poem”:

Nature has her whispers.
If you wait
She will tune your heart to hers,
Soon or late.

Be as a wind-harp, still
With taut wires. (p. 26)

Poet A. R. Ammons (in Hankins, 2012) tells what attention reveals, finally:

I know if I find you I will have to leave the earth
and go on out
over the sea marshes and the brandt in bays
and over the crater lakes and canyons
and on up through the diminishing spheres of air
past the blackest noctilucent clouds
where no one wants to stop and look

And I know if I find you I will have to stay with the earth
inspecting with thin tools and ground eyes
trusting the microvilli sporangia and simplest
and praying for a nerve cell
with all the soul of my chemical reactions
and going on right on down where the eye sees only traces
You are everywhere partial and entire
You are on the inside of everything and the outside …. (p. 42)

George Whipple (in McCaslin, 2002) instructs us to use the body and precognitive knowing to attend.

To silence or to speech
the ear must pay attention:
the deaf relate by signs
that seem to finger-sing:
sharp hail’s a language
understood by blind men.
By turning down the noise
in your head, you may find
yourself in conversation
with the novice master’s voice.
In meditation there is peace.
The outer world is stilled.
You become an ear.
You learn to listen
to the silence in the silence.
At first, with luck, you hear
the sound of distant deer bells:
and then from even farther,
a voice that falls more softly
than footsteps on the water. (p. 106)

Ending with Devotion

The intimacy of attention fosters devotion. There is close communion. Thomas Merton (in Hankins, 2012) exhorts that

You spoke my name
In naming your silence:
O sweet, irrational worship!
And in an intimate, non-dualistic pairing, he exults
I am earth, earth
My heart’s love
Bursts with hay and flowers.
I am a lake of blue air
In which my own appointed place
Field and valley
Stand reflected. (pp. 25 – 26)

Attention evokes the reflection of what was lost and now is re-discovered. Lilburn (1999) writes “The desire to feel otherness as selfhood, to be the deer seeing yourself, remains; for me it never leaves, the old residue of Paradise, that amicable common life desire seems to remember …” (p. 4). To add emphasis, he goes on “You crane forward into the world in appetite and enter it in sorrow knowing that this good desire that casts you out of yourself is right and must not be lost …” (p. 5).

This devotional leaning, kneeling, craning is a contemplative knowing and being. One is, Lilburn asserts, “poured into waiting, watching and tears, the thinning of self, the building and focusing of desire” (p. 12). The erotic lunge to know and be with the other finally “resolves itself into—falls into—a pressing, unrequited fondness … the beginning of fidelity, a bedding down with things” (p. 16–17).Lilburn suggests we bring sorrow, compunction, stillness, and an empty anonymity that will allow us to be filled in relation. And then: we watch. Become aware; that Eros leads to a deeper, more imaginatively empathic awareness.

 Conclusion: Bringing it Forward in Practice

The healing and restoration of our biosphere will depend in part on the nature of our relationships with nature; these relationships depend in turn on the attentiveness that bequeaths a loving fondness for all beings. We see the “intra-active nature of the world”; we realize we are “interwoven beings” (Jeong, Sherman, & Tippins, 2021).

My education colleagues and I create opportunities for our university students so that they maynot only spend time in natural settings, but also to immerse themselves deeply into these settings, offering them the opportunity to pause, to stop, to sit, observe, attend. My colleague Gillian Judson (2018, 2022) has developed an innovative interdisciplinary resource for K-12 educators who want to take student learning outside school walls. The key to her work with students lies in creating deep, meaningful connections to the natural world that develop a sense of place. She writes

On a deeper level walking-based practice connects curriculum topics with/in the real world. A new level of curriculum relevance can emerge for students as a result. Going even deeper, walking-based practice can support students in developing a sense of Place. Sense of Place, here, refers to an emotional connection to some aspect of the wildness in the world that surrounds them. (Judson, 2022)

Artistic practices of various kinds—drawing, painting, poetry, sculpting, and so on—play a powerful role in evoking a depth of contact, the attentiveness that unfolds relation. These artistic explorations and expressions are intersubjective in nature, evoking connection and affection. Tim Lilburn (1999) writes:

Poetry’s fundamental appetite is ecstatic; its curiosity yearns beyond this boundary of intelligibility to know the withinness of things. The knowledge poetry seeks is the most intimate, the names it aspires to utter those which its subjects, the deer, dogwood, new moon would intone if they stood to sing. Poetry is consciousness dreaming of domicile at the core of the foreign world, the mind deeply homesick and scheming return, the tongue contorting itself toward uttering what such a return might be like. (p. 6)

Similarly, Buber (1957) writes that art has the possibility of being revelatory:

True art is a loving art. To him who pursues such art there appears, when he experiences an existent thing, the secret shape of that thing …. This he does not see only with his eyes, rather he feels its outlines with his limbs; a heart beats against his heart. Thus, he learns the glory of things. (p. 29)

Informed by his Zen Buddhist tradition, Frederick Franck defines his artistic work as an effort “… to live in radical openness to pure experiencing in kitchen, bedroom, subway, newspaper, that is: to everyday life, inside as well as around oneself” (Franck, 1993, p. 10). He sees drawing as a means of developing seeing, a way of “getting into intimate touch with the visible world around us, and through it … with ourselves” (p. xi). Franck had students go out and just sit with an object, so that eventually looking became seeing. “The experiment [in seeing] is successful if you succeed in feeling you have become that leaf or that daisy, regardless of what appears on the paper” (p. xvii).

John Daido Loori (2004) notes that stillness leads to an increasing awareness of self and of the relationship between self and other, but this awareness must be allowed to unfold. For example, once you have discovered a subject with which you feel some resonance, you are not to rush into immediate expression. He advises waiting in the presence of the subject, quietly and dispassionately observing until a sense of relationship has been established. Then one spends even more time in this presence of the relationship, observing as the subject changes and unfolds. “On occasion, I have sat for hours with a subject, waiting to release the shutter” (p. 89). This unfolding is both a deepening awareness of the other and of being addressed, and the dynamic process of

confirmation of the other as an other.

Peter London (2003) concurs, maintaining that the artistic process forges an illuminating relationship between artist, subject, and the viewer of the artefact that helps reveal the nature of each while also revealing underlying, connecting relationships to other patterns and parts of nature. He suggests artistry is the call of an I to evoke a Thou.

Thomas Merton (in Steindl-Rast, 1969) refers to attention, openness, and to

a synthesizing apperception when he speaks of an artistic contemplation: “Drink it all in. Everything—the redwood forests, the sea, the sky, the waves, the birds, the sea lions. It is in all this that you will find your answers. Here is where everything makes connections” (p. 10). Merton saw his artwork as “summonses to awareness,” claiming, in Zen-like fashion, that awareness and not necessarily interpretation was the key to his work (Lipsey, 2006). Howard Griffin, the professional photographer who worked with him for a few years, describes Merton’s approach; one can see the move to confirmation:

Merton’s approach to photography, and one of the reasons his

photography is truly personal, lay in his use of his lenses primarily as contemplative instruments. He photographed the things he contemplated …. He did not seek to capture or possess, and certainly not to arrange the objects he photographed. He lent his vision and his lenses to them in a new way … he allowed the objects to remain true to themselves and to reveal themselves, and he trusted that “the connections would be made.” … He worked for photographic images which, when viewed without haste or pressure, might accomplish the slow work of communicating “a hidden wholeness” …. (Merton & Griffin, 1970, p. 4).

Finding and immersing ourselves into the field of that hidden wholeness, where we feel intimately connected to the web of natural relations, where we feel anchored in the ground of being offers one of the ways forward for us, as part of a comprehensive set of actions we need to undertake in our efforts to address our global environmental crises. Forests offer us a perfect place to deepen this sense of place as they represent, par excellence, the web of relations in which we seek to entangle ourselves.


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