Monday, December 29, 2014

Are Forests good places for Pilgrimages?

The owl is nature's silent observer, the original stealth bird. Most birds make wing noise as they fly through the air, but the owl flies silently. Owls watch humans more than humans watch owls. 
Last spring within the space of a few days, two separate people were walking on the trails in the local park with loaded backpacks. Seeing someone on a trail with a backpack is not unusual in most cases. However, this local park is only big enough for day hikes, so the person with a back pack is almost always practicing for some major hike some where else. I asked both practicing back packers where they were headed. Both were headed to the Camino, a famous pilgrimage route or routes in northern Spain with extensions into Portugal and France. This gave me images of the Camino trail congested with pilgrims. It seems to be the pilgrimage destination, because books on pilgrimages listed at the library consist mainly of different accounts of the Camino. It is not an idyllic trail route through natural vegetation. Much of the route goes through bare pastoral landscape and often follows noisy highways.

The word pilgrimage means a long hike with a spiritual quest and it derives from a word that means alien, foreigner or stranger. They were popular in the Middle ages as a form of penance. Outcasts such as lepers were seen by the church as being granted a special penance. Maybe, this was a way to rationalize their exclusion. When the incidence of leprosy declined about 1300 in Europe, the mentally ill took their place. All religions have their devotions and pilgrimages crop up in most of them. The Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca is perhaps the most notable.

Forests do not seem to have a major attraction for pilgrims except in Japan where some pilgrimage routes go through tall forest. In the west, the separation of the divine from the creation led to suspicion that appreciation of nature is nature worship. The Biblical wilderness was a desert rather than a forest. Hard, dry and hot pilgrimages were works of penance perhaps were up there on the scale with self flagellation.

What is a pilgrimage? If it is a spiritual quest what do we mean by spiritual? It means lots of things. A religious pilgrimage might be an effort to amass some brownie points; a work of religion or religiosity depending on your point of view. Open religious observances and works can be associated with dogmatic theology. In some parts of the world, these morph into theocratic ideologies that are used to control people. Some people have a religious and spiritual depth that is not expressed in pious observance but in a life that is not driven by self interest but is an expression of care and compassion as well as a robust and selfless resistance to all forms of social and economic injustice. These folk are on a different path than most of the human world. They choose to be aliens from normal human or biologically driven behavior. They are pilgrims through life; essential humans that are to some extent aliens from the normal human path.

A good pilgrimage route is one that separates us from the normal human world. The normal human world is a built and altered world. We have access to most of the earth's land surface by various means of transport. We control a considerable portion of the earth's surface quite rigorously in growing food. Cain the farmer, killed his brother Abel the herdsman. While hunter gatherers did have wars, agriculture provided a motive to acquire land and go to war to acquire land. Environmentalists have had a negative field day over man having "dominion over the earth" in the Book of Genesis. There are no other intelligent or perhaps creatures that think that they are intelligent on earth, so we can take our dominion over the earth as a fact. Cain killed Abel because the Lord had greater regard for Abel's work. Cain the murderer was very human in his desire to alter the earth. We now recognize that this trait may be the ultimate survival issue for our species.  

Forests that are in parks or protected areas will remain in natural condition and provide places where the hand of man has not overwhelmed the landscape. Even forests that are used for timber production, despite the rantings of environmental groups, are low on the scale of human alteration of the land. A timber crop may only be removed once every 80 or 100 years. Forest tending has to be minimal because of the long periods required to reap returns on investment. In agriculture, crops are harvested just weeks after treatments, so investments on tilling, weeding, spacing, fertilizers and pesticides can be recouped in short order. 

Protected forests and timber producing forests are good places for pilgrimages because they are places where humans have little impact on the landscape. They are places where we can reflect about what we are doing here on this earth and perhaps find something to our individual or collective benefit. A different path than most of the human world is on, and that is a pilgrimage.

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