Overstory #93 - Trees, Forests and Sacred Groves
Forests and sacred groves
Every culture has narratives or beliefs which answer in different ways the fundamental questions about how we came to be, and articulate how and where people originated, collective transformations undergone by the community, and how people should behave towards one another and their environment (Elder and Wong 1994). Forests are the subject of a great deal of myth, legend and lore. Societies most closely entwined with forests tend to regard them with a healthy respect, an awe at their splendour and majesty, sometimes dread and fear of the powerful spirits that lurk within them. Ancestors often find their resting places in forests, many wandering in various states of unease and spitefulness.
In European culture, the word 'savage' was derived from silva meaning a wood, and the progress of mankind was considered to be from the forest to the field. Schama (1995) describes how from Ireland to Bohemia, penitents fled from the temptations of the world into forests, where in 'solitude they would deliver themselves to mystic transports or prevail over the ordeals that might come their way from the demonic powers lurking in the darkness'. The 'indeterminate, boundless forest', then, was a place where the faith of the true believer was put to a severe test. The forests in European culture were also considered to be a more positive site of miracles, the source of great spiritual awakenings; and the forest itself was held to be a form of primitive church or temple. The first temples in Europe were forest groves, and although progressively replaced with temples made of wood, and subsequently by churches made of stone, places of worship – particularly those of Gothic architecture – continue to evoke the forest with their design and proportions (Rival in Posey 1999; Schama 1995; Burch in Posey 1999).
Schama (1995) quotes a poem by Bryant called Forest Hymn which expressed the American, or New World, version of the forest as a form of primitive church or temple:
The groves were God's first temples. Ere man learned To hew the shaft and lay the architectrave And spread the roof above them – ere he framed The lofty vault, to gather and roll back The sound of anthems; in darkling wood Amidst the cool and silence, he knelt down, And offered to the Mightiest solemn thanks And supplication.
In other regions of the world there also exists a relationship to forests that combines fearful respect and awe at the beauty and mystical source of life held within forests. Budda would sit alone in the depths of the forest, lost in meditation, and it was in the midst of a beautiful forest that he was shown the four great truths (Porteous 1928). In Ghana, beliefs about forests include the belief that they are the home of dwarfs, and the domain of the mythical Sasabonsam – a legendary figure responsible for all the woes of mankind and to which mishaps and everything evil are attributable (Abbiw 1990). The Dai people of Yunnan Province, China, believe that the forest is the cradle of human life, and that forests are at one with the supernatural realm. They believe that the interrelationship of human beings with their physical environment consists of five major elements: forest, water, land, food and humanity (Pei Shengji, Posey 1999).
In sacred groves are manifested a range of traditions and cultural values of forests. Although they occur throughout the world, sacred groves share many similar features, which are summarized in part by Pei Shengji (Posey 1999) in his reference to the four hundred 'dragon hills' (lung shan) in the Yunan Province of China: '... a kind of natural conservation area... a forested hill where the gods reside. All the plants and animals that inhabit the Holy Hills are either companions of the gods or sacred living things in the gods' gardens. In addition.... the spirits of great and revered chieftains go to the Holy Hills to live following their departure from the world of the living'.
Sacred groves are specific forest areas imbued with powers beyond those of humans; they are home to mighty spirits that can take or give life; they originate from a range of roots, and include: sites linked to specific events; sites surrounding temples; burial grounds or cemeteries housing the spirits of ancestors; the homes of protective spirits; the homes of deities from which priests derive their healing powers; homes to a powerful animal or plant species; forest areas that surround natural sacred features such as rivers, rocks, caves and 'bottomless' water holes; and sites of initiation or ritual (Falconer, Pei, Bharucha, Zoundjihekpon and Dossou-Glehouenou, Pramod Parajuli in Posey 1999;Vartak and Gadgil 1981).
Sacred groves and biological diversity
Access to most sacred forests is restricted by taboos, codes and custom to particular activities and members of a community. Gathering, hunting, woodchopping and cultivation are strictly prohibited in the Holy Hills of China. The Dai people believe that these activities would make the gods angry and bring misfortune and disaster upon the community. A Dai text warns: 'The Trees on the Nong mountains (Holy Hills) cannot be cut. In these forests you cannot cut down trees and construct houses. You cannot build houses on the Nong mountains, you must not antagonize the spirits, the gods or Buddha' (Pei Shengji, Posey 1999). In Maharashtra, India, regulations and religious customs are set down by priests (known as pujaris or bhagats) with a knowledge of the forest deities, their ties to the surrounding landscape, and their influence on the daily lives of the community. Ancient folklore and stories are told which include fairly specific detail on the supernatural penalties that will result should the groves be desecrated, for example by felling trees. However, control over extractive activities in sacred groves varies by village, and in many places a complete ban is not in place, and limited collection of fallen wood, fruit from the forest floor, medicinal plant collection, honey collection, tapping of Caryota urens to make an alcoholic beverage, and other activities are permitted, if strictly controlled (Bharucha in Posey 1999).
Sacred groves have survived for many hundreds of years and today act as reservoirs of much local biodiversity. The 40 contiguous groves studied by Bharucha (Posey 1999) account, as a whole, for most of the plant species present in the Maharashtra region. The forest structure is also unique, representing the least disturbed islands of old growth. The Holy Hills in China also make a significant contribution to biodiversity conservation on a number of levels: they contribute to the conservation of threatened forest ecosystems; they protect a large number of endemic or relic plant species; and the large number of Holy Hills distributed throughout the region form 'green islands' or 'stepping stones' between larger nature reserves (Pei Shengji in Posey 1999).
Sacred groves as a conservation model
As a result of the high conservation and biodiversity values held in sacred groves, increasing attention is being paid to their potential as a tool and model for biodiversity conservation. For example, in its 1996 Sacred Sites – Cultural Integrity, Biological Diversity (1996) UNESCO found that:
'Sacred groves have served as important reservoirs of biodiversity, preserving unique species of plants, insects, and animals. Sacred and taboo associations attached to particular species of trees, forest groves, mountains, rivers, caves, and temple sites should therefore continue to play an important role in the protection of particular ecosystems by local people. Particular plant species are often used by traditional healers and priests who have a strong interest in the preservation of such sites and ecosystems. In some regions of the world, beliefs that spirits inhabit relict areas have served to quickly regenerate abandoned swidden plots into mature forest. In other areas, sacred places play a major part in safeguarding critical sites in the hydrological cycle of watershed areas. Furthermore, in a number of instances sacred sites have also been instrumental in preserving the ecological integrity of entire landscapes. For these reasons, sacred sites can help in assessing the potential natural vegetation of degraded ecosystems or ecosystems modified by humans.'
Sacred groves have survived in many regions despite tremendous economic pressure on forest resources. In some parts of India, for example, sacred groves have retained high levels of biodiversity and remain largely intact, while government-controlled forest reserves are often in poor condition. Local level control has been vital to the protection of these areas, but economic pressures are mounting, and changing land-use patterns have contributed to a serious depletion of resources and a phenomenal rise in the price of land. This in turn has provided an irresistible incentive for some local people to sell the groves, irrespective of the sentiment that at one time was sufficient to preserve them (Bharucha, Pramod Parajuli in Posey 1999).
Even in cases where local communities are determined to retain sacred groves, they are often as vulnerable to outside political and economic forces as other forest areas. In East Kalimantan, for example, oil palm plantation and logging operations are clearing ancestral (adat) forest. The adat covers four types of forest: Sipung Bengkut (perennial tree gardens which have been developing since 1912), Sipung Bua (fruit tree gardens), Sipung Payo (swampy areas) and Sipung Uwe (rattan gardens). The companies promise in return to encourage 'community participation', 'the development of sustainable forest management', and 'income generating schemes', which are considered 'empty and pointless' offers for a priceless ancestral forest that cannot be equated with monetary and material conditions (Enris and Sarmiah in Posey 1999).
Although sacred groves undoubtedly contribute to the conservation of biodiversity, it is questionable whether the complex history and traditions that have created and maintain these areas can be operation- alized as a tool or model for further conservation efforts. Conservation is often a side-effect of customs that associate or dedicate forest resources to the deities. In the Western Ghats of India, rather than managing resources for future use, communities are instead attempting to benefit from the protection and good-will afforded by the deity in return for not disturbing the sanctity of the sacred grove (Bharucha in Posey 1999). This would be a difficult dynamic to reproduce in a conservation programme. In Southern Ghana, Falconer (Posey 1999) argues that sacred groves exist as part of a system so complex and variable that a much clearer understanding of the spiritual, mystical and political functions and beliefs of sacred groves is needed before they can be incorporated into conservation programmes.
In South India, sacred groves are populated by dead spirits prevented from transforming and hence remaining ghosts forever. Their life force engenders trees to grow wild, and gives rise to highly fertile but extremely dangerous sacred groves, which are frightening and highly ambivalent (Rival in Posey 1999). Rival warns against environmentalists' views of sacred groves and trees as sanctuaries of biodiversity, home to benign and protecting deities. The suggestion that the belief systems that have protected these groves should be promoted to encourage the conservation of larger forest areas ignores the fact that – while both environmentalists and local peoples view trees as vital and holding regenerative power – trees in traditional India are not benign protectors: they are frightful and the power of their life force is extremely dangerous. While important reservoirs of biodiversity, it is unlikely that with the exception of a few areas, the cultural beliefs and management systems that have led to the conservation of sacred groves could easily be incorporated into the Western cultural conservation ethos.
Tree lore and symbolism
Trees are universally powerful symbols, a physical expression of life, growth and vigour to urban, rural and forest dwellers alike. They can symbolize historical continuity and human society. They are often of frightening magnitude, linking earth and heavens, arbiters of life and death, incorporating both male and female aspects, and home to both good and bad spirits, including the souls of ancestors. Trees provide protection from harm, cure disease and increase fertility. Trees preside over marriages, are planted at the birth of a child and at burial sites. In some origin myths, the first men and women were made of wood.
The Tree of Life in Mesopotamia and India brings fertility by linking death with life. The birds visiting its branches are the souls of the dead. The cross on which Jesus died grew into a tree on Mount Golgotha. The fig tree opened for Mary to seek shelter for the infant Jesus from the soldiers of Herod. The date palm was the staff of St Christopher which helped him to carry the weak and small across a raging river. The birch in Scandinavia, larch in Siberia, redwood in California, fig in India, and iroko in West Africa are widely revered and respected.
The Cosmic Tree, Tree of Life, or Axis Mundi, features in many of the world's religions. In Amazonia, the World Tree is often ceiba/kapok, Ceiba pentandra, or a yuchan, Chorisia insignis. The trunks of these tall emergent trees are characteristically bulbous, hollow and spongy, and the wood is rather soft. The ceiba has a life-span of up to 200 years and is arguably the tallest of Amazonian forest trees. It reaches maturity and starts to flower some time between its fortieth and sixtieth year, thus beginning its reproductive cycle at the oldest age people live to in the region. It lives a life corresponding roughly to four Huaorani generations. In Huaorani culture, the Amazon basin was born from the fallen giant ceiba tree (Rival in Posey 1999).
Ties to nature manifest themselves most notably in Turkish culture through attitudes to plants in general, and trees in particular. After conversion to Islam, the importance of trees grew in local culture because Mohammed compared a good Muslim to a palm tree and declared that planting a tree would be accepted as a substitute for alms. Trees are planted after children are born, when a son is drafted into military service, after a wedding, and as a memorial to the dead (Tont in Posey 1999). In one of the oldest collections of Turkish tales which make up the Book of Dede Korkut, the unknown poet agonizes over his failure to find a more exalted name for his beloved plant:
Tree, tree, do not be embarrassed because I call you by that [after all] The doors of Mekka and Medine are made of wood The staff of Moses is also made of wood The bridges spanning over big rivers are also made from you The ships which roam the black seas are also of wood.
The oak tree was worshipped by Romans, Druids, Greeks and Celts as the home of deities. In Europe, fairies were said to make their homes in old oak trees, departing through holes where branches had fallen; it was considered healing to touch the fairy doors with diseased parts (T. Shanley 1997, personal communication). In Scotland in the last century, mistletoe growing on the famous Oak of Errol was bound up with the fortunes of the family Hay, acting as a 'sure charm against all glamour and witchery' (Porteous in Posey 1999). Cowley and Evelyn in seventeenth-century England wrote about the oak (as in Schama 1995):
Our British Druids not with vain intent
Or without Providence did the Oak frequent,
That Albion did that Tree so much advance
Nor superstition was, nor ignorance
Those priest divining even then bespoke
The Mighty Triumph of the Royal Oak
In forest culture we find the common threads of human experience. Whether the 'dangerous and highly fertile' sacred groves of India, the oak tree in Britain, the graveyard forests in Côte d'Ivoire, or in the fall of the great Ceiba pentandra which created the Amazon Basin: throughout the world we see a shared focus on the origin, force and power of life expresssed in trees and in the forest.
Abbiw, D. K. (1990) Useful Plants of Ghana: West African Uses of Wild and Cultivated Plants. Intermediate Technology Publications, London.
Elder, J. and Wong, H. D. (1994) Family of Earth and Sky: Indigenous Tales of Nature from Around the World. Beacon Press, Boston.
Porteous, A. (1928) The Lore of the Forest: Myths and Legends. Guernsey Press Co. Ltd., Guernsey.
Posey, D. A. (1995) Indigenous Peoples and Traditional Resource Rights: A Basis for Equitable Relationships? Proceedings of a Workshop, Green College Centre for Environmental Policy and Understanding, 28th June 1995, Oxford, UK.
Schama, S. (1995) Landscape and Memory. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
UNESCO (1996) Sacred Sites - Cultural Integrity, Biological Diversity. Programme proposal, November 1996, Paris.
Vartak, V. D. and Gadgil, M. (1981) Studies on sacred groves along the Western Ghats from Maharashtra and Goa. Role of Beliefs and Folklore. In: Glimpses of Indian Ethnobotany, pp. 272-278.
This edition of The Overstory is excerpted with the kind permission of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) from:
Posey, D.A. (Ed). 1999. Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity. Intermediate Technology Publications, London on behalf of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The original book and this article is © 1999 United Nations Environment Programme, P.O. Box 30552 Nairobi, Kenya.
The original title, Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, is available from: ITDG Publications 103/105 Southampton Row, London WC1B 4HH, UK Tel: +44 202 7436 9761; Fax: +44 020 7436 2013 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org web: http://www.itdgpublishing.org.uk
About the author
Sarah Laird is an independent consultant with a focus on the commercial and cultural context of biodiversity and forest conservation. Recent books include Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge: Equitable Partnerships in Practice (2001) and co-authorship of The Commercial Use of Biodiversity (1999). Sarah Laird can be reached at: email@example.com.