The following is the established format for referencing this article:Roux, J.-L., A. A. Konczal, A. Bernasconi, S. A. Bhagwat, R. De Vreese, I. Doimo, V. Marini Govigli, J. Kašpar, R. Kohsaka, D. Pettenella, T. Plieninger, Z. Shakeri, S. Shibata, K. Stara, T. Takahashi, M. Torralba, L. Tyrväinen, G. Weiss, and G. Winkel. 2022. Exploring evolving spiritual values of forests in Europe and Asia: a transition hypothesis toward re-spiritualizing forests. Ecology and Society 27(4):20.
ABSTRACTThe development of societies, including spiritual development, is closely connected to forests. The larger interrelations among changing societies, transforming forest landscapes, and evolving spiritual values related to forests have yet to be extensively considered. Addressing this research gap is important to avoid the neglect of spiritual values in forest policy and management. Our exploratory study investigates spiritual values of forests from European and Asian perspectives, assessing 13 countries. Based on expert knowledge from 18 interdisciplinary experts, we first define forest spiritual values (forest spirituality). We then elaborate on the idea that forest spirituality evolves as societies and landscapes change, and propose a transition hypothesis for forest spirituality. We identify indicators and drivers and portray four stages of such a transition using country-specific examples. We find that during a first stage (“nature is powerful”), forest spirituality is omnipresent through the abundance of sacred natural sites and practices of people who often directly depend on forests for their livelihoods. An alternative form of spirituality is observed in the second stage (“taming of nature”). Connected to increasing transformation of forest landscapes and intensifying land-use practices, “modern” religions guide human–nature interrelations. In a third stage (“rational management of nature”), forest spirituality is overshadowed by planned rational forest management transforming forests into commodities for the economy, often focusing on provisioning ecosystem services. During a fourth stage (“reconnecting with nature”), a revival of forest spirituality (re-spiritualization) can be observed due to factors such as urbanization and individualizing spirituality. Our core contribution is in showing the connections among changing forest perceptions, changing land-use governance and practices, and changing forest spirituality. Increasing the understanding of this relationship holds promise for supporting forest policy-making and management in addressing trade-offs between spiritual values and other aspects of forests.
Humans have a close relationship with nature and perpetually depend on its ecosystem services. The emergence of nature-based belief systems, sacred forests, and reference to trees and forests in mythology and folklore are manifestations of the spiritual connectedness humans have with nature (Aubert et al. 2019, Farcy et al. 2019a, Studley 2019). Furthermore, societal development is closely related to the use of forests, including the manifold services they provide; societies and the natural environment shape each other, sometimes to the point of a mutual dependence (Ritter and Dakusta 2006, Ingold 2011). Human-forest interrelations over time can be characterized as a “co-evolution” process (Winkel et al. 2019), shaping societal perceptions and values attached to forests. These perceptions and values are often locally specific and dependent on cultural contexts (Konczal 2013).
Despite the fundamental role of forests in human development, the link between changing societies (that transform forest landscapes and their management) and the dynamics of forest spirituality (i.e., spiritual values of forests) has not been sufficiently addressed in the existing literature (de Pater et al. 2021). The intangible nature and murky boundaries of spiritual values tend to prevent a rational analysis because “spirituality” is perceived as a supernatural, abstract phenomenon (Schroeder 1992). Furthermore, spiritual values are difficult to measure (i.e., rationalize), to govern (i.e., institutionalize), and to price (i.e., monetize). These difficulties may explain why forest scientists, experts, and policy makers have been cautious to address spiritual values explicitly. Beyond sacred natural sites (e.g., Bhagwat and Rutte 2006, Rutte 2011, Stara et al. 2015a, Plieninger et al. 2020), forest spirituality is poorly studied (Schroeder 1992, Ritter and Dauksta 2006). Consequently, it remains largely unexplored how spiritual values of forests have evolved over time, what drives change in forest spirituality, how studying forest spiritual values can improve the understanding of cultural and political meanings attached to forests, and how the answers might aid in the management of related conflicts (see also Cooper et al. 2016). The latter question holds specific promise because forest spirituality could play an important role in nature and landscape conservation (Hernández-Morcillo et al. 2013, Agnoletti and Santoro 2015, de Pater et al. 2021, Shakeri et al. 2021). Reflecting the significance of spirituality in the governance and management of natural resources could improve societal support for related policies and decision-making (McElwee et al. 2022, see also Daniel et al. 2012, Verschuuren and Brown 2019).
Our aims here are: (1) to clarify the meaning of spiritual values of forests, and (2) to trace the evolution of forest spirituality over time in different contexts in an exploratory way. We take a broad perspective across several countries, focusing on Europe and Asia to explore similarities and overarching trends, but also to elicit country specifics of forest spirituality. We begin by defining “forest spiritual values”. We then assess these values from selected perspectives and elaborate on the idea that forest spirituality evolves over time. This transition can be recognized through certain indicators, which we aim to identify. We then explore which drivers bring about the transition of spiritual values. Finally, we elaborate on the transition of spiritual values of forests on an aggregated level, identify and describe four stages of such a transition, and test the indicators and drivers using country-specific examples. We conclude with a forest spirituality transition hypothesis, the idea of re-spiritualization of the forest, drawing analogies between our hypothesis and the nature-culture dichotomy as well as Mather’s (1992) forest transition theory.
THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND ASSUMPTIONS
Defining spiritual values of forests
Previous works and assessments have defined spiritual values varyingly. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005:457) describes spiritual values as “sacred, religious, or other forms of spiritual inspiration derived from ecosystem services.” Klain et al. (2014:312) understand “spiritual” as being “related to metaphysical forces that exist beyond the individual.” Ritter and Dakusta (2006) describe the spiritual functions of forests as abstract values related to forests and trees: spiritual and historical connections between culture, religion, and forests and their elements. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, in its explanation of nature’s contributions to people, refers to the “symbolic relationships with natural entities to the extent that such relationships are inextricably linked to people’s sense of identity and spirituality” (Pascual et al. 2017:11). In these definitions and explanations, the interlinked character of nature, culture, and spirituality becomes apparent. Spiritual values are intermingled with cultural values and hence have different meanings and expressions across cultures (Daniel et al. 2012).
Although spirituality and religion are intertwined, spiritual values are not restricted to religion. For the purposes of our work, without attempting to define the concept, we follow a rather narrow view of “religion” as a cultural system of behaviors, practices, and ethics based on the belief in the existence of god(s) or deities and/or the teachings of a spiritual leader. It is often closely related to the divine. Spirituality is neither equivalent nor an alternative to religion, but rather, the two concepts partly overlap (Ammerman 2013). Spirituality can include religion but goes beyond it to include “non-religious” spirituality. In secularized cultures, nature is often described as the place where spirituality is experienced by people without religious ties (Williams and Harvey 2001, Verschuuren et al. 2010, Clark 2011). Nature thus provides a place where people can experience spiritual enrichment, or a feeling of reverence, not necessarily linked to religion (Williams and Harvey 2001, Cooper 2016).
Spiritual values of forests are experienced through different practices. They become obvious, for instance, through nature-based belief systems. However, spiritual values can also be expressed indirectly through other cultural practices (Fish et al. 2016, de Pater et al. 2021) such as hunting rituals and festivals (e.g., St. Hubert festival), or individual practices such as experiencing serenity and awe while walking in the forest (Chan et al. 2012a, Cooper 2016, Cooper et al. 2016). This idea implies a difference between what people feel and what people do (Fish et al. 2016). The focus should be placed on what is felt or meant through the practice, rather than the action itself (see also Gilchrist 2020).
We suggest the following working definition: spiritual values of forests refer to the subjective significance an individual or community attaches to the intangible or metaphysical experience of connecting their beliefs, emotions, identity, and cultural heritage with forests and trees. According to Brown and Verschuuren (2019:6), significance “encompasses not only values but also knowledge, meanings, feelings, and associations of and with nature.” Significance thus goes beyond the experience and can lead to further actions, ritually, socially, and ecologically.
Clark (2011) suggests four broad categories of spiritual values of forests:
- Intrinsically sacred forests: trees or forests believed to host deities or spirits. We include trees or forests that are themselves divine (e.g., sacred groves in India, ancient Italy, and Greece);
- Associated sacred forests: forests that have significance due to spiritual history, ritual, or culture, such as forests surrounding churches, temples, monasteries, or places of cultural significance (e.g., trees surrounding burial grounds, Shinto shrines, or trees connected to saints in Islam and Christianity);
- Forests as the work of a creator and reflection of its work: nature as a creation of god(s) and a gift to humans, or as a significant part of religion. Some religions believe that humans have the responsibility to protect, respect, and care for nature as stewards while they are entitled to use nature; e.g., Christianity and Judaism (Genesis 1:28 “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth”) and Islam (Qur-ân 35:39 “[Allah] is the One that has made you inheritors in the Earth”);
- Forests as a place to find spiritual renewal and experience transcendence: nature providing solitude and peace to connect with oneself and/or something greater. This category could overlap with the previous ones if the individual is religious but could also be experienced by a non-religious individual.
Building on Clark’s (2011) categories, we suggest that forest spirituality consists of three non-exclusive, interlinked spheres. In the narrowest sense, forest spirituality refers to the overlap of sacredness and religion, thus sacredness in a religious sense (Clark’s category 1 or 2; Fig. 1A). “Sacred” is understood as something to be regarded with reverence, deserving respect. An example would be a sacred tree or forest dedicated to a deity. Broadening the scope, spiritual significance of forests through a religious lens is included, referring not to sacred areas per se but where one becomes aware of a god through nature or acts as a steward of nature as a religious duty (Clark’s category 3; Fig. 1B). Another dimension refers to the spiritual value of forests through sacredness detached from religion. This dimension could include the associated sacred forest described by Clark’s category 2, e.g., burial grounds or natural sites where human ashes have been deposited (i.e., funeral forests) or places of remembrance commemorating persecutions, genocides, or war (i.e., hallowed ground; Gilchrist 2020; Fig. 1C). Spiritual values in the broadest sense include non-religious, non-sacred encounters with nature as a trigger for transcendence, invigoration, and renewal, e.g., activities such as forest healing or therapy (Clark’s category 4; Fig. 1D).
The spheres of spiritual values are reflected and generated through activities with(in) nature (illustrated with arrows in Fig. 1). These activities can be intrinsically spiritual (e.g., meditating) or even directed at a religion (e.g., praying, offering); however, they can also entail activities beyond the obviously spiritual (e.g., walking, land management, consuming food). Categories of activities are adapted from the typology of cultural practices suggested by Fish et al. (2016): playing and exercising, producing and caring, creating and expressing (including performances and participation in customs and rituals that draw from and reflect on nature), and gathering and consuming (including the consumption of non-conversational media). We add a fifth group, reflecting and worshiping, which includes religious and secular activities, in solitude or collectively, such as seeking peace and reverence in nature (thus using nature as the means), plus worshiping nature (nature as the goal).
Evolving spiritual values: relational values as theoretical underpinning
Nature connectedness (or relatedness), as a human attribute, influences the need to visit nature and determines what kind of environment is preferred or suitable. The motive for interacting with nature and the natural characteristics of the environment reciprocally determine the (psychological) effects of nature on the individual. Forest spiritual values, accordingly, result from the exchange between place (nature), human, and the specific engagement (activity), which is based on shared cultural and individual connections (Pascual et al. 2017). The environmental space and cultural practices, perceptions, and values are not detached (e.g., Kovács et al. 2020). Rather, they function as “relational phenomena continually enabling and shaping each other” (Fish et al. 2016:214). Changing perceptions of nature are interconnected with changing attitudes toward forest management and policies, which again transform the landscape and consequently the perceptions of it (e.g., Mather 2001, McElwee et al. 2022).
In line with this thinking, we adopt the view taken in recent literature that spiritual values are relational values (Himes and Muraca 2018). Relational values “do not directly emanate from nature but are derived of our relationships with it and our responsibilities towards it” (Pascual et al. 2017:11). Forest spirituality is thus rooted in the relationship people have with nature and among people through or within nature. These values are closely connected to human interests, needs, and preferences, as people’s interactions with an environment through practices co-create these values (Chan et al. 2012b, Fish et al. 2016, Himes and Muraca 2018, Schröter et al. 2020). Changing one of the entities (place, practice, or cultural or individual conviction) affects the spiritual benefit provided by the forest and how it is perceived (valued) by the individual (Kovács et al. 2020, Plieninger et al. 2020). Landscape changes (e.g., re- or deforestation) as well as societal changes (e.g., scientific knowledge replacing traditional knowledge) affect, and hence, shape and interact with spiritual values related to forests (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005), resulting in the idea of co-evolution among those dimensions.
This research is based on the expert knowledge of scholars from a variety of countries and is supported by reviews of the respective academic literature (e.g., Fazey et al. 2005). We assess a total of 13 countries: 3 in Asia (India, Iran, and Japan) and 10 in Europe (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain, and Switzerland). We investigate both European and Asian country perspectives because we have observed a recent trend of forest-related spiritual practices from Asia being adopted in Europe (such as forest bathing, yoga, and meditation in nature). Hence, we aim to address both “source” and “recipient” regions of this trend. The European countries were selected to represent cultural variations and geographical zones across the continent. The diversity of countries also helps us to cover a wide range of spiritual values across different geographical, environmental, social, economic, and political contexts.
Based on their knowledge and scientific publications on spiritual values of nature and cultural ecosystem services, 18 scholars were invited to a three-day workshop held in Prague, Czech Republic in October 2019. They represent an interdisciplinary selection of scholars from a diversity of backgrounds, both geographically and in research fields, including rural and forest economists, environmental anthropologists, environmental and forest policy scientists, social-ecologists, and forest and environmental management experts. The scholars were asked to complete preparation documents assessing and identifying initial examples of spiritual values of forests in their country of expertise, addressing the social, environmental, economic, and policy aspects regarding forest spirituality. The workshop discussions enhanced the knowledge sharing and understanding of different disciplinary viewpoints (Knol et al. 2010). The examples prepared by the expert participants (Table 1) evoked initial interest and were further expanded during the iterative process.
The idea of a transition of forest spirituality emerged during the workshop and was seen as an inspiring notion to be further investigated. Consequently, we worked on a framework to assess forest spirituality and to substantiate the transition idea. Specifically, we developed a set of indicators to depict how spiritual values have been expressed in societies over time. As a starting point, we used literature on existing indicators for cultural ecosystem services, including Hernández-Morcillo et al. (2013), European Commission, Directorate-General for Environment (2014), and Czúcz et al. (2018), as no literature was available on indicators for spiritual values of forests exclusively. Building on the cultural ecosystem services indicators in the literature relevant to spiritual values, we qualitatively analyzed the workshop documents (preparation documents and workshop minutes) and further developed the set of indicators to observe spiritual values of forests. We then followed a similar process to identify drivers that cause an increase or decrease in the perceptibility of forest spiritual values. The initial drivers were obtained from literature on cultural ecosystem services, including Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005), Bell et al. (2007), Pröbstl et al. (2009), and Milcu et al. (2013). We then applied these initial drivers to the workshop documentation to identify drivers of forest spirituality transition. We thematically analyzed the data, enabling us to group the drivers into main categories and subcategories.
Subsequently, an iterative process between the lead author and the contributing scholars was followed to develop the framework further and to reach a common understanding of the different concepts, the proposed framework, and the transition hypothesis (Fazey et al. 2014). Appendix 1 illustrates the methodological path, including the iterative approach followed. Following the hypothesis that there is an evolution of forest spiritual values over time, we asked experts to test the indicators and drivers critically, reflecting on the transition idea in their respective country cases (Appendix 2), refining and adding further data. We then shared the consolidated framework with the coauthors to debate its accuracy.
DYNAMICS (TRANSITION) OF SPIRITUAL VALUES OF FORESTS
Indicators and drivers of a transition in spiritual values of forests
In this section, we propose a list of indicators (Table 2) and drivers (Table 3) relating to forest spirituality. First, because spiritual values of forests are subjective and often difficult to describe, we use a set of indicators to observe how societies and individuals express the spiritual significance they attach to forests over time, making these values more concrete and visible. Surveying fluctuation in an indicator could assist in observing the transition of spiritual values of forests over time and thus identify trends (e.g., a reduction in sites or a rise in business innovations).
Second, the transition of forest spiritual values is driven by various factors. These drivers have different effects depending on the country context and time; they can hinder or enable spiritual values of forests. The drivers can affect each other and often occur concurrently. Understanding drivers is not only essential for understanding how and why forest spirituality evolves, but also enables us to anticipate change and to identify conditions to give room for forest spirituality to unfold. Overall, we identified 18 drivers (with subdrivers) that can be grouped into five categories following the “STEEP” approach: socio-cultural, technological, economic, environmental and policy-governance (Rounsevell and Harrison 2016; Table 3). An extensive list, including subcategories and further examples, is presented in Appendix 3. Both indicators and drivers are portrayed in more depth while introducing the transition hypothesis.
A transition hypothesis of forest spirituality
We next explore the idea of a transition hypothesis related to forest spirituality. As societies develop from hunter-gatherers toward an agrarian, then industrial, and then the current information society, the respective human-nature relationship changes, and with it, the spiritual connections to forests. As society’s perception of forests evolves, so do its actions toward forests, consequently altering the landscape. Reversely, a changing environment and people’s interaction with this environment reciprocally transform society’s values of forests. Based on the assessment of our country-specific case studies, we hypothetically structure the resulting transition of forest spirituality into four stages, according to the identification of common patterns in the perception of forests (the dominant value attached to forests) and a related evolution of forest spiritual values. The division of the stages does not necessarily follow a specific timeline (i.e., nonlinear), to avoid limiting the stages to a particular culture, region, or time (see also Farcy et al. 2019a).
Indicators (Table 2) and drivers (Table 3) are incorporated into the four transition stages, using country-specific examples as illustrations. Table 4 and Fig. 2 provide an overview of the transition stages of forest spirituality.
Stage 1: omnipresent forest spirituality: “nature is powerful”
During the first transition stage, the direct human dependence on forests and their ecosystem services is high, and the possibilities to influence their provisioning through land management is still limited (Farcy et al. 2019a). The spiritual connection to forests is strong; at least, it was strong in the investigated countries. Nature (not limited to forests or trees) is the highest power and is often considered sacred. The divine and nature are perceived as identical, natural objects are inspirited, or deities and gods are closely linked to forests and other elements of nature. Animistic religions such as Shamanism (Japan), Paganism and nature worshiping (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Greece, Poland, Spain, Switzerland), and Mithraism and Zoroastrianism (Iran) are associated with this stage. During this stage, Clark’s (2011) category 1 (corresponding to Fig. 1A) is mostly present.
Examples of this stage include specific trees (e.g., the Donar Oak of Germanic pagans) and sacred groves (remnants of which can be found today in such countries as Greece and India). Further applications include the Zoroastrian tradition in ancient Iran to dedicate a tree to newborns, and the Finnish tradition to dedicate trees for the dead (usually old spruce or pine trees located in the burial site of the village). This latter tradition (Karsikko-trees) prescribes that the time of death of the deceased is to be carved into the trunk to guide the soul of the deceased to the burial sites.
In this stage, a form of “spiritual governance” (Studley 2019) protects natural resources; it is often taboo to destroy trees of high spiritual significance. For instance, using the forests and its products was accompanied by asking permission from deities and providing offerings (Greece, India, Iran, Italy, Japan). This respect toward nature can be connected to a humble “nature gives, nature takes” approach. Nature’s gifts to humans, such as game, mushrooms, berries, medicines, and wood, are appreciated and embedded in a spiritually grounded dependency on nature.
This stage generally occurred from early periods of society up until the establishment of agrarian societies or organized states. Remains of this stage can still be found in some of the case countries, for instance, in certain elements of the Sámi and Metsälappalaiset culture in northern Europe, in certain hunting rituals in Germany and Poland, and in relation to ancient trees such as the 4000-year-old Abarkouh cypress in Iran (Khoshnevis et al. 2017), protected for its spiritual significance. Another example is the practice of planting a tree for a newborn, which is a long-standing tradition in some cultures and religions (e.g., Judaism). In Belgium, this practice has been revitalized, as local authorities pledge to plant a tree for every newborn, often in the form of “birth forests”.
Stage 2: religion controlling nature and spirituality: “taming of nature”
As belief systems shifted from animism (biophysical elements such as trees and forests are inspirited) to panentheism (referring to the transcendence of the divine onto the universe; Studley 2019), society’s perception of nature changed. This second stage of the transition is characterized by the increasing control of humans over nature, accompanied and legitimized by changing religion and spirituality. The spiritual relationship toward forests changes to a perspective attributing humans power and control over nature, entitling them to tame and transform it to serve humans and god(s) (see Redman 1999:19 quoting Cicero: “man as the highest being in the scale, changes nature by using his hands”).
With new possibilities to manage the land, large shares of forests are cleared and transformed into agriculture and settlements to meet increasing material needs (Kaplan et al. 2009, Farcy et al. 2019a) or are managed, often as agroforestry systems (Agnoletti and Santoro 2015). In some cases, forests commence to be areas of economic activity (Agnoletti 2018 for Italy). Forest clearing and agroforestry practices significantly alter the environment, accompanied by a change in the spiritual connection to the remaining forests (Lamentowicz et al. 2020). “Wild” forests are perceived as uncultivated, savage, and dangerous, where enemies and evil spirits hide, and heathens live (Jedrzejewska and Samojlik 2005, Konczal 2013). Arcadia, developed from Greek mythology, depicts a version of paradise where nature is an orderly idyllic place, and people live in harmony with nature through pastoralism; this idea is juxtaposed with wild and untidy forests.
Nature and forest spirits are increasingly replaced by anthropomorphic deities (Rose 1935), mirroring the transition toward agricultural societies and the establishment of cities (Kaplan et al. 2009). Nonetheless, strong connections with natural elements remain (e.g., deities having powers over certain aspects of nature). In ancient Greece, sacred groves were the first places of worship (Nelson 2013; e.g., Altis in Olympia, dedicated to Zeus and established by Hercules, according to myth). In the case of India, Freeman (1999) argues that the anthropomorphizing of deities into human royalty could serve as an explanation for the establishment of sacred groves; the gods’ personal property was not to be encroached by humans. Specific tree species become symbols of the divine. For instance, in India, the Goddess Lakshmi resides in sandalwood, and the Goddess Parvati crafted a statue from turmeric and sandalwood paste, which later came to life as Lord Ganesh (Sandeep and Manohara 2019). In Greek mythology, there are persons metamorphizing into trees (e.g., Kyparissos into a funeral cypress), and trees that are dedicated to deities (e.g., oak to Dioni and later to Zeus; laurel to Apollo; Baumann et al. 1993).
Customs and taboos protecting sacred trees and forests become more formalized. The spiritual governance of nature is replaced with statist laws, which are “predicated on human agency and formally codified” (Studley 2019:25). This change serves as a further manifestation of the increasing control of humans over nature and religion. One example of written law is the Lex luci Spoletina of ancient Rome (Italy), which listed prohibited activities (harvesting of timber or nontimber forest products) in the sacred grove dedicated to Jupiter, as well as punishment for noncompliance and giving a sin-offering to Jupiter in the form of an ox (Johnson et al. 2003). Furthermore, temple committees or village leaders in Greece (Stara et al. 2016), India (Freeman 1999), Iran (Plieninger et al. 2020), Italy (Agnoletti 2018), and Japan (Naumann 1964, Fukuda et al. 2000) determined that forests are protected for spiritual reasons. Damaging these trees was a religious taboo; hunting, grazing, and collecting plants and mushrooms for commercial purpose was forbidden in these areas.
With the advent of organized religions (such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), the perception of nature is conditioned accordingly (Redman 1999). Nature worshiping is banned, absorbed, or transformed into these religions. In ancient Rome, an edict of emperor Teodosio abolished the cult of trees (dendrolatry); similarly, the Councils of Arles and Nantes definitively banned forest cults. Sacred groves and trees diminish (Bhagwat and Rutte 2006) as they are replaced with “new” religious structures such as churches, monasteries and their gardens, or temples. In Germany, the Christian archbishop Saint Boniface ordered the felling of the Donar Oak and replaced it with a church. As the example in India shows, local folk deities are replaced by more formalized religious deities (in this case Hindu), and sacred groves are replaced by temples (Bhagwat and Rutte 2006). Rutte (2011:2392) describes this change as the spiritual disconnection from nature through “[a] shift from nature worship to icon worship.” At the same time, harvesting forests remains, in part, a spiritually shaped activity, including the harvesting of sacred trees to construct temples, shrines, or statues (Totman 1998, Ueda 2013). In Japan, permission was ceremonially obtained from Yama no Kami (the God of Mountains) to harvest logs from remote forests to build the Todaiji Temple (Nihon Ringyo Chosakai 1997). In India, sandalwood (a sacred tree) was used to carve religious artifacts and construct temples (Sandeep and Manohara 2019).
Nature worshiping is further incorporated into the “new” religious beliefs and rituals (Stewart 1991) through transformation and adaptation to changing spiritual needs. In Greece, ceremonial litanies were performed annually within sacred forests. The priest, accompanied by the community, would consecrate old sacred trees. This practice served as a protective character for the community, causing the trees to act as guardians against epidemics or evil spirits (Kyriakidou-Nestoros 1989). In south India still today, a sandalwood tree in the home garden is believed to avert evil spirits (Sandeep and Manohara 2019). With cultivation of the land being the main ambition, spiritual values become more detached from wild nature, and gods move from nature to human-made places, fortifying the idea that evil spirits remain in the wild (Bhagwat and Rutte 2006, Rutte 2011).
In Islam, nature itself is not seen as sacred; only God, prophets, and saints are sacred. However, certain trees obtain sacredness through their connection with a saint: holy men appear or conduct miracles in or near trees; the tree hosts or mediates the saint’s spirit; and the saint’s grave is linked to the tree (Dafni 2006). However, sacred groves and trees in Muslim communities in Iran do exist, possibly resulting from the veneration of saints from pre-Muslim communities (mainly Mithraism and Zoroastrianism; Shakeri et al. 2021).
Christianity also gives new meaning to earlier beliefs through an assimilation process, adopting and adjusting them into the church’s celebrations and calendar. Trees are incorporated into Christian traditions and events: the Christmas tree (originating from the Baltic states and Germany), planting linden trees at chapels (Belgium, Czech Republic), placing statues of Mother Mary in linden trees (Belgium), and the symbolic meaning of the yew tree (Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Spain, Switzerland; Bechmann 1990). Paganism associates the yew with death and rebirth; in Christianity it retains its connection with eternity (rebirth) and is often found in church cemeteries.
Consequently, forest spirituality, as a component of culture, is affected through assimilation and integration (Gerdner 2021) by religious and governing institutions (see Fonneland and Äikäs 2020 and Szpak and Ochwat 2021 for Sámi; Freeman 1999 for India). The human desire to control becomes partially evident through the management of forests under the guise of religion; religiously legitimized rule over nature then goes hand in hand with expressing rule in human societies. Or, as Freeman (1999:264) puts it for India, “This dominance [by humans through an enforced hierarchy] clearly extended to the control and management of ‘divine property’—temples, groves, and the like—where the god’s will was far more likely to reflect the personal desires of landlord-chieftains.”
In sum, with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the belief is established that God made nature and appointed humans as stewards of nature to use and manage it. Nature spirituality is transformed accordingly, corresponding to Clark’s (2011) category 3. The new spiritually embedded superiority of humans goes hand in hand with pushing back the “untamed” forests in favor of agricultural land or managed forests (Lamentowicz et al. 2020). Forest spirituality remains present, connected to well-defined places such as areas surrounding churches, temples, or monasteries, or sacred groves are incorporated into the “new” religions (Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Spain), representing Clark’s (2011) category 2. Moreover, some monasteries apply forest management in accordance with their religious practices, such as the San Bernardo and Benedetto in Italy, or Christian Orthodox monks in Greece (Papayannis 2007), corresponding to Clark’s (2011) category 3. Some of these Christian monastic communities’ sustainable management of forests and natural areas eventually led to the establishment of protected natural areas (e.g., Sacro Eremo delle Carceri in Italy, Mount Athos in Greece; Mallarach et al. 2014). Thus, spiritual values of forests remain present, although in a different form than in stage 1. Stage 2 corresponds mostly to spirituality (Fig. 1B; Clark’s categories 2 and 3).
Stage 3: science and technology replacing religion: “rational management of nature”
During the third stage, in several countries connected to the Enlightenment period, religion and spirituality as a legitimizing source for decision-making on land management erode in importance. This cultural change is related to the rise of “modern forestry” (Scott 1998, Brown and Verschuuren 2019). In many of the investigated countries, societal traditions, cultures, and values change through industrialization, urbanization, and globalization (e.g., Gojda 2000 for Czech Republic). With the concurrent advancement of science and technology, land-use practices that had dominated for centuries change rapidly: agroforestry practices with shifting cultivation patterns are abandoned, and forested land becomes separated from agriculture to serve the accelerating industrial and urban development with wood resources. The importance of forests for local livelihoods and spiritual significance decrease as urbanization further reduces everyday nature experiences while the city life replaces human interactions with nature.
In industrial societies, timber production becomes the main function of forests. For this purpose, “scientific” or “rational” forest management systems are introduced and formalized (Farcy et al. 2019a, Torralba et al. 2020). Other uses are suppressed or minimized, often backed by new forest laws (Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl 1998, Weiss 2000). Forests are seen as resources to be used systematically for sustained timber supply while generating maximum income to advance human welfare. Countries such as Austria and Germany were leading in monofunctional forest management, with a focus on sustained timber production (Mather 2001). New forest legislation mirrors the changing perspective, acting against deforestation and overuse of timber resources but also multiple agroforestry uses by applying sustained-yield forestry to ensure continuity of timber production. In several countries, the professionalization of forest management went along with bureaucratization as legislation required forest management plans; forest schools and formal training institutions were established (Austria, Finland, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland; see also Farcy et al. 2019a).
Although deforestation continues in some countries, at least in the initial phase of this stage, in many countries, this period is considered to be a turning point in the forest transition process: forest area reaches a minimum, and planned afforestation and reforestation occurs (e.g., in central Europe, later expanding into the rest of Europe and Asia). Reforestation is often connected to forest growth science and economics, focusing on increasing and sustained wood production for the future. Afforestation in abandoned or cleared land (the beginning of plantation forests or fast-growing coniferous species such as spruce or pine in central Europe) and rapid urbanization modify the landscape. These dynamics lead to a breakdown in the relation between forests and communities concerning institutional (change in the way the land is governed) and functional (change in and disappearance of traditional forest uses) dimensions.
Connected to the professionalization of forest management, the relationship between people and forests is increasingly demystified, and spiritual sites decrease even further. In Japan, the number of shrines decreased from approximately 190,000 to 110,000 due to the central government’s policy of merging local and small shrines (Minakata 1971, Mineo 2020). Sacred groves and sacred trees remain important only around sacred sites, shrines, and other religious elements.
Thus, in many countries, the introduction of scientific forestry based on natural science knowledge, and the strong focus on sustained wood production connected to industrialization, minimize the spiritual significance of forests and its relevance for forest management (for India see Sivaramakrishnan 1995). In colloquial terms, science and economics become the “new religion”, preaching the “gospel of efficiency” (compare Nelson 2013) to optimize nature’s management during this period. Neither spirituality (as per Fig. 1) nor Clark’s categories are present in this stage.
Stage 4: immaterial values driving re-spiritualization: “reconnecting with nature”
Resulting from increasing urbanization, industrialization, and a growing concern for human well-being and health, post-material effects of forests have risen in importance in several of the investigated countries. Some authors ascribe this change to the paradigm shift that occurred, i.e., from the utilitarian benefits for which forests were valued toward environmental benefits and recreational use of forests (Bell et al. 2007, Hendee and Flint 2014), including urban and peri-urban spaces (De Vreese et al. 2016, De Vreese et al. 2019, Stevenson et al. 2020).
This stage can be described as the “re-spiritualization of nature”, driven by post-materialist values. It is connected to the rise of environmentalism and the increased focus on forest multifunctionality (Mather 2001, Schriewer 2015), including providing a place for humans to revitalize the inner self (Daniel et al. 2012, Cooper et al. 2016, De Vreese et al. 2016), and occurs, at least partially, in parallel (or as a response) to the “rationalization” of forest management (stage 3). Mather (2001) refers to postindustrial forests, characterized by a decrease in timber production relative to an increased enjoyment of other services. He lists biodiversity and recreation; we add spiritual values. Relatedly, evolving perceptions of deadwood in forests in the context of re-spiritualization can be observed. Previously, deadwood was associated with forest mismanagement (stage 3); now, it is perceived as a critical element for forest biodiversity (Gustafsson et al. 2020) and a manifestation of forest spirituality (Kohsaka and Flitner 2004, Kovács et al. 2020).
In the more affluent societies in the case countries, non-monetary values of nature gain importance. There is, however, a trend of economization of non-material values of forests, transforming these values into new business models and innovations (e.g., Torralba et al. 2020). In today’s “leisure society”, forests are used for recreation and adventure, but also for spiritual practices (Pröbstl et al. 2009). This usage is observed through increasing offers of spiritual (and other cultural) forest services (see also Gilchrist 2020), including organized spiritual tours or practices and health-related offers. In Italy (and similarly in Spain), examples include tourism developed from pilgrimages through sacred woods and sacred trails (e.g., Via Francigena), natural sites (eco-tourism), and outdoor forest museums or parks (e.g., Arte Sella, Sacro Bosco di Bomarzo). Health-related services include therapeutic uses (e.g., forest bathing, forest therapy, or “green care”; Weiss 2019, Stander et al. 2020, Weiss et al. 2020, Živojinović et al. 2020). The Forestry Agency of Japan has been promoting Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) since the 1980s, presumably in search of alternatives to a previously wood-production oriented forest-management model. Forest bathing and other forms of forest therapy are growing in popularity and have made their appearance in European markets (Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Switzerland). Globalization facilitates the spread of these trends (de Pater et al. 2021).
Furthermore, the re-spiritualization stage is visible in science and research. Sacred groves are increasingly recognized as biodiversity hotspots (Bhagwat and Rutte 2006, Avtzis et al. 2018, Shakeri et al. 2021, Zannini et al. 2021). It is also visible in the increasing research on traditional and local knowledge relating to forests, rooted in cultural and spiritual values and connections to the land (Stara et al. 2015b, Joa et al. 2018, Plieninger et al. 2020). Thus, academic curiosity connects the (re-)discovery of spirituality relating to nature in this fourth stage of the transition to the nearly lost (in the third stage) spirituality (of the first stage).
A link between environmentalism and re-spiritualization is also visible in statements of religious leaders encouraging nature conservation: see Pope Francis’s (2015) Encyclical Letter (Cooper et al. 2016) or Sadhguru’s (2012) manifestos (A Tree can Save the World), initiatives such as the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative launched in Oslo in 2017, the Ecumenical Patriarchate Ecological Symposia (e.g., “Toward a Greener Attica: Preserving the Planet and Protecting its People” in 2018), and earlier, the 1986 World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) meeting with leaders from five major religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) to explore solutions to environmental issues (Palmer and Finlay 2003). Clark’s category 3 (Fig. 1B) becomes visible again, as the religious duty to care for nature is highlighted (Mallarch et al 2014, Cooper 2016). As per Gottlieb (2006:6), “world religion has entered into an ‘ecological phase’ in which environmental concern takes its place alongside more traditional religious focus.”
The increased spiritual interest in forests is not always (or not primarily) rooted in formal religions. Confronted with science and technology and a disconnection from formal religions (stage 3), forest re-spiritualization can often be interpreted as a pursuit for alternative ways of expressing spirituality in secularized modern societies. This idea is visible in the rising trend of natural or woodland “cemeteries” (or funeral forests; Fig. 1C) in which people opt for an alternative to conventional cemeteries, allowing for a certain spiritual openness (e.g., Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Japan, Switzerland; see Ueda 2016 for a comparative analysis of natural burials in Germany and Japan). This trend is an expression of the wish to relate to nature, even after death (Bauer and Schraml 2018). Cooper et al. (2016:222) refer to a sense that “the spiritual has taken over from the religious”; people are looking for spiritual fulfillment and transcendence in nature beyond organized religious structures (which have opposed natural burials in some countries, at least initially). In this sense, remote areas offering pristine nature are increasingly favored because they offer solitude and tranquility, providing an escape from urbanism (Boller et al. 2010). Another example is the current establishment of the Govinda sacred groves in Spain, where the community plants trees with a significant meaning (e.g., the oak representing strength, the cypress immortality, and the ash wisdom). These groves serve as grateful tributes to nature and places of seclusion for calming the mind and refreshing the spirit.
Spiritual values and their contributions to cultural heritage are also being considered in policies. Certain spiritually significant trees and forests are protected through formal policies (e.g., United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) preserving cultural heritage (including spiritual natural sites; e.g., Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Japan, Iran, Italy, Poland, Switzerland). In India and Japan, spiritual sites are protected through biodiversity conservation policies. Furthermore, global policies and strategies aimed at sustainable forest management now also include the importance of spiritual values of forest, often related to the social aspect of sustainable forest management (e.g., Principles 3.5 and 4.7 in Forest Stewardship Council 2015; Indicator 6.11 in Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe 2003; Criteria 6 in Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification 2018; see also Mather 2001, de Pater et al. 2021).
In a complementary manner, the easing of prohibiting policies linked to certain spiritual values can be observed. In some European countries (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany), laws that did not allow the burial or depositing of human ashes outside conventional cemeteries have now been amended to permit natural burials (funeral forests). This shift has resulted from a demand-driven bottom-up approach (pressure from companies, forest owners, and citizens).
Nonutilitarian connections to nature become further evident in the increasing societal objection to harvesting trees (Bell et al. 2007, Pröbstl et al. 2009, Maier and Winkel 2017, Farcy et al. 2019a) and with an emphasis on maintaining old forests (ancient, primeval, or old-growth forests) in contrast to plantation forests (Jedrzejewska and Samojlik 2005). Society observes the fragility of nature as it experiences a loss of natural and cultural landscapes. This loss motivates some sort of spiritual resistance, driven by ecological consciousness, as the realization dawns that “rather than a new heaven on earth, in the worst case modern science and economics [stage 3] could even potentially bring about a new hell on earth” (Nelson 2013:14). Civil protest against harvesting trees regularly refers to emotional (including spiritual) values (see Ritter and Dakusta 2006). The bestselling books of Peter Wohlleben (The Hidden Life of Trees 2015, The Secret Wisdom of Nature 2017) are exemplary of the support for the popular forest perspective that understands trees and forests as living beings and part of a larger social ecosystem (Farcy et al. 2019b). This perspective is also connected to the emerging research agenda investigating the “social relationships” of trees (Simard 2021).
As noted, the division of stages is not linear. The roots of re-spiritualization trace back into the past, and in Europe, specifically to the Romantic period. During this period, the “cultural and spiritual” resistance to the rational and economic paradigm was expressed in art and literature (see also Cooper et al. 2016). Forests were no longer seen as a dangerous place, and the threatening myths of the dark forests became beloved fairy tales with a more Romantic perception of forests (e.g., Brothers Grimm in Germany, Božena Němcová in the Czech Republic). German poets created the term Waldeinsamkeit (forest-solitude), referring to the feeling of self-contentment experienced in the quietness provided by forests, which is echoed in the current rising demand for wilderness and remote areas (e.g., Switzerland; Boller et al. 2010).
Similar trends are observed today in popular writings and movies: Wohlleben’s (2015, 2017) books, connecting to the rise of environmentalism; Tolkien’s (1954) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and its film adaptation (New Line Cinema 2002), illustrating the relationship between human-like characters and trees, specifically the ancient tree-giant, Fangorn; and “Avatar” (20th Century Fox 2009), focusing on the powers of a sacred mother tree. Such themes can also be found in modern Japanese animated fantasy films such as “My Neighbor Totoro” (Studio Ghibli 1988) or “Princess Mononoke” (Studio Ghibli 1997), where forests and their spirits or creatures are central (Takemoto 2013). This fourth stage of the transition corresponds to Clark’s (2011) category 4 (Fig. 1D).
CONCLUDING ON A TRANSITION HYPOTHESIS: EVOLUTION OF FOREST SPIRITUALITY AND RE-SPIRITUALIZATION
Our analysis makes two main contributions: it proposes a definition of “forest spiritual values” and provides a spiritual transition hypothesis investigating the evolution of the spiritual relationship between humans and forests. The core idea is in showing the connections among changing perceptions of forests, changing land use, and changing spirituality as nature-use influences spirituality and vice versa. A better understanding of societies’ ancient and present relationships with forests, the use and perceptions of forests, and the related spiritual significance could assist in decision- and policy-making and address trade-offs in the different applications of forests ecosystem services (Ritter and Dakusta 2006).
The boundaries of what is regarded as “spiritual” are vague and varied. It is therefore essential to define forest spirituality before considering its development over time. We set broad boundaries, elucidating the concept while maintaining a wide scope. We acknowledge that our definition, use, and interpretation of certain concepts (e.g., spirituality, religion, and sacredness) may pose limitations when subjected to other disciplines (such as religious studies); however, we anticipate that it may reduce the abstractness of forest spirituality.
It is stimulating to compare our transition hypothesis to other ideas. One analogy is with the anthropological debate regarding the nature-culture dichotomy, which explains the human–nature relationship along two polarities. On the one hand, nature stands opposite to humans but is the most important factor shaping human culture. Culture thus results from adaptation to nature (to simplify, nature is dominant over culture). On the other hand, human relationships with nature are determined by cultural representation. “Nature dictates the initial conditions, of course, but after that it becomes no more than a background for the intricate and kaleidoscopic elaborations of the symbolic mind” (Scarso 2013:92; see also Ingold 2000). In this sense, nature is “rationalized” by culture. It is beyond our scope here to elaborate on this debate. However, culture is evidently relevant when assessing the relationship between humans and nature; how nature is perceived influences this relationship (Redman 1999, De Vreese et al. 2016, Brown and Verschuuren 2019). When nature is perceived as dominant over culture (possibly the case with animism), or even as indistinguishable, then spirituality is omnipresent. When, instead, nature is rationalized through culture, spirituality is subdued by dominant institutions (either states or major religions).
Adjacent to the nature-culture analogy is the use of knowledge systems pertaining to forest spirituality. Diaz et al. (2015:13) describe knowledge systems as “a body of propositions that are adhered to, whether formally or informally, and are routinely used to claim truth.” Agents, practices, and institutions organize the production, transfer, and use of knowledge (Tengö et al. 2017). Addressing forest spirituality, and its institutionalization (e.g., through codification in a law), raises the question of what can be seen as spiritual knowledge (as opposed to “rational” or scientific knowledge) and may create perplexity regarding who qualifies as the holder of spiritual knowledge. One example is the debate in northern Europe on who qualifies as Sámi (and Metsälappalaiset; see Valkonen et al. 2017, Gerdner 2021). Assigning knowledge as spiritual can carry the danger of reinforcing knowledge-power relationships (Ingold 2000, Valkonen et al. 2017, Tuulentie et al. 2020). As Heywood (2017:9) notes, “Your interlocutor may ‘believe’ the tree to be a spirit, and you may ‘respect’ this belief as much as you wish, but your own belief is probably not what you would consider to be a belief at all; it is what you would think of as ‘knowledge’. You do not think of yourself as ‘believing’ it to be a tree, you know it to be so.” We acknowledge this dilemma for our attempts to define forest spirituality and the transition hypothesis.
Another analogy of our hypothesis is with the forest transition theory (FTT) first described by Mather (1992). FTT identifies a global pattern in the transition of forest area. It distinguishes four stages, starting with the undisturbed forest stage (high forest cover, low deforestation rates due to inaccessibility for market exploitation), followed by a period of deforestation connected to socioeconomic development and population growth in the forest frontiers stage. The last two stages occur in a stabilizing loop in which deforestation slows down, collectively called the restoration stage; the third stage is marked by forest-agricultural mosaics, and the fourth by forest-plantations-agricultural mosaics. This restoration stage refers to net forest cover gains that occur at a point when socioeconomic development is progressing and socioeconomic needs are decoupling from deforestation, and, moreover, when new forests are created, often in response to the demands of an industrial society (e.g., plantations for biomass production; Angelsen 2007, Angelsen et al. 2009).
There are some connections between the stages of FTT and the transition of forest spirituality that we suggest (Fig. 3), which so far have not been considered in the forest transition debate (Wilson et al. 2017). Specifically, FTT’s undisturbed forest stage connects to our first stage (“nature is powerful”), FTT’s high-deforestation forest frontier stage corresponds to our second stage (“taming nature”), and FTT’s final two stabilizing stages correspond to our third stage (“rational management of nature”). We add an additional stage (“reconnecting with nature”) as an important explanatory compound to the transition model.
Still, caution needs to be applied against the assumptions of causality between the development of forest spiritual values and the forest transition. Spirituality is only one aspect of the human-forest relationship through which the forest obtains significance for humans. One deviation of the forest spirituality transition hypothesis from FTT pertains to the quality of the forest after the forest transition occurs. As Wilson et al. (2017) note, the new forests are ecologically different from the forests they replace; from an ecosystem services perspective, the quality varies. The last stage of FTT often results from plantations. Plantations are mostly linked to our third stage, where we see the largest de-spiritualization trend. According to Almeida et al. (2018), forests with certain attributes (e.g., biodiversity-rich, old-growth forests) may enhance the spiritual experience. Thus, an increase in forest cover does not necessarily lead to re-spiritualization of forests or vice versa; however, the cultural drivers and socioeconomic factors that lead to the forest transition could also bring about forest re-spiritualization. Similarly, the drivers of re-spiritualization can promote reforestation. In some regards, re-spiritualization is a reaction (even protest) to the rational “plantation approach”. Further exploring the interlinkages and convergences of our spiritual transition hypothesis with FTT would be highly interesting.
Finally, we emphasize that the analysis of forest spirituality conducted here remains initiatory, formulating a hypothesis to be explored through future research. The four proposed transformation stages are unavoidably a simplification of complex human–nature interactions to illuminate inspiring general patterns and to provoke a debate on the possibility to generalize. Arguably, as we have shown, these patterns can be observed to varying degrees in the investigated countries. The stages, however, are neither linear nor chronological, and may occur simultaneously (e.g., currently the focus may fall on re-spiritualization while at the same time attention is being paid to scientific forest management; thus stages 3 and 4 occur together). This attribute presents the possibility of some erratic developments, e.g., a movement back and forth between stages 3 and 4, depending on factors such as demographic change, changes in hegemonic ideology, etc. Also, examples for the continuation or presence of stages 1 and 2 can be found in some of the investigated countries; other examples might be more conspicuous in other countries and regions that we did not cover.
For future research, it would be interesting to reflect on the transition hypothesis beyond the scope of observations in the 10 European and 3 Asian countries covered here. Testing the idea in different contexts and over different time periods, including in ostensibly contradicting contexts where forest spirituality has evolved differently, could better elucidate the drivers, indicators, and consequences of changing forest spirituality. Interlinkages between countries and cultures, and spillover effects between them, in relation to the importance of country context, could be another focus for further work. Modes of governance and borders of countries have evolved drastically throughout history, affecting spirituality as well as governance and management of forests. A more in-depth trace into the developments and interrelations between countries, cultures, and religions would be highly interesting in view of the transition of forest spirituality.
RESPONSES TO THIS ARTICLEResponses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.
We acknowledge funding received from the European Union’s H2020 Programme under grant agreement 773702 (project SINCERE). Rik De Vreese was funded through the European Union’s Horizon2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement 821242(CLEARING HOUSE). We thank Amelia Pope for English proofreading. We are grateful to Catharina de Pater and the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments that helped to improve the manuscript. Disclaimer: the content of this document reflects the authors’ views. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.
Qualitative data used for this paper are in the form of workshop documentation (preparation documents and minutes), which is available from the lead author (J-L.R.) on request, and case-specific data sets, contained in the appendices of this article.
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Table 1. Countries examined and examples of forest spirituality as initially identified by experts.
|Continent||Country||Initial identified examples of forest spirituality|
|Asia||India||Sacred groves (Kodagu region in Karnataka State)|
|Legislation protecting sacred groves|
|Iran||Sacred groves (Baneh County)|
|Japan||Jomon Sugi (Japanese cedar), old trees with holy appearance|
|“Tonari no Totoro”: a film about a mystical forest creature|
|Forests of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples|
|Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing)|
|Europe||Austria||“Green Care”: public policy program focusing on forests’ contributions to human health and well-being|
|Funeral forests (and related policy change)|
|Belgium||Natural burial grounds|
|Trees connected with Christian practices|
|Czech Republic||Pilgrimages to sacred and religious sites in forests|
|St. Hubert hunting celebration|
|Forest cemeteries (e.g., Hradec Králové, Písek, Zlín, Prague)|
|Forest bathing and therapies|
|Finland||Lutheran forest services and ceremonies (e.g., retreats, nature camps, counselling, forest churches)|
|Forest-based psychological therapy|
|Traditional forest cemeteries (Orthodox church in eastern Finland)|
|Germany||Funeral forests (e.g., FriedWald, RuheForst)|
|Fairy tales connected to forest spirituality|
|Der Schöpfungspfad: trail connected to Christian beliefs (Eifel Forest)|
|Greece||Sacred mountains or forests: ancient (e.g., Mount Olympus) or modern (e.g., Mount Athos and several sacred trees, groves, or forests, for example, in Epirus, Zagori, and Konitsa)|
|Italy||Forests related to Christian orders (e.g., Valleombrosa and La Verna Forests, Benedictine and Franciscan monks)|
|Natural park aimed to promote the connection between humans and nature (Oasi Zegna - Bosco del Sorriso)|
|Poland||Forest use related to religious practice and spiritual valorization (Tuchola Forest region)|
|Hunting customs and spiritual meaning of forest (St. Hubert festival)|
|Spain||National park with a Benedictine monastery (Fragas do Eume)|
|Switzerland||Funeral forest (Heavenly Oaks, Lenzia Forest)|
|Hiking trails aimed at spiritual enrichment and human well-being (Seelensteg and Gesundheitspfad in Heiligkreuz in Luzern)|
|Pilgrimage place believed to have magical powers (Glasbrunnen, Bern)|
Table 2. Indicators of spiritual values in forests.
|Sites||Number of identifiable locations used for spiritual purposes||Single protected or monumental trees, sacred groves, shrines, parks, funeral forest sites. For example, sacred oak of Dodona’s oracle (ancient Greece), Donar oak (central Europe), Abarkouh cypress and sacred groves (Iran), Shinto Kashima shrine forests (Japan), Govinda sacred groves (Spain)|
|Visitors to sites||Number of people practicing spiritual values at specific sites or in the forest||Users of funeral forests, people practicing forest bathing, tourists or religious visitors to sacred groves, shrines, or pilgrimages. For example, visitors to Kyoto’s Kamigamo Jinja shrine (Japan; Nelson 1996), pilgrimage to Hradisko of St. Clement (Czech Republic), results from national socio-cultural forest monitoring surveys (e.g., WaMos, Switzerland; Bundesamt für Umwelt 2013)|
|Forest management practices||Directed at or prescribed by spiritual values||Management as prescribed by religious practices. For example, Christian monastic communities such as Franciscan monks (Mallarch et al. 2014)|
|Religious or community organizations determining the use of forests and enforcing their protection based on spiritual values (taboos). For example, sacred groves (India and Iran), management restrictions to sacred places of Sámi people (Finland)|
|Policy and legislation||Reference to spiritual values, spiritual sites, or spiritual activities, or the use of forests in policy and legislation; easing of prohibiting policies||Policies regulating spiritual aspects of forest and forest management. For example, the Roman “Lex luci Spoletina” and “Lex luci Lucerina”; Wildlife (Protection) Act and Forests Rights Act (India)|
|Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, and some cantons in Switzerland amending legislation to allow or no longer prohibit the deposition of human ashes in forests|
|Economic or business innovations||Paid services delivered directed at spiritual values||Funeral forests, forest bathing, forest therapy (Fraccaroli et al. 2021). For example, FriedWald (Germany), “Green Care” (Austria), “Himmlische Eichen” (Switzerland)|
|Spiritual activities||Practices and events, not necessarily site specific||Individuals or communities conducting spiritual activities. Festivals, rituals, traditional activities, therapeutic activities. For example, forest bathing, hunting rituals, the Finnish tradition of dedicating trees to the dead (“Karsikko” tree)|
|Media, art, literature||Reference in media, art, and literature||Blog posts, magazine articles, website articles, or websites dedicated to spiritual values, literature, or art (landscape or visual). For example, Homer’s reference to sacred groves in the Iliad, “Sacro Bosco Garden of Bomarzo in Italy.|
|Research||Scientific studies or papers on spiritual values, activities, or sites in forests||Research on sacred groves (e.g., Bhagwat and Rutte 2006, Benedetti et al. 2021, Shakeri et al. 2021), research on the existence of sacred groves in ancient Greece, initiatives such as International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Commission on Protected Areas Cultural and Spiritual Values Specialist Group, Delos Initiative|
Table 3. Summary of the drivers of the transition of spiritual values of forests.
|Sociocultural||Religion or secularity||Strength of connections between religion and nature ranging from animism to major religions banning nature worshiping; using religion as basis for nature management to science and technology replacing religion in nature use and management; moving away from formalized religions to finding spiritual fulfillment in nature itself|
|Socioeconomic situation of society||Socioeconomic dependency on nature compared to other human–nature interconnections; relying on nature for subsistence or economic gains or for spiritual desires (intangible demands), especially in societies where material (tangible) demands are satisfied|
|Knowledge systems||Importance of scientific compared to indigenous or local traditional knowledge; formal and informal beliefs and truth claims|
|Cultural identity or tradition||Forests as part of the national or regional identity; traditional uses of or visits to forests (recreation, hunting, mushroom picking)|
|New attitudes and behavioral change||Lifestyles focusing on physical and mental health and well-being, and the role forests can play in them|
|Globalization||Influence of other cultures and spiritual values and practices relating to forests (e.g., Shinrin-yoku forest bathing from Japan, now popular in Europe)|
|Urbanization||Disconnection from nature and reduced dependency on nature compared to escaping city life through spiritual fulfilment in nature|
|Technological||Information society||Access to information (e.g., the benefits of nature or existing spiritual sites or trends) through the Internet and media|
|Development||Use of science and technology in forest management and operations, increased possibilities to optimize operations (revenue); demand from society and industry for space, resources, and infrastructure, affecting the natural environment; access to remote or isolated places|
|Economic||Economic attractiveness of different forest ecosystem services||Spiritual values in forests, and other cultural ecosystem services, revived as an alternative to declining timber production, and vice versa|
|Markets (economic diversification)||Societal demand for spiritual values, and willingness to pay met by supply through business innovations|
|Environmental||Climate change and natural disasters||Affecting forest attributes or forest management; enabling or preventing fulfilment of spiritual needs|
|Land-use change||Agricultural expansion and intensification of forestry (loss of “wild” nature and related spirituality), reforestation (including plantations), rewilding of abandoned land|
|Change in forest management||Shift from largely unmanaged forests to (systematically) managed forests, or shift from focus on timber production to multifunctionality or ecosystem services-based management approach, or emphasis placed on biodiversity conservation or promotion and cultural aspects of forests|
|Intrinsic nature of forests||Green, quiet, peaceful space, nature sounds|
|Policy, governance||Political conflicts||Competing interests, ideologies, worldviews, and interests in forest use and conservation|
|Multilevel governance||Sectoral policies and policy (dis)integration (conflicting policies and effects on spiritual values of forests); centralization vs. devolution (bottom-up policy pressure through communities, minorities, religious groups, or public mood, leading to change in policy, acknowledging spiritual values)|
|Formal and informal policies||Policies directly or indirectly supporting spiritual values (e.g., policies targeted at biodiversity protection or cultural heritage; religious or cultural taboos protecting forests or trees for their spiritual values); regulations prohibiting or enabling spiritual practices (e.g., forest access rights, permitting funeral forests)|
|Changing political ideologies||Changing political ideologies (gradually or abruptly, e.g., through a regime shift)|
Table 4. Summary of the transition hypothesis of forest spirituality, including the most common patterns and examples of indicators and drivers for each stage.
|Forest transition stage|
|Characteristic||1. Omnipresent forest spirituality: “nature is powerful”||2. Religion controlling nature and spirituality: “taming of nature”||3. Science and technology replacing religion: “rational management of nature”||4. Immaterial values driving re-spiritualization: “reconnecting with nature”|
|Common pattern identified||Plenty of forests; total dependency on forests for livelihoods (pre-agricultural and early agrarian societies); strong spiritual dependence on forests (nature religions)||Nature spirituality strongly influenced by organized religions; changing landscape (including deforestation); human control over nature increases and is expressed in shifting spiritual connection (taming nature)||Deforestation, partially transitioning to reforestation (including plantations); rationalization and commercialization of forests (particularly timber); nature-related spirituality at a low||Increasing emphasis on multifunctionality of forests; reconnection with nature as a response to urbanizing societies, partially capitalism driven (innovations) and partially immaterial (post-materialism)|
|Examples of indicators||Several spiritual sites and activities exist related to nature (sacred natural sites); spiritual governance of sites (taboos); use of sacred forests accompanied by permission and providing offerings; art inspired by forests, animals, or myths||Sacred natural sites are replaced or incorporated by new religious sites or structures; organized religions guide or legitimize land management and use practices in accordance with their convictions; statist laws, codified by humans, govern sacred or spiritually significant natural sites||Nature use and management practices no longer legitimized or guided by religion, but rather science and technology (scientific or planned forestry, sustainable forestry); decreasing number of spiritually significant sites||New sites are established; spiritual activities (e.g., forest bathing) and visitor numbers (often as tourists) increase; new economic and business innovations related to spiritual values (demand driven); media, film, art, and literature romanticize forests (including their spiritual significance); sustainable forestry indicators expand to include spiritual values|
|Examples of drivers||Animistic religions promote forests for their spiritual value; informal customs protect spiritually significant forest elements; socioeconomic dependency results in strong spiritual connections||Organized religions’ approach to forest spirituality often emphasize rule of humans; agricultural expansion and forest use (deforestation) transform wild into cultural landscapes; formalized policies related to forest spirituality (initially partially protecting sacred groves, later partially banning nature worshipping)||Secularization (science over religion); increasing urbanization and technological development detach society from forests; “monofunctionalization” of forest management and focus on commodifiable assets (sustainable wood production); formal policies govern forest management||Role of religion in conservation is recognized; secularized society searches for alternative spiritual enrichment; forest management promotes multifunctionality; policies and international organizations protect old sites (as landscape elements and for biodiversity conservation)|
|Main way of thinking||“Nature gives, and nature takes”: respect it and be thankful for its gifts||Nature is tamed to serve humans and god(s)||Nature management is optimized through science and technology for the benefit of state, economy, and thus society||Nature is threatened and desired; society reunites with nature for its non-material benefits|