Encountering an Essential Lesson in the Church Forests of Ethiopia

“In Ethiopian Orthodox teaching, a church—to be a church—should be enveloped by a forest. It should resemble a garden of Eden.”

Those are the first words of a beautiful short documentary, “The Church Forests of Ethiopia.” This film, and several recent articles, have all explored this moving story about how Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo churches have stewarded some of the last remaining forested land in the country. To me, not only is this inspiring, but this story reveals a key message that is essential for Gaians to fully digest: one’s religious system plays an essential role in shaping how we relate to and interact with nature.

A century ago, 40-45 percent of Ethiopia was covered in forests. Today it’s about 3 percent, with the majority of that forested land in the tiny preserves of church forests. According to one study of 1,488 church forests, these forests (of which one article estimates at around 20,000) are, on average, about 2.1 kilometers away from each other and about 5 football fields in size (5.2 hectares). They’re tiny. In a different context, conservationists might even say those patches of forest aren’t large enough to bother with—too many edges, not enough biodiversity, etc. But some of these forests are 500 years old and could serve as incubators to reforest Ethiopia if the right conditions flourished.

Google Earth image of several church forests and below, the church site of Debresena (which is in the bottom right corner of the top photo). From, “A Preliminary Assessment of Ethiopian Sacred Grove Status at the Landscape and Ecosystem Scales,” in Diversity, 2013.
Google Earth image of several church forests and below, the church site of Debresena. From, “A Preliminary Assessment of Ethiopian Sacred Grove Status at the Landscape and Ecosystem Scales,” in Diversity, 2013.

These churches, since the founding of the Ethiopian Church about sixteen hundred years ago, have cultivated a sacred geography built around nested circles. At the most sacred center, where only priests can go, is a replica of the biblical Ark of the Covenant. The next circle is where congregants receive communion, then the outer circle of the church (most churches are circular structures) is “the chanting place.” Outside of the church, roughly the distance of the “armspan of forty angels,” is a courtyard surrounded by a small wall. What’s fascinating is that crossing the threshold of every circle brings you to an ever more sacred space, with the edge of the forest making another natural circular border.

Much of the story focuses on one man, Dr. Alemayehu Wassie, an Ethiopian forest ecologist, and his work to protect these forests, particularly through surveying the forests and organizing the priesthood. In fact, a significant part of his success has come from one strategic and culturally appropriate innovation: adding an outer wall to better demarcate the edge of the church forest,* so that this sacred boundary is made tangible, so that neighbors cannot graze their livestock in the forest or harvest firewood, and the forest floor can heal and seedlings can sprout up and grow into the next generation of trees. (*Historically, forests expanded far beyond the church but now most land is farmland.)

The current state of these forests, for the most part, is far from pristine. In many of the forests, the soil is compacted, few seedlings exist, and there are invasives (including the fast-growing Eucalyptus tree). Deforestation rates of even these sacred groves are also significant (nearly 10 percent over 5 years in the 1,488 sites surveyed). But as walls are built, this is changing. Seedlings are sprouting. Water quality has improved. Pollinators have grown in numbers. In other words, the forests are becoming more alive.

Even more exciting: as the priests—who have stewarded these forests for countless generations as part of their sacred duty—see what these walls do, more are building outer walls and some are even taking the walls they’ve recently built and expanding them outwards, stone by stone.

The hope of Wassie is that these forests will grow—either as church forests expand outward (and eventually merge), or along river corridors, connecting some of the forests and allowing for the migration of animals, the cross-fertilization of species, and for a healthier land.

Mostly, that’s where the stories I read stopped. None explored the deeper question of how much a religious system truly matters in shaping believers’ actions and realities.

The Power of a Religious System

Somehow, the Ethiopian Church evolved to see forests as sacred and, through the design of their institutions and teachings, embedded this directly into their system code. Church services, weddings, baptisms, community meetings—the church is at the center of all of these, and thus so is the forest. Even one’s final moment differentiated from the Gaian whole takes place here: all Ethiopian Orthodox worshippers are entitled to be buried in the church forest.

As the articles describe, people cross themselves as they enter into the forest, as they cross the inner courtyard wall, as they enter the church and the communion circle, recognizing that with every step toward the center they enter a more holy reality. The forests, where humidity and air temperature change markedly, add to this numinous experience, so it’s not hard to imagine why now, when church forests are literal oases in the midst of a desertified agricultural system, these feel sacred. They are now both Edenic gardens and Noah’s arks.

But 1600 years ago, when far more of Ethiopia was forested, and the forests’ permanence surely seemed unquestioned, why did this unique Christian mutation take root? That is a question I don’t have an answer for, but the more important point is that whatever the reason, it is this religious system that has essentially prevented the entire country from becoming a desert. The church forests are like the country’s appendix, holding a small reserve of healthy organisms, until the infection—in this case modern civilization—ceases and life can once again recolonize the intestines, or in this case, the land. (And if you didn’t know that about the appendix’s role in the human body, now you do!)

This is why cultivating not just personal ecocentric spiritualities or philosophies but actual living religious systems is essential. There is far less power or longevity in a personal spirituality that is not shared, that doesn’t have a community around it, that doesn’t cultivate shared rituals, that doesn’t build institutions.

So what does that mean for us? It means: Gaians need to build a Gaian Mission. A Gaian Church. A Gaian Guild. A religious system that will grow and endure and help get humanity through the dark age that’s most likely just over the horizon. That will preserve and spread again biodiversity and essential human knowledge like permaculture, midwifery, and basic medicine so that Gaians one day can help bring about a new flourishing of culture—but this time in a way that sustains the Earth rather than comes at the cost of the Earth. But that requires a religious system, one that nurtures congregants and nudges them: to be their best and most eco-sacred selves; to share this system with others; and above all to continually recognize our dependence on and our being part of Gaia. If we do that, perhaps one day, a millennium from now, people will write about how Gaians’ sacred preserves and stores of wisdom helped to both rewild and recivilize the world.

A church forest in Ethiopia (photo by Jeremy Seifert)
A church forest in Ethiopia (photo by Jeremy Seifert)
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2 Responses

  1. John Hall

    Thank you for this fascinating and inspiring article. It makes me think about Middletown’s conserved open space and what could be made of it culturally. I definitely identify with the experience of a forest as a place of reflection, restoration, connection, and spiritual energy.

  2. Bart Everson

    I believe you are correct. Much eco-spiritual practice I’ve encountered has sprung up in the milieu of Western individualism, benefiting from it but also subject to its limitations. The building of institutions is fiercely resisted by practitioners who associate institutions with repressive and retrogressive values. But I believe we must rise to that challenge. Only I’d like to have forests at the center, as well as the periphery!

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