Finding God in the Forest
Maureen Wise reflects on how she feels closest to God when walking through a forest, from California Redwoods to Ohio Oaks.
Before You Read
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I frequently feel a strong pull to stand among trees in the forest. This pull is both spiritual and physical.
I grew up and still live in Ohio where we have deciduous oaks and maples and some elms and beeches along with evergreen spruce and pines.
I missed my calling as a trained arborist and can’t differentiate the many species of tall, woody plants. No matter how hard I try to remember the sayings about the blunt ends of some oak leaves compared to the sharp edges, I can never tell which is which. Nevertheless, I always feel the closest to God among trees, even if I don’t know what they’re called.
Being Active to Be Still
Psalm 46: 10 tells us to “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the Earth.” This well-known verse hits me hard when I’m in the woods. However, in the woodlands, I am not usually standing still, but walking, stooping, inspecting, or looking up.
Nevertheless, the trees are always still, and they tell me so clearly that God is God and that he is exalted throughout the Earth. I feel the presence of my creator the strongest among the stillness and quiet of the forest. Trees are so much taller than us. They withstand storms and make homes for wildlife. Their size always makes me feel small, but also important to the God that created us both.
I feel the presence of my creator the strongest among the stillness and quiet of the forest.
Towering California Redwoods: This is Church
Five years ago, before the world stood still for the pandemic, and before travel seemed so far off, my family visited California. It was a five-hour flight, and our son was five years old. We flew into LA and drove north 13 hours along the beautiful views of Highway One on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, to the quiet town of Crescent City. We made this long trek to be among redwood trees. Our family of three hiked every day and spent most of our time in the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.
I knew that the towering trees would be awe-inspiring, and I also knew that God would meet me there. But, I didn’t know that five years later, I would feel like those hikes were last week. The smell of the evergreen trees and the cool air in the forest feels like a recent memory. There was an afternoon we hiked along a stream and wondered at bright yellow banana slugs. But the most memorable part of that California visit for me was, of course, the soaring trees. I kept saying to myself, “This is church.”
Dawn redwoods are easily twice as tall as the tallest oak tree in Ohio. The width and height of dawn redwoods are so mesmerizing to me. Their branches don’t protrude from their thick trunks until almost the height of an Ohio oak, easily higher than the peak of a house.
Many of these gigantic trees are a thousand years old, but the young trees that are “just” a few hundred years old are no less inspiring. They reach for the sky and help us tiny humans understand the vastness of our God just a little bit more. God made these enormous living things that are small ecosystems of themselves, providing habitat for not only wildlife but often other plants too. These trees made me feel even smaller and quieter than my known Ohio trees, and their colossal size pointed right up to our creator.
Short Ohio Trees and Stream Restoration
When I worked in stream restoration, I took water samples nearly weekly and spent long days outside, along polluted streams that ran orange, and in disturbed forests that were strewn with piles of coal refuse. The watershed where I worked was polluted by acid mine drainage, a legacy of abandoned mine lands. In the summer, the days were hot and sweaty with worries about ticks, and winter days were cold and covered in restrictive, heavy Carhart gear.
I didn’t realize how much I would crave those required outdoor days years later. I remember so well waiting for equipment to calibrate while a coworker was taking a water sample around the bend, and saying a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the nature around me, even if it was disturbed.
God was there waiting for me in the broken places of his creation. He is everywhere, after all. Happily, I can report that the work continued after I left that position and the stream hosts healthy fish again.
Now, my time in nature is often spent with my family. We frequently take hikes in the Metropark and Cuyahoga Valley National Park trails near our home. Surrounded by trees (even our “short” Ohio trees), I still feel God stronger than I do at any church building. Being with my family in our nature church always feels like the right place to be. We do our best to take care of our church and follow the Leave No Trace Principles.
Taking care of creation is a form of thanksgiving and service to God and the wild places he created. Our respect for nature parallels our love for the God who made it. I believe God charged Adam to take care of the Earth at the beginning (Genesis 2: 15) and that same assignment has been passed down to us over the generations.
Surrounded by trees (even our “short” Ohio trees), I still feel God stronger than I do at any church building. Being with my family in our nature church always feels like the right place to be.
Leave No Trace
I believe time spent in nature should be respectful of creation. I’m happy to lead by example for my kiddo and leave behind the cool, crooked sticks and wildflowers we find on our hikes. “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” is a well-known saying, but the seven Leave No Trace Principles go much farther to be sure that wildlife is protected and the landscape is left unscathed. They include: Plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, and be considerate of other visitors. Each principle has many sub-values to help us all ensure we take care of creation.
God will meet us wherever we are and no matter what we’re going through. He’s with us through hard times and times of celebration. He is present throughout his creation, even in the broken parts, but sometimes I know he leads me to woods on purpose to be (actively) still and know he is with me. It’s our special place.
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