We had waited a long time to walk among those ancient trees. Finally we rented a cabin in Cook Forest State Park, and there we were, walking between towering pines and hemlocks. Some are as old as Quakerism, having gotten their start in the mid seventeenth-century, after a forest fire. Then centuries later, in the midst of a logging boom, three generations of the Cook family preserved what they called “The Forest Cathedral.” The tallest trees rise 160 feet or more, their canopy of green crowns higher than the naves of man-made cathedrals. My husband, Terry, and I looked up at them in astonishment.
We were eager to visit Cook Forest after hearing Dr. Joan Maloof, a professor of biology and environmental studies, speak about old-growth forests, ones that have never been logged. Scientific studies show that such forests have an incredible diversity not equaled by any woodlands ever cut or managed by human beings. The tallest trees of various species are found in such forests, whether they be redwoods on the West Coast or tulip poplars and white pines in the East. After hearing Maloof’s talk, I was eager to read her book Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests, in which she describes the astoundingly fertile way that trees, plants, fungi, insects, birds, humus, water, air, and sunlight interact in cycles of birth, growth, death, and mutuality in old-growth forests. She tells how the ancient trees within such forests sequester far more carbon from our atmosphere than younger trees or previously logged woods, even second growth forests that have been untouched for more than a century.
At her talk, Maloof showed pictures of the devastating, rapid destruction of the ancient forests that used to cover most of North America. In many areas of the U.S. today, only small pockets of old-growth forest remain, much of it on land too rocky and hilly to have been profitably farmed or forested. In Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests, Maloof describes visits she made to old-growth forests in each of the eastern states, from Maine to Florida and from Delaware to Wisconsin and Kentucky. Since reading it, I have been eager to make my own visits, especially to Cook Forest in Pennsylvania, the largest old-growth forest in the eastern United States.
We had a beautiful day for a long walk in the woods and were awed by the tall white pines and hemlocks in the old-growth part of the forest, some of them as old as three or four hundred years. Of course, not all the trees are huge and old. Young saplings and sinewy middle-aged trees have their place, too. And all around, feeding them, are the moldering remains of huge trees that have fallen, some recently to wind and tornadoes, some a very long time ago. We were also struck by seeing trees growing out of huge rocks. It helped us understand how trees and other plants transform rock into soil over time.
In the 19th century, the Cook family operated an extensive logging and sawmill business in the woods around what is now Cook Forest State Park. John Cook purchased hundreds of acres in 1836 and decided to preserve some sections. In 1910 Major Israel McCreight, a friend of the Lakota people in his youth, visited the forest. He was led by John Cook’s grandson, A.W. Cook, into an area called the “Forest Cathedral,” a place that sometimes moved visitors to tears. Deeply affected by the grandeur of the forest, McCreight began to lobby the State of Pennsylvania to protect it. Local folks were afraid of losing logging jobs; while others correctly argued that the resulting tourism would compensate for that loss. It required sixteen years of lobbying and fund-raising before Cook Forest was established as a national landmark and state park. Many hundreds of acres remain that have never been cut. Other areas, now untouched for more than a century, are slowly regaining some of the distinctive characteristics of old-growth forest.
The cabin where we stayed while we were in Cook Forest was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). At that time, the great chestnut trees that had flourished in the eastern states were dying of blight, so chestnut logs were used to construct the cabins.
Like an earlier visit I had made to an old-growth forest of towering Redwoods in California, walking in Cook State Forest was an awe-inspiring experience. During the short time we were there, we just began to slow down enough to truly savor the experience of a primeval forest. It was enough time, however, to see more clearly how human beings in Western culture are dangerously cut off from the natural world which is our home. We live almost entirely in man-made environments. Even our rural fields are lands shorn by men, and our local parks are highly managed. The disconnect affects us on all levels, far more than we know: physically, energetically, emotionally, and spiritually. For generations we have largely separated ourselves from wild places and the real requirements of sustainable living on planet Earth. Our misuse of resources has created catastrophic changes to our ecology and climate, whose effects we are seeing in rising temperatures, melting ice caps, more destructive wildfires, stronger hurricanes, and many other disasters.
What could cause people to understand and care enough to change our consumption patterns and stop our misuse of resources? What will motivate us to halt the rate of climate change and preserve a future for our species? How will we discover our true place in the natural world? In one of her books, Joan Maloof quotes an ecologist who advised her, “Spend as much time as you can in the wildest places you can find.” We all need ways to reconnect with the natural world.
However, as important as it is to connect with wild places outdoors, doing so will not be sufficient to mitigate or reverse climate change if we do not also reconnect with the untamed wholeness of our being and the deepest spiritual level from which life springs.
Over the years, during moments of great stillness in morning meeting for worship at Pendle Hill Retreat Center, I have sometimes had an inner impression of being in a primeval forest. To the core of my being, I felt surrounded, supported and sustained, inwardly connected to the source of life itself. Deep interior silence was accompanied by a feeling of holy power and great fertility, of unlimited possibilities. Long ago the ground on which Pendle Hill stands was unspoiled forest, inhabited by Lenni Lenape tribes who recognized the sacredness of the land. But what I sensed in those meetings for worship existed prior to human beings, and even prior to the physical world. My experience contained more than a message about reconnecting with the natural world. The impression of a holy, original forest was a metaphor for the Ground of Being, the fertile matrix of all life that we call God. I was being opened to a pure state of consciousness, undisturbed by fear, greed, alienation, or attachment.
Recalling that experience helps me connect to a sacred state of oneness, with God and with all things, a state that contains unlimited potential. I believe that spending time both in nature and in deep worship helps us reconnect with the Ground of Being. Great, fertile healing power is available to us if we learn to be gathered together in that state of awareness. Only a conscious, collective connection with the reality we call God can help us face our future with a hope founded in reality.
© 2018 Marcelle Martin
Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website.) The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of ten elements of the spiritual journey, as experienced by the first Quakers in the seventeenth century and by Friends in our time, a journey that leads deeply inward to a direct connection with God and then outward to lives of faithfulness.
Resources to Get Involved in Helping to Preserve Wild Places and Protect the Earth
Resources to connect with the Ground of Being
Find a Quaker Meeting near you: Quaker Finder
Resources for the practice of Centering Prayer: Contemplative Outreach