AN ENCHANTED FOREST
I Chronicles 16:29-34
Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Less than an hour's drive from Volmoed, hidden behind the hills above Stanford and Gansbaai, lies a beautiful valley. And in that valley is an enchanted forest of indigenous trees named Platbos. It should not really be there. The rainfall is too sparse to support a forest which numbers amongst its trees a milkwood reputed to be a thousand years old. On the surrounding hills fynbos flourishes, and invasive aliens struggle for control. But in this enchanted forest above a sand dune with neither a river or spring to sustain it, indigenous trees grow and flourish. Botanists say it is all an unfathomable mystery. But there it is! And Isobel and I have only just discovered it through the kindness of Mike and Moi who took us there the week before last.
I will not dazzle you with the botanical names of the trees in the forest, but let me mention their popular ones and how they are described by those who lovingly manage Platbos and extract their essences. The milkwood is the tree of wholeness; the white pear, the tree of joy; the rock alder, the tree of bliss; the bladder nut, the tree of self-knowledge; the wild peach, the tree of courage; the hard pear, the tree of forgiveness; the spike thorn, the tree of loving kindness; the saffron wood, the tree of tears; the sea guarrie, the tree of inspiration; the wild olive, the tree of faith; the pock ironwood, the tree of intuition; the cherry wood, the tree of serenity; and the white stinkwood, the tree of light. Their names let alone their smells conjure up a world of mystery and enchantment.
Forests are the stuff of fairy tales and legends. In olden times, they were the boundaries between villages, and most villagers seldom ventured alone into their foreboding darkness. They were places where danger lurks, strange things happen, monsters hide, aliens dwell and big bad wolves eat straying boys and girls. It was not impossible, as C.S. Lewis once said, that an ogre might live less than an hour away! But Platbos, less than an hour from Volmoed, is not a place to fear, it is a place to be renewed, to regain a sense of proportion, a place to discover oneself and share with others your deepest thoughts. You can walk through its shaded paths, sit under its trees, marvel at its shapes and forms, and sometimes on a moonlit night you might even see a shy leopard seeking its prey or a striped genet clinging to the branches of a stinkwood tree. But it is also a metaphor for another dimension to life, the world of soul and spirit that is threatened by the often barren environment created by science and technology, and controlled by machines.
I am not decrying science or its passion to find an answer to every question, solve every problem, uncover everything long hidden, or explore new territory. After all, to be human is too seek answers to questions that baffle, and find solutions to that which threatens life. Nor am I decrying machines, after all, I love my Isuzu bakkie, the Festool mitre saw in my workshop, the computer on my desk, and we all applaud advances in medical technology. We are the grateful beneficiaries of the achievements of science and technology. We could not have easily got to Platbos without Mike's 4x4! So it is necessary to find a creative balance. Machines, forests, animals and humans can live in harmony to our mutual benefit. But science can be destructive as well as life enhancing, and machines that improve the quality of life and facilitate work also pollute the air we breathe, greedily devour ancient forests, and build soulless cities of concrete and steel where cars rule.
It is true that the Old Testament prophets sometimes identified enchanted forests or sacred groves with idolatry, superstition and sorcery, yet they and the psalmists also used nature and forests as metaphors for the renewal of life, anticipating the day when the trees of the forest would once again clap their hands in joy and sing praises to God. Think about our OT reading today. After placing the Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle or tent of meeting, King David sang a hymn of thanksgiving. When we truly worship God in his holy splendour, he declared, the heavens are glad and the earth rejoices, the sea roars, the fields exult, and " the trees of the forest sing for joy." That is why, as St. Paul puts it, the whole creation groans in expectation of a humanity that has come to its senses and begun to care for it with renewed love and energy.
We are fortunate to be living in an age today when people across the globe are seeking to reclaim the enchanted forests that are so necessary for life in its fullness, protesting against the greed that destroys the trees that renew the very air we breathe. For we have come to see that if you rid the world of its enchanted forests and all that they symbolize as well, you rid it of the essences of life. So it is not surprising that there has been something of a hankering for places of enchantment to which we can retreat, a desire to escape into the forests in search of solitude and the renewing of soul. Or, as the young couple I married last Saturday decided, the desire to marry in the vineyards beneath the towering Klein Swartberge outside Ladismith in the Klein Karoo. Is this not why Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis' fantasies and J.K. Rawlings tales have captured the imagination of so many? And is this not why there are encouraging projects in our often barren townships to plant trees and make gardens? And is not the reason for this a thirst for life in its fullness, a rediscovery of soul and spiritual well-being, even if only vaguely acknowledged?
The desire for and attraction of enchanted forests is not just naive romanticism; it is the recognition that we need places and spaces like Platbos and Volmoed because we are more than meat, and desperately need to recover and renew our souls. For the enchanted forest is about more than forests and trees; it is a metaphor for the spiritual dimension of life, the realm of soul, the mystery of being human, and being encountered by the ultimate mystery we name God. So it is not surprising that a walk in an enchanted forest or garden, a wedding beneath towering mountains, a stroll along the coastal path or to the waterfall on Volmoed can lead us deeper into the mystery of God revealed in Christ. For "in him all things in heaven and earth were created," through him "all things have been created," and "in him all things hold together."
There is an intriguing verse in the Gospel of Thomas, the most important of the apocryphal gospels from the first centuries of Christianity. It is a saying of Jesus: "Raise the stone, and there you will find me; cleave the wood, and there I am." (77) It was probably excluded from the New Testament because it seemed to support the idea that everything is God, what we call pantheism. But another reading could be that while everything cannot be identified with God, the Spirit of God is the energy that pervades and gives life to the whole of creation. So if you are looking for Jesus the Christ you might well find him not only in the church or in Scripture but also in nature. In celebrating this Eucharist we give thanks for and with the whole of creation for the Christ in and through whom everything holds together. For us the whole earth is the Lord's and everything in it is a sacrament of his beauty and love. No wonder the trees of the forest clap their hands and sing for joy.
John de Gruchy
20th February 2014