Into a Summer Woods

In fairy tales and fables, woods are often depicted as dark and dangerous...but, in reality, woods can help us connect to a greater spiritual world around us.

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Naturalist John Muir, who loved nothing better than to disappear into the woods for weeks at a time with no more than a loaf of bread and a sack of tea, often likened the majestic forests of the far West to natural cathedrals—places where God could be found as reliably and powerfully, for those with the eyes to see him, as he could in any church. Muir once climbed a Douglas fir in the middle of a violent storm and rode it out in the tree’s branches. “I kept my lofty perch for hours,” he wrote, “frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music, or to feast quietly on the delicious fragrance that was streaming past.”

Not that the woods always appear so friendly and inviting. They can also be dark and foreboding—a place where one can get dangerously lost, as Dante famously tells us in the first lines of his Divine Comedy:

Midway on the journey of life,
I found myself in a dark wood
For the straight path
had been lost.
How hard it is, even to speak
of that savage place
The very thought of which
renews my fear.

Those dark woods of Dante’s appear in countless fairy tales, where characters like Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood discover to their dismay that the forest is crowded not with comforting, godly presences, but with wolves, witches and other unfriendly characters set on doing them harm.


Ultimately, there’s no getting away from this double nature of the forest—its role as a place of both unexpected darkness and danger, and equally unexpected joy and light. That mysterious duality is, in fact, the real source of its power. In medieval Europe, seekers of the Holy Grail—the legendary chalice Christ and his disciples drank from at the Last Supper—knew that before they had a chance of attaining the Grail itself, they would have to pass through a forest full of dangers designed not only to test them, but also to purify and strengthen them. Sometimes, the spirit of the forest took on human form in the figure of the Green Man—a creature whose body was made entirely of leaves, twigs and acorns.

As pagan and unchristian as the idea of a man made of leaves might sound, the face of the Green Man graced the façades of countless European churches in the Middle Ages. The more scholars learn about this figure, the more it appears that he was not only a dark, wild and dangerously untamed figure, but also, paradoxically, an angelic and beneficent one.

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Ptolemy Tompkins
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