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.
BY: Ptolemy Tompkins
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.
Nowhere do we find this double nature of the wilderness expressed more powerfully than in the Bible. The word “wilderness” doesn’t always mean woods or forest when it appears there. Instead it often means desert, or simply a place set apart from human dwellings. But whether they featured actual forests or not, the stories we find in the Bible of men and women who journey into the wild and come back changed are the true inspiration behind countless legends and stories of forest journeys that came along later.
Hagar was banished by her master Abraham after Sarah had become jealous that she was bearing his child. Hagar took refuge “by a fountain of water in the wilderness.” There, the Angel of the Lord visited her and told her the name and destiny of her unborn child, Ishmael. Moses too encountered the Angel of the Lord, in the form of the burning bush, after leading his flock “behind the wilderness” to Mount Horeb. Later, in another wilderness journey, this time to the wild and lonely slopes of Mount Sinai, he came back carrying the tablets of the law.
Jesus met no less a figure than Satan himself during his 40-day sojourn in the wilderness, but he ultimately returned from his time there purified and empowered. I personally find it impossible to hear Jesus’ famous words to Nicodemus about the Holy Spirit blowing where it will without imagining a wind moving freely among trees. For Jesus, there was clearly something healing to be found in wild solitude.
All of these grand and holy adventures are very far away indeed from that New Hampshire hillside where, as a child, I stood and listened to the summer wind moving among the trees. And yet in another way, they’re not so far at all. For whether we are a legendary hero venturing deep into a trackless forest, or just an ordinary person taking a few quick steps off the beaten path and into unspoiled nature, what we encounter there is the same: a place where we can potentially get lost, but where something of the divine also waits to be found.