Emergence Magazine is an online publication featuring innovative stories that explore the threads connecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. They recently published an essay and a film combination entitled The Church Forests of Ethiopia: A Mystical Geography.
I would encourage readers to follow the link and watch the film and read the accompanying essay. Here we can see a beautiful relation between the sacred geography of the church and the need to have an integral ecology that protects the beauty of nature.
100 years ago the highlands of Ethiopia were covered by one a continuous forest. However little by little land was cleared for agriculture. Today only 3% of the original forest remains. Surprisingly most of this 3% is preserved by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Thanks to an ancient theological requirement that every church be surrounded by a mini Garden of Eden, the churches have preserved the ancient forest. In the highlands there are nearly 20,000 churches, many preserving 8 or 10 hectares of forest.
Since 1992 Dr. Alemayehu Wassie, a forest ecologist, has been working with the Church to preserve the forests. Traditionally the churches have a stone wall around them within the forest to mark off the church precinct. Both the church and the wall are within the remnants of the forests, which are the Garden of Eden within which the church is built. But today even these remnants of the forests are being destroyed. So Dr. Wassie has been working with the local parish communities convincing them to build a second outer wall that they can encompass both the church and the forest and preserve both for future generations. Initially these walls will also include some deforested area at the edge to allow the church forests to regrow and gradually gain back some of the land they lost.
The film by Jeremy Seifert has some beautiful images of the churches and their forests. The accompanying essay by Fred Bahnson of Wake Forest University School of Divinity, provides a lot of material for theological reflection.
In this year when we mark the fifth anniversary of Laudato Si’, many of us are trying to find new projects for theology and ecology to meet. However, this Ethiopian Orthodox example shows us how we might find even better wisdom in earlier Christian tradition!