the original Geometry of the Universe
We all know how intricate
are the relationships between a single tree and the forms of life that live in
it, and around it. But why are trees so important to human beings who are after
all—as forms of life—so distinct and different from trees? Though
distinctive and different, human beings are part of the same heritage of life.
The reason that trees and
forests are so important to us, as human beings, has to do with the natural
geometry of the universe. We must therefore distinguish between man-made
geometry, stemming from Euclidean geometry—the geometry we learn at
schools—from the natural geometry, especially the geometry of the living
When Euclid was inventing
his geometry, which has become the basis for man-made forms, the Greek reason
was already corrupted by Aristotle’s analytical and classificatory approach to
the world. With Socrates and Plato, the Greek world is still held in unity and
harmony. With Aristotle, we begin to divide and chop and atomize—put things
into separate compartments where they are identified by special labels called
Euclid and his geometry only
reinforces the tendency to atomism, separatism, thinking in neat logical
categories—here are the axioms, here are the rules of derivation, here are the
theorems derived from the axioms through the accepted rules of derivation. All
very neatly and rigorously defined. A triumph of the rational Western mind,
which is going to depend so much of the power of formal reasoning, on the
meaning of axioms, which will become the ultimate bricks out of which other
things are to be constructed.
What should not escape our
notice, in particular, is Euclid’s emphasis on the importance of the point,
and of the straight line. Let us be aware that we never see the point because
the point as such is invisible; we hardly meet a straight line in nature. Yet
the architecture of the human world, or to be more precise the architecture of
the world, as constructed by modern man, is founded on the straight lines and
those invisible points.
Let us put the proposition
in general terms: the geometry that dominates our lives, when we live in a city,
in a modern house, or when we drive an automobile, is the geometry derived from
the abstract system of man-made geometry. It is a geometry which, after a while,
constrains and suffocates us.
We have distinguished
natural geometry from man-made geometry. But what is natural geometry? The forms
by which and through which the universe has evolved, the forms by which life has
evolved. What are these forms? These forms are circular, spiral, round,
womb-like. When we contemplate the architecture of the universe: the galaxies
and the atoms, the amoebas and the trees, then we immediately see that the
dominant forms and shapes of nature and of the universe are round and spiral and
so often amorphous.
The dancing universe does
not move in straight lines. It moves in spiral, circular and irregular motions.
The life dancing in and through the universe is not choreographed by the
computer and its linear logic. The quintessential symbol of life is that of the
All life has emerged from
primordial womb, which is irregular, amorphous, full of connecting loops and
spirals. We, individual human beings, were conceived and nursed in the wombs of
our mothers. Natural geometry had conditioned our early impulses. Natural
geometry has shaped our early growth. Natural geometry has formed our bodies,
which are but an expression of this geometry. Now, look at your own body and see
it in terms of natural geometry. Your body is full of irregular shapes—round,
oval, asymmetrical. There is hardly any straight line within the architecture of
our body. The head is such a funny irregular egg. The hands and legs are
irregular cylinders. The eyes and the mouth, the neck and the stomach are but
endless variations on the theme of natural geometry.
Being nursed and
conditioned, shaped and determined, by natural geometry, we respond to it in an
intuitive and spontaneous manner. Why do we rest so well in the presence of a
tree? Because in it we find an outlet for our natural geometry. The communion
with the trees, being surrounded and nursed by them, is for us a return to the
original geometry of life. That is why we feel so good in the act of this
communion. We were born and nourished by natural geometry and to this
geometry we long to return. By dissolving ourselves in the geometry of the
tree, we resolve tensions and stresses accumulated through, and thrust upon by
artificial geometry. We must clearly see that artificial geometry of man-made
environments is full of tension and stress.
To dissolve in the
primordial matrix of life—this is sanity.
To enter the communion with
the shapes which spell out organic life—this is a silent joy.
To lose oneself in the forms
soaked in the substance of life—this is a fundamental renewal.
Trees and forests are
important for deep psychological reasons. In returning to the forest, we are
returning to the womb; not in the psychoanalytical terms; but in cosmological
terms. We are returning to the source of our origin. We are entering the
communion with life at large. The existence of the forests is so important
because they enable us to return to the source of our origin. They provide for
us a niche in which our communion with all life can happen.
environments which we need for our sanity and for our mental health, as well as
for the moments of silent brooding, without which we cannot truly reach our
deeper selves, should not be limited to forests only. Rugged mountains and
wilderness areas provide the same nexus for being at one with the glory of the
elemental forces of life. Wilderness areas are life-giving in a fundamental
sense, nourishing the core of our being. This core of our being is sometimes
called the soul.
To understand the nature of
the human being is ultimately a metaphysical journey; in the very least it is a
trans-physical journey. Trans-physical translated into the Greek language means
metaphysical. The metaphysical meaning of forests has to do with the quality of
spaces the forests provide for the tranquility of our souls. Those are the
spaces of silence, the spaces of sanity, the spaces of spiritual
nourishment—within which our being is healed and at peace.
We all know how
soul-destroying and destructive to our inner being modern cities can be—and
actually are. The comparison alone between the modus of a technological city and
the modus of a wilderness area informs us sufficiently about the metaphysical
meaning of the spaces of forests, of the mountains, of the marshlands.
Though the trees are
immensely important to our psychic well-being, not every tree possesses the same
energy and meaning. The manicured French parks and the primordial Finnish
forests are different entities. In the manicured French parks we witness the
triumph of the Cartesian logic and of Euclidean geometry, while in the Finnish
forests, immensely brooding and surrounded by irregular, female-like lakes, we
witness the triumph of natural geometry.
What is natural and what is
artificial is nowadays difficult to determine. However, when we find ourselves
among the plastic interiors of an airport, with its cold brutal walls and
lifeless plastic fixtures surrounding us—on the one hand, and within the bosom
of a big forest, on the other hand, we know exactly the difference and without
any ambiguity. In the forest our soul breathes, while in plastic environments
our soul suffocates.
The idea that our soul
breathes in natural unstructured environment should not he treated as a poetic
metaphor. It is a palpable truth. This truth has been recognized on countless
occasions, and in many a context—although usually indirectly and
We go to a lovely old
cottage. The old wooden beams supporting the ceiling attract us immensely—as
no concrete and iron beams will ever do. We go to a modern flat, undistinguished
otherwise except that there is a lovely wooden paneling along the walls of the
rooms. We respond to it. We resonate with it. We do so not because we are old
sentimental fools, or for aesthetic reasons alone, but for deeper and more
Life wants to breathe. We
breathe more freely when there are other forms of life which can breathe around
us. Those old beams made of oak in the old cottage breathe. Those panelings made
of wood in the modern flat breathe. And we breathe with them. Those plastic
interiors, and those concrete cubicles, and those tower blocks, and those
rectilinear cities do not breathe. We find them ‘sterile,’ ‘repulsive,’
‘depressing.’ These very adjectives come straight from the core of our
beings. And those are not just the reactions of some idiosyncratic individuals,
but the reactions of all of us, at least a great majority of us.
A plastic interior may be
aesthetically pleasing. Yet after a while, our soul finds it uncomfortable,
constraining, somewhat crippling. The primordial life in us responds quite
unequivocally to our environments. We have to learn to listen carefully to the
beat of the primordial life in us, whether we call it instinct, intuition, or
the wholistic response. We do respond with great sensitivity to spaces,
geometries and forms of life surrounding us. We respond positively to the forms
which breathe life, for these forms are life-enhancing. Life in us wants to he
enhanced and nourished. Hence we want to be in the company of forms that breathe
It is therefore very
important to dwell in the surroundings in which there are the forms that can
breathe—the wooden beams, the wooden floors, the wooden panelings. Lucky are
the nations that can build houses made of wood—inside and outside. For the
wood breathes, changes, decays—as we do. It is also important to have flowers
and plants in our living environment. For they breathe. To contemplate a flower
for three seconds may be an important journey of solitude, a journey of return
to original geometry—which is always renewing. We make these journeys actually
rather often, whenever plants and flowers are in our surroundings. But we are
rarely aware of what we are doing.
Forests and spirituality are
intimately connected. Ancient people knew about this connection and cherished
and cultivated it. Their spirit was nourished because their wisdom told them
where the true sources of nourishment lie.
Forests in History
Ancient people were intimate
with their surroundings. They so often weaved themselves into the tapestry of
life surrounding them so exquisitely that we can only admire their sensitivity
and their wisdom. They had a very special understanding of the places, the locus
genius of their territory.
Forests were of course of
great importance to ancient people, and almost everywhere in the world trees
grew, some forests were marked as special enclosures, indeed as sacred. These
forests were to be protected, and never desecrated. In the seminal book of Sir
James Frazer The Golden Bough
(1935), we have an impressive and eloquent evidence how people, from the
paleolithic era onwards went on about preserving and worshipping their forests;
how they set our certain forests as sacred. “In them no axe may be laid to any
tree, no branch broken, no firewood gathered, no grass burnt; and animals which
have taken refuge there may not be molested.”
In the world of classical
Greece, and then of Rome, these special groves and forests were usually enclosed
by stonewalls. This enclosure was called in Greek Temenos, a cut off
place, or a demarcated place. A better translation would be a ‘sacred
enclosure.’ Indeed a periodical entitled Temenos
started to be published in England in the late 1970s explicitly evoking
the spirit of Temenos—as a sacred enclosure, and calling for the creation of
In Latin the term for these
demarcated places was templum.
Templum was of course the original root of the word ‘temple.’ To
begin with, those sacred enclosures were the sanctuaries in which religious
ceremonies took place. They were in fact open-air temples. When later on temples
were erected as monumental buildings with columns and all, sacred groves and
forests did not cease to exist. They were still cherished and protected. They
inspired the sense of awe, the sense of the mystery of the universe, a higher
sense of indwelling, being close to gods. The Roman philosopher Seneca so writes
in the first century A.D.
If you come upon a grove of old trees that have lifted their crowns
up above and shut out the light of the sky by the darkness of their interlacing
boughs, you feel that there is a spirit in the place, so lofty is the wood, so
lonely the spot, so wondrous the thick unbroken shade.
This sense of the mystery of
the universe which some places evoked more than other places, led ancient people
to celebrate and protect these places. They felt that in those places their life
was enriched and deepened. In sacred groves and forests they felt close to gods
and other sublime forces of nature. This sense of the mystery of the universe
has, by and large, been lost by modern Western man. But not entirely so.
When we go to Delphi, on a
crisp spring day, at the time when the hoards of tourists did not desecrate the
place yet, and when in peace and tranquility we identify ourselves with the
spirit of the place, we feel a tremendous power emanating from the surroundings.
The sense of the Sacred
resides in us all. But now it requires very special circumstances for this sense
to manifest itself. Our jaded bodies, our overloaded senses and overburdened
minds make the journey of transcendence—to the core of our being—rather
For the ancient people the
sense of the Sacred was enacted daily. The whole structure of life was so
arranged that the human being could not only experience the Sacred but was
encouraged to do so. It is rather different in our times.
In the sacred groves and
forests of ancient Greece, particular species of trees were dedicated to
particular gods. Oaks were in the domain of Zeus, willows of Hera, olives of
Athena, the laurel of Apollo, pines of Pan, vine of Dionysus. But this
identification was not rigid. The ancient Greeks were generous and flexible
people. In various localities, due to specific traditions, different trees could
be dedicated to different deities. On the island of Lesbos, for instance, there
was an apple grove dedicated to Aphrodite.
Many of the sacred groves
contained springs and streams and sometimes lakes. The pollution of these
springs and lakes was absolutely forbidden. There was usually a total ban on
fishing, with the exception of priests. It was believed that whoever would fish
in the lake Poseidon and would catch fish would be turned into the fish called
fisher. (Pausanias, 3, 21, 5)
In Pellene there was a very
special sacred grove, dedicated to Artemis the Savior, which no man could enter
except the priests. This was rather unusual. The common rule was that ordinary
people could enter the grove providing they came ritually clean, not guilty of
any serious crimes, especially bloodguilt.
The tradition of sacred
groves and forests was maintained by the ancient people throughout the world.
Sacred groves in India are as ancient as the civilization itself. Indeed they go
back to the prehistoric, pre-agricultural times. While the idea and the
existence of sacred forests and groves did not survive in the West—as we have
progressively become a secular society—those groves survived in India until
recent times. However, with the weakening of the religious structure of beliefs,
the very idea, and hence the existence of the sacred groves and forests have
been undermined in India. Yet, there are still some sacred groves in
India—left, particularly among tribal people.
One of my favorite
definitions of the forest is that given by the Buddha. For him the forest was
… a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that
makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its
life activity; it affords protection to all beings, offering shade even to the
axe-man who destroys it.
The native Americans or
American Indians have been particularly sensitive to the quality of places. For
them, to worship a mountain or a brook or a forest was quite a natural thing,
for every plant, every tree as well as Mother Earth and Father Heaven were
imbued with a spirit.
In the cosmos infused with
spiritual forces, delineating special places as particularly important and
sacred was as natural as it was inevitable. These special places were also the
places of ritual and ceremony, the ones in which the Sacred was enacted in daily
life; and in the act, the essential mystery and divinity of the universe
In the Western world, the
churches and shrines served this purpose—of connecting man with the Sacred.
But that was some time ago. As we had become progressively secularized so we
have lost the sense of the mystery of life and the sacredness of the universe.
The churches are now hollow and reverberate with nothingness; for the spirit is
gone from the people. The churches are being closed. In England alone two
thousand of the existing sixteen thousand churches have been closed. It is
reported that only three percent of the people regularly attend the Anglican
Church. And so the Bishop of Durham proclaims: “It is not now the case that
England is a Christian Country.” Is it not similar in other so-called
The original temple, or templum
or Temenos have lost their meaning, for our hearts so often are cold, and our
minds have lost the touch with the mysterious and the Sacred. As we have
impoverished the universe of the Sacred, so we have impoverished ourselves. As
we have turned sacred groves and other forests into the timber industry, we no
longer have natural temples in which we can renew ourselves.
We are now reassessing the
legacy of the entire technological civilization and what it has done to our
souls and our forests. Our problem is no longer how to manage our forests and
our lives more efficiently in order to achieve further material progress. We now
ask ourselves more fundamental questions: How can we renew ourselves
spiritually? What is the path to life that is whole? How can we survive as
humane and compassionate beings? How can we maintain our spiritual and cultural
The wilderness areas, which
I call life-giving areas, are important for the three reasons. Firstly, they are
important as sanctuaries. Various forms of life might not have survived without
Secondly, they arc important
as givers of timber that breathes and out of which will be made beautiful panels
and beams that breathe life in our homes.
Thirdly, and most
significantly, they are important as human sanctuaries, as places of spiritual,
biological and psychological renewal. As the chariot of progress, which is the
demon of ecological destruction, moves on, we wipe out more and more
sanctuaries. They disappear under the axe of man, are polluted by plastic
environments, are turned into Disneylands.
The rebuilding of sanctuaries
is vital to the well-being of our body and the well-being of our souls for the
two act in unison. We have lost the meaning of the Temple (templum) in
now deserted churches. We have to recreate this meaning from the foundations. We
have to re-sacralize the world, for otherwise our existence will be sterile. We
live in a disenchanted world. We have to embark on the journey of the
re-enchantment of the world. We have to recreate rituals and special ceremonies
through which most precious aspects of life are expressed and celebrated.
Forests still inspire us and
infuse us with the sense of awe and mystery—that is when we have time and the
quietness of mind to lose ourselves in them. And here is an important message.
Forests may again become sacred enclosures where great rituals of life are
performed, and where the celebration of the uniqueness and mystery of life and
the universe is taking place. It depends on our wills to make the forests the
places of the re-sacralization of the world. The first steps in this direction
were taken by the famous Polish director, Jerzy Grotowski, who has abandoned the
theatre in order to make nature and particularly forests the sacred grounds for
man’s new communion with the cosmos.
While I was at Findhorn in
1979, there I met the legendary Man of Trees, Richard St. Barbe Baker. By the
time I met him he was in his nineties. A beautiful man in his old age, emanating
uprightness, calmness and solidity of big trees. From the early childhood his
passion was to plant trees. And he planted literally millions of them throughout
his busy and productive life—all over the world. During his talk at Findhorn,
he led the meditation of a special kind. He asked us to imagine that each one of
us is a tree. We stretched our arms as if we were trees… while our feet were
solidly grounded in the earth—as the roots of a tree are. For St. Barbe Baker
to be in touch with the forest was a form of religion. Each tree was a form of
alter for him.
We must develop a similar spirit of reverence and empathy for the trees and
forests. For they are true sanctuaries.
Let me finish with a short
MEN AND FORESTS
Forests are the temples.
Trees are the altars.
We are the priests serving the forest gods.
We are also the priests serving the inner Temple.
Treat yourself as if you were an inner Temple
And you will come close
To the god which resides within.
To walk through the life as if you were
In one enormous Temple—
This is the secret of Grace.
 Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, Vol. 2, p. 42.
 Seneca, Epistoles, 4, 12, 3.
 For further discussion see: J. Donald Hughes, “Sacred Groves: The Gods, Forest Protection, and Sustainable Yield in the Ancient World,” in History of Sustained Yield Forestry, N.K. Steen, Ed., 1983.
 For further discussion see: Madhav Gadgil and V.D. Vartak, “Sacred Groves in India—a Plea for Continued Conservation,” The Journal of Bombay Natural History Society, Vol. 72, No. 2, pp. 314-320, 1975.
 See: Jerzy Grotowski, On the Road to Active Culture, 1979; and his other writings.
 See especially: Richard St. Barbe Baker, My life, My Trees, Findhorn Press, 1979.