Editorial: Everybody has a church in the woods
In his book The Courage To Be, theologian Paul Tillich urges people to look for “the God above God” in order to escape the anxiety of doubt. Tillich also believed that, in the early 1950s when the book was written, America was building too many churches.
With his Church of the Woods in Canterbury, the Rev. Steve Blackmer seems to have taken both of Tillich’s suggestions to heart.
This summer, Blackmer is working to turn 106 acres of former logging land on Foster Road into a place where people can “find their most direct connection with God or the greater powers of the universe in nature,” he told the Monitor on Saturday. He plans to create trails where, beginning in September, visitors will be able to contemplate life’s bigger questions as they sit or walk in the warmer months or go snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter.
As a man who has dedicated his life to nature conservation, Blackmer’s deep reverence for the land is easily understood – and also leads to some questions about the way some environmentalists approach their battle for hearts and minds.
There is little doubt that efforts to educate the world about climate change is supremely important, but advocacy for the health of the planet often relies too much on reminding people what they have lost or stand to lose. Blackmer’s Church of the Woods, on the other hand, reminds people of what they still have and that it should be celebrated. Also inherent in Blackmer’s concept of the Church of the Woods is the idea that land means something different to each person.
In fact, in Landscape and Memory, British historian Simon Schama considered the idea that every landscape is a work of the mind, “a repository of the memories and obsessions of the people who gaze upon it.”
For Blackmer, the Church of the Woods is a repository for his faith and a reminder of the importance of land conservation. A visitor may hold similarly deep connection to the land, but with a vastly different perception of what it contains.
This points to a mistake made often in the philosophical debate over climate change. The argument goes that the same things are at stake for everybody, that we share a landscape and memory. It’s simply not true. The key is to encourage people, as Blackmer has, to reconnect in their own way with the landscapes that hold meaning for them – their own church in the woods. Then and only then – and only within their own hearts – will they be able to fully appreciate what it is they stand to lose.