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Writing “A Sanctuary of Trees”

Writing books is a precarious business. I’ve been foolish enough to do it now about 28 times and I never know what is going to happen. I expected to get scolded for my novels (too irreverent about religion) and for titling a non-fiction book “Holy Shit.” But oddly enough, most readers seemed amused, as I had hoped, rather than irritated in these cases. Much to my surprise church ministers who responded were especially positive in reaction to my criticisms of institutional religion. Obviously there is a great upheaval bubbling up right below the surface of traditional religious sects of all kinds. A professor of theology and stalwart defender of Christianity at one of our leading universities, after reading my irreverent novel, “Pope Mary and the Church of Almighty Good Food,” which he says he enjoyed, now calls me, not altogether jokingly, “one of the good atheists.” In return I call him “one of the good Christians.” We get along wonderfully. This is precisely the kind of relationship that I think is becoming more the norm. You must remember how bad things used to be. When I was a Catholic kid seventy years ago, we were told it was a sin to go to a Protestant church service. Although there is still much conflict between various religious groups, and between religion and non-religion, more and more I see a joining of hands to get to the real work of keeping our civilization plodding along.

So I wrote “A Sanctuary of Trees” and even in such an uncontroversial book (I thought), I am getting scolded more than from previous books. My underlying intention in everything I write is to try to show, in what I hope to be a humorously wry way, the direct connections between agriculture and urban culture as human activity plays itself out in history. In the first part of “A Sanctuary of Trees,” I conjoined silviculture with my early years in a Catholic seminary studying for the priesthood. What I learned from the forests surrounding the several seminary locations I attended influenced me more than what I was hearing in the classroom. What I learned in both places led me eventually to choose the forest and leave the seminary.

Now I am being taken to task for rejecting my “call from God.” I am surprised since I thought this was a minor part of the book. But that’s okay because it is another indication to me of how closely culture and agriculture can be linked in the human mind, even if presently they usually are not. In our present traditional society, becoming a priest is a “call from God.” Becoming a forest-loving farmer instead should be a “call from God” too, and that is what I hope traditional religion will in the future readily recognize.

Farming is more than a commercial business. It is a religion also, using the term in its broadest sense, and I think society is coming to realize that concept more and more today. Whether one believes in calls from God, or from Nature, or from both, or from neither, it is much more than a “call from Money” as it is now so often considered. There is a spiritual side to good food production that if ignored leads to bad food production and the downfall of civilizations. Food and its production are pivotal to all forms of religion and all forms of non-religion. The god-fearing farmer and the godless farmer have much in common even if they use different words to express that commonality. In the current overwhelming trend to local food production and markets, I see old culture joining hands with new culture and to me that is tremendously promising.

Nevertheless, this aspect of the book should not overshadow the main theme: the enjoyment and sustenance that woodland lovers can derive from their own little groves of trees. For reasons that seem to have little logical explanation (a call from Nature?), I have spent much of my life among tree groves— unwittingly at first, intentionally later on. In many ways the groves were not only my sanctuary but my sanity and salvation. I just wish everyone could experience that kind of paradise and that is the main reason I wrote the book.

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