Forests and sacred groves
Every culture has narratives or beliefs which answer in different ways the fundamental questions about how we came to be, and articulate how and where people originated, collective transformations undergone by the community, and how people should behave towards one another and their environment (Elder and Wong 1994). Forests are the subject of a great deal of myth, legend and lore. Societies most closely entwined with forests tend to regard them with a healthy respect, an awe at their splendour and majesty, sometimes dread and fear of the powerful spirits that lurk within them. Ancestors often find their resting places in forests, many wandering in various states of unease and spitefulness.
In European culture, the word 'savage' was derived from silva meaning a wood, and the progress of mankind was considered to be from the forest to the field. Schama (1995) describes how from Ireland to Bohemia, penitents fled from the temptations of the world into forests, where in 'solitude they would deliver themselves to mystic transports or prevail over the ordeals that might come their way from the demonic powers lurking in the darkness'. The 'indeterminate, boundless forest', then, was a place where the faith of the true believer was put to a severe test. The forests in European culture were also considered to be a more positive site of miracles, the source of great spiritual awakenings; and the forest itself was held to be a form of primitive church or temple. The first temples in Europe were forest groves, and although progressively replaced with temples made of wood, and subsequently by churches made of stone, places of worship – particularly those of Gothic architecture – continue to evoke the forest with their design and proportions (Rival in Posey 1999; Schama 1995; Burch in Posey 1999).