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.


All of life is spiritual, we are spiritual beings. It is only a matter of who or what we worship.

I love what you are seeing Gene, ” I see a joining of hands to get to the real work of keeping our civilization plodding along.” I feel called by God and that is definitely not to seminary but to the land, to seeing a justice for those who work the land and I too hope to see the joining of hands to get the real work done but here in Latvia and not America. Looks like we have something in common then!

Regarding religion, I think it is very brave and honest to admit you can’t see the emporer’s new clothes when indeed you can’t. If there is a god/goddess and we are created in his/her image, surely we were given our brains to use, to think with, and to come to our own conclusions. Anybody can (and they do) feed us anything and then shame us into pretending we believe it too if we are not so brave and true.

I enjoy the open dialogue between open minds that this site brings. Many individuals with as many different beliefs are drawn to your writing because of the practical content and the refreshing honesty of your contrariness.


Pace. Unfortunately tone doesn’t come through comments so well…my last comment was half-jest. Your assumptions about me are false, but I don’t care to explain why.

Gene’s post is about his book and includes thoughts about God, nature, religion, etc. My comments and questions, especially toward him (which he has not answered) were honest and on-topic. My ones toward you challenged your bald-faced assertions.

This is my last comment to you. Perhaps we can agree to go out and plant a grove of trees, for the betterment of our world? Hopefully we can agree on that.


thetinfoilhatsociety May 3, 2012 at 10:28 pm

I’m so sorry to be hijacking this thread, Gene. I read Devin’s review of your book and was quite perturbed by it. Thus the response to him at all.

Devin, you obviously have no understanding what dogma is, nor doctrine. Maybe you should look it up. No, claiming to have no dogma is NOT dogma. It’s common sense. I don’t claim to have the “One Right True and Only Way (TM)” to salvation, spirituality, or anything else. I doubt Gene does either. I suspect you do though.

And that’s that for responding to someone who is obviously becoming a troll.

Is your claim that you have no dogma, itself a dogma?
Is the claim that dogma can never compete with true spirituality, itself a dogma?

You get the idea.

thetinfoilhatsociety May 3, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Alas, dear Devin, I am not an atheist nor a former one so I have no dogma, knowing or unknowing.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who believe in dogma and know it, and those who believe in dogma and don’t know it.

thetinfoilhatsociety May 3, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Religion, the relinking of man to god, happens most often when we are close to nature. I think that too often people confuse dogma/doctrine with spirituality. While I have never met you in person, I do believe you are one of the most spiritual people I can think of; dogma can never compete with true spirituality and indeed is most often the killer of it. You chose spirituality over dogma when you made your choice, in my opinion, and the world is a better place for it.

One day I picked up an old church pew at an auction. I moved it into the barn where turned against the wall it serves as a feeding trough for my jersey. Above it I wrote a little note:

This is our church
Up in the rafters ‘God’ shuffles about
If you kneel to pray you better watch out…..
To avoid the manure
and that big black goat.

I think I’ve offended some people but it’s more than a joke . It is my church! If I’m there or in the woods I’m ‘down on my knees’ in my own way.

Robert Rebant Jr. May 2, 2012 at 7:39 pm

I enjoyed reading “A Sanctuary of Trees”-it reminded me that I had copy of “The Soul of a Tree” by George Nakashima somewhere on one of my many bookshelves;so I got it out and started reading it again to my delight along with “Thus Spake Zarathustra” by Friedrich Nietzsche a chapter in one then a couple of chapters in the other. The experience made me ponder this whole God question a little more deeply -it seems that The Great Spirit enjoys all the varied ways humans have of imagining Him/Her.

When I was very young, before I could even talk much, I thought Mother Nature was God”s wife. It seemed obvious. I was so much wiser then.

Gene, I am very sorry to have given that impression — I meant that it was NOT as if you had said such a thing. Again, my apologies; I typed too hastily on a break this afternoon. It was a long day.

Whoa, David. You put something in quotes as if I had written it somewhere. These are not my words at all. Gene

As an aspiring farmer and farmeress, that is my wife and I, we certainly feel called, by God and Nature, perhaps one through the other. I feel like we have to be seeing how most of our respective families think we’re “wasting our talents” as my grandma put it, who was raised on a small-farm oddly enough, while most of our friends just think we’re “cute.” We both have college degrees, mine in anthropology and my wife’s in nursing. I think we’re fortunate to have gone to a small liberal arts university that many professors and staff still believe in education and not just job training. I wouldn’t trade it but we’re still paying for it. Sometimes we question but always there is a tremendous deep knowing in us that we are to be in the woods, fields, and barns tending carefully to them all and them to us. We feel it is our calling to help in the “salvation” of creation, for we do not think that our “souls,”(whatever they may consist of) are all that need saving. Hopefully we can find a patch to call home and stay there for a good long time.

I’m having a hard time seeing how farming can be equated with ignoring a calling — with, in essence, selling out. I mean, it isn’t as though you felt called to become a corporate lobbyist. “I had always wanted to become a priest, since I was three years old and tried on my older sister’s dresses and pretended they were cassocks… but then God spoke to me from a magazine cover and said No Gene, you are to serve me as a lobbyist for the oil industry so that Man can perfect the dominion I gave him in Eden.” Then I would see your critics’ point. But lord, why would anybody go into farming if they didn’t feel called, in some way, by some force or other? A farmer without a calling is as bad as a priest without one, I think.

Chris, this is a painful caricature. Early Christians were killed by pagans and Zeus’ followers for not following the state religion. Sure, pagans and Christians fought, but the pagans were not some virtuous group of benevolent people who wanted to live and let live: they were brutal and ruthless as often as not.

Gene, I think Devin’s blog was very respectful, actually. Not really “taking you to task.”

Questions of the intricacies of faith are important, and when discussed carefully they can be fun as well. The interactions between “faith” (which even agnostics feel — a term I prefer to “atheist”), and “religion” (which means something more circumscribed, traditional, specific), are many, and compelling. Toss nature/farm into the mix and hell, that’s a darned fascinating conversation right there!

The only times I have ever felt a reverential awe was in the woods. It’s the closest I will ever get to religion, and all I will ever need of it.

Gene, our pagan ancestors worshipped their gods in groves of trees. Zeus’ sanctuary at Dodona was in an oak grove. The priests there heard the god speak in the rustling of the leaves. If we listen, we can still hear that in our own groves.

Early Christianity crushed the pagans by cutting down their sacred groves, but if you look carefully at a Gothic Cathedral, you will realize you are standing in a grove of gigantic stone trees, and the varicoloured light sifts in through the branches of the stone windows.

Thank you for everything you write.

Dear Gene
I am surpprised at how many people separate a christian walk with God and life on a farm or nature itself. I would remind your readership that God placed our first Mother and Father in a garden to tend. He did not place them in a city. Through out the ages God placed his people outside the cities. Whether this was Abraham, Isaac, Moses or John the bapitist. They were educated by God’s creation not by city life. Jesus himself went to the garden to find peace not to a tavern or shopping therapy. Daniel and Revelation, the two most prophetic books of the bible talk about a time soon coming where the followers of Christ will not be able to buy or sell. Your views on where our society is heading does not linger far from this view. We see events in the world that cannot be fixed and the present band aids will not heal the present situation.
Gene, if you want more information on the biblical view of end times as the bible portrays it you will find great insight and your future writngs will have even greater impact than it already has. Let me know if you want me to share more information with you on these views. You will be astonished at how God has been leading you with the present views you have.

After decades of church-going, a masters in theological studies and much pondering, I find that Nature is my best teacher and provides more spirituality than I can stand at times. As Annie Dilliard wrote, I spend much time “gawking and enjoying!” And no time in the building called church. Thanks for affirming my path Gene!

“There is a spiritual side to good food production that if ignored leads to bad food production and the downfall of civilizations.”
I would go so far as to generalize that statement to say, “There is a spiritual side to ( ) that if ignored leads to ( ) and the downfall of ( )” and accept it as a sound basis to guide all my decisions and actions. As a Christian, I consider calls from God significant and their ignoring to be done at my own peril. Even more perilous in my opinion though, is telling somebody else their call from God and castigating them for ignoring it. But that’s just my opinion. I know I’ve dropped more calls than ATT.
I am loving reading Sanctuary. So far I’ve decided that I have to plant a couple Thomas Black Walnut trees, a Sassafras to make my own illegal root beer and some form of chestnuts.
As any good priest does, you address the practical and the spiritual to the benefit of your parishioners.


I just finished the book and really enjoyed it. We hope to be our farm in the next few years, and your book has given me key insights into what trees to look for, how much acreage we want to dedicate to a grove, and so on.

I’m also a Catholic guy–former atheist–and found the first part of the story fascinating, when you were in minor seminary. From my perspective (one of faith in God), it is ironic in a sad way that you were studying with the Franciscans and yet didn’t make the connection between creation and the Creator. St. Francis made that connection perhaps better than any other saint. He loved animals and trees (and people too) and Jesus Christ. No conflict there.

But it doesn’t sound like you ever had a call from God to be a priest. Rather, as you pointed out, you just kind of went along for the ride to seminary. There was a big forest with lots to explore that any young adventurous teenage boy would find appealing. It’s good that you didn’t become a priest, because it doesn’t seem like you ever really embraced the faith that you were given at baptism. I don’t know why that is the case, but clearly it is. A priest without faith is a terrible thing.

Maybe you can shed some light on the question of, did you ever have faith? Did you ever believe in God, in Jesus?

Thanks for the great book!

Nature IS my religion…

Can’t wait to read “Trees,” Gene!

Nice. I really enjoyed what Terra Brochman said in the Seasons on Henry’s Farm: that they are everyday but Sunday churchgoers. Me too. It’s hard to spend so much time in silence and with Nature and not be awed.

I suspect if God had truly called you to the priesthood, he wouldn’t have placed those forests there….

Never was a Catholic but did taste of other Christian philosophies. My Father-in-law contended that hisreligion was being a “fisherman” not in the biblical sense but in the literal sense. I find solace in my meadows and woods communing with all that nature provides and have not felt a need to enter a church building for some years. Many of my friends are devout attenders and they have no issue with my return to nature. thak you for the great essays that you share with us.

God created the heavens and the earth. Then God gave mankind dominion over the earth. To destroy the gifts we have been given seems just plain dumb and ungrateful, at least to my way of thinking. Thanks for all you do Gene.

You’re so right in this little essay, from a variety of perspectives. As a practitioner of what I call Natural Religion, you have become one my favorite commentators on a down-to-earth inquiry into meaning and purpose. I look forward to your weekly musings.

Through the years I’ve considered composing a book on trees. After I read your book, I suspect that I’ll consider the mission accomplished. [Several years ago, I gave a ‘memorial service” for an dying elm: http://searlsermons.blogspot.com/2012/04/old-elm.html%5D

At this point, I’d think you wouldn’t really care what people say or think about you or your books and hope you that you continue to write from you heart. I am also a recovering Catholic, turned farmer and have also found my new church in the land. It’s comforting, it sustains me and is never judgmental which is what I’d hope to get from the church.

Those who take you to task are threatened. That means you’re shaking folks up. And that’s where awareness begins. Hallelujah!

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