Africa, January/February 2020, Vol. 85 No. 1

From My Bookshelf: Fr Michael Long reviews

Our Future in Nature: Trees, Spirituality and Ecology

by Edmund Barrow

I had a very nice experience recently. A friend of mine, Edmund Barrow, invited me to the launch of his book. The book, which reflects his life experience, is called Our Future in Nature: Trees, Spirituality and Ecology. 


We worked together in the early eighties on a Gorta sponsored project in Northern Kenya – the East Pokot Integrated Agricultural Project. East Pokot is a semi-arid area and traditionally the Pokot were a pastoral people, relying largely on their camels, cattle, sheep and goats. The project worked to improve the livestock and grazing management. It also worked to incorporate new potential food sources, such as crops and their management. The project worked also on women’s development, with a Scottish woman Ann Muir. 


At the end of 1982 Ed with his wife Rosie, and baby Barney, moved north to a new project working with the Turkana people. At the book launch Ed mentioned that it was at this time he met with the local bishop who made him aware of the sacredness of trees. That Bishop was Johnny Mahon, a St Patrick’s missionary from County Offaly, Ireland. Working with the Turkana – also a pastoral people – Ed was growing in awareness of their knowledge of the natural world and the trees they held as sacred.


In the intervening years Ed’s work has taken him to many different places and he worked with many different peoples. This books tells of his journey in his own words.


Edmund grew up on an organic farm in Ireland and went to Trinity College Dublin where he studied natural sciences. He has a Masters degree in development. He has worked for over 40 years, mainly in Africa (but also in Asia, and the Americas), in twenty plus countries focusing on how communities conserve and benefit from nature. He emphasizes local learning in terms of governance, empowerment, bene-fit sharing, natural resource management, and the more spiritual aspects of nature. It includes the importance of local and indigenous knowledge. He has extensive experience with participatory approaches to environmental management, village-level land use, planning at landscape levels and forest landscape restoration. Edmund has published widely emphasising practical lessons to enable people benefit from conservation. He lives in Nairobi, Kenya with his wife and two sons.

My own journey from Pokot has been quite different. When I finished in Pokot in 1984, I joined Saint Patrick’s Missionary Society, and I was ordained in 1991. After ordination I went to work in Zambia, initially in a rural area, and later in a compound/township on the outskirts of Lusaka. In 1996 I was asked to return in Ireland to work in administration within the Society. 


The opportunity for a sabbatical arose in 2002 and I went to study Ecology Spirituality, which I really enjoyed. By the end of that year I believed this to be the most important work I could be involved with. I made contact with a local group near Thurles, working to conserve wetlands. Cabragh Wetlands is a centre dedicated to conservation, recreation, and education. It arose out of the closure of the nearby sugar factory, when a group of local people got together to conserve this valuable place. That was in 1989, and the work has continued since, with voluntary labour for the most part. Recently we registered the name ‘Tipperary Centre for Environmental Learning at Cabragh Wetlands’. We work with primary schools on their primary science programme and with secondary schools with their field study, and have talks and activities for adults. What all our activities have in common is our desire to create greater awareness around the environment and the need to care for it. 


My journey into Ecology Spirituality has been different from Ed’s. Working with adults and young people here at Cabragh Wetlands is for me a very good experience and a constant learning. It is a privilege to see how children and adults interact with nature and how animated they can become. Young people can be discouraged by the loss of species especially over the past forty years. They sometimes ask what were we doing that so much damage was caused? At the same time there are occasions when you see in a young person’s expression that connection with the world about them and the positive impact that has. Working with people here has been like learning another language – the language of earth, the realisation that we live in a world that is interconnected and interdependent in ways we are only beginning to understand. 


Now I find myself in Trinity College at the launch of Ed’s book. As I listen I realise I can identify with everything he is saying. Ed calls for more dialogue between science and religion; we have much to learn from each other. He is loud in his praise of Laudato Si’ – Pope Francis’ Encyclical letter ‘On Care For Our Common Home.’ In his opinion it is the most comprehensive document on the environment. As I listen to Ed speak it strikes me that while we followed very different paths, we continue to share a passion and love for our sacred common home.


The following is an extract from Ed’s book:

Who has not felt a sense of awe, silence, stillness, and presence in an ancient woodland or forest or in front of a sacred tree? Humankind has held trees and woodlands in awe and reverence since the dawn of time. We depend on nature for the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the services nature provides. The book, Our Future in Nature: Trees, Spirituality, and Ecology, is about the importance of sacred trees and groves in our stress-filled and increasingly urban world. Sacred trees and sacred groves transcend race, color, and creed. They are found all over our fragile planet. Where there is a tree, there is a sacred tree.


Yet, humanity has waged war on nature, especially over the last few centuries. This forms the basis of the destructive project called development. Biodiversity loss, pollution, climate crises, and other manifestations of the madness of unlimited economic growth are upon us now, not in the future. We really have not taken the measures necessary to reduce our ecological impacts. These measures will now come from ordinary people rising to dethrone those who hold economic and political power over the rest of us and bring back real common sense.


This book will appeal to religious and spiritual traditions, to the conservation and environmental movements, and those concerned with education, health and peace. It offers its readers ways to take better care of our only home – planet Earth. Often undervalued, unrecognized, or disrespected, sacred trees and groves are conserved against mind-boggling pressures. For example, there is a sacred fig tree between two shops in one of the main streets in Hanoi, Vietnam. There is a one-hectare sacred grove in the centre of Kumasi, a city of 2.5 million people in Ghana. There are over 150,000 sacred groves in India and sacred hill forests in every village in Yunnan, South China.


Sacred trees and groves can conserve unique biodiversity, which helps create or recreate connectivity in the landscape. As such, sacred trees and groves may be relic survivors of bygone ages and are a resource for restoring degraded natural landscapes – an important opportunity for the UN decade on ecosystem restoration. This book offers ways for those involved with religion and spirituality and for those working with conservation and land use to jointly engage in repairing the damage we have done to Earth.


At a time like this, we need to reconceptualise our relationship with the earth we inhabit. A reconnection with the rest of nature is necessary. In this way, we will see ourselves as part of nature, not apart from it. For this, we need to better understand what our age-old relationships were and to locate where the historical and current wisdom lies. This will enable us to make those reconnections. In this sense, the material that this book presents is a critical contribution. It provides a glimpse of both the practical possibilities and the conceptual framework of a wiser stewardship of the earth. 

Published by and available from Balboa Press.

Price: $22.99 plus postage.

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