Church forests, forest churches

If a moving image [video by Jeremy Seifert] could tell a thousand words…

Are the church forests of Ethiopia – precious pockets of biodiversity, remnants of what was once eternal set in sea of monoculture – living on borrowed time?

“The biggest challenge is to open the eyes of the community to show how these forests are really disappearing. They think always they are there forever.

“We can bring back the landscape, given that these church forests exist. That’s my hope, that’s my vision” (Dr. Alemayehu Wassie Eshete).


Hope can get a bad rap, especially when it’s built on sand or becomes an end in itself as an alternative to action. Dr. Alemayehu’s hope, though, the heart-to-hand kind of hope, is a call to action.

But opening the eyes of a community to its direction of travel is a daunting challenge when the destination isn’t pretty. Especially when the community’s traditional tools for comprehending time and space have been overwhelmed by predation and Progress and the values of modernity.

Nowadays, we’re all part of that community.

We tend to trust that our fellow species and the remaining natural commons are forever, and that prosperity and peace – should we be lucky enough to have them – are immutable. We don’t like to hear otherwise. We don’t like doomists. But then a systemic stumble, and all that prosperity and peace evaporate.

A reminder if needed that forever’s not a given, not while our voracious over-consumption and attendant devastation continue apace. A reminder, also, that gene pools – like church forests – are dwindling and drying up; that biodiversity is in helter-skelter retreat; that primary forest around the world is being felled faster than ever.

The march of technology and the drumbeat of consumer-capitalist ideology, which de-nature and dull us, have lulled us into working towards outcomes which no community of people could in their right minds wish to see realised. Like the hypothetical A.I. trained to produce paperclips, which eventually self-programs to eat through the whole planet and then the whole solar system as raw material for more paperclips. Like the logic which dictates that the solution to too many motor vehicles is more highways and parking lots…and the solution to too many guns is more guns.

How do we shake ourselves from this stupor and reset our intention?


Forest churches – precious spiritual havens destined to reseed the Ethiopian highlands, or a beleaguered legacy doomed to vanish into history?

Dr. Alemayehu’s vision suggests that the highland landscape can indeed be restored and biodiversity preserved because beautiful church forests persist, in our world and in our hearts. Like the hope and intention that are born anew with every generation. Like a glass of water for the thirsty.

Sometimes the visions of others convince, and sometimes they don’t. Maybe, in this case, we do have the power to make that change. Maybe our community of communities, including those that surround Ethiopia’s church forests, really will open its eyes and listen.


Photo by Kieran Dodds/Panos Pictures, via

One Reply to “Church forests, forest churches”

  1. Hi Chris
    that is a beautiful and wise video. Your distinction between fruitless hope and hope in action is right on point.
    I love that idea that the church should be in a setting that is like the garden of Eden. What a wise tradition. Also that the decorations are derived from the resources provided by the forest.
    How to balance the human needs that are met by agriculture while still nurturing forests is the question. Dr. Alemamayehu is wise to work on “outreach and education”, on speaking with the local people rather than imposing a program upon them.


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