Breathing Forests

By Canon James Mustard

Last week, I was very fortunate to hear the premiere performance of “Breathing Forests” by the American composer Gabriella Smith. Written as a concerto for organ and symphony orchestra, it paints a vivid picture of the life cycle of a forest in three movements: “Grow”, “Breathe”, “Burn”. Exploiting the strange, gentle percussiveness of wooden bows scraping and tapping on strings, of shimmering glissandi and thunderous cacophonies from the organ, the composer writes:

“Breathing Forests is a reflection on the complex relationship between humans, forests, climate change, and fire. The massive sound and architecture of the organ feels something like the grandeur of a forest to me, and its breath reminiscent of the glorious exchange of carbon dioxide to oxygen that forests perform on a massive scale.”

The arts can focus our attention on subjects that are often too vast or complex for us to approach in other ways. In the case of “Breathing Forests” there was a terrible beauty to its evocation of a forest fire, fires being part of the life cycle of a forest, essential to their regeneration, their rebirth.

Next week, the Church begins its annual pilgrimage of repentance through the season of Lent. It begins with burned Ashes on Ash Wednesday and pivots upon the wood of the Cross. The Cross is perhaps the most powerful symbol of the Church, of Christ’s victory over death, turning an instrument of torture into a sign of rebirth and hope. Wooden Cross becomes the Tree of Life, the ensign of Resurrection.

In Church we tend to forget that these symbols too are works of art. They speak of the deepest profound truths, of hopes and fears, love and loss, death and life. To focus upon the wood of the Cross is to explore all of these themes and more.

Indeed, the English poet and priest George Herbert, in his poem “Easter”, described all wood resonating with the Cross, never more so when fashioned into a musical instrument, the stretched, gut strings, as the outstretch arms of Christ on the Cross:

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The cross taught all wood to resound his name
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

The same resonance with the Cross could, of course, be observed in a forest. Trees of life flourishing and giving themselves to be consumed in order that others might live. Forests remind us that patterns of sacrifice and resurrection happen through all of creation, making the resurrection of Jesus in some sense less exceptional than we might imagine.

The coming seasons of Lent and Easter, the movement from the burned Ashes of Ash Wednesday, via the wood of the Cross to the flames of Pentecost remind us that we, too, have a spiritual cycle that needs nurturing and tending. The life-cycle of the forest and the life-cycles of all of us are deeply intertwined, ecologically, emotionally and spiritually.

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