PROVO — For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the phrase "sacred grove" brings to mind a grove of trees in upstate New York where a young man knelt in prayer. Yet there are many forests around the world considered "sacred groves" by different religions.
During a conference titled "Conservation, Restoration, Sustainability: A Call to Stewardship" held at Brigham Young University, professor Jason Brown of Utah Valley University discussed the history of the LDS Sacred Grove along with other religious forest settings.
"Trees mark the center of the world as the axis mundi," Brown said. "The Tree of Life in Judeo-Christian myth, the Yaggisdril of Norse cosmology and the Bodhi Tree of Buddhist lore all express this centering aspect. In addition, almost all pre-Christian cultures such as the Druids, Celts, Romans, Greeks and Semitic peoples maintained sacred groves as sanctuaries for their deities and temples housing their sacred ritual. What is now called the Sacred Grove by Mormons is the axis mundi of the Mormon experience."
More than 15 percent of the earth is believed to be sacred to one group or another, Brown said, citing Martin Palmer, director for the Alliance of Religion and Conservation. Brown pointed out that this is why the conservation community is looking to these religions and their religious forests as examples of good stewardship.
"The environmental community is looking to the religions for moral leadership, as they have increasingly recognized that our ecological crises are not simply technical but deeply moral problems," Brown said.
Although the Sacred Grove and Joseph Smith's account of his heart-felt prayer asking which church to join being answered in person by Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ have become well-known, Brown says, the LDS Church "is a seldom-recognized contributor to this global network of sacred and religious forests."
After passing through nine different owners, the Smith family farm outside of Palmyra, N.Y., which includes the Sacred Grove, was purchased by LDS apostle George Albert Smith in 1907 for $16,000, Brown said. It was after this purchase that the forest would be referred to as "sacred" in the LDS Church's history. President Joseph F. Smith then visited the spot where the vision was thought to have taken place.
Soon Willard and Rebecca Bean were assigned to the Sacred Grove as official caretakers. It was Willard who is recorded as the one who would escort viewers to the exact spot of Joseph Smith's vision.
Brown quoted William Reppleye's missionary journal from 1913 as an example of these visits: "He (Willard) was very kind to us and took us out ... to see the sacred grove and pointed out the big tree (Joseph) Smith (received) his first vision under. After taking a few pictures and getting a piece of bark off the tree for souvenir we went back to Palmyra."
Eventually, however, the forest began to suffer. There was no young growth to continue development.
"Well-intending pilgrims trampled and compacted the fragile soil, dooming any seedlings before they could grow past ankle height," Brown said. "It is perhaps ironic, then, that by the early 1990s a sacred center of Mormonism was in desperate need of ecological restoration."
In 1996, Robert Parrot was hired to restore the forest. Parrot was not a member of the LDS faith.
"It was just open and park-like. It was so open that from one side you could see right out the other side. Every tree and branch and twig that came down was cleaned up and hauled away," Parrott said in a telephone interview in 2009 and it quoted in Mormon Times. "It was pretty — and some people like that park-like appearance — it bore little or no resemblance to the forest that the Smiths would have encountered or that Joseph would have gone to."
Parrot dedicated himself to restoring the Sacred Grove to look as it might have looked when Joseph knelt in prayer.
Parrot created several narrow trails in order to not trample too much of the grove. A parking lot nearby was also moved several blocks away in order to maintain the quiet spiritual feel.
"The most important thing Parrot did was nothing," Brown said. "He stopped members from raking and cleaning the understory and allowed the much-needed leaves, branches and logs to accumulate on the starving sacred soil. Of his method Parrot told Mormon Times jokingly, 'It (took) an amazing amount of work to make it look as if I didn't do anything.'"
Brown concluded his presentation by expressing the global significance that religious forests, such as the Sacred Grove, can have.
"Forests provide not only spiritual inspiration but also represent a host of other values increasingly important to the conservation community such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity habitat, soil protection, water protection, clean air, medicine, food, fodder, sustainable sources of lumber and recreation," Brown said.
More information compiled by Brown can be viewed at the website Our Mother's Keeper.