Trees and ‘God Talk’ Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

To mark the UN International Year of the Forest I plan to write a few articles on the importance of trees in my life. I grew up in rural Ireland in the 1950s, surrounded by trees.  A ribbon of horse chestnuts lined both sides of the road that linked the Killaloe and Limerick roads.  In summer their intertwining canopies shut out the light which gave the road its name – the Dark Road. In the fields around our house there were stands of oak, birch and sycamore. About 40 yards away to  the south and west my father planted  a shelter belt of  leylandis.  We had different varieties of apple trees in the orchard and two pear trees.

I entered St. Columbans seminary at Dalgan in 1962. The estate in which the seminary was built had extensive woodlands, full of indigenous trees such as oak, hazel, holly, ash, Scots pine, willow, elm and rowan.  The woods also contained a number of exotic species, including a number of sturdy Cedars of Lebanon and a few Californian Redwoods.  The trees had been planted in the 1820s by General Taylor who had fought alongside Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo.  According to local the woodlands were planted to mark where different British regiments were lined up to do battle with Napoleon.

During my seven years in the seminary I heard very little that might increase my love or respect for trees.  Students were not allowed to walk in the  woodlands and we were not even encouraged to give the trees the basic respect of knowing their names.  There was one ceremony each year which gave prominence to a tree. It was the beautiful, plaintive melody which was sung during the Exaltation of the Cross on Good Friday. As the celebrant unveiled the Cross, the celebrant sang, Ecce lingnum crucis in quo salus mundi perpendit (Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the saviour of the world). The faithful answered, Venite Adoremus ( come let us adore).  The truth is that we were not being asked to focus on the Cross, but on the figure of Christ which was nailed to it.  Unfortunately, the natural world did not figure at all in our education for ministry in the 1960s.  Little has changed in the intervening four decades in seminaries.  Theology and scripture presentations focus almost exclusively on the divine and human realms with little consideration for the rest of creation.

Ministry in Mindanao in the 1970s

After studying the local language, Cebuano in the autumn of 1969 and the first half of 1970, I was assigned to the parish of Oroquieta in northwest Mindanao, Philippines.  It was quite a peaceful place, but there were significant pockets of grinding poverty, especially among those living in the barrios. The Catholic Church in Mindanao was dedicated to promoting the well being of people through a number of initiatives, especially in the area of land reform.

Everything changed in September 1972 when, the then president,  Ferdinand  Marcos declared martial law.  Many Church workers, especially those who were involved in promoting social justice, were arrested and some were murdered. For the next 14 years, the energies of Church people were focused on protecting the human rights of the people against both the military and the guerillas as well as promoting social justice. During this time I had little knowledge of or concern for the environment.  The only time environmental degradation crossed my mind was when Panguil Bay in northwest Mindanao turned chocolate brown  after a day or so of monsoon rains or a typhoon. Even then, my concern was more for the farmers who had lost the precious topsoil than for the integrity of the forest and the well-being of other creatures in the web-of-life.

Working among the T’boli

My interest in trees and forests blossomed during the twelve years I spent working among the T’boli people in the province of South Cotabato in Mindanao.  The rainforests are a world of beauty, colour and fruitfulness which encircle the globe in the tropical areas of Africa, Central and South America and Asia. At least half, and possibly as many as 80% of the world’s animal and plant species live in the rainforests of the world.  Unfortunately, this has not spared them from the bulldozers and chainsaws of global logging companies, In Mindanao, international and local logging companies plundered the rainforests, especially in the years following World War II. A few companies and individuals became extraordinarily wealthy.

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