Late last year, the New York Times featured a short documentary on Dr Alemayehu Wassie, an ecologist working in the arid highlands of northern Ethiopia. Once populated by verdant forests, the highlands are now a barren wasteland due to the effects of over-farming. Only 3 per cent of the original forest is left.
Wassie is tackling this problem by building walls, and plenty of them. Due to an architectural quirk of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, walls have traditionally surrounded churches in a series of concentric circles, emanating from the holiest part of the church sanctuary and working outwards. In an otherwise grim story of loss and ruin, these stone walls have created ecological safe places, protecting Ethiopia’s original forests from hungry cattle or locals in search of firewood.
There are about 20,000 of these tiny church forests in that part of the country. Aerial shots from the documentary show these sacred forests as almost miraculous — small hopeful green signs of the way things could be, the drone camera panning over a desertscape and then unexpectedly coming upon lush sanctuaries. You can practically feel the cool air beneath the canopy.
Dr Wassi and his team have enlisted the help of local priests to build outer walls, enlarging the sacred spaces that now protect lavish forests rich in biodiversity and possibility.
These walls are the perfect metaphor for the kind of restorative activity we in the West need of today.
As we arrive at the half-way point of the desperate year that is 2020, these walls are the perfect metaphor for the kind of restorative activity we in the West need of today — walls not of separation and division, but of protection and nurture, restoration and diversity, bringing life back to desolate places.
Our online spaces especially feel like a wasteland of polarisation, mistrust, and growing division. If you engage at all on Twitter (and frankly, the best advice might simply be to avoid it), it’s hard not to be weighed down by the vitriol, the sneering dismissal of pretty much everyone not the same as you, and the pent-up fury, the depth of which is as confronting as it is relentless.
But recently I’ve been witness to something more hopeful — more life-restoring. And yes, it was made possible by technology. In an effort to lift people’s spirits in lockdown, New York-based independent publisher A Public Space engaged celebrated author Yiyun Li to lead a virtual book club, “Tolstoy Together,” that committed to reading War and Peace by tackling 15 pages each day for three months.
The choice of book was deliberate. The novel features individuals caught up in forces of history beyond their control — Napoleon’s grand ego on display and the tectonic reverberations of his invasion of Russia. It all felt especially apt. Yiyun Li, who has read the novel at least a dozen times, assured readers at the start that “the more uncertain life is, the more solidity and structure Tolstoy’s novels provide.”
Yiyun guided readers, from Pakistan to Sydney to Belgium, with her brief daily observations of each passage. A weekly e-newsletter, Instagram page, and Twitter feed helped bring together the 3,000-odd readers from 20 countries and every continent except Antarctica. At the very end, 700 of them joined Yiyun in a mass Zoom call to hear her final thoughts and sign off on the project.
My wife did the whole thing and I vicariously absorbed some of what was best about it. Most conspicuous to me was the unadulterated positivity of a shared project. It wasn’t competitive, there was no clamouring for attention, but only mutual kindness, collegial encouragement, and a willingness to learn. At the conclusion readers shared photographs of where they had read each day, and these were themselves a moving portrait of the possibility of human solidarity across continents, cultures, and time.
Fred Bahnson, who wrote the essay that became the documentary on the Ethiopian church forests, thinks of them as arks, or “tiny green vessels sailing over a barren sea of brown”. Deploying the metaphor globally to image our contested and fragile future, he writes, “We will need many more arks like them … tens of thousands of arks: cultural, biological, spiritual.” Much like the “Tolstoy Together” group, finding refuge and nourishment that was infectious and self-perpetuating.
These kinds of initiatives take work. They require nurture. And a strong foundation. The church forests emanate from a belief in the sacred — sacred space worth protecting, and sacred life and the value of every person. The centre enables the whole. The solid protective walls are permeable, in that an open gate welcomes all who want to enter to find refuge and abundant life. They offer a bright sign of hope in northern Ethiopia, and perhaps a symbol of what is possible in our own search for sanctuary and refreshment.
Simon Smart is the Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and the co-host of the historical documentary, For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined.
This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.