Forest Experiences as Nonreligious ‘Frame of Reference’


In this blog, Rebecca Banham explores how experiences in forests can help shape nonreligious understandings of a person’s place in the world.


Landscapes can help people understand and express who they are, and where they fit into the world. My research[1] explored this idea through qualitative interviews with 27 people who were ‘interested in forests and forest issues’ in Tasmania, Australia. Forests can be understood as a ‘frame of reference’ for nonreligious understandings of what it means to be human. Here I will focus on three (brief) examples of this process: feeling ‘small’ and connecting to ‘something bigger’; relationships of trust; and experiences of wonder.

My research used Giddens’ ‘ontological security’ – the trust most people have that the world, and their self-identity, is stable and predictable[2] – to ask: how do forests shape a person’s sense of being, of existence, of who they are? My research was not about non/religion, and it has only been ‘after the fact’ that I have come to see nonreligion in participants’ responses. It could be that some participants would describe themselves as religious, but this was not evident in the way they talked about their time in forests.

As such, I am not focusing on the experiences of nonreligious individuals per se. Instead, I am interested in thinking through what the concept of ‘nonreligion’ offers to research about human-nonhuman engagements. Quack et al.’s relational understanding of nonreligion describes nonreligion as “a position in a field rather than an essentialist characteristic of people … not defined a priori but analyzed instead as an object and outcome of social (including scholarly) constructions and contestations.”[3] I think of participants’ stories as examples of nonreligious experiences: meaningful and significant experiences that tell us about our place in the world outside of a religious context. Participants’ descriptions of their forest experiences echo aspects of ‘living as a human’ that might commonly be expressed in religious terms– ways of making meaning and sense of the world – without referencing religious beliefs, practices, organisations, or affiliations. The historical dominance of religious (in Australia, Christian[4]) constructions of ontology means that these experiences are necessarily related to religion and ‘religio-normativity’,[5] and yet are distinctly not religious. Put another way, experiences in forests can give us ‘another’ (nonreligious) way to make sense of our existence.

Something ‘bigger’

For many participants, forests represent the bigger ‘network’ that humans are part of. Participants described feeling they were ‘a part of something’ so big, it envelops any individual life:  

[Being in the forest] makes me feel like I’m part of … a really grounded part of what’s happening in the world … I’m in this place where all this is happening and I’m part of it, you know. (Henry)

These descriptions run parallel with a sense of humility. As Jane put it:

I just find that very humbling, to think, you know, there’s a whole lot of creatures extremely adept at living in that environment [but] if I got lost down there, I would die.

Some participants described a feeling of ‘smallness’ and vulnerability. This was not a negative or threatening experience. As Amelia described:

…you think about the bigger picture and put things into perspective. But it’s not like … a ‘oh my gosh I’m so small, this is pointless’ kind of feeling. Yeah. It’s a good feeling somehow.

This research took place in a society built upon Western colonialist models of expansion and extraction – a society deeply concerned with the denial of vulnerability.[6] Whether because of or despite this, participants seemed humbled and happy to feel small. Here, humility does not simply equate to feeling scared, but instead indicates that the individual is ‘part of something’. I suggest that to express feeling a ‘part of  something’ is a nonreligious way to articulate a sense of belonging within a wider network of existence. 

Trust

Walking in forests is dangerous; even the most experienced of Tasmanian walkers could face injuries, adverse conditions, becoming lost, or encounters with venomous snakes. When walking, participants engaged in preparatory routines and a healthy dose of caution:

Yeah, lots of planning … plan your route, look, pore over the maps. Get all your food organised, get all your clothes organised. Make certain everything is in waterproof bags. Pack your bag. And the last thing you do, the day before, is … sign in, and then sign out… my grandmother and grandfather always said you never go into the bush when it’s windy, so I don’t do that because it’s just too unsafe. (Diane)

These preparations are important – as Henry said, they are “all a bit boring really, but it is part of the ritual” – as they represent a (nonreligious) routinised way of forming a trusting relationship with the nonhuman. While participants were aware and cautious, and mindful of the ‘right’ things to do to alleviate danger, a few participants still told me about various ‘near misses’. They seemed to accept the dangers of walking, and that if something went wrong, it was not the forest ‘at fault’. Tim Harries argues a similar point about flooding being perceived as a more palatable incursion on home life than a burglary would be, as the “perceived moral neutrality of natural seems to render flooding more acceptable.”[7] For my participants, forests seemed to present a space in which the vulnerability and mortality of humans is ever-present, but where people can (barring a serious incident) partially and safely confront this vulnerability through nonreligious practices.

Wonder

Around two-thirds of participants discussed their emotional responses to forests. These were both positive and negative (with the three most common descriptions being awe, joy, and despair about ecological destruction). While joy and excitement might be ‘lighter’ experiences, awe is a positive experience grounded in gravitas:

[The feeling is] one of absolute awe, really. It’s awe, it’s response to majesty, response to extraordinary light that penetrates down … it’s just awe and joy and delight. (Ken)

Joy, fascination, and awe – all common descriptions from participants – can be summarised as ‘wonder’. Wonder is a transformative and empowering experience, “about learning to see the world as something that does not have to be, and as something that came to be, over time, and with work.”[8] Sara Ahmed is writing about becoming a feminist, but I see parallels with coming to be a lover of (or advocate for) forests. These are stories of encountering the world – not just the forest, but the world of humans and nonhumans at large – in new, empowering, humbling, and joyous ways. Wonder in the forest is a nonreligious way of seeing the world anew.

Conclusion

It is by acknowledging the forest’s intricate and unpredictable details that participants were able to engage with concepts of ontology, and locate themselves in a world that precedes and outlasts them. The stories above are only some brief examples of nonreligious experiences with the nonhuman, where engaging with the materiality and vulnerability of others (including wildlife and landscapes) can tell religious and nonreligious individuals alike something about “their place in the world and in the environment in which they live.”[9] There are many more stories to tell. The language used by these participants is not innately nonreligious. However, in finding parallels between nonreligious and religious experiences and language, we can see how participants used their experiences with/in forests to comprehend and articulate complex, abstract, nonreligious ideas of what it means to ‘be’.


Sources Cited

[1] Rebecca Banham, “Seeing the forest for the trees: Ontological security and experiences of Tasmanian forests,” PhD thesis, University of Tasmania, 2019.

[2] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).

[3] Johannes Quack, Cora Schuh, and Susanne Kind, The Diversity of Nonreligion: Normativities and Contested Relations (United Kingdom: Routledge, 2019), 9-13.

[4] Whether despite, or perhaps sometimes in reaction to, rising numbers of people identifying as nonreligious in Australia. See Douglas Ezzy, Gary Bouma, Greg Barton, Anna Halafoff, Rebecca Banham, Robert Jackson, and Lori Beaman, “Religious Diversity in Australia: Rethinking Social Cohesion,” Religions 11, no. 2. (2020): 92.

[5] Quack et al., The Diversity of Nonreligion.

[6] John Barry, The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability: Human Flourishing in a Climate-Changed, Carbon-Constrained World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[7] Tim Harries, “Feeling secure or being secure? Why it can seem better not to protect yourself against a natural hazard,” Health, Risk & Society 10, no. 5 (2008): 486.

[8] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2004), 180.

[9]  Lori G. Beaman, “Living well together in a (non)religious future: Contributions from the sociology of religion,” Sociology of Religion 78, no. 1 (2017): 10.


Dr. Rebecca Banham is a Research Fellow at the University of Tasmania, where she completed her PhD in environmental sociology in 2019. She is particularly interested in the intersections of emotion, relationship, (non)religion, and the nonhuman. Rebecca currently works as a Research Fellow on the Australian Research Council project, ‘Religious diversity in Australia: Maintaining social cohesion and preventing violence’. She is also associated with the international research project ‘Nonreligion in a Complex Future’, led by Professor Lori Beaman.

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