A Catholic Agrarian Reflection on A Sanctuary of Trees

Gene Logsdon

I just finished Gene Logsdon’s intriguing book, A Sanctuary of Trees. Logsdon is an 80-some-odd year-old agrarian writer who considers himself a “contrary” farmer.

He’s also grew up Catholic back in the pre-Vatican II days, went to a minor seminary for several years (in spite of his lack of interest in the priesthood and Christianity in general), left, got married, and eventually realized that he yearned to return to his childhood home, where he could live close to the land.

This book is part how-to, part reflection, part memoir, part editorial, centered around Logsdon’s experiences with groves of trees, forests, and especially his own woodlots. Those looking for practical tips on how to plant, transplant, nurture, and harvest trees will find helpful, but not comprehensive, information. Likewise, those looking for a pure memoir of a boy who lived his whole life in the woods will only be partially satisfied. Logsdon combines a well balanced mixture of all these genres.

Regarding the Catholic Faith, the curious thing is that Logsdon got it into his head that Catholicism was somehow against the natural world. He was being “lured away from priestly life by the temptress of wild nature that religious authorities doggedly kept right on providing me [by having a forest on the seminary property].” This is a common theme: those in “authority” are usually or always wrong, incompetent, and cowardly. While Logsdon, the nomad and lone wolf, goes his own way and finds the truth that those in authority are ignorant of.

Part of this confusion about Catholicism is no doubt due to the state of the Church in the United States in the 40s and 50s. Reform was definitely needed. Who knows how many young men like Logsdon were shuffled into the seminaries without strong faith or a good understanding of Christ and His Church, and probably without even a priestly vocation at all? At least Logsdon left the Church entirely and didn’t become a (bad) priest who would have caused scandal one way or another years or decades later.

Why did his parents send him off to seminary at age 14 when he showed no signs of being fit for the priesthood, or even of having a strong faith? Who knows? Why didn’t the Franciscans, whom he learned under, teach him how St. Francis, too, loved nature and spent most of his time out-of-doors, exploring? The dots never got connected.

I know a priest, manly and strong, who spends his free time working beautiful objects with his lathe. Who used to run a machine shop and fix motors. Who, as a priest, saved up his meager stipend to buy a small bit of land in the Texas Hill Country and built his own cabin to go on retreat whenever he got a chance. This priest makes the large Easter candle himself each year and then–regardless of how cold or windy or wet the weather is–kindles the Easter fire by hand with flint until it is lit. There was never a place that a wild man of the woods could be more at home than the Catholic Church, which sees a reflection of God’s glory in His creation.

But back to the book. Logsdon marries, takes a journalist-type job for an agribusiness publication, and learns to love the woods and nature again, even on his small suburban homesteads. He manages to buy some land he and his family grew up on and returns home to make his living there, writing.

He’s at his best when he is writing about the trees and their characteristics: hickory nuts and black walnuts, planting from seed vs. transplanting, letting nature do its work instead of interfering too much, how to fell trees without getting yourself killed, how to find food in the woodland, what woodcarvers look for in wood grain, how to heat your home with wood, and many other fascinating topics.

He’s not quite at his best when he plays arm-chair philosopher. He advocates for population control as if over-population is a major world problem. But just a bit later he laments the fact that there are enormous amounts of land that could be used for productive and helpful sylvan culture in cities, suburbs, and countrysides. In other words the fact is that we are incredibly wasteful in how we view and manage trees and they could sustainably support human habitats if we only paid attention.

So ironically, while he thinks that he is a “rampart person,” an independent thinker who bucks the authoritarian propaganda, in fact with regard to contraception, over-population, and even a disdain for Catholicism, he’s aligned himself perfectly with the popular secularist creeds. He’s faithfully towing this particular party line while believing himself to be a renegade.

Criticism aside, I pray that Logsdon, even in his late years, will turn to Jesus Christ and ask again for the gift of faith. Faith in the brilliant God who created everything he loves. Faith in the wise Father who made the woods for men to steward. Faith in the Savior who loved us beyond all telling.

Trees are important, but not as ends in themselves. Rather they are given to us to use prudently and intelligently. They are beautiful, and their beauty is a tiny manifestation of God’s uncreated, majestic beauty. My hope is that Logsdon is given the grace to see that before he meets our Lord.

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8 thoughts on “A Catholic Agrarian Reflection on A Sanctuary of Trees”

  1. Devin, I’m grateful you drew my attention to Gene Logsdon. Logsdon puts me in mind of Wendell Berry or perhaps Colin Tudge, here in the UK. Currently we’re involved in a journey with ‘Walking Church’ (http://www.mennoworld.org/2012/4/16/london-congregation-takes-worship-outside/) that, amongst other things, explores the ‘sanctuary of trees’. There is a healing value in shifting down the gears to life at 3mph. You will know by now that I have every sympathy with Logsdon’s critical viewpoint. I am glad though, that we share an appreciation of lifegiving ‘sylvan culture’. With a name like mine I have reason to be appreciative of trees.

  2. Minor seminary, not to be confused with a major seminary, where those with priestly vocations from minor seminary would graduate to, was a rather common route for the poor to get a fine education. It was mutually beneficial between the boys and the orders which ran them, for the exposure to religious life did kindle true vocations and the boys got an education comparable to what one might get in a liberal arts college nowadays.

  3. Well you made me google “sylvan”. Nice word usage!

    Silly question: Does he mention bonsai at all? I am a fan of bonsai and find it to be one of the most beautiful art forms. A perfect mix of nature and mans artistic ability. A bonsai hobby is also a good way to get city folks hands dirty and appreciate nature. Although there is no “use” for bonsai outside of the artistic.

    1. David, no he does not. But it’s funny you mention it because I used to try to do bonsai! I spent a few years during college trying my hand at it, but my results weren’t great.

      1. Ahhhh. The novice bonsai trainer leaves a tangled trail of dead trees in his wake. Horifying! ;-(

        I am having better results now after years of bonsai masacres.

        1. Yeah it didn’t help that the tree I’d been working on for a long time got weed whacked by the apartment landscapers. 🙁 Hahahaha!

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