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Biocultural Restoration of Sacred Sites, Earth Day, and Restoration Ecology’s Patron Saint

The question, of course, is what on earth is going to bring about the transformation that is needed; what is going to help us, once again and anew, to find our place and purpose within this beautiful prolific earth? One response that has been frequently overlooked by scholars . . . is that of ecological restoration. — Gretel Van Wieren (2008) Ecological Restoration as Public Spiritual Practice

The Dawning of the Age of Restoration

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, it may be worth reflecting upon how ecological restoration initiatives have changed the perception of the larger, now globalized “environmental movement” of which many of us have been contributors. As an intern/alumnus of the Earth Day organizing team at the headquarters for the first “Environmental Teach-In,” I cannot recall hearing the phrase ecological restoration during that moment in our nascent movement, nor seeing it mentioned in any of our Environmental Action newsletters. In the spirit of the late 1960s and early 1970s, we were about protesting bad policies and bad actors; there was already a yearning for environmental justice that didn’t fully express itself and flourish for another two decades.

But something curious happened when twenty million individuals of all colors, races, and creeds turned out for the first Earth Day in April of 1970: we realized that the heterogeneity of players who appeared that day would become our greatest strength. Some had little interest in policy change, but they went out and planted dozens of native trees along stream banks that day. Others of the “Flower Power” ilk expressed their gratitude to Mother Earth by sowing thousands of wildflowers seeds in meadows and gardens.In short, many already wanted to walk the talk about healing the earth or restoring damaged lands. Curiously, they were not of all one ideological, political or spiritual persuasion. And yet, those who learned of early restoration efforts at Curtis Prairie in Wisconsin, the Fermi Lab in Illinois, or the Desert Lab on Tumamoc Hill in Arizona clearly felt an affinity for these efforts to restore, not just to preserve. They were hungry for more engagement with the science we now call restoration ecology.

As the Earth Day organization affirms in its elaboration of its own history, the interfaith community in the 1970s became further engaged in the environmental movement for a curious reason: “. . . Pope John Paul II declared St. Francis the Patron Saint of Ecologists. In some ways, St. Francis of Assisi could be viewed as the original Earth Day advocate. Not only did he care for the poor and sick, but he preached multiple sermons on animals, and wanted all creatures on Earth, including humans, to be treated as equals under God” (Pappas, 2016).

I have argued elsewhere that St. Francis would be better regarded as the Patron Saint of Restoration Ecology, for the pivotal movement in his life was when he came upon a deserted sanctuary that had been badly damaged, and heard a voice say to him, “Francesco, come and restore this sacred place, for as you can see, it has fallen into ruin.” Although Francesco di Bernardone initially assumed that his calling would simply be to restore the abandoned chapel of San Damiano in the forest not far from Assisi, his vision of his mission expanded over the rest of his lifetime.

Francis first attempted to restore respectful collaborations among the rival city-states of Italy that had been burning, cutting, and pillaging the surrounding forests for decades. He then attempted to reform the Catholic church. He refused to let his Order own property or worship in buildings, for he believed that the Creator was everywhere in Creation, not trapped within institutions.  It may have taken his devotees of many faiths another 750 years to fully grasp the magnitude of his vision, but today they are actively restoring the understory vegetation in the old growth forests on Umbria’s Monte Subasio above Assisi, using the principles, practices and protocols of restoration ecology. Perhaps this remarkable historic tradition of “restorative ethics” encourages restoration ecology professionals to collaborate with peoples of all faiths and creeds to heal, reclaim or re-diversify the places that their communities have identified as sacred lands.

The Restoration of Sacred Sites

In 2015, an international and interfaith team led by Travis Reynolds of Maine’s Colby College called for initiatives that would utilize sacred sites as “ecological libraries” for landscape restoration, and as institutional models for biodiversity conservation (Reynolds et al 2015). Reynolds and his colleagues noted that forest patches around places of worship are found worldwide, with hundreds of thousands of sacred groves nominally conserved in countries as diverse as Ethiopia, Ghana, Japan, India, and Tanzania. And yet, they and others have argued that “. . . the dwindling biodiversity of sacred natural sites has begun to attract international attention . . . and some ecologists now advocate prioritization of sacred natural sites for preservation” (Reynolds et al. 2015; Shen et al. 2012; and Vershuuren et al. 2010).

Despite their poor choice of the word “preservation” for this monumental task, what these field scientists are really speaking to is the need for “biocultural restoration” of lands held sacred by many faiths across the planet (Nabhan 2018). As culturally significant areas first protected for religious reasons, these sacred sites may have become refuges or relics in otherwise heavily utilized landscapes, but they have since evolved into truly biocultural landscapes that may retain many species not found in their surrounding matrix.

My point is that these sacred landscapes are usually of such cultural significance to local faith communities that restoration ecologists are likely to find collaborators willing to engage with them in restorative practices. These faith-based community members may not use the same lexicons or share all the same values to which practitioners of science-based restoration ecology are accustomed.Nevertheless, their long-term interest in the sanctity of such sites opens us up to an extraordinarily large range of collaborations of a nature with which our field has not typically engaged.

My call to all my colleagues in restoration ecology is to go beyond simply “preaching to the choir.” We need to begin collaborations with willing partners “in many choirs,” whether they are Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia, Hindus in India, Native Americans living along the U.S./Mexico border, the Druse in the Cedars of Lebanon, Buddhists in Japan, Jews in Israel, or Franciscan Catholics in Assisi (Coyote 2019, Handel 2018, Nabhan 2019, Reynolds et al. 2015).

Unless we restore dialogue and on-ground practice across the Great Divide—the historic schism between science and faith—I doubt whether our visions for replenished, functioning landscapes, or even the vision of St. Francis, our patron “saint” will ever have a chance to take root.


Coyote, Brother. 2019. Border wall construction: sacred sites, churches and religious freedom. Acting Franciscan. franciscanaction.

Handel, S. N. 2018. The Cedars of Lebanon, the Limits of Restoration, and Cultural Loss. Ecological Restoration 36:261–262. Project MUSE.

Nabhan, G.P. 1994. Songbirds, Truffles and Wolves: an American Naturalist in Italy. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Nabhan, G.P. 2018. Food from the Radical Center: Healing Our Lands and Communities. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Pappas, W. 2016. The patron saint of animals and ecology. Earth Day Network.

Reynolds, T., T.S. Sisay, A.W. Eshete and M. Lowman. 2015. Sacred natural sites provide ecological libraries for landscape restoration and institutional models for biodiversity conservation. GSDR 2015 Brief. New York, NY: United Nations.

Van Wieren, G. 2008. Ecological restoration as public spiritual practice. Worldviews 12:237–254. Gary Paul Nabhan (corresponding author), Southwest Center, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona


This was first published on Ecological Restoration / March 2020


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