Your All Holiness, Your Eminences, fathers, brothers and sisters, everyone present. 

I come from a monastery in the middle of the forest, surrounded by lakes. As a man from the woods, I have been asked to speak about the relationship of the parishes and the monasteries of our church to the forest and nature in general.

Let’s begin with some facts and numbers. The parishes and the monasteries of the Orthodox Church of Finland own more than 1 500 hectares, i.e., 15 000 000 square meters of forest altogether. This means about 278 square meters of forest per every member of the church. Some parishes, especially those in the southern cities, don’t own any forest at all, while some parishes and both of the monasteries of our church are significant forest owners. The most considerable forest owners in the Orthodox church of Finland are the Taipale parish, with 700 hectares; the Valamo monastery, with 470 hectares and the Joensuu parish, with 238 hectares; and the Kuopio parish, with 170 hectares. Other significant forest owners are the Lintula monastery, the Kainuu Chapel parish, and the Jyväskylä parish.

The monasteries and the Orthodox Church of Finland parishes that own forests have very similar principles regarding how they care for their forests. They all strive to follow principles of sustainable development in their forestry and value the recreational and ecological aspects. However, for all of them, the forests also function as a source of income. Some parishes have chapels in their forests, and they organize hiking trips to their forests. The members of the parishes
can also use the parish forests to pick berries and mushrooms. However, it may be mentioned in this connection that the Finnish legislation allows the recreational use of forests, including picking berries and mushrooms, without the permission of the forest owner. Only camping and cutting trees require the permission of the forest owner. However, berries and mushrooms picked in the parish forest can be considered to bring a special blessing with them.

Our church’s second most prominent forest owner is my monastery, Valamo Monastery, which owns 470 hectares, i.e., 4.7 million square meters of forest. About 5 % of this forest has been defined as fully protected forests. In the fully protected forests, only absolutely necessary measures are taken. This could be, for example, taking away fallen trees and branches. But per definition, the forest should remain in its natural state without human involvement. All of the forest along the lake shores has been defined as thoroughly protected. In addition to the fully protected forest, almost 10 % of the forest has been defined as a special forest used for recreational purposes. Only careful forestry measures are taken in these forests. But it must be mentioned that the forest is also an important source of income for our monastery as it is also for the parishes with significant forest possessions. In the past few years, when the economy of our monastery was hardly hit by the coronavirus crisis, we were saved by the income we got from selling wood from our forests. In regular times, about one-third of the income of our monastery comes from forestry.

Valamo monastery’s forests have been awarded the FSC certificate, Forest Stewardship Certificate. This forestry certificate has certain requirements that need to be met to be able to use this certificate. For example, a minimum of 5 % of the forest needs to be fully protected, i.e., it needs to remain more or less intact without any human involvement. Being part of this certificate, on the one hand, communicates to the people that the forests and the nature surrounding the monastery are taken care of in a sustainable way. Still, on the other hand, this certificate also brings financial advantage because wood from forests that have been awarded this certificate can be sold at a higher price. Some of the parishes have also included their forests in the same certificate. The recreational use of the monastery forests is important both for the members of the brotherhood and the visitors of the monastery. Walking in the woods as such can be very close to the essence of prayer if we define it as being in the presence of God. Combining walking in the forest with reading the Jesus prayer is also very easy. There are about 10 kilometers of marked trails in the monastery forests. We are currently in the process of increasing these kinds of trails to facilitate the recreational use of our forests. For many, it can be frightening to enter a forest they don’t know, but the marked trails reduce the risk of getting lost in the forest and make it easier to take a walk there. 

A couple of years ago, there was a campaign against a graphite mine near the Lintula monastery, also not very far from Valamo monastery. This mine would have endangered the ecology of the nearby areas. The large number of lakes and rivers in the region makes it particularly vulnerable. There was a campaign against this mine, which both of our monasteries participated in with other local activists. We didn’t want to risk that this mine would damage the vulnerable nature surrounding our monasteries. However, this anti-mine campaign also made us more aware of not always knowing what lesser evil is. In our society today, there is a tendency towards using electric cars instead of gasoline-driven cars, and graphite is used for the batteries of these cars. When we weigh all the pros and cons, it is difficult to say if electric cars really are good for the environment. Producing the batteries for these cars damages nature because of graphite mines.

Recently, we’ve learned about another project in the nearby area that also requires careful consideration of what is the lesser evil. A wind power park is planned to be built not far from our monasteries. On the one hand, wind power can be considered a suitable replacement for fossil-based energy, but on the other hand, we know that these wind power plants also cause terrible damage to the areas where they are built. The nature in those areas is destroyed forever. Trees will be cut, enormous concrete slabs will be cast, oil will be spread into the surrounding nature from the wings of the wind power mills, and wood from the rain forest will be used in the wings. The wind power mills are also accused of producing noise that makes it difficult for humans and animals to live near them. 

This can function as a reminder to us that the so-called green energy can also lead to natural disasters. The only sustainable way of reducing the damage done to nature is to reduce the use of energy, not just replacing fossil fuels with other types of energy that seem more ecological but also cause horrible damage to nature. 

We need to understand that we are part of nature; we need to understand that we are caretakers of nature. The well-being of the surrounding nature depends on our actions, but we also need to understand the actual results of our actions. Sometimes, it turns out that something we thought was good for nature is, as a matter of fact, damaging nature rather than saving it. We need to understand that the only way to save nature is to consume less, in line with the ascetic traditions of our church.