In Greek and Roman civilization, parks were associated with spirituality, public recreation, and city living. Greek philosophers pondered the meaning of nature and its innermost workings, the relationships between animals and humankind, and how matter related to spirit. The philosophy of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) advanced the fundamental notion of nature as the embodiment of everything outside culture, an essence opposed to art and artificiality. This sense of nature and culture as distinct opposites continues to govern ideas about the environment and society today. Meanwhile, the suggestion of a state of nature, wholesome and pure, defined in opposition to civilized life, found acceptance in Aristotle's time through the concept of the Golden Age—a legendary ideal that had significance for landscape planning and artistic experiment. Described by Greek poets and playwrights, the Golden Age of perpetual spring depicted an era before the adoption of agriculture, when humans embraced nature's wonder and communicated with spirits in sacred woods. In The Odyssey (800 B.C.), Homer, the great Greek writer, described a garden that was a place of constant productivity, where “fruit never fails nor runs short, winter and summer alike.”
Greek interest in spintuality and nature manifested itself in the tradition of the sacred grove. Usually comprised of a few trees, a spring, or a mountain crag, sacred groves became intensely mystical places by their associations with gods, spirits, or celebrated folk heroes. Twisted trees, sections of old-growth forest, and rocks or caves typically surrounded the naturalistic shrines and altars. As the Roman official and writer Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) put it, “Trees were the first temples of the gods, and even now simple country people dedicate a tree of exceptional height to a god with the ritual of olden times, and we worship forests and the very silences they contain.”
The Greeks were not alone in their spiritual veneration of nature. Examples of pantheism—the belief that God and the universe or nature are the same—and the worship of trees permeated many cultures. The nations of northern Europe utilized trees as places of worship. In Scandinavian mythology, the tree called Yggdrasil held up the world, its branches forming the heavens and its roots stretching into the underworld. A spring of knowledge bubbled at its base, and an eagle perched amid its sturdy branches. The Maori people of New Zealand celebrated a tree that separated the sky from the earth. For many ancient civilizations, trees signified life, permanence, and wisdom.
In some spiritual traditions, landscapes such as gardens or deserts were treated as abstract emblems of spiritual states such as innocence or despair. Rather than symbolic landscapes, as in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Greek sacred groves operated as literal homes of the gods. Instead of being confined to prehistory or celestial space, spiritual parkscapes were present within the existing cultural terrain. One could not visit a symbol of peace and severity, but one could experience these qualities in a sacred grove.
The spiritual significance of the sacred grove mandated specific preservationist measures. Civil restrictions and environmental codes of practice governed the use of such spaces. Enclosing walls prevented sheep from desecrating sacred sites, while patrolling priests issued spiritual guidance along with fines for vandalism. Laws forbade hunting, fishing, or the cutting of trees. Those not dissuaded by monetary penalties were threatened with the anger of the resident gods.
Such environmental care suggested to historian J. Donald Hughes that sacred groves represented“classical national parks.” By helping to insulate sacred groves from pressures of deforestation, erosion, and urbanization, Greek codes protected ecosystems from destruction. Sacred groves nonetheless represented imperfect parkscapes. Some encompassed relatively small areas such as a section of a hillside or a series of caves. Meanwhile, the fundamental purpose of the grove—the visitation of resident gods—sometimes promoted activities not entirely conducive to modern concepts of conservation. Animals were routinely captured to serve as sacrifices to the gods. Many groves witnessed horticultural and architectural improvements. Flowers were planted, trails cut, and statues, fountains, and caves installed for the benefit of visitors. The grove served as a recreational center for Greek society, a realm of ritual, performance, feasting, and even chariot racing.