The site of a 12th century Welsh Cistercian Abbey, Strata Florida (Valley of Flowers) is situated in the hills above the market town of Tregaron and has been shaped by both human and natural influences.

As the Ice Age ended, the retreating glacier widened the valley and left behind ridges known as moraines. Over the last 12,000 years, Tregaron Bog (Cors Caron) has formed in the lake created by one of the moraines and within the bog, scientists have found pollen evidence to help them piece together the site's dynamic history.

Extensive clearance and cultivation of the mixed woodland covering the slopes began in the Bronze Age, spread to the valley floor in the Iron Age and was more or less complete by the end of Roman times. Following the Roman departure, the forest began to regenerate until the Cistercians arrived in the 12th century and reinstated the clearing. These monks grazed their numerous sheep on the uplands, converting land that had previously been used for cattle and arable crops. They also made use of other natural resources such as mines and quarries in the mountain, peat and iron in the boglands and power generated by the rivers and streams. The ruinous remains of the abbey they founded are visible thanks to 19th century excavations. After the dissolution of the monastery in 1539, the land passed into the hands of the landed gentry who used intensive methods to farm the now arable land.

The Rule of St Benedict required monasteries to be self-sufficient. Consequently the Cistercian abbeys were integrated in their surroundings and could almost be seen as an ecological dream where the monks succeeded in answering their own needs by working their own land. In the mean time the Cistercians were busy builders who left a huge architectural heritage and many marks on the landscape.

The Cistercian Order was an offshoot of the Benedicines. Robert, a Benedictine abbot moved in 1098 with a group of followers away from their abbey in Molesme. They were dissatisfied with the way the ideal of the Rule of St Benedict was abandoned by the Benedictine and Cluniac houses. In search of a more austere life and a stricter commitment to the Rule they chose the site of Cîteaux, in the rough and isolated forest and marshes south of Dijon in Burgundy, for a new monastic community. Under their third abbot, Englishman Stephen Harding (d. 1134), the ‘Charter of Charity’, the rule of the Cistercian order came into being.

Their asceticism demanded that they would live as remotely as possible from power and wealth. Strict regulations dictated that their abbeys had to be built far from cities and villages. They shortened their time spent on liturgy in order to have more time to work on the estates and outlying land. Labour on the fields became again a part of the monk’s day. With their organisational skills they soon became the pioneers of an agrarian revolution throughout whole Europe. The abbeys soon became profitable which resulted in less discipline among the Cistercian monks. Under these wealthier circumstances the austere ideals and life in solitude became once again less strictly followed. The order was very successful and by the end of the twelfth century they counted 530 houses, and a century later 742.

Trappists is the popular name for members of the Roman Catholic order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance,which traces its beginnings back to the reforms introduced (1664) by Armand Jean le Bouthillier de Rance (1626 - 1700) at the monastery of La Trappe near Seez, France. He stressed the penitential aspect of monasticism - little food, no meat, hard manual labor, and strict silence. Eventually these measures were adopted by other Cistercian monasteries. Expelled from France during the French Revolution, the La Trappe community survived as exiles under Dom Augustine de Lestrange. They returned to La Trappe in 1815.

In the mid 20th century the Trappists increased in membership, particularly in the United States. One influential member was the writer Thomas Merton. The Trappist monks and nuns, who wear a white habit with black scapular, now have about 70 abbeys worldwide.

'The ecological conscience is also essentially a peacemaking conscience.”

These are the words of the 20th Century American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, from a book review he wrote just months before his death in December 1968. While Merton is well known for his spiritual writings on a variety of topics, including peace and nonviolence, he never published a major work on ecology. However, recent scholarship has highlighted his evolving. Nature was always vital in Thomas Merton’s life, from the long hours he spent as a child watching his father paint landscapes in the fresh air, to his final years of solitude in the US hermitage at Our Lady of Gethsemani, where he contemplated and wrote about the beauty of his surroundings. Throughout his life, Merton’s study of the natural world shaped his spirituality in profound ways, and he was one of the first writers to raise concern about ecological issues that have become critical in recent years.

In 'The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton', author Monica Weis suggests that Merton’s interest in nature, which developed significantly during his years at the Abbey of Gethsemani, laid the foundation for his growing environmental consciousness. Tracing Merton’s awareness of the natural world from his childhood to the final years of his life, Weis explores his deepening sense of place and desire for solitude, his love and responsibility for all living things, and his evolving ecological awareness.