I had the pleasure of hearing Delegate Jon Cardin speak the other night of his commitment to environmental causes. He mentioned a statistic I had never heard before: the State of Maryland loses an average of 6000 acres of tree cover a year and we only plant approximately 850 acres of trees. Assuming we lose some of those new trees to drought and illness and neglect, the problem becomes even worse.
This loss of trees, he goes on to say, has to be stopped. This is bad for all sorts of reasons: loss of trees contributes to increased CO2 emissions suffocating the atmosphere; increases in erosion; reduces the soil’s capacity to filter out pollutants; reduces shade and moisture; reduces an invaluable air-scrubbing quality that trees provide; and reduces the amount of fresh oxygen that trees return to the atmosphere in their respiration.
What can we do? First and foremost, plant more trees in our own yards. Small trees can even grow in planters on porches outside our apartments. Get together and plant small groves of different kinds of trees that are friendly to and comfortable in our growing zone. (You can find a list of native trees at Treemendous Maryland’s website: http://www.dnr.state.md.us/criticalarea/trees.html
Second, plant trees at our synagogues. Many of our congregations have large, expansive lawns. Planting orchards and groves of trees on them offer a variety of benefits:
—it adds natural beauty to our over-civilized urban and suburban landscapes.
—it connects each of us involved in the process of playing in the dirt in an most intimate way with the land around us
—it adds all the benefits that trees provide: shade, healthier air, outdoor programming spaces, soil conservation and health, water purification, spiritual delight
—it is less expensive to maintain trees than to constantly mow, seed, fertilize, and otherwise maintain our lawns
—it diminishes the environmental harm that lawns cause. Nutrient and pesticide runoff harm our drinking water, the public waterways and the wildlife and economy that is dependent on them. [The urban lawn is estimated to receive an annual input of five to seven pounds of pesticides per acre (Schueler, 1995b) ]http://www.stormwatercenter.net].
In addition, traditional gas-powered lawn mowers are responsible for 5 percent of the nation’s air pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. One gas mower running for an hour emits the same amount of pollutants as eight new cars driving 55 mph for the same amount of time, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. (http://www.dailycamera.com)
Imagine Sukkot in the midst of an apple orchard; or Passover with the fragrance of magnolia blowing in the shul. Talk to your rabbi and facilities committee now to begin planning for the spring planting season.
Third, support upcoming legislation that responds to this issue. (When we learn of such legislation, hopefully in the upcoming spring 2009 session, we will pass that information along to you.)
Trees won’t solve all our problems, but the truth is, we cannot live without them.
It is that time of year when the beech and poplar and dogwood trees in my front yard turn a golden hue. The sun’s reflection off their leaves floods the evening with thick, honeyed air. It seems as if just down the road, the air gets thicker still, and you can taste the sweetness of honey suspended on colored droplets.
I witness one my favorite joys of fall from my office window. All summer long, the leaves have grown, turned deepening shades of green, and spied the ground from many stories up. Secure in their slendor but stalwart attachment to their branches, they witnessed the warmth and storms of summer safe from their arboreal perch.
But after all those months, the time for their great migratory adventure has come: the fall cascade of the leaves from tree limb to ground cover is here. Throughout the day, they fall, one by one. But on occasion, there is a grand rustling, like a murmur moving through a crowd.
And then it begins: the rain of leaves. The air is filled with floating, golden flotsam, turning and waving in an earth-toned ticker-tape parade, the leaves rustling their hurrahs for the passing glories of summer. Then, when the air is spent and all tuckered out, ground and leaf finally meet for the first time since eyeing each other way back last spring. All then becomes quiet. The leaves settling in, cozying down in communion with the ground.
In the midst of a weary world, torn apart by human blunders, it is comforting, indeed healing, to see this annual celebration of the seasons, by the seasons. Kudos and bravo. And many heartfelt thanks.
In his book called, A Revolution in Time, David Landes writes about the impact, and I would add imperialism, even a touch of tyranny, of the household clock. “A chamber clock or watch is something very different [from the public clocks displayed on clocktowers in village squares and official buildings that were only visible when you passed by, and only heard when they chimed at intervals. The household clock, in comparison, provides] an ever visible, ever audible companion and monitor. A turning hand, specifically a minute hand (the hour hand turns so slowly as to seem still), is a measure of time used, time spent, time wasted, time lost. As such it was a prod and key to personal achievement and productivity.”
Our lives, our attitudes toward time, and thus toward how we measured, spent and filled or squandered time, changed with this new, quotidian technology of personal clocks. (And all the more so watches. For even if we could not escape the constancy of measuring ourselves against time at home, without a watch, we could hope for a brief reprieve when we were out and about.)
Today, it is almost impossible to imagine living beyond the limits of finely calibrated time. Vacations sometimes allow that - unless of course we are on tours which need to adhere to their schedule; or make appointments or reservations or other commitments that require us to be aware of the time.
Perhaps that is why childhood is so large, so endless. Perhaps it is because children tell time by the sun, by the amount of light left in the day to play outside. Or until they tire and say enough. They are never working toward a pre-determined terminal moment. Adults always measure time, wondering at the start how much time there is until the finish. I remember times as a child playing games or reading or listening to music so intently that I did not notice the passing of time, did not look at a clock to say, only fifteen more minutes until I have to stop. To fill those fifteen minutes without a sense of end, without an awareness of their limitation, made those fifteen minutes part of eternity. To be aware of counting down may make the moments more precious, true, but it also makes them tenser, and shorter.
Almost everything electronic we own today has a clock in it - both those we can see and those we can’t. Modernity is swathed in the precision of time-keeping. Technology doesn’t just create stuff. It also manufactures culture, and therefore refashions our spirits.
Shabbat and the holidays are the closest things we have today that help us erase the tyranny of timekeeping brought upon us by our brilliance in technology, and return us to the awareness of universal time. (The necessity to run services on schedule is a most unfortunate conundrum that breaks the flow and spirit of these days expansive immersion in time.)
Their imposition on the flow of our work, especially when they fall mid-week, their disruption of our daily routine, and their re-orientating our approach to the ways of timekeeping and the pace and flow of our days, may just be one of their greatest gifts.
Time, and our experience of it, are as much a part of our environment as the trees, the water and the air. While all these things are “out there,” independent of us, we experience them through the lens, stuff and attitude of our culture. True, we must choose to use our time well. Both Judaism and modernity call us to do that. But we must also learn to live it deeply, to measure it by the heavens, and not just by the clock. To imagine each moment a member of eternity and not a commodity that comes, and is then consumed.
Paradoxically enough, it is our calendar, the Jewish calendar, that today can best remind us of the timelessness of time. Tomorrow is Sukkot - when we are cast back to the Exodus, the settlement of the land of Israel, the bountiful harvest, the past celebrations of the holiday and the menu planning for our meals this coming week. Time coming together in a moment of eternity, around the dinner table, under the heavens, with the smell of fallen leaves and pine trees filling the air.
Have a joyous sukkot.
In less than two weeks, we will be reading Genesis 1, starting again our annual round of sacred storytelling.
Four decades ago, Genesis 1:28 was targeted as a principal cause of the western world’s ethic of environmental abuse and resource degradation. This in turn led to hundreds of articles arguing about whether the western environmental ethic can be blamed on biblical religion. The debate continues to this very day. Yet, even assuming that such an interpretation of this verse is technically defensible, that is, that one can literally read those words in a way that gives unbridled license for humanity to use nature as it pleases, there are two significant challenges we can offer: (1) it clearly disregards the rest of the narratives and laws in the Torah that more precisely define the biblical land ethic and biblical economic traditions; (2) and it assigns a level of attention and influence to an otherwise an arcane verse that is enjoyed by almost no other verse in the Bible save, perhaps, the Ten Commandments.
So what is this brouhaha all about? Let’s begin with the verse that is at the epicenter of this debate:
[And to the man and woman God said:] “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)
Whatever the origin of the Genesis story, we should take it seriously, for no matter what the “truth” of the events, the story still holds sacred meaning. That is the task of Torah - to provide meaning through law and narrative, its own version of truth.
The question we must ask, then, is: what is this bit of the story, this bit of truth, trying to teach us?
Casting ourselves into the place of the first humans, we can understand why the story has this be God’s first communication with humanity. Before we can build civilizations, before we can create a system of justice, before we can design laws of equity, pursue ethics, act fairly, before we could even honor and praise God or see the awe in the world that God created and gave to us, we needed to know that we would be alright. We needed to know we could survive, that our environment was friendly, that we could lay down in peace and rise up in peace; that we could eat and be warm and protected from the things that go bump in the night.
Imagine, then, being plunked down in this gorgeous but foreign, potentially dangerous wilderness. The first thing we would need to do is get the lay of the land; see what it was and what it had to offer, in both blessings and dangers. We would need to find a way to live with, and live from, the wonders and riches and surprises around us. We would need to learn what could we eat, and what we couldn’t. We would need to learn how to avoid being eaten, maimed, made sick or otherwise harmed by the elements, vegetation and animals around us. We would need a way to understand and successfully manage the world around us.
That is what we learn from the story: that our ancestors saw the world both potentially as an Eden, full of verdancy and fertility and goodness. And that they saw it as a place of danger and challenge that needed taming for us to survive.
Today, we rarely if ever feel the raw, engulfing, overwhelming power of nature. We rarely are in a place so lost, so helpless, that there is no hope that others will find us. Rarely do we feel the terror of aloneness, just us, our wits and the physical world all around.
Hurricanes, earthquakes, nor’easters, tzunamis are all awesome and devastating episodes of nature. But they are just that: episodes. At most, thank goodness, they happen only now and then (though the “then” seems to be increasing in frequency and vigor given the climate change we are experiencing and creating).
Imagine, though, living in a world where it is all wilderness, all strange, all raw, all engulfing. That is the world that the first humans found themselves in. Even more, that it is the world that the tellers of this tale felt they lived in. To be vulnerable to attack by predatory animals, criminals, illness, infection, a pregnancy gone wrong, mental illness, accidents, drought, floods, fire, heat, cold were everyday fears that defined their lives.
How comforting it must have been to know that from the moment of creation, we have been given the right, the mandate, to control and manage our environment so that we can hedge against being constantly threatened by the whim of nature’s harsh indifference.
Genesis 1:28 was not license to ravage the world, but a mandate to understand and manage it well.
Samson Raphael Hirsh, a 19th century rabbinic scholar and populist, reminds us to look at what comes immediately after this command in this chapter of Genesis. Remember that the first man and woman were created on the afternoon of the sixth day of the week of creation. Immediately after creating humanity and charging them with knowing, exploring and managing themselves in this world, God rests. For the man and woman, then, their first day, their first experience of the world was, Shabbat.
What does this teach us? That humanity’s first act, first experience, was not to do but to look and see and be with the earth. Before they undertook any act of managing and controlling, they had to experience, and feel a part of, the cycles and rhythms and pulse of the earth.
That is a lesson we need to learn even today.