Opinion: An Earth Day Spiritual Ecology Proposal

By Dr. Richard Rubin, Arroyo Seco
Posted 4/11/19

I believe in the evolution of spiritual consciousness.

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Opinion: An Earth Day Spiritual Ecology Proposal

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I believe in the evolution of spiritual consciousness. A meaningful example from my own tradition is the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, occurring on the 15th day of the Hebrew lunar calendar month of Shvat. Commonly known as the New Year of Trees, this date approximates the first budding in the Middle East, usually almonds. However, the event observance is not described in the Torah Bible, and therefore has had multiple spiritual, religious, and secular expressions. First, my probable earliest ancestors, the Habiru people, migrated from the Zagros Mountains to Mesopotamia fertile crescent cities and worshiped gods of nature. Second, subsequent Hebrew tribes followed pastoral life cycles and celebrated Spring new growth. Third, the first millennium BCE Kingdoms of Israel and Judea imposed harvest taxation based on this date, beginning in a tree’s fourth year. Fourth, medieval Kabbalah Rabbis in European city ghettos created prayer rituals for fruits recorded in the Torah. Fifth, the modern state of Israel has implemented restoration of forests clear cut by previous empires. Sixth, the Reform Jewish denomination advocates tikkun olam, repair of the world, through social activism. Reb Zalman, founder of Renewal Judaism, encouraged ecumenical love for Gaia.

My own spiritual journey has evolved further into an ecocentric observance, particularly regarding trees. Quoting from a recent Orion Journal of Humans and Nature: “We have been an adaptable species with a desire to make meaning, responding to what we experience. For a long time, the beauty we experienced was grounded in nature, and our earliest art depicts reverence for natural subjects.” A compelling example is the oldest known song, from 1400 BC, the “Hymn to Nikkal,” dedicated to the ancient Semitic Goddess of Orchards. This was found by French archaeologists on the coast of modern Syria, recorded in Ugarit cuneiform. Scholars’ reproductions are available on YouTube.

Given that trees have been spiritually symbolic and sacred in many cultures, how can it be now for us? In modern terms, ecology is fundamentally about relationships among humans and nature. Aldo Leopold, an early supervisor of the Carson National Forest, woke us to the Abrahamic religions’ concept of land in his 1948 Sand County Almanac, that “we regard it as a commodity belonging to us, rather than a community to which we belong, deserving love and respect.” Recent thinkers describe this view as representing a conceptual split between ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ as humans domesticated animals and plants, asserting that our culture was separate from, and privileged over, non-human nature. Subsequent industrial depletion of natural resources treats whole ecosystems as mere collections of inanimate parts. The shift from such human-centric to an eco-centric perspective requires our recognition of a living whole, the ecosphere.

While comprehensive change in human society may eventually evolve, what can we practice ourselves now, in small feasible ways? As St. Therese of Lisieux, “The Little Flower,” taught, “When we cannot do great things, do small things with great love.” Paul Kingsnorth, in his 2017 Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, offered five personal practices for our ecological crisis: First, preserve non-human life; Second, root oneself in the work of land and place; Third, insist that nature has intrinsic value; Fourth, build refuges where non-human life can flourish; and Fifth, withdraw periodically so you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you, and what nature might need from you.

In our own lives and small spaces now, I choose to recognize this seventh expression of the New Year of Trees on Earth Day with an eco-centric relationship, considering what we can do for the trees, as well as recognizing what they profoundly do for us.

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