I love being outside, especially during our “cool” Florida winter. Dinner on my porch and walking in the fresh air are two of my favorite activities. But I don’t consider myself outdoorsy or terribly comfortable in nature. Give me an urban park or shady hut on the sand and I’m content; occasionally a cabin or tent at a campsite, but anything more “wilderness-y” and I’ll probably bail.
So, I live vicariously through reading about adventurers and environmentalists. I read an amazing interview with an author, mountaineer and philosopher, named Jack Turner. Turner worked for 42 years as a mountain guide leading more than 40 expeditions in India, Nepal and other countries. He guided thousands of treks in the Teton mountain range. He studied Chinese and philosophy at Stanford and Cornell; and he lived some of his adult life in a 12 x 20 foot plywood cabin without electricity or running water.
Turner had a lot to say about how modern environmentalists are getting things wrong.
And here’s the problem: nowadays very few people directly experience voles, coral reefs, redwoods and whales. You can live in San Francisco, ride a Google bus to work, stare at a screen, come home, stare at a screen, repeat, repeat, repeat.
I’ve asked my environmental studies students how much time each day, on average, they spend in contact with raw wild nature. Thirty minutes they say… walking between classes.
Kids have not spent much time hiking in remote areas. They don’t have much personal experience with wild creatures. They also don’t have much experience with isolation.
Reading this interview introduced me to a few new concepts (raw wild vs wilderness) and led me to consider Jewish environmental laws in a new way.
Turner’s main thesis is that we modern human beings are disconnected from our physical world. We rarely go off road, we don’t get to know our animal neighbors, we can’t identify what we see in the night sky or in the dirt under our groomed lawns.
Turner argues that to really care about the environment we need to experience it intimately. We need to spend time in wild places, alone (or as he did with his dog Rio) climbing and exploring and getting our hands dirty and our feet wet and meeting the various living creatures in our midst.
Turner focuses on how nature and the environment can affect our lives – nature makes us stronger individuals and more caring beings on the planet. Of course preservation is a value, but preservation without the personal connection and genuine relationship with the earth is just a superficial ritual.
Judaism, by contrast, comes from a place of conservation. Earth is precious because it comes from God. God has charged human beings with being the caretakers of the land. When we violate the land by overworking, polluting, wasting, over consuming, we dishonor God’s gift to us.
To me, Judaism’s agenda is easier, if not easy. I am pretty sure I could not do what Turner expects environmentalists to do. But I do appreciate that perhaps some of our modern ethic of environmentalism is too shallow. We recycle, adopt a dolphin, swear off plastic goods, but we know it’s not really enough.
Tu B’shvat our Jewish Earth Day, celebrates the birthday of the trees, and reminds us that we are part of a larger ecosystem of plants, animals, air, water and energy. Many of our other Jewish holidays are also related to the seaons and give us a connection to the natural world.
Sukkot = Fall harvest holiday
Hanukkah = Winter solstice holiday
Passover = Beginning of Spring holiday
Shavuot = Spring harvest holiday
I love that Judaism weaves our connection to the physical world throughout our seasons and opens the door for many opportunities to be better caretakers of our physical home.
So I will be not be trekking in the wild or living without running water any time soon (I hope!). But I am aware that I am not doing enough and that ultimately I suffer when I remain disconnected from the natural world.
I am curious about your experiences in nature and the balance between modern living and caring for our environment. Please share your thoughts with me privately or on our Facebook page.
The Neshamah Institute
Founder / Executive Director