Sunday, February 27, 2011

On God, ecological stewardship, and imitating an ostrich

News item:  Minnesota State Representative Mike Beard (R-Shakopee) says he wants more coal-burning power plants in Minnesota because God will fix global warming, so we don't need to worry about it.  (read more on him).   He believes God will prevent the planet from running out of fossil fuels while also eliminating the harms associated with climate change, and that it is "arrogant" of us to think we can do anything to harm God's Creation or destroy the Earth unless God wills it.  

This guy happens to be a Christian, but I have run into similar attitudes among religious Jews recently, most notably an email that claimed Israel was never under water during the Great Flood (based on an ancient story about Noah's dove getting the olive branch from there) so Israelis needn't worry if the ocean rises from polar ice melting.  The Holy Land, this email claimed, will always stay high and dry.  So not to worry about climate change.

These are not, of course, the opinions of all religious people.  Not everyone is sticking their head in the sand (which ostriches really don't do, they are actually lowering their heads to guard their eggs -- but the metaphor has entered the English language, so you all know what I mean.)  A lot of denominations have come out with more responsible directives concerning our stewardship of the Earth.  (See for example Interfaith Power and Light, an org working to educate congregations about environmental issues.)

As for the possibility of Humans harming the Earth, there is an ancient rabbinical teaching (at least 2000 years old) which disagrees with Representative Beard.  Jewish tradition says:

"When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)

So, on the one hand, Judaism teaches that God created the Earth and everything in it for us.  But on the other hand, we are charged with taking care of it and not destroying it.  The fact that God tells us not to destroy it means that we do have that ability.  It comes along with our free will.  God has set the stage, but the choice is ours whether to act responsibly or not.  And to face the consequences of our actions.

The Jewish interpretation of having "dominion" over the world is one of stewardship, not exploitation.  And our tradition goes even further.  Another midrash says:

"Last and first You created me" (Psalms 139:5) ... If man is worthy, he is told:  You are first among the works of creation. If he is not worthy, he is told:  The flea preceded you, the earthworm preceded you." (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 14:1)
From this we learn that our "dominion" is not absolute.  It is dependent on our behavior.  We were created last, and that can either mean we are the "crown of creation," or it can mean that we came after the worms and fleas.  ( I remember being told back in the 1960s that if we ever had a nuclear war, the cockroaches would be the most likely to survive the radiation.)   Genesis 2:15 says:
The Lord (YHVH) God put the human being (literal meaning of "Adam") in the Garden of Eden, to work it and guard it."
Yes, we are allowed to use the resources of the Earth ("to work it") but we must also guard and care for it.  Even in the innocence of Eden, we are charged to protect the environment.  But I suppose that even in the time of Noah there were people like Beard who said, "What?  A flood in the desert?  Impossible!"  And we all know what happened to that generation...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

If the Earth is warming up, why are we getting so much snow?

Climate change deniers have been having a field day with all the snow this winter.  If global warming is real, they say, then why are we getting buried in so much snow?  Sunday, February 20, 2011 was the largest snowfall in a single 24-hour period ever recorded in Minneapolis, and in Minnesota overall, this has been the second snowiest February on record -- and the month isn't over yet.   So, the skeptics say, how can it be getting warmer if we are buried in blizzards?  And even if it is getting warmer, how can a few degrees make any difference?

Apparently it is making a big difference.  Normally, we get cold weather in January and February here, but not much snow until March-April. But this winter, it has been as if the calendar moved up a month or two, and we are getting April's weather in February.  And this, the scientists say, is indeed due to global warming.

To understand how global warming can produce more snow, we need to understand a  basic fact of physics: warmer air holds more moisture!  More moisture can mean more precipitation, either as snow or as rain.  If you look at the Jet Stream on recent weather maps, you will see that it has repeatedly dipped way down south toward the Gulf of Mexico -- where the air is very warm and moist -- then it swings back up north, dragging all that extra moisture with it.  The warm damp air hits the cold arctic air and whammo!  Lots of snowfall on the good ol' USA.

But hasn't the Jet Stream always done this?  To some extent, yes.  But I'm over 60 years old and I can't ever remember it going down way into Texas like it has done recently.   In the past, the Jet Stream remained pretty much up in Canada, with an occasional dip into Minnesota.  It formed a relatively stable circle of air flowing around the arctic that fenced in the really cold air up there.  Now, however, the Jet Stream has become unstable and is moving up and down the northern hemisphere rather erratically, causing extreme temperature swings (here in Minnesota, we have had a range of 35 below zero (F) to 60 above in a period of a mere two weeks) and a lot more precipitation. 

Why is it doing this? According to a recent study released in January 2011, the melting of ice in the arctic is allowing the Earth to absorb more heat from the sun instead of reflecting it back into space like it used to.(Second basic physics fact: dark ocean water absorbs more sunlight that light snow and ice.)   And it is doing this at a much higher rate than previously thought.  Now, 32-degree sea water might not seem very warm to you and I, but it is a heck of a lot warmer than the below-zero snow and ice that used to be there.  And once it absorbs that sunlight, it holds the heat, melting still more ice.  This warming of the arctic is destabilizing the Jet Stream, which, as I explained above, results in more snow further south.

So, although it may seem paradoxical for warmer air to produce bigger snowstorms, the phenomenon is scientifically sound.  You can't just look at a few local storms, you have to take into account the whole pattern of changes globally.   And while a few degrees might not seem like much, we are not really talking about the difference between a 70 degree day and a 74-degree day.  We are talking about the overall warming of the entire planet.  It doesn't take much to alter the ocean and wind currents.  Scientists say an overall change of 6 degrees can be disastrous.  Already there has been a rapid increase in volcanic activity, earthquakes, severe hurricanes and other storms -- including snow! -- yet so many of us are still in denial about this!

How much do we humans contribute to climate change?  Quite a lot, according to most climate scientists.  Yes, the earth goes through natural cycles, but since the Industrial Revolution the greenhouse effect has accelerated at an unprecedented rate.  The science is pretty firm now, with the vast majority of climate scientists agreeing there is a rapidly-accelerating problem.  Yet I am often appalled at how many of people not only don't believe the science, they think it is merely a matter of politics, a sort of left-wing hoax perpetrated by the Democrats.  (If Ronald Reagan had produced An Inconvenient Truth instead of Al Gore, would the right-wingers take global warming more seriously today?  I wonder.)

James Hoggan, in his book Climate Cover-Up, presents a well-researched argument that from the 1980s onward, there has been an organized campaign on the part of Big Oil and Big Coal to convince us that global warming is a hoax. (Remember that notorious ad trying to convince us that excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was good?)  I'm not normally into conspiracy theories, but this one is pretty convincing.  Unfortunately, a lot of people have bought that argument, which delayed us doing anything about changing our lifestyles or lowering our carbon footprints.  But I think it is becoming pretty evident that global warming is real -- even if is does produce more snow sometimes.  Next time you are shoveling the stuff, blame it on that melting arctic ice.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Even crap has beauty sometimes

 The most mundane things can turn out to make an interesting picture.  We have had some serious winds this winter, and the other day I noticed that a big branch on one of our old apple trees had cracked and fallen.  When I went to investigate, I discovered that rabbits had stripped the bark from all the twigs that were low enough on the ground for them to reach.

I snapped these two pictures to show my wife Caryl, who has serious arthritis and walks with a cane, so she doesn't get out much in winter when the snow is deep and the ice is slick.  I often bring her nature pix so she can see what is happening out there in our woods.   I wasn't particularly expecting anything artistic when I took these shot of bunny poop, I just wanted to record the spoor -- but the light was just right to create a rather interesting -- if campy! -- effect.


You can see how the rabbits stripped the bark off -- not only on this fallen tree, but in a lot of other places, too.  I've also noticed quite a lot of bunny poop in the compost pile, where I dump the cleanings from the chicken coop.  The bunnies are apparently picking through the old hay and straw.  It's been a hard winter for them and other animals, with the snow so deep that food is hard to find.  Rats and mice also visit the compost pile -- you can see the little trails of footprints where they come out of their tunnels under the snow.  And sometimes you see also the prints of feather tips, where an owl swooped down to grab its dinner.  I often hear an owl hooting around here, although I've never actually see it.

In nature, you find these signs of animal activity more often than the animals themselves.  Oh sure, those TV nature shows have lots of fast action, but in the real world, you wait a long time to see a few moments of thrill.  (And those cameramen sit for a lot of uncomfortable hours to get that footage, too.)  On a day-to-day basis, you learn to look for little clues that tell you animals are around.  And these clues are often quite ephemeral.  The sun soon wipes out tracks in the snow, or they get covered up with new snow.  Another storm is coming in today, and these bunny signs will soon be buried.   So you have to pay constant attention if you want to know what the wildlife is doing out there.

And I think this how it is with "finding God," too.  Hollywood has taught us to expect dramatic special effects, but the Red Sea doesn't split every day, and you rarely see such a big miracle in real life.  However, if you pay close attention, there are always little signs around that God is there.  Sometimes, you can even find God in the crap of life -- maybe even more so than when things are going well.  But you have to learn how to look with kavannah -- focused attention. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

If a tree falls, you can definitely hear it!

Yesterday, as I was sitting at my computer, I heard a loud falling, sliding, crunching sound and assumed it was ice sliding off the roof (which has already happened before -- the other day a huge thick sheet of it came crashing down off the chicken coop as I was doing chores down there -- startling me and upsetting the chickens, who cackled for five minutes afterward.  Luckily this happened outside their pen and nobody got crushed.) 

When I went outside to look for the source of the latest crash, there was no sign of a snow pile on the ground, just the usual drips. Puzzled, I looked the other way -- and saw that the noise was made by the top of this tree snapping off in the wind and crashing to the ground.  This tree has been dying for a quite while and, since it's not close enough to the house to be a hazard, I had left it for the woodpeckers and nuthatches.   And they are still enjoying it -- I saw a Downy hopping up and down the fallen top this morning.  The debris scattered on the ground will eventually get picked up and probably used for firewood when I make maple syrup -- which will be soon if these warm days keep up.

I imagine this will also open up an area where the sun can shine in better.  Last time a tree fell in this windbreak, a patch of orange daylilies burst into bloom.   They had apparently been there since the previous owners of this land (I certainly didn't plant them) but had never bloomed until the tree fell.  Under this new topless tree, there is an old clump of peonies, probably planted back when these pines were little evergreens.  The peonies have bloomed for me, but it will be interesting to see if they do better now that the top of the tree is gone and better light gets in.

As you can see, I've been allowing other younger trees to grow in beyond the older ones, to maintain the windbreak, which is on the west side of the house.  It makes a big difference, both in winter when the winds blow and summer when the sun beats down, to have trees there.  In addition to stuff that has grown up on its own, I've moved quite a few young trees and bushes into the new row.  My grandson's Arbor Day tree got planted there, too.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The rural roots of Hasidism -- and my love of nature

A while back I heard a Chabad rabbi remark at how annoyed he was that people were portraying the Baal Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name," founder of Hasidic Judaism) as "that guy living out in the woods."  Somehow, the rabbi felt this was an insult to the Baal Shem Tov's memory, making him into some sort of backwoods simpleton instead of a great Torah scholar.  I beg to differ.  I think the fact that that he spend a period of time wandering and meditating in the Carpathian Mountains contributed to the deep spirituality that he later taught his disciples.  In fact, I would even go so far as to say that rural life was an essential part of the origins of early Hasidism. 

Like many American Jews, I grew up hearing about how Jews in medieval Europe were locked into urban ghettos where the sun never shined and nature was totally absent -- so much so, that lovers met in the cemetery because it was the only green place in the ghetto.  That was true in some locations, but not in Eastern Europe where Hasidism began in the mid-18th century.  True, there were restrictions on Jews in The Tzar's domain (the expression "Beyond the Pale" comes from this period, referring to the Pale of Jewish settlement in Russia where Jews were required to live) and they were limited in what occupations they could pursue, etc., but for the most part, Jewish life was happening in small towns (stetls), not big urban centers.  Jews might not have owned land (in many places they were forbidden to), but they certainly saw trees, mountains and rivers on a daily basis.  Nature was up close and everywhere.

This point was driven home to me when, in 1997, I traveled to Uman, Ukraine, to the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.  I was struck by how, even today, this is a very rural area.  Many people were still drawing water from wells with buckets, plowing with horses, and tethering goats in their front yard.  Goods were bought and sold in open air markets.  Everywhere there were sights and sounds that made the details of Hasidic stories come alive.  I walked along the Bug River, mentioned frequently in Hasidic lore, climbed the rocks along its banks, visited the Sophia Park and saw what was probably the bridge that inspired that most famous saying of Rebbe Nachman:  "All the world is just a narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to fear."  (Read the full story of my Uman pilgrimage)

On that pilgrimage, I became very much aware how connected to nature those early Hasidim must have been -- and how much their urban descendants of today have lost.   As I have written here before, the Hasidic world -- and much of the Hasidic community in general -- is suffering from a serious case of Nature Deficit Disorder.  Back when I lived in the city, people thought me very odd for wanting to spend time alone in the park, or take the shortcut through the golf course to get away from the sounds of traffic on the Sabbath.  Everyone rushed from one place to another in such a hurry, there was no time to smell the flowers -- if indeed anyone even noticed the flowers were there.   I don't ever remember anyone pointing out a bird or butterfly, and when I did so, there was little or no interest in it.

To the urban Hasidim, the outdoors was merely an inconvenient gap between one building and another.  There was a disturbing expectation that, as I  became more "acclimated" to Hasidic life, I would eventually give up the goyim naches (gentile pleasures) of nature study and settle into the urban Jewish world.  Nobody seemed to understand that it was the Baal Shem Tov's connection to nature -- so very obvious to me! -- that had drawn me to Hasidism in the first place.  More and more, I felt an extreme disconnect between the beautiful teachings I was reading and the modern reality I was seeing.  In 1988, my wife and I left the city, never to return -- but we have remained observant Jews.

So here I am, many years later, a Hasid living without a local community in the Great North Woods of Minnesota.  Critics accuse me of assimilating into rural American culture -- how little they know!  It is they who have really assimilated -- into an urban life that would have been as alien to the Baal Shem Tov as if he had landed on Mars.   Every morning I wake up to the sound of a live rooster crowing -- and I make the special blessing that one says upon hearing a rooster at dawn.  When was the last time my urban friends did that?  On clear Saturday nights we end the Sabbath by literally going out and looking for three stars.  I will make shehechiyanu, the blessing that thanks God for reaching another season, when the first Canadian geese come honking back in the spring.  There are so many other things in our daily life that resonate with early Hasidism, that I feel closer to the Hasidic masters here than I ever did in the city.   Which is one reason I started this blog -- not to kvetch (complain) but to share some of the wonderful nature experiences that have deepened my love and understanding of Torah.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Winter nature photos -- a creative challenge

"Snowy Tree at Dawn"
 As I was looking through my winter photos, it struck me how my "eye" for nature is different in winter than summer.  During the warm months, I tend to focus on things close up:  Flowers, insects, birds, etc.  During the winter, when everything is covered with snow, my attention goes more toward sunrises and landscapes.   After all, how much plain white snow can you watch without getting terminally bored?

Nevertheless, I do sometimes spot interesting natural objects and other "found art" that get "captured" and preserved by my camera. Occasionally the snow makes a rather ordinary thing look much more interesting than usual.  Here are a few of my favorites:  

These frozen crabapples were on a volunteer tree growing behind my chicken coop.  (Either it grew from the compost, or a seed was dropped there by a bird.)  The tree was already there when we moved here in 1997, and every year it produces a crop of 1-inch fruits that hang on the tree all winter.  When spring comes, lots of birds enjoy the mushy thawed-out apples, including robins and cedar waxwings.

Very few birds hang around here all winter, but the woodpeckers do, and it's obvious that they have been busy on this old rotting stump, as well as other snags in our little woodlot.  Somebody once referred to dead trees as "fast food restaurants" for birds.  A lot of insects winter over on or inside dead trees, and winter birds rely on them for high-energy food.  So, unless the dead trees are a hazard, I leave them for the birds.  There's a dead pine that I can see from my window that almost always has a Downy Woodpecker or a Nuthatch creeping up and down the peeling bark.

My last winter pic for this post is this bunch of snow-covered dead grass.  Not a particularly rare sight --we have fields of it here! -- but it is an example of how the snow can make ordinary objects more interesting and artistic.  I like the way the blades of grass form a sort of abstract pattern, providing a contrast that you would never see without the snow:

A Winter Field in Contrast"