361: Readers Tell Us About … Nature, Darwin and the Spirit of Our World

ur readers are drawn toward the natural world — not a surprising conclusion, if you’ve been reading stories this week like our Conversation With Barbara Brown Taylor and Abigail Sine’s meditation from Ireland.
    But, as we approach the bicentennial of Charles Darwin‘s birth and the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, I am amazed at how many readers are sending me notes or telling me in person about their love for the natural world.
    Just this week, I’ve heard about a group of scholars in Chicago brainstorming a new Earth-friendly Web site they hope to develop — among other things to help people lead more sustainable lives.
    And, this is a record for ReadTheSpirit: I wound up with five different offers from writers who wanted to write guest commentaries on the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, which starts at sundown on Sunday.
    So, we’ve decided to publish two Tu Bishvat stories — one today and, please, come back on Monday for Debra Darvick’s reflection.
    PLUS — if you’re a fan of National Geographic in magazine or cable TV formats, then you’re already aware of the big buzz on Darwin and the natural world. It’s on the cover of the current edition. And, starting this weekend, the National Geographic TV channel is rolling out four hour-long documentaries on Darwin’s life and legacy in science.


    Don’t take my word for this next point. Take the Pew Forum’s word for it — or National Geographic’s word for it: Data show that Americans as a group are distinctive in the developed world for our continuing skepticism about Darwin and evolution. Across Europe and other well-educated regions of the world, the faith-and-evolution controversy is a historic footnote.
    Can’t imagine that? Well, we’ve set up a helpful page for all of our readers, called: “The Spirit of Darwin … Resources for Exploration and Dialogue.” We’ll add to it if we find other great resources, but for now, the page gives you an overview of what Pew is providing online and National Geographic is broadcasting. (You can even watch video clips of several shows on our “Spirit of Darwin” page.)
    We invite readers all next week to visit with Dr. Wayne Baker and the readers over at OurValues.org in discussing these issues related to Darwin. Here, in the main pages of ReadTheSpirit, we’ll continue to focus on spiritual connection.


    Spiritual connection.
    That’s what we “do” at ReadTheSpirit and that’s what writer Erica Stux’s story today is all about — and what Debra Darvik’s story will explore on Monday, looking at Tu Bishvat from another perspective entirely.
    I knew that Erica was a kindred spirit when I read her bright-yellow-covered memoir, “Who, Me? Paranoid? Humor, Humor, Everywhere: Essays on Everyday Life.” I had just previewed the National Geographic documentary on evolution in whales (see our “Darwin” page) — and by coincidence turned back to finish Erica’s book only to discover her next chapter was: “Whales and Wails.” It’s a delightful slice of life. Erica loves the idea of heading out to sea with friends to see whales first hand — and quickly lives to regret it.

    Along the way, she writes: “I had succumbed to the fascination that humans have for whales. Perhaps it’s their size — larger than any other creature that ever lived. Perhaps it’s their environment — a vast watery place of mystery that contains strange forms of life, from delicate jellyfish and tiny seahorses to giant squids, rapacious great white sharks, and coelacanths — the latter a fish that until recently was thought to be extinct for 80 million years.” (Psst. That’s a coelacanth at right.)

    So, lots of creative thoughts will be swirling through ReadTheSpirit and OurValues.org over the coming week! Stay tuned! And here is Erica Stux’s …

By Erica Stux

In April, we will celebrate the gifts that trees give us on Arbor Day. Some people plant new trees, others just think about all the good things we have because of trees and how important they are to our way of life.

    Can you imagine living without wood or paper? Or without fruit and nuts? Trees give us shade on hot summer days. They provide homes and food for birds and many kinds of animals.
    Other benefits are not as evident, but are very important. Trees hold the soil down and keep it from blowing away. By soaking up rain water, they prevent floods. Trees clean up the air where it is dirty and smelly.
    A man named Julius Sterling Morton, who lived in the state of Nebraska in the late 1800s, had the idea that more trees would be good for the state. Nebraska’s first Arbor Day, in April 1872, was a huge success. More than 1 million trees were planted. Other states took up the idea. Today all 50 states have an Arbor Day, though the exact dates may be different.

     Actually, the idea of a day for planting new trees was not new. It goes back to biblical times. The people of the Holy Land realized the importance of trees for their well-being and that of the land. A day was set aside to plant trees, reflected in a Bible verse, Leviticus 19:23: “And when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food …”
    The day was first called the New Year of Trees, but later it became Tu Bishvat, meaning the 15th day in the month of Shevat.
    Hundreds of years later, descendants of the original tribes no longer lived in the same places. Instead of planting trees, they celebrated the festival by eating fruits and nuts from different kinds of trees. Eating figs, dates, oranges, and almonds — all of which grew in the land of their forefathers — gave them a feeling of connection with that land.
    In modern times, the people of the land of Israel are again celebrating Tu Bishvat.
    Children are encouraged to plant trees, which are badly needed because of the dry climate. This makes children aware of their country’s needs and of the responsibility of all its citizens.

    Americans also are realizing the true value of trees. In the United States, some of the forests covering large areas are protected; nobody may cut down trees there. So a festival that started in biblical times still has meaning for us today — perhaps even a more urgent meaning than thousands of years ago.

    Erica Stux is the author of “Who, Me? Paranoid? Humor, Humor Everywhere.”

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