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The Life of the Skies
Birdwatching Inspired.
-- Susan Frost

On February 7, author Jonathan Rosen, University of Pennsylvania’s 2008 Silvers Visiting Scholar delivered a lecture on “The Life of the Skies: Judaism, Evolution and the Natural World.” His speech was sponsored by Penn’s Jewish Studies Program and the Kelly Writers House.

Beginning with the caveat that he was not a scholar, just an author, Rosen delivered a lively talk laced with humor and stories. Despite his modest tone and natural delivery, new ideas poured out in a rapid stream. He quoted a joke about the elephant and the Jewish question:

The French student writes his paper on “The Love Life of the Elephant;” the German produces 4 volumes entitled “A Short Introduction to the Natural History and Evolution of the Elephant;” the Jewish student writes a paper called "The Elephant and the Jewish Problem."

However, according to Rosen, everything is about Jews and everything is about birds.

The disappearance of wilderness in our civilized world has stirred a deep longing in the modern soul. This desire is greatly intensified by the conditions of city life, which isolate its dwellers from the natural world. Rosen cites as evidence of this thirst for nature the astonishing fact that 48 million Americans call themselves bird watchers! Speaking passionately about bird watching as the “mediator between civilization and wildness,” Rosen argued that birds are the truest remnant of the natural world that still lives among us; nesting in parks, perching on telephone poles and skyscrapers and generally going about the business of being birds, independent of their human admirers.

Mentioning a surprising Jewish connection, Rosen told of Abraham Cahan, founding editor of the Forward. Part of the mission of that remarkable newspaper was to help Jewish immigrants feel at home in America. Cahan said of his fellow Jews that “they could sturdy themselves in new places by leaning on the natural world.”  He added that “Birds are the language spoken by the land itself.”

Rosen’s own interest in bird watching was sparked by a rabbi’s casual comment at a Shabbat lunch in New York City. “The warblers,” said the rabbi, “will be coming to Central Park soon.” From this simple beginning blossomed Rosen’s understanding of and appreciation for the creatures he describes as “the link between earth and sky.”

Rosen observed that a birdwatcher maintains a dual vision. At hand is the described, named and classified bird of the guidebook, while ahead is the feathered, mysterious, wild creature seen through binoculars. This duality offers the sense of order we humans need to process and comprehend the wild and to appreciate it.

Rosen speculates that the attraction of birding is a result of the change, over eons of time, in our relationship with other life forms. At the dawn of our species, we depended upon and sought animals as prey. The interest that so many civilized humans share in the natural world may be genetically programmed for the evolutionary advantage it once provided. Now, many of us hunt birds with field guides in hand, and shoot them with our cameras.

Rosen describes himself as an urban person who has begun a journey of discovery into the natural world. He states that all environmental questions are also religious questions because they address the issue of human responsibility for God’s creation. Skillfully weaving Jewish themes into his talk, Rosen reminded his audience of the oft-told story of the Baal Shem Tov’s special way to respond to a crisis. The Besh”t would go into a special place in the forest, build a bonfire, chant certain prayers, and the problems would be solved. As one generation succeeded another, the special place, the way of making the bonfire and the prayers were all lost, leaving only the story to be treasured by his followers. This powerful theme of loss over time underpins our understanding of natural history, as well. This Jewish theme of “the diminishment of things” continues to be reflected in post-Holocaust Jewish history, and parallels the loss of species and habitats within the natural world. Rosen links these two with the injunction that, rather than be content with the story alone, one should allow the tale to lead him back into the forest, and there seek connections with God and nature. For Rosen, birding provides such an experience. “It is the search for the return to wildness when thinking is not enough.”

The Jewish relationship to the Divine encompasses a powerful message about our stewardship of the earth. In “returning to the forest” we can heal ourselves and address our longing for nature while protecting the natural world and its inhabitants. From dinosaurs to passenger pigeons, we have come to know that extinction is the fate of living things. Human actions influence the very existence of the other species whose dominion was assigned to us in the book of Genesis. Through scientific observation, we are still learning the cost and finality of these decisions on the lives of creatures whose world we share.

Rosen sees knowledge as a prime tool in our ability to relate to nature. The publication in 1859 of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species forever changed the way in which people viewed the world around them. This book-- which sold out on its first day-- provided a documented and scientific explanation of the tools and complexity of evolution and its role in shaping the creatures that inhabit the world. Darwin’s ideas created a firestorm of anxiety, doubt and anger for many people. Much of the Christian world found it impossible to reconcile the apparent scientific truths of natural selection and modification over time with biblical passages that described the order of creation. Rosen argued that the Jewish oral tradition of argument and interpretation, as well as a tolerance for multiple points of view, enabled Jews to reconcile the Darwinian theory of evolution with their own views of the creation better than did their Christian counterparts.

In addressing the disappearance of wildness in our lives, Rosen spoke of the famous Russian-born Yiddish poet, Avraham Sutzkever, who linked the longing for the natural world with his attachment to Judaism. In his book, Poems from My Diary, Sutzkever said that this longing had stirred in us an intense drive to seek nature. One of his poems ends with the line, “God will remain.”

Who would have imagined that the disparate universes of Judaism, Darwinian evolution, the natural world, bird watching and poetry could be brought together with an intellectual and emotional force that made their relationships seem as natural as the flight of the birds that inspired them? Rosen has woven these seemingly disparate threads into a seamless and shining cloth. His book, The Life of the Skies: Judaism, Evolution and the Natural World is a treasure that will not only add luster to his reputation, but will inspire generations of people to look at nature and Jewish tradition with new comprehension and respect.

Susan Frost is a teacher, lover of nature and birds, and savta extraordinaire.

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