Stepping out of the airport the first thing I noticed was the palm trees. I’ve traveled to this area enough times that I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am. And since we are creatures of the culture in which we’re raised, palm trees inevitably make me think of Gilligan’s Island. We grasp for culture to help us make sense of this odd world of negotiating other people and, like many children born in the sixties, I was raised on television. Gilligan’s Island (somehow appropriate training ground for attending AAR/SBL—it actually featured a professor) was as close to seeing a palm tree as I ever got, being raised in a very humble household. To me, palm trees were as much creatures of fantasy as the monsters that populated the movies I watched on Saturday afternoon.
My first experience of a real palm tree was in Israel, 1987. I’d signed on as a volunteer at Tel Dor, an archaeological dig near Haifa. Then, as yesterday, I encountered palm trees—so alien and yet so natural—at the airport. Welcome to Tel Aviv! And so we think of palm trees as being part of paradise, a place where it’s always pleasantly warm and although well-watered it doesn’t rain too much. Trees symbolize our culture. Although back home in the northeast most of the leaves are down from the hardwoods, the region is also defined by its large plants. Trees do that for us. Spreading high over our heads, with dense cellular structure that makes them heavy, trees have always been attractive to our species. And they can help us define, at a glance, where we are. “Paradise” derives from a Persian word for “garden.” Even in arid zones they value their trees.
Looking out my hotel window I see the bay. In the bay stands a marina. Back home most boats are shrink-wrapped by now and I’ve already seen smaller bodies of water start to freeze over. Paradise has no ice. For the castaways, being on the island was always a challenge, but never a terribly serious one. Thurston Howell III used his money (useless where there’s nothing to buy) to try to assert his influence. Everyone treated him with respect, always calling him “Mr. Howell.” In that paradise, however, one of the two characters (who had names) referred to always by title, the professor—the skipper, of course, was the other one—was the person looked to for guidance. If anyone would figure out a way to be rescued, it would be the academic. I’ll be spending the next few days on an island with mostly professors. And when it gets too intense I’ll look at the palm trees and remind myself that this is paradise.