Nature’s Bible

When you’re writing a book, many strands in your mind are weaving their way into what you hope will be whole cloth.  Well, at least if you write books the way that I do.  In writing Weathering the Psalms, for instance, one of the threads was the question of science and religion.  I was teaching at Nashotah House at the time, and I read a lot of science.  As I told colleagues at the time, if science is how we know things, shouldn’t what we know of the natural world apply to the Bible?  I don’t claim to be the first to ask that question—back in the days of exploration there were many people (mostly the genus “white men” of the “clergy” species) who went to what is now and had used to be Israel, to find out what the world of the Bible was actually like.  Their books still make interesting reading.

Quite unexpectedly a colleague, Dalit Rom-Shiloni of Tel Aviv University, told me she’d just ordered my book.  She’s leading up a project called the Dictionary of Nature Imagery of the Bible (DNI).  Over a decade after my teaching career ended, someone had deemed my work relevant.  Dr. Rom-Shiloni recently sent me the link to the project website where there is a video of her interviewing three Israeli scientists about the possibility of lions, leopards, and bears living in Israel.  They’re all mentioned in the Bible and no longer exist in the area.  The video is on this link and won’t take half an hour of your time.  It’s quite interesting.

One of the surprising facts to emerge is that leopards, in small numbers, may still exist in Israel.  This assertion is based on lay observation.  I contrasted this with the United States where, no matter how often a cougar (aka mountain lion, puma) is spotted in a state where it’s “known” to be extinct, it is claimed to be mistaken observation.  A departed friend and mentor of mine once saw a mountain lion in West Virginia.  I’d grown up in neighboring Pennsylvania where they are officially extinct, so I wondered if said beasts knew to observe the Mason-Dixon line.  The fact is, despite all our best efforts to destroy our environment, animals often find a way to survive.  Growing up, one of my cousins in Pennsylvania (now also unfortunately deceased) showed me a puma print in the snow behind his rural house.  Now Pennsylvania is a long way from Israel, and this topic is a long way from the DNI, but remember what I just said about how my books are written.  Tapestries only make sense from a distance.

Ground, Candle, and February

The world’s hairiest prophet?

Relying on the prophetic ability of a rodent may seem like a fool’s errand, but to understand Groundhog Day you have to go back to Candlemas.  Apart from when I lived at Nashotah House, I’ve never been anywhere that people knew what Candlemas was.  It’s also known as the Feast of the Presentation, and it in itself is built on an archaic ritual based on a creative understanding of biology.  In ancient Israel, a woman was considered impure for seven days.  The eighth day, if the child was a boy, he was circumcised.  Thirty-three days later the woman, finally considered pure enough to approach the temple precincts, was to take a sacrifice for her purification.  And oh, if she bore a girl the impurity lasted sixty-six days.  It’s all there in Leviticus.

What does any of this have to do with Groundhog Day?  Well, according to the much later tradition that Jesus was born of a virgin on December 25, if you do the math you’ll find Mary’s purification falls on February 2.  And if Jesus had been a girl Candlemas would be a moveable feat since February sometimes has 29 days.  Since it’s still dark out for most of the time in February a couple of traditions developed: one was a way of finding out when winter would be over and the other was the blessing of candles since you’d still be needing them for awhile.  That gave the feast its common name.  The tradition grew that clear weather on Candlemas meant that winter was to last for a good long time yet.  Since Germanic peoples love their Christmas traditions, a badger was used for the long-range forecast part of the celebration.

In Pennsylvania Dutch territory, badgers are rare.  Woodchucks, or groundhogs, are just about everywhere and they live in burrows like badgers do.  In a carryover from Candlemas’s clear weather foretelling the future,  the belief was that a badger or groundhog seeing its shadow—because it’s clear, get it?—meant six more weeks of winter.  Of course nobody knew about global warming in those days.  Candlemas, it turns out, was one of the earliest Christian celebrations and it was part of the Christmas complex of holidays.  It’s still winter out there.  It’s also Saturday which means I already have a list of chores as long as a badger’s shadow.  Now I’ve got to remember to get my candles blessed as well.   Winter, it seems, never ends.

For the Love of Dog

All I have to do is say “Old Yellar,” and everyone will know the feeling.  Everyone of a certain age, I should add, who’s owned a canine.  The love of dog.  From where I pass my days I can see out the window into the neighbors’ back yards for four houses over.  They all have dogs.  Big dogs, mostly.  They also have fenced in backyards.  One of the things I haven’t seen too much in our neighborhood is dog walking.  People let their dogs out to frolic, and do their, ahem, other outdoor activities in the yard.  Once a day some member of the family, either with the basic plastic bag or with the specialized, long-handled brush and scooper, slowly surveys the yard to remove any offensive matter so the space may be used for human activities.  It’s a level of care that most would shudder to provide for their own species.

Wolves were the earliest domesticated animals.  In those hunter-gatherer days either they or humans—the jury’s out on which—realized the advantages of working together.  Kind of like we were fated to be partners.  Besides, unless the dog turns on us, there’s no question of who’s the master here, and everyone likes to be the boss.  When I catch a glimpse of one of the neighborhood pets being scolded, or praised, it’s clear they share emotions with us.  The bond is deep.  I often wonder about this—they recognize the tone of voice, something that takes humans a while to learn.  I grew up with dogs and I found out that even if you insult them in a friendly, encouraging tone of voice they’ll love you for it.  Dogs are just that way.

Our first real dog—the one that ended up staying with us his whole life, was a beagle pup we got at a farm.  Dogs like to be with others.  Unlike humans, they don’t have to pretend.  (Although they can do that too, as when they growl at you during a game of tug-o-war.)  Then we leave home and go to our places of business, where capitalism reigns.  We treat other humans coldly, clinically.  “It’s only business,” we’ll parrot, especially if we feel bad about doing what the boss tells us.  That’s the way we treat our own species when money’s involved.  And we’ll sit at our desks, daydreaming of our dog at home that will be so glad to see us when we walk through that door.  And we’ll gladly clean up after our pets what we find obscene even to write in human language.  It kind of makes me wonder when I glance out the window while at work.

Not about Pigs

Pseudepigrapha always struck me as a great name for a pet guinea pig.  Neither members of the porcine family nor from Guinea, these rodents are remarkably companionable.  But like the word pseudepigrapha, this post isn’t about guinea pigs.  I’ve been reading various documents among this sprawling category of texts, and I can see the fascination they hold for scholars of Second Temple Judaism.  My own specialization was on the earlier end of the spectrum—Ugarit had ceased to exist even before a first temple was built and provided clues to how this whole religion got started in the first place, but that’s a story for another time.  The account of the pseudepigrapha  cannot be summarized easily.  Some of the documents have been known to scholars for a very long time.  Others have been (and continue to be) discovered, some quite recently.

Not a pig.

The documents classified as pseudepigrapha generally bear the name of someone who couldn’t have been their “author.”  We now know that ancients didn’t think of writing the same way we do.  They didn’t publish books like modern writers do, and scholars have been exploring how the category of “book” distorts even the Bible, let alone books that didn’t make the cut.  None of this diminishes the intrigue of these ancient texts.  The world into which Jesus of Nazareth was born contained many texts and traditions.  There was no Bible as we know it today—it was still being written (or compiled)—and no canon, literally a measuring stick, existed to determine what was holy and what was not.  

As discoveries in Mesopotamia have made clear, although few could read or write, writing itself was prolific, at least given the technological limitations.  Today if one wishes to specialize the literature of one subsection of one time period, and probably even some subdivision of that, has to be selected.  Universities don’t see the point, and much of this ancient material is understudied because there remains money to be made in looking at economically viable topics.  The pseudepigrapha have nevertheless come into their own.  Perhaps because some of the stories these documents contain have made their way into pop culture.  Even as I make my way through many of these texts that are young in my eyes, I realize the proliferation of writing made such growth almost inevitable.  There remains, however, a high-pitched squealing that demands attention, regardless of what the exact genus and species of the creature may be.

Mastering Ravens

One of the most difficult things in modern life is to keep up with all the new jobs available.  That’s not to suggest that unemployment isn’t a real problem—it is—but that the game has changed since the days I went to the guidance counselors’ office and thumbed through the box of microfiche to learn about potential colleges.  (And what strange people the guidance counselors were!)  Since 1981, when I graduated from Oil City High School, the Internet has been invented and has changed employment forever.  I understand that making YouTube videos can now be a full-time job, with benefits.  Who knew?  So when I was kindly presented with a copy of Christopher Skaife’s The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London I wasn’t too surprised to learn that there is such a job.

Delightfully written, The Ravenmaster goes into the ins and outs of life in what is a ceremonial job.  That the Brits are fond of tradition is no secret, and this little book is so full of them that it becomes a delightful gallimaufry that includes, I kid you not, dog biscuits marinated in blood.  Although Skaife takes you on a few detours through his own life, the book is mainly about ravens.  We’re so used to materialists telling us that everything is simply cause and effect of neurons firing that I wonder how they might react to the obvious intelligence and personalities of ravens.  Reading about their antics as well as their wisdom it’s difficult not to surmise that consciousness isn’t a purely human preserve.  With the ravens and the wolves we are a piece.

Intelligence is more common in the animal world than in the White House these days, and this book may help to show why.  Ravens can plot, plan, and be cruel.  They can also be kind, compassionate, and friends.  I’ve long had a fascination with corvids, and I tried to befriend some before moving out of New Jersey.  It was a bit tricky with the strictures of my own Tower of London—the commute, the bus, the job—and so my friendship with the local crows in the back yard of our apartment remained strictly casual.  We lose so much by not paying attention to the natural world of which we are, increasingly, so unnatural a part.  When humanity disappoints and the ridiculousness of human behavior haunts, I recommend reaching for The Ravenmaster.  It’s comforting to know that real minds exist out there in the wild.

Web Design

As those who read this blog on the actual site will have noticed, I’ve been playing around a bit with my “look.”  Neither famous nor influential, I’m just a regular guy with a doctorate who wants to make some use of it.  This blog is a way of doing that.  In any case, as I was changing templates and background images, I noticed my rather lengthy blogroll.  Apart from sounding like a particularly tasteless eastern appetizer, blogrolls are pretty much outdated these days.  Back when I started this, there was a community of like-minded bloggers who linked to each others’ pages and helped stir some stats.  In those days doing something like posting on the winner of the Super Bowl could garner you a thousand hits in a day.  The web’s become a bit more crowded since then, I suspect.

So I went to edit my blogroll.  As I did so I found no other blogs linked to mine—no offense taken!—and many that had become defunct.  Many, many.  And there were many blogs that hadn’t been updated in years.  Now, I understand that it is possible to make a living as a blogger these days.  According to my stats, this will be my 3,447th post.  When I consider the time it takes each day to write one of these things, I realize it’s a considerable piece of my life.  Seeing the blogs that have become inactive was like walking through a technological graveyard where many virtual comrades are buried.  For me, the exercise of writing (and I don’t mean the physical typing) is an essential part of each day.  I’d miss it if I stopped.

My redesign focuses on a couple of things: books and pelicans.  Since the books part should be obvious, the pelicans might need explaining.  The background image is one I took while visiting the University of California, Santa Barbara for Routledge.  On my lunch break I went down to the beach and this flock of pelicans flew right over my head.  The iPhone was new in those days, so I pulled it out and snapped a picture.  It won a company photo of the month prize (no monetary value).  There’s quite a bit of symbolism in this image of birds against the California sun.   This blog tends to be metaphorical and those who’ve complained on it over the years don’t really get that.  That’s because things are not what they seem.  There’s something valuable about having to dig for meaning, even if it means looking up.

Insecticide

Although Halloween is more about spiders than insects, a real fear seems to be swirling around the latter.  For the second time in a year, a study has been published indicating a precipitous drop in the numbers of six-legged creatures worldwide.  This is alarming because everything’s connected.  Loss of insects means loss of vertebrates that feed on them and that leads to loss of species upon which we depend.  The problem with “humans first,” simply “America first” writ large, is that all species are interconnected.  The loss of one will lead to the loss of others—that’s the way connections work—until the entire picture changes.  And it won’t be prettier.  Even for lack of bugs.

Scientists aren’t sure of why this is happening, but the likely culprit seems to be global warming.  Temperatures are changing so rapidly that evolution can’t keep up.  And since those in political power don’t believe in evolution—America first!—they have difficulty seeing how global warming—a myth!—could possibly pose any threat.  Just ask the wooly mammoth.  The fact is that the very small frequently offer the answers long before it’s too late.  The problem is you have to pay attention.  And that attention must be not on America, or Trump, or Kavanaugh.  The Supreme Court is jobless if there are no people left.  We are part of an ecosystem, and the silence of that ecosystem is very loud indeed.   Decades ago Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring to warn of the dangers of pesticides.  In our short-sighted way, we responded by banning the most dangerous of them and turning up the heat.

We like to focus on the negative aspects of religion these days, but one of the overlooked benefits of it has been religions’ ability to shift focus.  Christianity, for example, has been an advocate of thinking of others before thinking of oneself.  Now certain elected officials seem constitutionally unable to think of anyone but themselves, but the fact is none of us would be here if it weren’t for the insects.  They work to keep our planet neat and tidy, even if we regard them as a sign of uncleanness in our houses.  Maybe not the lowest, they are one of the essential building blocks of the world we know and recognize.  And they are disappearing.  As Carson recognized decades ago, the loss of insects leads to a silent spring because the birds that feed on them will disappear.  And what about pollination—whose job will that become?  I suppose we could assign it to migrant workers, but we’re sending them away too.  America first will be America the silent and hungry.  Unless we listen to what the insects tell us.