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.

The Late Vortex

So there was this polar vortex recently, here in the States, that led to a meteorological frenzy.  It was worse than the apocalypse itself since it was so bone-chillingly cold outside.  I had contacts from around the world asking if we were okay.  It used to be called “winter.”  Now, I’m not big on human suffering.  I hate to see anyone cold, hungry, or lonely.  These are things for which theodicy itself will some day have to stand trial.  But it does seem that we’ve caved in to media hype about the weather.  Yes, the cold is not to be trifled with.  It can kill.  Winter, however, comes around every year in the temperate zones, and using our evolved brains can help us survive things like winter’s chill.  Heck, our species has survived ice ages before.  They just had no internet to tell them that.

One morning at Nashotah House we were scheduled to attend a lenten mediation in Milwaukee.  A real winter storm was upon us—whether it was a polar vortex or not I do not know—and the temperature plummeted.  The Dean at the time was undeterred.  He’d hired a van to take us to Milwaukee.  I awoke to the news that the air temperature, not the wind chill, was 42 below zero.  For those of you who read centigrade, it crosses paths with Fahrenheit at 40 below.  The weather forecasters warned that mere minutes outside could be fatal.  Our Dean was no respecter of weather.  We piled into a rented van whose windows frosted over as soon as they were cleared and we made our way to experience lent.

My point is, winter can get cold.  A polar vortex by any other name would be so chilly.  What makes the difference between a cold day and an apocalypse?  The media.  Now that we’re constantly online we know when the chill settles in.  The hype makes it more marketable.  Advertisers pay, but they want hits.  By the end of the winter we’ve survived many apocalypses.  I always did find it ironic when some celibate priest would snort, hitch his pants, and say he was a real man (it actually happens!), but living through winter is something we ought to be used to by now.  On the way home from Milwaukee, we said evening prayer in the van so that we wouldn’t have to go outside to trudge to chapel in the midst of what may have been a polar vortex.  Even real men feel the cold, I guess.

Mastering the Elements

First time home ownership is best left to younger people.  And perhaps younger houses.  The constant onslaught of things falling apart, or falling off (it has been an extreme weather year) has soured me on the idea.  You get set in your ways, you see.  The move from apartment to house didn’t come with a raise that would cover all the repairs invisible to a home inspector’s eye.  Although our house has stood for over 120 years, the last owners let lots of things go with a lick and a promise and we, the naive middle-aged first-time buyers in a seller’s market, bit.  I thought there would be repairs to make, but not all at once.  The royalties from books like Holy Horror don’t make even a small dent in the contractor’s fees.  We should maybe have bought a house in Jericho instead.  One right on the city wall.

The shake-down voyage of a ship reveals the problems, so the theory goes.  It stands to reason that people have to go through a shake-down year as well.  I’ve got the roofer on speed-dial, and I keep a wary eye on a garage that has more love than actual care poured into it.  All I want to do is read and write (which I could do just fine as a renter, thank you) in a place dry and not too cold.  The weather, however, has been unforgiving.  Rain and more rain.  There’s something primal about all this—an element of having to struggle against nature in order to survive.  In the modern world we’ve taken for granted our ability to keep the beasts and weather at bay.  Storm systems like the one that has just blown through serve to remind our species that there are things that will forever remain beyond our control.

The lament is the most numerous genre of psalm

Something like this was going through my mind as I wrote Weathering the Psalms.  (We didn’t own our house at Nashotah House, though.  Whose house?  Nashotah’s house.)  Living in the Midwest gave me a new appreciation for the weather.  Some of the storms we witnessed were nothing short of theophanic.  Global warming has a way of bringing the weather front and center.  Elements of this element, however, are within our control.  We understand at least the human-driven elements of global warming.  We deny they exist to scrape together a few more pennies at the end of the day.  Meanwhile those who buy houses need to do their homework.  If need a roofer too, I’ve got one on speed-dial.

Shut up or Shut down?

So the government’s shut down over a presidential temper tantrum.  Like most people, I suspect, I haven’t really noticed.  Except for two things.  When I drove up to Ithaca over the holidays, some of the highway rest stops were closed.  It seems our government wants to share the misery of not being able to relieve itself.  Secondly, the NOAA weather forecasts are no longer updated as frequently as they should be.  I’m no expert on the weather—I did write a book on meteorotheology, which took quite a bit of research on weather in ancient times, but I know that doesn’t qualify.  Still, I rely on weather forecasts to get daily business done.  In particular, we were expecting a winter storm around here that had been predicted, by NOAA, to arrive around 11 p.m.

Okay, I thought, people will be off the roads by then, and crews will be out to treat the icy conditions by morning.  Seven hours early, around 4 p.m., I noticed a rain, sleet, snow mix falling.  The ice particles looked quite a lot like salt crystals, but I was pretty sure that the government doesn’t have that kind of pull.  In any case, when weather catches me unawares, I turn to NOAA since our government is apparently God’s own chosen one, figuring that the Almighty might know a thing or two about what goes on upstairs.  The current conditions, NOAA said, were “unknown precipitation.”  Apparently the government isn’t even allowed to look out the window during a shut-down.  Maybe it was salt after all.

So, among those of the “God of the gaps” crowd, the weather is perhaps the last refuge of a dying theology.  Their cheery refrain of “science can’t explain” has grown somewhat foreshortened these last few decades, but when unknown precipitation is falling outside all bets are off.  Come to think of it, Weathering the Psalms could’ve been titled Unknown Precipitation, but it’s a little late for that now.  A creature long of habit, I awoke just after 3 a.m.  Hastily dressing against the chill of the nighttime thermostat setting, I wandered to the window, wondering whether there would be a snow day.  It’s dark this time of night, as I well know, but in the streetlights’ glow it seemed as if no weather event had happened at all.  It’s just like our shut-down government to get such basic things wrong.  As long as I’m up, I might as well get to work on my current book on horror.  It’s only fitting.

Fossilized Ideas

In our current political climate, perspective helps quite a bit.  Indeed, one of the shortcomings of our conscious species is our inability to think much beyond the present.  In either direction.  Because of the biblical basis of western civilization, a significant portion of otherwise intelligent people believe that the world was created 6000 years ago.  I grew up believing that myself, before I learned more about the Bible and its context.  I also grew up collecting fossils.  Somehow I had no problem knowing that the fossils were from times far before human beings walked the earth, but also that the earth wasn’t nearly as old as it had to be for that to have happened.  Faith often involves contradictions and remains self-convinced nevertheless.

While out walking yesterday I came across a fossil leaf.  Unbeknownst to our movers last summer, I have boxes of fossils that I’ve picked up in various places that I’ve lived.  I find it hard to leave them in situ because of the fascinating sense of contradictions that still grabs me when I see one.  There was an impression of a leaf from millions of years ago right at my feet.  It was in a rock deeply embedded in the ground and that had to be left in place.  Never having found a floral fossil before this was somewhat of a disappointment.  Still it left an impression on me.  Perhaps when dinosaurs roamed Pennsylvania—or perhaps before—this leaf had fallen and been buried to last for eons.  How the world has changed since then!

After that encounter, I considered the brown leaves scattered from the recently departed fall.  Some lay on the muddy path, but few or none of them would meet the precise conditions required to form a fossil.  If one did, however, it would be here after humanity has either grown up and evolved into something nobler or has destroyed itself in a fit of pique or hatred.  We know we’re better than the political games played by those who use the system for their own gain.  The impressions we leave are far less benign than this ossified leaf at my feet.  The Fundamentalist of the dispensationalist species sees world history divided into very brief ages.  God, they opine, created the entire earth to last less than 10,000 years.  All this effort, suffering, and hope exists to be wiped out before an actual fossil has time to form.  It’s a perspective as fascinating as it is dangerous.

Flight Home

Although I was not looking forward to the long, late flight home scheduled for tonight, I can’t help but think there was something almost prophetic in the weather that prevented my trip.  I awoke in Newark only to confirm with many other stranded passengers that this was not a lot of snow.  I’ve had to commute into New York when much higher amounts were in the forecast.  Many of us, meteorologists included, were asking why this storm was so devastating to travel.  Part of the answer comes down to belief.  Nobody believed we could have this kind of nor’easter in November.  Even now nobody seems to want to discuss the elephant in the igloo.  Global warming, we’ve known for decades, will make erratic weather patterns.  We need to think about weather differently than we have before.

One of the motivations behind writing Weathering the Psalms was that for all of our technology, we still don’t understand, or appreciate, the weather.  Driven by dollars in great collectives, businesses are reluctant to allow employees a “day off,” even when many of them have work laptops at home.  We believe in money, supposing the weather to be only a minor nuisance.  Having bought a house, though, has revealed something to me.  Home and hearth are all about staying safe from the weather.  (Well, and in keeping out wild animals too, but we’ll just drive them extinct.)  A house is a place to keep the water and wind out.  We want to keep dry and to prevent the wind from chasing away our body heat.  Homes are our places to keep the weather outside because we instinctively fear it.  Reverence it.  Weather may well be the origins of at least some religious thought.

Ancient peoples and modern religious fundamentalists believe(d) in gods literally in the sky.  They looked up when wanting to understand matters beyond their control.  Yes, predators attacked, but you could fight back.  Against the sky there’s no recourse.   Weather can kill, and can do so in many ways.  Building shelter helps, but we’ve all seen enough hurricane footage to know that even our structures are subject to the wind.  Computer models were suggesting that this storm might have been pulling back for a real roundhouse punch but our conservative views on the weather (such things don’t happen in November, right, Edmund Fitzgerald?) prevail.  The official stance of our current government is this is all a myth anyway.  It’s only when myths interfere with money that we start to pay attention.

Goddess Lore

From where I sit to write this blog in this particular season (when it’s too cold to sit in an unheated attic) I watch Venus rise in the eastern sky.  While it is still dark, I notice a bright yellow glow appearing over the top of a business located on the eastern side of the block.  It hovers there a moment before disappearing briefly behind various rooftop accoutrements of the building across the street, appearing again minutes later on the other side.  The planet rises rapidly before sunrise, and with the unnatural markers of human structures, it’s fairly simple to keep track of her progress with occasional glances out the window.  Venus is, as I’ve mentioned before, both the morning and evening “star” of antiquity.  We now know her identity as a planet rather than a goddess, but we’re becoming more attuned to planets’ roles as mothers, or at least we should be.

Some ancient peoples considered our own earth as a mother.  It is the womb in which we gestate as living beings.  Without the warmth she gives we could not survive, and even our forays into nearby space are possible only with the replication of her body heat through artificial means.  It may be metaphor, yes, but metaphors may be truer than bald statements of chemical compositions and mathematical formulas.  Scientist, politician, or theologian, none of us survive without our planetary nurture.  This thought is sobering in the light of government policies over the past two years, which have denied that human pillaging of nature is problematic.  The Republican Party, which collectively lacks respect for our earthly home, has followed thoughtlessly in the tracks of a man proud of his refusal to read.  And so I look to Venus.

Venus is beautiful.  We know, however, that her surface is hot enough to melt lead.  Soviet-era probes landed there and melted.  Planets, it seems, can unleash fury that mere humans can’t hope to withstand.  One of the forgotten graces of nature, it seems, is the warning sign.  Even as the rattlesnake warns before striking, our mother has been sending messages that we’ve been going too far.  Hurricanes are growing stronger and threaten to scour us off the very face of the land we disrespect and exploit.  Venus, it turns out, is too hot to handle.  Mars, whom the ancients feared for his propensity to irrational war, is too cold.  It’s difficult to imagine where politicians think we might go when our own mother turns us out.  I would invite them over to watch Venus perform her morning dance outside my window, but to see it you must first believe in goddesses.