Part 3 in the year-long series of looking at our woods through the lens of David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen.
Haskell’s entry for January 21 focuses on comparing chickadees’ survival in extremely cold conditions with humans’ coping through fire, clothing, and food storage. In contrast with species that evolve to accommodate nature, I wonder about humans’ role in shaping the environment. When Haskell strips his clothes to simulate the bird’s experience, within seconds his body starts to shut down and soon he would have become unconscious and dead. Instead he covers up with warm insulating clothes and returns to his toasty kitchen, fueled by burning wood, powered by petroleum, sun, wind, or nuclear energy. When is this thing we call “civilization” in harmony with all-our-relations and when not?
In our woods from January 20-23 in 2018, snow was melting, then temperatures peaked at 60 degrees, about 20 above normal, followed by rain and overnight freezing. On the warm days, I was working up a good sweat removing invasive plants from our woodland. This thing called “civilization” is crazy-making, and then perhaps it also allows a place to find/receive God.
Perhaps humans just have to fall; in other words, to learn harmony, we first mess things up. Most of the mess in our woods came in by humans who thought they knew better. For example, "bush honeysuckle”:
…first introduced into the United States in the mid to late 1800s from Europe and Asia for use as ornamentals, wildlife food and cover, and erosion control. . . [But] Honeysuckle out competes and shades out desirable native woodland species, and can form pure, dense thickets totally void of other vegetation. . . While honeysuckle fruit is abundant and rich in carbohydrates it lacks the high-fat and nutrient-rich content that most of our native plants provide migrating birds. Wherever invasive honeysuckle shrubs displace our native forest species there is a huge potential impact on these migrating bird populations due to the reduction in availability of native food sources. https://ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/F-68
Soon after we were adopted by these woods, the missing native trees along with our birds asked me to take care of a thicket. While doing this has produced buckets of sweat, effects of poison ivy, ticks, etc., it’s also brought the joy of stewardship and thus the presence of the Divine. Tending these woods and being tended by them: that’s a divine harmony. In my view, it’s allowed one of the “very special human doorways to true religious understanding…and finally as God’s true earthly ‘stand-ins’ or ‘Stewards...’” The passage comes from James Winston Morris’ forthcoming book, Openings:
"First, and most importantly, it is human Hearts (the Qur’anic qalb al-insān) that are the locus of true spiritual ‘Knowing’ (‘ilm) and of our awareness of God and Truth: that is, it is not simply our mind or intellect or passion. Hence the decisive practical importance, throughout the Nahj al-Balāgha, of Ali’s constant stress on the purification of our hearts, through inner surrender to the divine Will (taslīm), as the underlying spiritual purpose of the many divine commandments. Divine, inspired ‘Knowing,’ however it is outwardly acquired, can only be perceived as such by the Heart that has been ‘polished,’ emptied of this world’s distractions and attachments, and thereby opened up to the full significance and reality of the divine Word—and to the further rights and obligations (another dimension of the Arabic al-Haqq) flowing from that opening.
Second, the practically indispensable key to this human potential for religious Knowing is the real existence and efforts of a limited number of divinely guided individuals—again, not of particular books, rituals, doctrines or worldly institutions, none of which are even mentioned in this intimate, highly personal lesson. Ali refers here to those very special human doorways to true religious understanding by several profoundly significant Qur’anic expressions: the ‘divine Knowers’; the ‘Friends of God’ (awliyā’ Allāh); God’s ‘Proofs’ or ‘Clear Signs’ on Earth (hujja, bayyina); God’s ‘True Servants’ (‘ibād Allāh); and finally as God’s true earthly ‘stand-ins’ or ‘Stewards’ (khalīfat Allāh).” [reference to Qur’an 6:165]
While Morris is not explicitly talking about tending woodlands, I find very helpful his elaboration of stewardship in the context of searching for the heart-space that connects the human with the divine. What a blessing it is to feel the peace, beauty, and harmony in mature woodlands.
|“Pileated Woodpecker…a keystone species in mature and old forest”|