The Voices of the Whales and the Trees: Lessons for TU B’SHEVAT

It was not a typical Shabbat afternoon that August of 2001. We were sitting on the shore of Windfall Island, on the edge of Tebenkof Bay in Southwest Alaska, watching the Humpback whales feed in Chatham Strait. As we watched, they moved across our view from north to south, diving and surfacing as they fed. They moved behind a small island and as they came back into view two whales suddenly threw themselves into the air at the same time. Then others followed as we shouted in delight. It was a fitting climax to a wonderful and inspiring experience. The “we” in this case were ten Jewish environmentalists from all over North America and two guides who were on a 10-day wilderness kayak trip sponsored by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) and the Cummings Foundation.

The purpose of our trip was to give us, rabbis, educators and activists, a unique opportunity to delve further into the spiritual basis of our environmentalism. We went to Alaska because the wilderness experience would allow us to recharge our spiritual senses without the usual interruptions and distractions of modern technological civilization. While we were “out on the paddle,” we had no contact at all with anyone else and aside from an emergency radio, no means of communication with the rest of the world. We also spent a great deal of the trip in silence. We did not speak while we ate. We were silent much of the time while we were in the kayaks and sometimes we stopped paddling and just drifted with the currents listening to the wind, the water and the eagles. Every morning we prayed together, studied and meditated using a technique called “mindfulness training” adapted from Zen Buddhism which allowed us to live in the moment and to focus on where we were in the world at that moment.

Our guides taught us about the history and the ecology of Tebenkof Bay and the Tongas National forest that it is part of. While Tebenkof is a wilderness area with very strict rules as to its use, logging was still allowed in the Tongas National Forest and we could see large clear cuts as we flew in a sea plane from Petersburg to our first campsite. The trees in this old growth rain-forest are mostly Sitka spruce. They are hundreds of years old and yet they were mostly cut for pulp to be used in newsprint. We learned that the trees, the eagles, the bears and salmon are all linked in an incredibly complex ecological system. The trees drop needles into the waters providing nutrients for the insects which the salmon eat. The salmon are eaten by bears and eagles which then defecate the nutrients back into the soil and onto the tops of the trees. Scientists have found salmon isotopes in the needles of the Sitka spruce.

We also learned that the natives who used to inhabit Tebenkof Bay, the Tlingit (pronounced “Klingit”), lived there for 5,000 years and the only disturbances they left were an old totem pole in an overgrown burial site and a few indented areas in the middle of an island that had been a village for 800 years. The salmon was central to their diet and their culture and salmon fishing is still one the major activities of the whole region. The salmon were running while we were there and 24 hours a day they were jumping out of the water for reasons of their own. Tebenkof Bay was filled with sea otters, sea lions, mink, Sitka deer, black bears, bald eagles, hundreds of kinds of birds and whales. For several mornings a whale came by our campsite feeding on the small fish amongst the kelp and the sound of its breathing was a counterpoint to our morning prayers.

We learned in a way that we could not have understood before the tapestry of creation that interconnects us with every part of the world. This is a lesson that we may know intellectually but because of the barriers we erect, both physical and psychological, we live as if we are not part of creation but somehow separate and immune from the effects of our over consumption of its gifts.

This problem has been called by some environmentalists “biophobia” the fear of the natural world. Environmental educators see this fear in children at summer camps who are afraid to be outdoors; by teachers who find children coming to kindergartens who do not know how to use their bodies. Many children have spent so much time in front of the computer or the television set and so little playing outside that they cannot walk with any agility and don’t know how to cut paper. Biophobia is not confined to children. Many adults express their fear of the real world by retreating into the “virtual world” of the Internet. Biophobia is also is the disconnection from the real world of other human beings. It is an alienation from life with all its physicality and contingency.

Environmental spirituality tries to the awareness of our interconnection with each other and the rest of creation. When we achieve this awareness, we are more likely to look outside ourselves and truly understand how our actions affect the entire world. We will then know why we cannot continue to consume the world without consideration or restraint.

In order to begin this sense of awareness we must stop, listen and look and thereby be mindful of the world. We can then see and feel what Abraham Joshua Heschel called the sense of the ineffable, that awareness that creation is a mystery calling out to us in a soundless voice now blocked by the noise and business of our lives. We can sense the ineffable, in Alaska, in New Jersey or anywhere if we open up our spiritual eyes. Then we can respond with love, awe, humility, gratitude and blessing to each moment in our lives. We will then can find meaning in our actions, in the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the work that we do. We will understand that every action in life is in some ways an ethical choice that is not without consequence.

We will soon celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees. Every year on Tu B’Shevat, I try to remember the centers of the living web of creation that the great Sitka spruce in Tebenkof Bay. I will try to think about how a tree can tell us a lot about the history of its place and how humans have acted upon it. I will try to think about how much I really know about the place where I live and the kind of effect my life has upon it. I will try to see how a tree can show me my place in the Order of Creation. With the trees, the salmon, the deer, the whales, the bears and the eagles, we are voices in that great choir of life that with its every breath praises the Creator of the Universe.

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