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ISG Event Recap: Nature as a Sacred Space

Panel of Speakers:
 
Nina First is a senior at SUNY Binghamton University studying Judaic Studies, history, and Israel studies. Nina is fascinated with the intricate tapestries of faith with the wonders of hiking.
 
Aubin Wilson is an avid hiker and leader of Holy Hikers, part of the Women’s Community at All Saints Church.
 
Erica Schley Aly is part of the Interfaith Committee at the Islamic Center of Southern California. She is a former International Student Advisor and an Early Childhood Educator and has always loved the outdoors, especially hiking.


The panelists described their experience of nature as a sacred place, using an unrehearsed common vocabulary. Their words described their recognition of the beauty of God’s creation, their gratitude for those created blessings and our responsibility to protect the natural world for the benefit of future generations The panelists described the action of prayer and thanksgiving that is instilled into their experience of nature as a sacred space. They shared individual experiences that contributed to the formation of their connection with nature as well as experiences in the natural world that expanded their lives of faith.
 
During some point in the discussion, each panelist referred to their familiar Sacred Texts. Aubin spoke about the many references to nature in the Bible and the many songs of praise for the natural world.  Erica referred to the Koran and cited passages describing the rewards of Heaven as expressed in descriptions of the natural world. Nina described the practice of prayer in the Book of Genesis and the need to find the solitude that contributes to a relationship with God.

A common theme shared by all panelists was creating community in the natural world.
 
Nina joined the Zoom preparation from her camping location in the state of New York, which added a relevant experience to the conversation. Nina shared her experience as camp counselor at a wilderness camp located in the mountains of Colorado. She led groups of 15-16-year-old young men and women on five day backpacking trips. The wilderness experience became a metaphor for the Biblical Jewish experience. Using the wilderness experience as a process of learning to establish authentic communication with others and with God was a focus of the experience. Creating community in the wilderness is a historical Jewish experience: The backpackers learned how that Jewish identity is experienced in their contemporary wilderness experience.
 
Erica belongs to a hiking group from the Islamic Center of Southern California. She shared photographs of the vista points where they performed the evening and morning prayers in Griffith Park. This group creates the experience of community which has been lost because of the closure of the Islamic Center because of the covid virus.
 
Erica informed the group she would surprise us, and she did.  First, Erica has a love of hiking, swimming in the ocean, horseback riding and soccer and being a soccer coach. The surprise was the photographs of Erica doing these activities while wearing a hijab. She also shared a picture of her in her burkini swimsuit.
 
Aubin provides leadership for a group of “Holy Hikers” from All Saints Church. Aubin shared a reflection of a poem written by Mary Oliver that describes the experience of awe of beauty as being an essential human experience. The Holy Hikers find that experience of beauty as they explore trails locally as well as in neighboring communities. Aubin described how she does her best thinking while hiking and that best thinking can be compared to the thinking that happens while being in the pew of the church. Aubin describes discovering a quality of the Divine while experiencing the natural beauty of the forest.
Sharing food and drink after the hike is always anticipated. Aubin continues to provide leadership for the Holy Hikers and is eager for the group to return to their regular scheduled hikes.
 
Each panelist described a significant childhood/young adult experience that contributed to their understanding of nature being a sacred place.
 
Upon graduation from high school, Nina went a twelve day backpacking trip with her father in the Adirondacks.  She hung her backpack from a tree and slept in her tent. It rained that night and she was anxious about the iPhone in the pocket of the backpack, but she could not leave the tent because she would get wet. When she woke up, she found her iPhone 6S floating in a pocket of water. The loss of her phone was traumatic. Eventually, she was able to let go of the phone and all that it represented. That experience taught her how to be in the moment with the beauty of the natural world. 
 
Aubin described her time with her family in Maine. She described how the community became active in land preservation and how naturalists were successful in repopulating the bald eagle population.  That was a good thing for the eagles, but not so good for the loons. Aubin became aware of the conversations the loons seemed to have about the eagles.  Her ability to hear the voices of the natural world delighted her and taught her that birds have a say in what is happening in their natural environment.

Erica went on a backpacking experience in the Mammoth area with her family when she was four years old. They were caught in a huge rainstorm and the trail washed away and they became lost. As an adult, she reflects on the fear her parents most likely felt as they contemplated the diminishing food supplies and the uncertainty about the direction of the trail. She recognizes that as a child, the natural world and its challenges were not cause for fear, but adventure and faith.
 
The evening concluded with a discussion of fire. 
 
Nina spoke about the pillar of fire as described in the Book of Exodus. The pillar of fire was a guiding light and not destructive.
 
We have witnessed the loss of human life, the destruction of forests, homes and businesses, and the death of animals and wildlife. How are we to respond?
 
Erica reminded the group of the power of human resilience. The faith required for a person, family and community to overcome loss and find the deep well of resilience is difficult to do without the action of heroes to sustain all efforts to rebuild and recover materially and spiritually. We are called to be heroes and contribute to those in need with whatever resources we have.
 
The action of rebirth and renewal was the final thought of the evening.

Mon, April 12 2021 30 Nisan 5781