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Community Torah

Creativity and Nature

Torat Chayeinu: the Torah of our lives. Talks by members of Nehar Shalom on the second day of Rosh Hashana. Our theme for 5784 is creativity.

Today, I will speak about creativity in nature, among all living things, and the continual creation that occurs within and between species.

Rabbi Leora spoke so beautifully yesterday about this birthday of the world. Let’s begin today by acknowledging God’s solo conception and creation of this cosmos, our planet Earth and all the life upon it, including our own. The intelligent, brilliant, design by God—plants and trees, microbes, insects, whales, elephants, primates and humans.

While continuing to wonder at God’s awesome Creation, we also recognize that everything living is also busy reproducing itself and re-creating itself, changing, evolving in directions that can seem better or worse. Humans are the worst offenders in making the planet worse for all other species. Changes by less sentient beings may inconvenience or endanger us, e.g. the recent coronavirus, but are just nature taking its course. This is something I have particularly observed in my work as a docent at the Arnold Arboretum these past 20 years.

At this local treasure trove, I learn and teach about its 150 year history, many research and scientific activities and repeated collecting expeditions to other continents that are building a landscape of all trees and shrubs that can grow in our climate. Importantly, this is a free Boston public park open everyday, available as a spiritual haven to all residents, and a destination for visitors from everywhere. Harvard botanists with a small arborist staff, and summer college interns provide premier stewardship of the landscape; Welcome Center staff and volunteers build the visitor community.

This diverse magnificent landscape continually inspires creativity in us docents (e.g. my tour, “Trees Inspire”) graphic artists, photographers, musicians, dancers and actors who then exhibit or perform their work in the park…to inspire more people,

Meticulous records kept in the Herbarium show when each tree flowers and fruits each year——further documentation of climate change. The seeds of endangered trees are banked so that others may grow in the future. Just as Rabbi Leora talked yesterday about the seeds we can plant for next generations with our stories of challenges and resilience. Some trees already extinct in the wild are being cultivated in greenhouses, or planted as bonsai for intensive human maintenance and preservation of their germplasm. Some donated bonsai were planted in Japan in the 18th century, and, as the oldest trees in Boston predate the arboretum and our country. Harvard students and staff have cutting edge research facilities at Weld Hill and host researchers from all over the world, thus furthering creative and collaborative research projects that build human knowledge. They study the miracle that is each leaf, branch and root and all the fascinating inter-dependent biome; they cross-breed related plans to create new species and bring new plants from afar to introduce into North America.

A microcosm of God’s Creation, the Arboretum is a place where no one works alone: humans, animals, plants, and their biome coexist—for study and adaptation, for enjoyment, inspiration, and creative natural adaption.

An example that inspired me is the transformation of the “forest primeval”/ Hemlock Hill that was so prized by the 19th c Transcendentalists that it was preserved untouched in Olmsted’s original design of the arboretum. When the wooly adelgid infestation of hemlock trees reached Boston and trees started to die threatening to denude the hill, the staff decided to remove many that were already infected, and to treat only a few particularly valuable specimens. Rather than grieve for the loss of this historic spiritual sanctuary, researchers watched with interest to observe what happened once the canopy of hemlocks was gone. Soon, a new forest of sweet black birches began growing from seeds that had been dormant in the shaded soil underneath the hemlocks. Fifth graders, training as citizen scientists, have been enlisted to help document the new growth.

The wooly adelgid is not “the enemy”, just another of God’s Creations. Just as coronavirus is not our enemy; being hosted by humans has allowed virus to propagate and mutate, and has also inspired scientists to create vaccines that allow our species to coexist.

Science and craft creativity are inspired in community—from something we have heard, seen or read; the weekly parasha, a wondering child’s question, something natural, or even robotic in the non-human world. We mix that inspiration with our own and available natural resources, a heavy dose of time, feelings and whimsy—to make it something of ourselves, something prepared and ready for completion: when someone else says “you’re done” and then moves us along with help to present, publish or exhibit our work in order to share it with others, and restart the cycle.

God created on Their Own; human beings create collaboratively. At our worst, we create political entities and divisions between ourselves ,potentially destructive to all of life. At our best, we can help steward and live with all of God’s creations while creating and nurturing future human generations.

L’shana tovah!


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