I’m an experienced hiker, but sometimes I do stupid things. A few years ago, I made three mistakes at once. In a single day, I traveled from sea level to 12,000 feet above it, taking no time to acclimate to 37% drop in oxygen intake. There I went hiking on the tundra — alone and off-trail.
At one point, I took off my pack, sat down on a cliff overlooking a gorgeous green valley, and enjoyed my altered consciousness. I took my notebook out of my pack and tried to write. But I couldn’t form a coherent deep thought. So, I put the notebook away and took out my lunch. But I couldn’t unwrap my sandwich – my swollen fingers would not obey my mind. I was getting woozy from altitude sickness and oxygen deprivation.
Suddenly I heard a raven’s deep trill overhead and I snapped awake. Above me, three ravens were circling and calling. I zipped my pack, stood up, and stumbled forwards. The circle of ravens moved a bit north. They called again. I followed them. They moved, I followed, they moved, I followed, and somehow I was back on the trail. When I reached the trail, the ravens broke their formation, and flew off in a line. Using all my concentration, I put one foot in front of the other, until I reached the road.
Ravens had escorted me to safety.
You know the passage in the biblical Book of Kings where the ravens feed the prophet Elijah (I Kings 17:2-6)? It’s entirely plausible.
Biblical writers know their animals well. They respect each animal, its unique form of life, its interests, and its way of thinking.
Picture Noah, caretaker of a huge ecosystem in quarters the size of BC Ferries’ boat “Spirit of British Columbia.” Finally, the torrential rains have stopped. It’s safe to fly, but it may not be safe to walk. So Noah sends some of his flying friends to scout for dry land.
First he sends the orev – a Hebrew word that means “corvid.” You can picture a raven, a crow, or even a magpie. The orev flies to and fro, to and fro, until the waters dry up. What a clown! Flying in zigzags and then giving up just when it’s possible to collect information! So some readers have said.
But we in British Columbia know that there is nothing erratic about a crow flying back and forth. It’s simply what crows do every day. At dawn, they fly out from the communal roost to work and play in their family territories. At dusk, they fly home, to socialize with friends and relatives, share news of the day, and sleep.
If you visit a communal roost at dusk, you’ll hear lots of yelling. But if you’re lucky, you’ll hear some actual conversations in Crow. You’ll hear a series of words that sound like clacks and buzzes, arranged in sentences with a consistent syntax. Research biologists have recorded the language and are trying to decipher it. No doubt some people alive today can understand it.
No doubt Noah does too. As the orev flies to and fro, returning each evening to the floating communal roost, Noah listens to the report. And when the time is right, Noah sends yonah —Hebrew for Jonah, and for dove. Doves forage on the ground for fallen leaves and sprigs. So, if yonah brings back a branch, Noah knows yonah has found dry land.
The Biblical text says: “Noah was a righteous man in his generation” (Gen. 6:9). Why add “in his generation”? To teach that Noah is sort of righteous, at least, relative to the people in his depraved generation? Or that Noah is exceptionally righteous, able to walk a good path without role models or peers? Or, maybe, that Noah is the kind of righteous his generation needs! An ecologist, respecting each animal species, its unique form of life, its interests, its language, and its way of thinking.
Our generation needs more Noah consciousness. Noah’s story calls all of us to develop it and promote it. Us? Really? Even students and faculty at the Vancouver School of Theology? Most of us are not scientists, city planners or engineers. We are just spiritual leaders and teachers. All we do is shape the way people think, give direction to their existential journey, offer a language for exploring reality. What can we do?
We can stop teaching that we humans are at the top of the food chain — and teach that we are part of a cycle. Tiny powerful microorganisms feed on us every day. Viruses and bacteria make each of us ill at some point. Some of us even lose our lives in order that other creatures may live. We may not choose to support planetary life in this way, but is part of our biological mission.
We can stop talking about how we humans have “mastered” the earth – even when we mean to criticize exploitive practice. And teach instead that we are deeply dependent on senior team members. By all accounts, insects preceded us on this planet, and may not need us at all. But without insects simply living their lives, foraging and farming, we would have no food.
We can stop teaching that we are a superior species, endowed with a special divine soul and intelligence. And teach instead that every creature has a special intelligence. Creatures with different bodies have different biological needs, different organs of perception, and different kinds of awareness guiding their lives. If we wish to know the will of our creator, to touch God’s expansive consciousness, we need to learn about its many forms.
To be, like Noah, righteous in our generation.
Originally presented as a sermon at Vancouver School of Theology, October 8, 2015. Image: Crows over Vancouver by Charles Kaplan.