Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Ecology of the Heart & Mind

I was born on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, where I grew up playing on the western shore of the Persian Gulf. My father, a Syrian civil engineer, would take me to a resort town he was building on the western coast of the Peninsula, on the eastern shore of the Red Sea.

When I was eight, my family and I moved to America. There, on the East Coast, I played on the edges of eastern forests and grew entangled in an ecology that wove existing memories of a dry land and warm waters into seamless, intricate webs in my middle-childhood mind.

There is no gulf between the ecology and culture of East and West for a child whose heart and mind encompasses both.

They say smell is the most powerful trigger of memory. The first time I smelled diesel exhaust on the streets of Washington, DC – the City of Trees – it transported me to my mother’s native Damascus. In that city inhabited for over 4,000 years, the waft from diesel-powered engines that first entered my lungs and imprinted itself upon my memory unfortunately still fills the urban air.

Somewhere between DC and Damascus I learned that there need not be a gulf between the ecology and culture of city and nature for someone whose heart and mind could encompass both.

As an undergraduate student in biology and religion in Washington, DC, my mind started to lay the first intellectual strands of an ecology of science and spirituality that was already reflected in my heart. All this came together for me as a Student Conservation Associate in Tucson Arizona’s Saguaro National Park.

There was something about the Sonoran Desert, so foreign yet so familiar, that spoke to me deeply. Perhaps it was the American West’s reflection of the dry Middle Eastern landscape that I carried within.

An ecology of the heart and mind, my own, was starting to reveal itself.


Beyond that first impression, I busied myself with acquiring the skills in botanical field research that our project (PDF) entailed. I was awash in statistics and scientific data collection, the object of which was the saguaro cactus. But to the Tohono O’odham, the native peoples of that part of the Sonoran Desert, the saguaros are no mere object. They are ancestors.

One late afternoon, as the shadows grew long, another intern and I were walking ahead on the trail when we saw something that forced us stop. We were in the shadow of a giant saguaro. Much larger, much older and much grander than us, we stood in awe of this Tohono O’odham elder.

It was no different than many of the other saguaros we measured, plotted and photographed that day, yet no number, no picture and no words could capture what we saw. So we stood there in silence, enchanted and humbled by the elder’s presence.

How can there be a gulf between science and the spiritual for people whose hearts and minds encompass both?

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