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U. prof explores the roots of religion in trees

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U. prof explores the roots of religion in trees | The Salt Lake Tribune

Whether churchgoers realize it or not, the trees in their churchyards have religious roots.

Those tall, thin-branched trees on the corner of the Episcopal Church Center of Utah, Purple Robe Black Locusts, were probably named after a biblical reference to John the Baptist eating locusts and honey.

Trees near your house of worship

University of Utah biology professor Nalini Nadkarni hopes to give more talks at area houses of worship about the intersection of trees and religion. She also aims to work with her students to produce more booklets mapping out and describing trees surrounding houses of worship of various Utah faiths. If you’d like to find out more about inviting her to your place of worship, contact her assistant at gaines

How does the Old Testament describe trees?

University of Utah biology professor Nalini Nadkarni analyzed the 328 references to trees and forests in the Old Testament and found:

Nearly 30 percent had to do with the symbolic and aesthetic use of trees.

22 percent were used in analogies to life and God.

18 percent referred to practical use.

About 10 percent were included in descriptions of locations.

About 10 percent described the loss of trees as negative.

3 percent referred to tree biology.

The crab apple tree just outside the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Mark produces a small, sour fruit used by 15th-century monks to treat diarrhea, dysentery and gallstones.

And the flowers of a nearby dogwood tend to bloom around Easter.

“My hope,” said University of Utah biology professor Nalini Nadkarni, “is [worshippers] will realize that nature and trees are as much a part of their sacred ground and worthy of reverence as what goes on inside a cathedral or church.”

Nadkarni, who spends much of her time aloft in the forest canopies of Costa Rica and Washington, hopes to inspire conservation and appreciation of trees by sharing what she learns about them with the public. Part of the way she aims to do that is by giving talks at houses of worship about how trees and religion intersect. She gave the first of those talks in Utah this week at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Salt Lake City, ending with a tour of greenery in the sunny churchyard.

“Obviously religion is a very strong force in the human race … and trees, it seems to me, are inherently spiritual,” said Nadkarni, herself the daughter of a Hindu father and a Jewish mother.

Trees connect the earth and the sky, Nadkarni said. They’re seen by many religions as manifestations of divine knowledge and are often symbolic links to truth.

Some Muslims, for example, believe the name of Allah, as written in Arabic, resembles the branches of a tree. Hindus often keep shrublike Tulsi trees in their homes, signifying the uniting of the divine world with the human one. Gothic cathedrals of Europe often feature towering columns curving into arches, much like trees extending their branches. Jews celebrate the holiday TuB’Shevat, a new year for trees. And, in Buddhism, Buddha gained enlightenment while sitting under one.

In the Old Testament, Nadkarni found 328 references to trees and forests. In the Book of Mormon, she found 103.

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“I’ve always thought trees were spiritual, at least trees and the outdoors are connected to my spirituality,” said Dee Rowland, the Salt Lake City’s Catholic Diocese former government liaison who attended Nadkarni’s tour. “But she’s given me some insights into our relationship with the natural world.”

Arnold Thomas, an American-Indian spiritual adviser at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City, is glad to see awareness being raised about trees and the “vital role they play in our existence.”

Nadkarni believes understanding trees better can lead to better understanding among faiths — and could help decrease deforestation by increasing conservation.

“Although there is a lot of discouraging news going on about trees, I think there’s a lot of hope as well,” she said. “I think what we’re seeing now, in a very hopeful way, is religion is trying to develop a sense of ethics, of reverence, of respect, of restraint, of redistribution and responsibility to our trees and other natural resources.”

Some have long seen faith and science as being at odds, but those who attended this week’s event, which drew dozens from a number of religious traditions, said the two are a natural fit.

“I’ve often thought science supports God and God supports science,” said the Rev. Ray Waldon, dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral.

Susan Soleil, executive director of Utah Interfaith Power & Light, which co-sponsored the tour, said Nadkarni has a knack for bringing science, such as climate change, to faith communities.

“Every single book of sacred text of all faiths has something about caring for God’s creation,” Soleil said. “People of faith have a moral obligation to care for this Earth.”

To that end, Nadkarni, since moving to Utah from Washington less than a year ago to direct the U.’s new Center for Science and Mathematics Education, has been working to educate faith communities.

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Copyright 2012 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Written by vaphc

July 22, 2012 at 8:39 am

Posted in History, Trees

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