December 31, 2007

Lessons Learned in Florida

Anhinga (Sanibel Island, Florida, USA)I'm back now (obviously). Although I can't say my trip was restful, that was never really the goal. I explored areas of Florida which I had not previously visited, mostly around Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel Island, and Naples, and found it to be a birding paradise. I won't bore you with the details except to say that I was able to see many species I had never seen before. Instead, I'll focus on some observations related to religion and a few lessons learned that I want to share.

Here in Mississippi, one thing which can be counted on every year is that the entire state seems to shut down on Christmas day. That we are supposed to have more churches per capita than any other state suggests that part of the reason for this is to be found in an unusually high level of religious belief. In any case, I often take advantage of it by going outside. Birding is especially fun because I tend to be more successful the fewer people are around.

South Florida presented an unexpected contrast. Little shut down other than the stores, and there were droves of people in the birding areas. I kept thinking to myself, "Why are there so many people out here on Christmas?" Of course, Florida is far more populous, more religiously diverse, and draws many tourists to these areas (including those from outside the U.S.). Still, I was surprised to find Christmas as busy as any other day. Nobody Merry Christmased me or asked why I wasn't in church. I saw no Jesus t-shirts in the birding areas. Instead, it seemed that the other people were there for the same reason I was - to enjoy the beauty of nature.

I had to balance these impressions against the Jesus fish, anti-choice billboards and bumper stickers, and fundamentalist churches I encountered along Interstates 10 and 75. Florida is far from secular. Could it be that the sorts of people who visit birding and wildlife areas tend to be somewhat less religious? Or perhaps a better way of phrasing it, could it be that more secular individuals are likely to be found in such areas? I really don't know, but that would seem consistent with what I experienced.

In exploring the Everglades, I came away saddened that we are rapidly losing this area through commercial development and a chronic short-shortsightedness when it comes to protecting our environment. That Christianity has contributed to this is undeniable, and while I am encouraged to see some moderate Christian organizations and even a few evangelical groups beginning to recognize the value of the environment, I fear that it may be too late. The biblical notion of human dominion over nature which has infused American culture from the beginning comes at a high cost.

I learned a few things on this trip, not the least of which is that I really need to make the time to get out in nature more often. Not only does it appear that I may encounter more like-minded people in natural history museums, wildlife preserves, birding locations, and the like, but there is something so centering about immersing oneself in nature. I can see how some people would regard this as a spiritual experience even though I prefer to frame such experiences through the lens of naturalism. I've never been one to obsess over New Year's resolutions, but I think I'd like to make more of an effort to turn off the computer, get out of the house and off the main drag, and spend more time where I can appreciate the natural world around me which my Christian consumerist culture so eschews.