As the indoor restrictions of COVID wore on through 2020 and 2021, my wife and I found new solace and pleasure in hiking the trails of the conservancies and state parks dotting the greater capital district. Through every season, the woods, streams, hills and mountains invited us to breathe in the outdoor air, with few worries about droplets teeming with the killer virus. As we breathed that air, we learned once again about the sheer pleasure of breathing, as we inhaled all types of heat and cold, the pungent scents of tree resins, the sunny and smoky smells of the leaves in their dynamic states during spring and summer, their states of decay during autumn and winter.
Weary of work and of worrying, I began to find new friendships among the trees. I only half joked with my wife, family and friends that I was increasingly more relaxed among them than among people, their possessions, passions and imperfections. The rare times I was forced to go downstate to the big city, where the massive works of human hands choke out more sunlight than the tree cover of old growth forests, I would almost choke on the city air. I would pray for miraculous transport back to the cool sylvan redoubts of upstate. In the battle between nature and manufacture, I was gradually becoming nature’s loyalist.
Thus, I am quite surprised by the remarkable joy I took from man-made things in three places over one recent summer week.
One Sunday, my wife and I headed not for the woods but for Tanglewood. The iconic music center in the Berkshires has enjoyed a resurgent in-person season after taking its programs online and into prerecord last Summer. I shuddered in tears when I listened to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony. Originally mere sound waves in the air, the music made by this one man captured for all of us, in all times, his turbulent journey, from depression and death back to hope and life. After eighteen months of death, loss and suffering, the heavenly music from the master’s own earthly hands reminded me that life and joy are reemerging, even if in intermittent spasms.
My oldest high school friend and I sweltered that following Wednesday as we walked the grounds of the Storm King Arts Center for our annual reunion. Located in New Windsor, the center houses some of the finest, largest outdoor sculpture, settled on hills that have also been sculpted by machines to form fit with the pieces of art. The acreage lies near the Hudson River just across from the Hudson Highlands; this massive sculpture park of human provenance thus sits in tension with nature’s elaborate design.
Early that next morning, I swam quietly in the cooling waters of the Great Sacandaga Lake, prior to the heat index reaching a hundred degrees. I was lucky to be there at the invitation of a good friend and leader of my community who offered me the quiet blessings of his lake house for personal retreat. Among the largest and most beautiful of Adirondack lakes, Sacandaga isn’t a lake at all. It is a reservoir that the State of New York created in 1930 by damming the Sacandaga River to prevent massive flooding in cities as far east as Albany. The dammed waters that flooded the Sacandaga valley were a public necessity, but the project forced 1,100 people from their homes. What we call a lake is a magnificent natural body of water, but its origins are found in human effort and artifice.
The master’s music, the sculptures gracing sculptured hills, and the lake that is really a reservoir are all the works of human hands. They are man-made miracles touched by divine genius that defy simplistic dichotomies between the natural and the artificial. None of these things happened without people manipulating nature, and none of those people happened without nature producing them. “Man-made” is not a dirty word, though there are certainly things that humans have produced which are dirty and dangerous to nature and its citizens. At our noblest and most thoughtful, our God-given brains are able to work with the rest of nature to make the planet green and cool, to cure diseases, and to conjure beauty in sight, sound, touch and taste from earth’s raw materials.
That week, I carried with me, or within me, to Tanglewood, Storm King and Sacandaga, three wonderful friendships of different types, all human partnerships that have ennobled me immeasurably. I am hoping that the partnerships between nature and humanity, between what is God-shaped and what is man-made, will gradually become preferable to the poisonous exploitation of nature by us, her most powerful, prolific, and predatory creation. The alternative is living with disasters that are man-made in origin and irretrievably planetary in scope.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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