Today is the last day of our 30 Days [Biblically] Wild challenge that has been inspired by the Wild Life Trust‘s ‘30 Days Wild.’ Over the past four weeks we have looked at a range of plants, animals and birds. The idea has been to look at species with which we could reasonably expect to encounter in the UK and perhaps would necessarily expect to find mentioned in the Bible. What I hope to have in some way achieved is to raise an awareness of the extent to which non-human life and the environment saturates this collection of texts that is so often assumed to be simply about God and humans. In the same way, just as non-human life suffuses our landscapes (if we just spend a little time to look for it), so too it permeates and influences the biblical writings.
We can see that the biblical writers were profoundly aware of their deep interconnections with the land. The preservation of the land (materially as well as spiritually) was intricately tied to their preservation as a people. Hareuveni (1991) and then Benstein (2006) are right in emphasizing the way in which the land formed their theology and provided a rich vocabulary through which to express it.
We are now coming to the end of our 30 Days Biblically Wild challenge that has been inspired by the Wildlife Trust‘s 30 Days Wild campaign and I thought we could look at something that just about anyone, who can get out of doors, regardless of where they live, can appreciate; the bramble (Rubus fruticosus) otherwise known as the blackberry or brier. For anyone who is wanting to get get started with, what used to be referred to as ‘nature spotting’, the bramble is an ideal place to begin. It is EVERYWHERE! You don’t have to travel long distances into the countryside to find them. Any piece of waste ground or plot of land that has been left untended will do.
There is something very inclusive about the blackberry. It can be enjoyed by all. Richard Mabey (1998:74) notes that “[b]lackberrying is the one almost universal act of foraging to survive in our industrialised island and that it has a special role in the relationship between townspeople and the countryside.”
You might be able to tell by the subtitle that I am having to take a bit of poetic license on today’s topic. Many of you will have probably guessed that our (European) ‘Mr Brock’ type badger (Meles meles) does not appear in the Bible. While it can be found in Israel, as we shall see, it is unlikely to be the animal to which the texts in question refer. Nevertheless, I felt that it was fitting as the badger is the symbol of the Wildlife Trust who are running the 30 Days Wildchallenge which this series of posts is supporting.
Badgers have been in the news quite a lot – generally for all the wrong reasons (as far as they are concerned!). Nevertheless, there is something really special about encountering a badger. There is something reassuringly familiar about them. Just think about the number of children’s stories in which they appear – this is something critics of the badger tend to point out! But there is also something strangely different about them. They are sinewy and much faster than you might expect. I can remember one of the first badgers I ever saw. It was at night from a bedroom window. We had been awoken by a noise in the garden. In the gleam of the torchlight we caught the glint of a long, silvery, supple, body wrapped round a bird table – for all the world looking like a podgy, but lithe, snake – before it shot away. After the initial shock we realised that it was a badger who was trying to knock over (once more) our bird table. The ‘biblical’ badger might be different, but it is no less interesting!
Fish – דָּגָה (dagah); דָּג (dag); ἰχθύς (ichthus); ὀψάριον (opsarion)
Another image that can capture the delights being outside on a slow summer’s day is sitting beside a flowing stream and catching the flash of light and plop of water as the surface is disturbed by flick of a fish’s tail. It is a great reminder of those completely different, almost alien, and often hidden, habitats populated by life and character that can lie just feet away from us.
When you spot a cormorant, and especially a colony of cormorants, you know you’ve spotted something a little unusual.* This is not because they are especially rare, it is because they have a singular character about them. Their black plumage has that iridescent sheen that is associated with oil slicks, and their long necks and hooked bills can give them a rather prehistoric, reptilian feel. It is an incredible swimmer (see video below), resembling underwater more a fish than a bird. One of the great UK conservation success stories of the past few years has been the improvements to the water quality in our rivers and waterways. This has helped to attract cormorants, once again, inland – much to the anger of anglers!
I find the word ‘adder’ extremely evocative for a specific time and place. As soon as I hear or read it, I am immediately transported into the warmth of sunshine, the gritty, dusty feel of a sandy heath-land with gorse-scrub abd a hint of pine, and, above all, the rich, fresh tang of new-growth bracken.
As we are drawing into the final week of this 30 Days Wild challenge, if you have spotted – or if you do happen to spot – an adder you can count yourself very fortunate and lucky. Triply lucky really. Firstly, adders are becoming increasingly rare. Secondly, they are extremely shy creatures who excel at keeping out of sight. Thirdly, you really need warm dry day, as the times that you are most likely to spot one in the open is when it is drowsily sunning itself. In the rather damp and cool June of 2019, these types of days have been a rarity!
Partridges are resident in much of Britain (but especially the eastern side). Altough the grey partridge (Perdix perdix) has been placed on the RSPB Red List, the larger, red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa) is more common. It was introduced from Europe and appears to be establishing well. Partridges are ground-loving birds, so look for their scurrying little bodies on the ground. If they are in the air, something has ‘spooked them.’ They are game birds and sort for their flesh. Their propensity to be reluctant and fairly weak fliers, make them ideal as ‘sport’ birds and the partridge shooting season runs throughout winter, from 1st September to 1st February.
Newman University is situated next to a reservoir and, over the last few days, the current system of very warm air over Britain has resulted in the (sort of) annual ‘infestation’ of flies on the Newman campus. I have to admit to rather enjoying the sight of them, dancing lazily in loose veils in the soft afternoon sun and their sudden appearance on a paper I am reading or scurrying across the desk. However, I am also aware that, for those living in halls, it can create feelings that are far less poetic! Nevertheless, it got me thinking about flies in the Bible and the wider Ancient Near Eastern traditions.
If I were to describe my most idyllic summer scene it would have to include sweeping meadows of rich green grass, dotted with dandelions, buttercups and daisies (perhaps a clover or two), the sound of doves, the damp scent of soil and meths from a roaring Primus stove, the song of a sky-lark singing under pillowed clouds, and, most importantly of all, a large Weeping Willow tree beside a gently flowing river. I have a real fondness for this tree. Perhaps it is because we had one in the garden when I was lad. It stood beside the pond and from time to time, I would grab a handful its slender branches and use it to swing out over the pond below.
When you are out enjoying the countryside, if you are unfortunate enough to encounter a flea it is more than probable (and I have my fingers crossed here!) that it will not be a human flea (Pulex irritans), but one of the other strains that parasitise other animals/birds. As with some of the other posts in this series, the flea might not be one of the most obvious animals associated with biblical literature, but then again it is not often associated with calls for ‘getting back to wild’. Nevertheless, they may be discomforting irritation, but they are also an integral part of the ecological landscape.