“Our Connections to the Land Run Deep”: Belonging and Kinship with Nature

At the 2021 December Dialogues, Drew Lanham and Sevim Kalyoncu discussed how people can strengthen their connections to the natural world and how diverse faith groups can support and sustain positive change.

"Our Connections to the Land Run Deep": Belonging and Kinship with Nature

DoSER December Dialogues, 2021

Video Transcript:

Dr. Katy Hinman (00:00:07):

Welcome once again to the DoSER December dialogues. My name is Katy Hinman. I’m the Associate Director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion. And as we begin today, I’d like to invite our director, Dr. Jennifer Wiseman to kick us off.

Dr. Jennifer Wiseman (00:00:26):

Hello and welcome to our major event of the year for the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program or DoSER of the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. We’re very glad you’re joining us today and we want to acknowledge first and foremost that we are grateful and acknowledge the native peoples on whose ancestral homelands we are all gathering as well as the diverse and vibrant native communities who make their home here and in our various locations today. The American Association for the Advancement of Science is based in Washington, DC, which is the ancestral homeland of the Piscataway nation.

And if you’d like to learn more about the indigenous communities, where you reside, you can look at native-land.ca or in the chat, I think we’ll have a link there. I also want to wish everyone a very happy holiday season, happy Hanukkah for those celebrating now. And there are plenty of holidays coming down the road here. So that’s why we’ve traditionally called this event, The Holiday Lecture, but we’ve decided that we’d rather have a dialogue conversation. So we’re starting to call this the December dialogues and we welcome you to our first episode of this new title event. We’d like to welcome the CEO of the AAAS, Dr. Sudip Parikh, to add his words of welcome as well. So Dr. Parikh, welcome.

Dr. Sudip Parikh (00:02:04):

Thanks Jennifer. Good evening, everybody. Thank you so much for taking a little bit of time this evening to join this conversation, this dialogue. As the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, every day I have the opportunity to look at amazing discoveries at science that’s propelling its way forward. And the other part of my job here at the triple AAAS is to interact with programs like the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, which is, as Jennifer said, building bridges between and among scientists, ethicists, and members of faith communities. You’ve got to be able to build trust before we need it among these communities, which are overlapping and in my opinion, self-supporting.

So as we do that this evening, and as you participate in this conversation, I hope as you think about your kinship with nature and with the land around you, and I can say it’s hard to do for my office in this 12 story building in Washington, DC, but as you do that, have you also stepped back and think about the broader conversation that is necessary, required, and frankly, so pivotal in this moment in terms of the conversation among scientists, ethicists and our faith communities. We want to make sure that we’re building those bridges. And this is one part of it. These December dialogues are so important. I think they actually make a huge mark on the community, a mark that actually goes forward throughout the year. So I want to thank you all for taking time. I’m going to turn to back over to Jennifer who’s going to actually give you much more of an introduction to the topic tonight. And I look forward to the conversation with our guests.

Dr. Jennifer Wiseman (00:03:51):

Thank you so very much, Sudip, for sharing your thoughts with us today. Let me make sure that this is working here. Our event tonight is on belonging in kinship with nature, our connections to the land run deep. The program is sponsored by the American Association for the Advanced of Science DoSER program, the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion. DoSER fosters dialogue between scientific and religious communities on science, technology and society. We do this in various ways. We have short term events like the one you’re experiencing right now, and we have longer term project. We engage with people at universities, in seminaries and houses of worship and museums and other venues online. We host workshops and panel discussions on science and religion topics and on introducing people to one another, scientists and people of various faith communities to really talk about shared interest.

And we create resources like videos, profiles, syllabi, and other things that you can use in your own life and circle of work and friendships. And you can find all of these resources on our websites, aaas.org/doser or sciencereligiondialogue.org. We’re also active at AAAS events. So we want to call your attention to the annual meeting of the AAAS coming up in February. It will be a hybrid meeting that will be partially online and also in person in Philadelphia. So please join us whichever way you feel more comfortable and we’ll have some DoSER organized events, including a workshop on science engagement with faith communities and hopefully a networking social. So check out the AAAS annual meeting at meetings.aaas.org. And here’s how you can stay connected to our program. We have a couple of websites there. We’re very active on social media and please sign up for our newsletter, which we send about once per quarter.

So hope you’ll join us in these ways. Our event tonight really is we’re hoping to talk about personal engagement with nature, with the natural world. Of course, science is a way of studying the natural world, but science is not the only way that we interact with the natural world, we hope. We want to talk about deepening our relationships with the natural world. We want to explore how diverse faith groups and other community organizations and individuals can support and sustain positive change in terms of people being able to interact positively with the natural world, either on the scale of their personal lives, their families, their neighborhoods, or either on the larger scale of cities and nations. We’re very honored to welcome two prominent speakers and guests for this conversation today, Dr. Drew Lanham from Clemson University and Sevim Kalyoncu who leads Green Muslims.

We welcome both of you this evening. And again, my name’s Jennifer Wiseman. I direct the DoSER program and we would be honored also to hear from those of you who are inspired by today’s program afterwards. So feel free to contact us. I’m going to hand the program over now to our associate director, Dr. Katy Hinman, who will be basically leading the conversation with our two special guests, and then we’ll have more Q&A toward the end of the program today. So let me stop sharing this and hand this over to Katy, and she can get this kicked off. Thanks very much.

Dr. Katy Hinman (00:07:57):

Thank you so much, Jennifer. And I welcome you all again to our event tonight. A few notes on the program, in addition to our ASL interpreter, as I mentioned, we do have live captioning available. So if you’d like to activate captioning, you can look for the CC icon or the live transcript option at the bottom of your Zoom window. After opening remarks from both of our guests, we will move into a moderated discussion and we will also have time for Q&A from the audience. So I do encourage you to submit questions throughout the presentation using the Q&A button at the bottom of your Zoom window. You may also up vote or expand on others’ questions. And also just a reminder that this event is being recorded. Now, before we get to our discussion, we’ve asked both of our guests to take a few moments to share some opening thoughts about themselves and their backgrounds and their work that intersects with tonight’s theme of belonging and kinship with nature.

And so first it is my great honor to introduce Dr. J. Drew Lanham. Dr. Lanham is a native of Edgefield, South Carolina, and the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, which received the Read Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Southern Book Prize. He’s a birder, naturalist and hunter conservationist who has published essays and poetry in publications, including Orion, Audubon, Flycatcher and Wilderness and in several anthologies. Dr. Lanham is an alumni distinguished professor of wildlife ecology and master teacher at Clemson University. And in his teaching, research and outreach roles, he seeks to translate conservation science to make it relevant to others in ways that are evocative and understandable.

His past work is focused on the impacts of forest management and other human activities on songbirds, herpetofauna, small mammals, and butterflies, and more recently, he’s begun to investigate how ethnicity especially black Americans relate to wildlife and other conservation issues. We are so privileged and delighted to welcome Dr. J. Drew Lanham.

 Dr. J. Drew Lanham (00:10:09):

Thank you so much, Katy. Thank you so much, Dr. Hinman. Thank you, Dr. Wiseman, Dr. Parikh to my colleague, Dr. Kalyoncu, and to AAAS for this space and this time to talk about this convergence. Now, in this time that we call the Anthropocene and this present age of us, the questions we face as conservationists is as caretakers really of something larger than our human animal being and beyond the span of our conceded sapiens thinking. As lovers of wildness and wild things, and hopefully of one another, there’s now more than ever in our warmed earth life extincting predicament necessary convergence.

Now, these convergences coalesce around very basic questions. One might call these questions requisites or standards. And although the issues that we face are daunting in their potential to disrupt life as we know it and though those difficulties are complex and cause, and problematic in solving, I believe there are times when even the simplest of assumptions need restating as we are doing here tonight. I’d like for us to think of reassessment as an old path, one that’s been established first by the woods going habits of deer and foxes, of bears among mountain trails and otters along wetland margins. We can even imagine the invisible migratory paths of birds in the air. Those ways that we see and cannot see are worn through generations so that others find the ways to wherever they need or want to go. By feel and by faith, wild things find the way.

With each new birth, each hatching, each coming and going, the Azimuts are burned into instinct so that species become who and what they are and within the crucible, adaption that nature exerts, we all move through time. We are ultimately who and what we are because we follow these paths to our current place. Paths that have been worn into stone and sand and silt and clay and lawn, paths worn into ice and snow.

My path was as a little black boy who looked skyward towards white clouds for inspiration, looking skyward wishing to be the wing things that I saw soaring. My eyes were wide glazed and wanting what I could not touch. I would spy a hawk overhead dangling on a string, stretched from the sun and circling the clouds. Fearing the vision above me would cease to be. I could not blink. I could not turn away. I was caught. The hawk would become more than a bird. It would morph into something mystical, its broad shoulders shattering the light. A shrill call would rasp from its hooked beak conjuring any who would notice to drift upward on the rising air.

My feet would begin to untether from the green earth. My toes would clutch and grip at the grass as wood slender, sharp talons, but I could not gain purchase. Entranced by the red tail hawk, I was free, suddenly free from chopping the wood to feed my grandmother’s hungry heater and her hot stove. I was freed from sweeping the old beige thread bear carpet with twine tied broom straw. The hawk I watched tilt and the sun would slide off its back. The hawk had only been bound by egg or nest or choice or death. I was born to earth, but no longer bound to school books or homework or other little black boys challenging my blackness or other little white boys despising it.

I would float wingtip to wingtip in wait list kinship with the beauty oh hawk. I was freed from everything and cared for nothing beyond this from being a dusky colored husky heavy boy anchored by my grandmother’s butter drenched pound cake to becoming a boy riding the July day. My fingers were feathers. My lips were a beak. I was no black boy, but red tailed hawk, unbound, but forever tied to wind and wings and blue sky. I would open my mouth to laugh and no laughter would come. Only a wild shriek beyond any human sound would carry over the forest and hills and the winding creeks that grew all below with my wishing.

My calls would pierce all knowing of my own knowing and fall to the ground where I once stood looking up. In this wishing, I was transformed. That I would become what I imagined was best dream, this dream of free flight. To have the world underneath and the wind behind, I looked, I listened, I learned and I loved. And so all these years, all these degrees, all of this love forwarded to now, yes, that is me black boy wishing to black man being, but still wishing to be the red tailed hawk. It is who I am, a wild wandering soul still lifted on the feather’s faith. Thank you.

Dr. Katy Hinman (00:17:23):

Thank you so much, Dr. Lanham. That was so evocative and transporting. We so appreciate the way that you use art and words to help bring connection even to those of us who may not have had the same experiences. It’s now my pleasure to introduce Sevim Kalyoncu, the Executive Director of Green Muslims, a Washington, DC based nonprofit organization, working to help connect the American Muslim community with nature and climate action. Sevim Kalyoncu is a certified Virginia master naturalist and a naturalist instructor with a passion for helping children connect with nature. She leads programs for general youth audiences as well as Green Muslims Our Deen is Green youth outdoor education program, which takes children out into nature and teaches them about its delicate balance, humans impact on it and Islamic teachings concerning the human relationship with it. We are delighted to welcome Sevim Kalyoncu.

Sevim Kalyoncu (00:18:35):

Good evening everyone and thank you so much to everyone at AAAS for this amazing opportunity to get to come and speak and also to get to meet Dr. Lanham and listen to his beautiful poetry. It really touches my heart, but I wish I could express that similar love of nature in as beautiful words as he does. But what I will try to do is share my perspective with everyone tonight as a layperson and a non-expert with my thoughts when it comes to nature and spirituality in faith, whatever you may call it. Even when I’m just speaking about Green Muslims and the work that we do, I always start off with a very personal story about how I grew up in Cottondale, Alabama. I was raised Muslim, but there was no particular Muslim community. There was no mosque or Islamic center that I attended.

I didn’t have any formal religious training. And I never went to Friday prayers with others, but what I did have growing up in Cottondale was nature. I grew up in a home surrounded by woods with a lake in the backyard. And as an only child, I would just go out and play in the woods. I would explore, I would find plants and animals. I loved to catch frogs and animals and let them go, make sure they were okay. I would visit the ducks. And that whole experience for me turned into something deeply spiritual. When I was out in nature, I felt surrounded by beauty and love and balance and I was at peace in my heart. And as a child, and we’re talking from ages of five to 15, that feeling of peace, that sense of beauty came to mean something so deep that I put it together with my faith.

I felt that when I was out in nature, surrounded by this beauty and peace, I was not alone, I was safe and all was good. And I equated that to feeling God’s presence. So for me, nature, and my faith went hand in hand. I actually credit those experiences in nature in Alabama for the fact that I’ve continued to practice my faith today. Those were very positive experiences and it left me with a very, very deep understanding in my heart of what mattered in this life and what this life was about. So that is my personal background, but then I have to jump ahead a couple of decades, because it turns out I took this experience for granted. I did not pursue initially any higher level education or career dealing with nature.

But when I became a mother, I knew that I wanted my child to have a similar experience to my own, both in terms of her connection with the earth and her connection with God. And so even before she was born, I was taking her out on nature hikes. But for the first couple of years I carried her because I wanted her to be exposed to the trees, to the wind, to the birds, everything from an early age. And as soon as possible, I started signing her up for nature classes with the park service and taking her to those and interacting as much as possible with her and nature.

So it started with just a very personal experience and then that personal responsibility of motherhood, but it turned out that opportunities opened up. I knew that I wanted my child to understand her faith with some connection to nature and I wanted her to be able to put those wonderful experiences in nature together with her understanding of God. And then in turn, take that back to how she treated the earth. So as I continued to develop my understanding to share with her, I became more involved with various organizations as a volunteer. I became a master naturalist and that’s when the opportunity with Green Muslims opened up as well where now I was given the chance to spread not only my knowledge, but my love of the environment with other people, especially children.

So moving on now to what Green Muslims does, the primary goal of this organization, which was founded over 10 years ago by a group of young people in the Washington, DC area who wanted to enjoy nature and also try to get the community more involved in climate action, the goals are guiding the Muslim community to protect the earth as a tenant of their faith. We as Muslims recognize that we are the Khaleefa of God, Khaleefa meaning the stewards of the earth. So it fits perfectly that one aspect of the Islamic faith is to care for the environment. But in addition to environmental concern, environmental activism, another goal of Green Muslims is to do exactly what I had hoped that I could do for my child and provide opportunities to connect the experience in nature with faith, with one’s understanding with God, to make that experience of being in nature, a spiritual one.

And this is something that people of all and no faiths I really believe can interact with. It can be a spiritual experience to be surrounded by the beauty of nature. It brings us peace, it makes us happy and it is calm and it is cleansing and it’s very beneficial for everyone in that regard. So I was very happy once I got involved with Green Muslims to learn that they already had a particular program for children, especially, which was described in my bio. We refer to the program as Our Deen is Green. Deen meaning faith in Arabic and which we try to take children out and I’ve expanded it to include parents as well out into nature to learn about the environment, to learn about our local watershed, for example, and the way the plants and the animals interact as well as the human impact on it and things that we can be doing to help the environment, but also to learn what our faith teaches about nature and about our responsibilities towards it.

So we carry out these programs with children and families to help expose the community to the natural surroundings and then educate them more about what we need to do to protect them and help them connect it with their individual faith. So that brings in the aspect of Khaleefa, how we need to be protecting the earth. We were placed here by God to do just that, but also to point out the signs of God that are in nature and how nature can be as it was for me as a child growing up in Alabama with no mosque, a place of worship. It can also be a book, be seen as a book of God. Just like the Quran on or the Bible or the Torah are recognized in Islam as books of God, the earth itself is one of God’s book. And from it, we can read God’s signs and deepen our faith.

So through Green Muslims, twofold goals help people connect with nature and then help that grow into environmental activism so that we all work to help protect the earth as well. So in addition to our youth program, which we lovingly call ODIG for short, we take them out on nature hikes and give talks on all of these topics. Through our programming, we really strive to emphasize nature as God’s beautiful creation as one of God’s books, as I mentioned, and to point out how there are signs of God throughout nature and how those experiences in nature can help deepen one’s faith and bring people closer to God. I mean, I, myself definitely recognize that not everyone feels perfectly at home within a religious community or in a house of worship, but everyone should be able to go out into nature and have that same spiritual experience that others may find under different circumstances.

And that’s something we definitely want to share within our community as well. As children grow up here in the United States, they may not necessarily connect with any particular group of the same faith, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a place where they can go and connect with God. And then finally, as I’ve mentioned already, we talk about our role as Khaleefa, as the stewards of the earth. It’s really interesting because when I was a child, I remember learning from my father that humans are the Khaleefa of the earth. And I would ask what Khaleefa meant. And I was told it meant Vicegerent. And I would just nod because I had no idea what a Vicegerent was. But Arabic is a very rich language and there are always many different English words that can be applied. And now the most translation is one that I absolutely love and that’s steward.

So if we are the stewards of the earth, then environmental stewardship is a key tenant of the Islamic faith. And so just to wrap things up there, there are, including, in addition to the term Khaleefa, there are several key concepts in Islam that I think relate very much to connection with nature, and then ultimately caring for it. One of those, and this is something that works very well with taking children out into nature is the concept of Fitra. And Fitra can of course be trans in many different ways, but it’s often described as the childhood innocence or an innate understanding of God’s oneness.

It’s a purity that we’re all born with. And to be able to go out into nature, which is as God created it, one often returns to that state and state exists in nature as well. The plants and the animals are directly connected to God from an Islamic perspective. So to be surrounded by nature brings you ultimately closer to God. And then the concept of Tawhid or the oneness of God, again, connects with nature. God creates all so there is an interconnectedness between all of God’s creation. You surround yourself by God’s natural creation and you will automatically be more deeply connected with the creator.

And finally, the concept of balance in Islam or Mizan, this is God’s intended balance of all things and in the natural world in modern day with climate change, we definitely see how this balance has been upset by many of humankind actions. And so to remember that there is a deep balance in all of creation reminds us that we need to return to the way things were intended to be and care for the earth and think about how we impact it with everything that we do. So I think that’s all I was going to mention today or for my introduction, both my personal experience with nature as a deeply spiritual one. It’s the foundation of my faith and how that fits in so well with the work of Green Muslims. But again, thank you for this opportunity to speak and I look forward to answering questions.

Dr. Katy Hinman (00:30:53):

Thank you so much. And I invite both of you now to turn your cameras on so that we can start having some conversation. It is just wonderful to have both of you here and to hear your stories. I want to dive a little deeper into some of the things that you’ve talked about before we get into audience questions. You’ve both given me permission to address you by your first names during this conversation. I appreciate that. Drew, I want to say you looked like you were on the cusp of saying something. So did you want to… Was there something that in particular you wanted to respond to before we get into…

Dr. J. Drew Lanham (00:31:39):

Well, Sevim, this whole idea of oneness, of unity, of really sort of this transcendence and this convergence, I think is so important. And oddly enough, last night, the talk that I gave here at Barry College, I gave it in the chapel here from the pulpit, and I could not help, but bring sort of this childhood of wishing to be a bird into this place where my grandmother for years would speak over me and tell me that I was going to preach. And I ran away from that for a lot of years and I still run from it. But then as I was sort of talking last night and giving this confessional really of what it was to be standing before this audience in this chapel, talking, reading out of my book this chapter called New Religion, I was talking about this oneness that you’re reflecting on and this inseparability from creation around us, whatever faith you may ascribe to.

And so I’ve sort of come full circle in some ways. And so what you said, Sevim, struck home in many ways. And so I look forward to learning more from you and having those words stick in both my head and my heart so I can carry them forward. So thank you for your message.

Sevim Kalyoncu (00:33:25):

Wow. Drew, thank you so much for those comments, but it really, I see how we can go into quite a conversation just on this topic right here, because everything that you said resonated as well. And sometimes we need no words at all and other times there’s just a simple term that we can use to share without creating barriers between each other for example, barriers based on differences and religious beliefs, oneness, I think is one of those amazing words. Again, I didn’t go into too many details about my experience growing up, but I of course grew up in a unique situation not only not surrounded by that many of my own faith, but I experienced a great deal of prejudice as well based on faith. And the one thing that I learned from that is that that judgment is not acceptable.

How can we step back from our labels and find the similarities? And I have definitely found in recent years, my favorite way of doing that, I’ve gone past interfaith dialogue. In fact, not to say anything negative against it at all, but what can we do to go beyond saying, okay, I have this faith, you have this faith, you have this faith, what do we have that’s the same? What do we have that’s different? Going on what was called an interfaith nature walk, being one of the leaders on such a walk and having participants talk about how their actual personal feelings were more along the lines of agnostic or atheist, but when they heard us speak about our understandings of what we call God in nature was something that truly resonated for them.

And if we could just go beyond the terminology, we could go so far in communication, but nature really seems to be the ideal place to do that. The more people we can get out and just share what our hearts feel when we are surrounded by nature, I wonder what bridges we could build under those circumstances.

Dr. Katy Hinman (00:35:31):

Well, and that’s such a powerful thing to bring up because one of the things that I noticed as both of you were sharing, you talked about nature as being somewhat of an escape, some way of finding communion when you weren’t necessarily finding it with other people, but also thinking about… And often we talk about connecting with nature as a very solitary activity, right? We get away from it all and things like that. And so thinking about how this also might strengthen our bonds of community, I think is really powerful. And I’d love to hear you reflect a little bit on that and what might be ways that we could help build that connection with nature within community, beyond our individual experiences.

Sevim Kalyoncu (00:36:38):

Well, if I may start, it’s interesting. Yes, I know that I’ve had those solitary experiences in nature, but nowadays I tend to think of as a group experience, actually, small communities gathering to go together out into the woods, to the mountains. Whether it’s a class of young students or a group that Green Muslims is taking out, some people really need the support of others to get out there. I mean, I have many friends actually who’ve told me they want me to take their kids out because actually, they have many fears about going out into the woods. And that was something that I didn’t think about because I grew up in the woods. I mean, yes, I’ve seen a snake before. Of course, I’ve seen a spider. We even had a scorpion in our house. Those things didn’t bother me because of my personal experience, but their personal experiences were very different.

And so I have to remember not to judge. So sometimes taking a whole community, even if it’s just a small group out into nature, solves that problem right there. You make it a group experience and that can make it more comfortable for some people as well. And then you have the opportunity to share your personal feelings about that personal experience with others immediately. And it makes it a much richer experience overall hearing other people’s feelings.

 Dr. J. Drew Lanham (00:38:12):

Yes, it’s we talk about kinship and we talk about communion and community, and all of that comes back to me in ways in thinking about how, what brings people together again, and it’s the basis for our being, right? It’s food. And one of the connections that we haven’t made, I think, especially as a conservation community, as environmentalists is our links to food. Some people are doing it, beginning to get better at it, but especially in communities of color that are often centered in food deserts or where there is a lack of potable water, this idea of bringing forward our ties to nature through food, through what’s on our table, through how we quench our thirst, for us to connect to the soil, to the roots of the plants that grow in the soil and the animals that then are feeding there and thinking about those food ways through food webs and our connectedness to it, I think is a way to bring us together both figuratively around the table, right?

And so I saw the other, for example, these food trucks, not that are serving food that’s prepared, but converted vans and buses that are now supermarkets that are going into communities so that people can buy, can purchase fresh fruits and vegetables and not at the super inflated costs that you would find in some of the big label stores that are selling whole foods. So when we think about nature and all of the time that Sevim and I spend in wildness, there’s nothing more satisfying to me than walking on a trail in a late summer woods or along a woods edge and being able to pluck a wild grape, a muscadine or a blackberry and to have that there not only for my own sustenance that sweetness, but to pass it off to someone and to have to see the look on their face, to have that muscadine explode in their mouth and to taste that sweetness or that blackberry and to taste that sweetness, that’s a connection to nature that we need to make sure that we are constantly enforcing because nature is the food we eat.

It’s the water we drink. It’s the air we breathe. And so without saying one word about wildness, we’ve established that convergence and that connection, that communion through the food that the earth provides, through the water that the earth provides. We just have to be willing to make those connections and to work so that those connections through the water and the food ways are clean and available to all.

Dr. Katy Hinman (00:42:05):

Well, and that’s so key thinking about food, it’s not only something that we all need, but it’s also such a powerful mode of building community and many faith community traditions revolve around food one way or another, whether it’s your Methodist potluck or whether it’s breaking the fast at Ramadan. But also I think one of the challenges that we often run across when talking about issues with connecting people with nature is that there are, for many people, a lot of barriers for connecting with nature. They live in places that are not wild and our conception of nature is often kind of colored by Sierra club calendars and things like that have these beautiful landscapes, where there are no people and no buildings. And for many people, they are not experiencing nature that way. And so thinking about how food can help us bring those connections is really powerful. Are there other ways in the built environment, in areas where people are not able to kind of access more wild places that you like to help people connect with the natural world?

Sevim Kalyoncu (00:43:36):

I actually feel we can stay on the theme of food for a while. It’s a great topic because we don’t… I don’t know, only in recent years have I started to learn about all the things that are out in nature that we can eat and by nature, I mean, any green space whatsoever. And it’s a fascinating topic that seems to intrigue everyone, all ages, and also all perspectives. So the other beauty of nature is that we can cross political lines. People have different relationships with nature for different reasons, but getting out there can bring us all together.

So the whole idea of learning to gather your own food, for example, in the wilderness or in your front lawn, is an amazing topic to just bring people together with, and start learning what’s out there and forget about all the other things that we’re worried about, but learning that you can… Sorry, going back to the specific topic about those who cannot get out into the wilderness per se, being able to pick a dandelion and learn that you can eat that, and then getting into the deeper conversation about how the naturalist might go into, oh, that’s a weed.

It comes from other parts of the world that’s doing damage to our environment, but oh, but we could pick it, we could eat it, we could put it into our salad and put it to use and control its growth. There are all these ways that we can work together, but even just a little piece of lawn can start that conversation. Yes, I think we need to help others get out into the woods too, at least or other areas where there’s more nature, but you can start with anything, including a garden, including a lawn and take it from there.

 Dr. J. Drew Lanham (00:45:28):

I agree, Sevim. And I think one of the debates that’s going on now, and that we need to think about, Katy, you mentioned wildness, and we can talk about wilderness and sort of all these different degrees sort of out there but they’re in this sort of the calendarized idea of it, but hardly any of these landscapes have been without people. And there’s this definition of wildness, especially in Western culture that we’ve developed, that’s an unpeopled place. Well, frequently those unpeopled places are unpeopled because of past sins or past crimes, genocide, removal, or the landscapes have been changed dramatically by things like enslavement. So part of our recognition of nature comes from a recognition of our humanity on it and those people.

So for example, as we talk about land acknowledgements, those land acknowledgements aren’t just reserved for our programs and such, but that we are thinking about who was there before us, right? That I think about my ancestors and how as enslaved peoples, they changed landscapes but then I think about indigenous peoples who were there before they were, and who were removed from landscapes. So I think that thinking about what wild actually means that dandelion is wild.

And we’ve got to begin to wrap our heads around really sort of this whole idea of America for American plants only. That’s a tough thing. And I know I’m probably committing eco heresy by saying this, but the world and colonialism itself has spread these things, right? And so when we think about we can’t separate those, we can’t sort of put those plants in a bad place without thinking about the activities of humanity and what’s gone on. And so in that I say all that to say, we need to think about when we say that four letter word wild, we got to think about what that means because for one person, it’s a canyon that’s a crack in the earth, for the next person, it’s a crack and a sidewalk where something grow goes out of their control.

And so whether it’s a canyon or a crack in the sidewalk, there’s wildness to be had. And so it’s a matter of us opening our eyes and really opening up the definition of what wild means so that we aren’t excluding people when they can’t go to certain places that we define as wild. And that we begin to open our hearts and our minds to sort of this broader concept. And then I think we begin to have some different conversations. Not to throw everything out that we’ve known before, but that we begin to entertain different ideas of what wild actually is, what nature is and what the love of nature can be. Then we begin to expand the conversation, I think, in a new and different, and hopefully helpful way.

Dr. Katy Hinman (00:49:30):

You touched on this a bit, and I’d love to talk a little bit more about, so we’ve been talking about kind of logistical barriers in some ways for people building their kinship with nature, but there are also other cultural barriers and things like that. And Drew, I know you have talked quite a bit about your experience being a black burger and just what that means for your own ability to actually experience nature to be out there. So I’d love for y’all to touch a bit on how we can help build some justice and equitability in opportunities for people to connect with the natural world.

 Dr. J. Drew Lanham (00:50:26):

One of the things that… There was an old ad campaign that used to say, just do it, right? And there’s a lot of privilege associated with that because everybody obviously can’t just jog anywhere. Everybody can’t just go birding in Central Park and tell somebody, don’t have your dog in that space. So we have to think about that whole line that we have of, well, I’ve done it all my life, why can’t you do it the same way that I did it? And so as Sevim talks about her life in Alabama and the barriers there, and being discriminated against because of different things that all of that discrimination who we are, those are lens this through which we see life through which we see nature and then other people see us through their own lenses.

So part of that as we sit around a table of good whole healthy foods that maybe we’ve harvested on our own is that we have an opportunity to listen to others and how they perceive nature. I used to just want to take people dragging behind me everywhere to go birding. And they would look at me. Some of them would look at me like I was crazy and say, I’m not going there, right? And I’d be like, well, I go there, why can’t you go there? And sometimes maybe it was a woman who did not feel comfortable in going to the same spaces that I was going to. And I had to in my mind, because there were places that I wouldn’t go or didn’t feel comfortable going because I had experienced or known of maybe racist behavior or reputation with a place.

So part of the way that we become inclusive is sometimes to listen. And there’s a saying of meeting people where they are. Yeah, you got to go there, but then don’t go there with the idea of taking them from their space into yours. Go there with the idea of sitting, of listening. I think about a friend of mine, Dr. Karen Hall. And she used to tell me the story of how it took years and years as she wanted to understand Cherokee food ways and some of the ethnobotany, but that it took her years before she was invited in to just sit, years. And sometimes she would travel hours just to go and have people refuse her. And then she would go home and then she would come back, and then she would go home and then she would come back. So that persistence is important.

Dr. J. Drew Lanham (00:53:42):

So I think for me, and for any barriers that I’ve experienced now, at this point in my life, I have decided that I’m not going to have some other human being restrict my range, right? I’m not going to be stupid about it. I don’t want to endanger my life, but I’m not going to let you have say that kind of power over my life. But it took me, I’m a man in his mid 50s who you would think would not have fear of these things, but it just hit me one day. I said you’re limiting your life by what someone else thinks of you. And so I am learning. That’s an evolution I think that we have to learn. And part of that comes from sitting, from being persistent and from listening.

Sevim Kalyoncu (00:54:37):

And if I could add a couple simpler, not quite as deep but simpler solutions that I’ve found, especially through Green Muslims, providing a comfortable group for people to be a part of. I know there’s been a major push for diversity in environmental organizations and people have come to me asking what it would take to get more Muslims involved, for example. And what I’ve realized is that a good stepping stone is a Muslim organization. So providing those groups, whether they’re informal or formal, that people feel comfortable with to go as a group out into an environment where they are not used to being, or are not yet comfortable is a good start.

But then also there’s the issue of means. These groups also have to provide the way for people to get from the city out to the mountains, for example. Then it needs to be that transportation, that financial support too to make it possible, make it a comfortable environment and then provide the opportunities. And then, sorry, from there, those individual groups can then partner with others to interact and increase diversity and conversation because that listening and that conversation is, I agree, still very important.

Dr. Katy Hinman (00:56:05):

Well, we’re having some great questions come up in the Q&A as well. And some of them, you have been touching on. One of the ones that I’d love for you to speak a little bit too, is have either of you experienced people interpreting your spiritual connection with nature, your artistic connections with nature as being anti-scientific?

 Dr. J. Drew Lanham (00:56:37):

Yeah. Daily. Right? I tell people evolution is miraculous to me. The migration of a warbler is miraculous. And so I go, Sevim mentioned an agnostic or an atheist on the trail having sort of a conversion in a way, and sort of seeing things in a different light. I tell people daily, I go from atheist to Zen and back again. It’s daily for me. And I’m constantly pulling these things from what I learned from my grandmother or what I experience sitting on the hard pews in the Baptist Church to who I am now and I’m thinking, and calling myself sort of unlabelable but deeply spiritual. And people question that and people question most frequently what they don’t understand.

And so daily. And then the art part of it and creating people want to see that as soft, right? How can you analyze that data, but it’s data nonetheless. It’s data nonetheless. So again, I think it’s sort of have been a personal kind of an evolution for me to be comfortable in my own skin and who it is that I am. But yeah, that’s sort of a daily challenge, but maybe it’s more of a challenge for others than it is for me, because I am who I am.

Sevim Kalyoncu (00:58:35):

That sounds really awesome to me. I know who I need to have as my mentor now. So we’ll be talking Dr. Lanham. I’ve avoided that problem by being a layperson. Honestly, I feel comfortable telling people, this is just my beliefs you can see it however you want, but I know it needs to go beyond that at some point. We all like to place ourselves into groups into boxes and when those boxes overlap, it becomes a bit awkward, maybe uncomfortable, but I think amazing things result. So yes, some degree of experience and maturity to not be too easily offended toughens you up a bit to handle those sort of reactions, but we do need to get beyond it. We need to overlap with faith and science and art and different groups of every sort and see what results from sharing those understandings.

Dr. Katy Hinman (00:59:43):

Well, this next question kind of ties into that and also reminds me of a passage from your book, Drew. So the question is, in my limited experience, much of the science religion conversation hinges on views, individual, communal institutional of the nature of… Oops, excuse me. I lost it real quick. Of the nature of foundational sacred texts. So how one views sacred texts influences relationships with others, nature even one’s own body. Can you comment on that from your faith tradition and Drew just so that you don’t have to be thinking, what is she talking about in terms of connection? I was actually just rereading the New Religion chapter in the home place where you talk about the science being kind of the scripture. And so I’d love it if y’all have any thought on that.

 Dr. J. Drew Lanham (01:00:51):

Well, it’s funny I read that last night. I didn’t intend to read New Religion but here I was. I don’t think I knew ahead of time maybe that I was going to be reading in this chapel, but the book sort of fell open to it, right? And I got a similar question from a student last night, but that whole idea of the science being sort of sacrosanct in a way it’s important. We have these brains and this ability to think for a reason. So I don’t want to discount that gift that God gave me so to speak. So again, I don’t have and I think about Sevim’s sort of Ven diagrams of overlap, right?

And that overlap, that place where we find that overlap, that’s sort of the sweet spot of our existence. Outside of that, those are the questions. Those are the wonders that we can have that enable us to maybe part of it is relying on our spirituality to appreciate the wonder and what we can never know. As much as I can ever know about some bird, I can never know what that bird is thinking. I just can’t, right? I can never be that bird. And so as much as I can know, that gap between what I can know and what I don’t know is wonder. And that wonder is job security for the scientist, that wonder is job security for the writer and the poet, that wonder is job security for the prophet and the pastor.

And so in that wonder, I find room for faith, I find room for spirituality, I find room to gather data as a scientist, I find room to write. And so that’s what I mean when I talk about new religion and finding a comfort in knowing what I don’t know and working to know more that I can know, but also always knowing that wonder is out there and there are things that I cannot divine and I’m okay with that. And I think we need to be okay sometimes with the wonder and what we can’t know.

Sevim Kalyoncu (01:03:36):

The only other thought that comes to mind, I mean, I grew up with a scientist father who was also raising me as a practicing Muslim, and I never felt any major conflict between the two. So I had to stop and think when the question arose, but I realized that in my faith tradition, there is generally a recognition that there’s room for interpretation of the sacred texts and that those interpretations can change over time as well as we learn more and more perhaps from a scientific perspective. And so leaving some room for interpretation can ease that initial conflict as well.

Dr. Katy Hinman (01:04:29):

Thank you both so much. I had a couple of questions of people talking about a practice called shinrin-yoku or forest bathing. And I was wondering if you have experience with that or could speak a little bit about how practices like that that kind of bring people into really direct contact, I guess, with nature can help people make those connections and what value you might see in those sorts of practices.

 Dr. J. Drew Lanham (01:05:32):

It’s funny because as I write as a poet, I spend a lot of time sort of pulling back sometimes from my experience as a bird watcher, an ornithology where it’s been sort of this very reductionist kind of activity and trying to piece back, put the pieces back together. So this whole idea of emergent properties, the whole being greater than the sum of the parks is important. So whether it’s out in an autumn forest and having the shower of leaves around you and understanding what’s going on at that moment, that you’re seeing life literally tumble from these trees that was breathing for you, helping you breathe, but now is gone to the soil and you’re in the midst of that.

And then I always think about my grandmother’s saying ashes to ashes, and she used to dig in the soil and digging her garden. And she was saying, “One day, we’re going to all go back to this,” she would say, right? And so that to me is this way that forest bathing and these other ways of thinking about the whole and how we are part of the whole, and that ultimately we really aren’t any more than that leaf that tumbles from that limb, and we too will have our day to return to the earth. And so that’s humbling to realize that you are part and parcel, not separate from it. That for all that we want to think we are, we’re really just sort of this amalgam of carbon and oxygen and nitrogen and mostly water.

And so what ends up happening to us in the end is going to be the same thing that happens to those leaves that fall. So that’s how I think about that. And I think about it during autumn a lot, I think about it during fall a lot. And then in the spring you’re thinking about rebirth in lots of ways and reemergence. So I think it helps us. It helps me at least to feel a part of something greater than me, and to understand my smallness, to understand my insignificance in it, but at the same time, that significance that I’m just a single leaf on this great tree.

Sevim Kalyoncu (01:08:22):

I would love to go into a deeper conversation about forest bathing. It’s a concept that fascinates me, although I have to admit, I have yet to really study the details of the original tradition, but I always associate it with meditation and nature. And as has already been discussed, it’s through that experience, that could be nothing other than just sitting quietly in a natural surrounding that you feel connection. And when you feel that connection, the problems, the stresses of modern day are so small. And so it’s a truly healing experience. And each person will take it differently. Again, for me as a child, it was like, wow, I sense that I’m with the creator, but you can interpret it as you will but that sense of connection is truly healing. And I think it’s something that everyone should have the opportunity to experience. Again, it might not be as moving for some people as for others, but it’s an opportunity that everyone should have the right to.

Dr. Katy Hinman (01:09:45):

We’re coming close to the end of our time. And I was wondering if you both might speak just a little bit to what sort of actions that you might hope that people’s growing understanding of a kinship with nature might then lead them to either as in individuals or community in terms of conservation, environmental justice, that sorts of things. It’s wonderful to think about the ways that this affects us individually and can be healing for us, but also, there are plenty of places where we might be called to action.

Sevim Kalyoncu (01:10:39):

Thank you. I think you actually said it right there. I mean, when people feel connected to the earth, they want to take care of it. And so through these experiences with nature, I would hope that more people would become active in environmental concerns because we really do need to make the efforts to protect our planet, or we won’t have these opportunities anymore. Just through that love of nature, you automatically feel obligated to take care of it. But also back on the topics of connection, I think it would be amazingly helpful in terms of human relations to have those opportunities in nature where we find our inner peace that we can share with others and then we can then connect with other people as well.

Dr. J. Drew Lanham (01:11:43):

Thank you, Sevim. I think one of the things that we can do, let’s make sure that we understand that environmental justice isn’t separate from civil rights, that we got to quit siloing nature over here as sort of an afterthought. And that when we think about what we are, for example, as a nation and largely what we are as a world has been built on the exploitation of people and resources and natural resources, right? And so to understand that the mistreatment of nature, the abuse of it is criminal, is sinful, is not in that line of stewardship, right? That we may believe that we are tasked with. And so in those ways, if we bring environmentalism and conservation into the mainstream, as our rights and our obligations, as moral obligations, then I think we can begin to move outward in a different way.

 Dr. J. Drew Lanham (01:13:13):

We can begin to think about empathy, right? We can begin to think about not just seeing something and sympathizing, but beginning to empathize and understanding its same air, same water, same soil, same earth, same fate. And even though you may see that some people in some places don’t have potable water and you think you’re okay, just wait. So bringing that convergence between “environmental justice” and social justice, try protesting without breathing we see where that gets us. So we need to come to this place of seeing nature as essential, not as an option, but what we require for our lives and the lives of our fellow human beings and non-human beings. So that’s sort of where I am on that. That convergence is important.

Dr. Katy Hinman (01:14:19):

Thank you so much. And thank you both so much for your time and this discussion. It’s been just such a pleasure and I could keep talking with y’all for hours, but I’m afraid we’re at the end of our time. Before we wrap up, I’d like to give you a chance to briefly share any final thoughts that you would like to leave the audience with.

 Dr. J. Drew Lanham (01:14:40):


Sevim Kalyoncu (01:14:40):

I was about to say I couldn’t think of anything else, but I just realized as is always the case with these conversations about nature and about the environment, it’s such a relief. It’s such a pleasure to connect with other people who have shared that feeling, that connection with nature. And to know that there are others, and I bet there are many others who, if given the opportunity, would feel the same way as well. So I do see this. It makes me so hopeful about human relations, that if we could connect through nature, how far could we go in our conversations and our work together.

Sevim Kalyoncu (01:15:29):

It really is so peaceful, so calming, so relaxing, so healthy to be surrounded by trees and water and animals. And I think it brings out the best in all of us and kind of relieves us of some of our tensions that get in the way of communication and other circumstances. So I hope we could have more opportunities to communicate under those circumstances and see what we share at that time. But yes, it’s such a relief to hear others experiencing similar feelings when surrounded by those circumstances.

 Dr. J. Drew Lanham (01:16:15):

Amen. Kinship, that relationship is community ultimately. And so we talk about community, we talk about convergence, but I’ll go back to one of our original topics, nature is the soul food that we all crave, whether we know it or not. So it feeds us. Literally and figuratively, it feeds our bellies, it feeds our souls, it fills our hearts. It fills our eyes and our heads. So feast on it, right? But leave some for those yet to come because they’ll need to eat too. So I’m great for AAAS and having us here this evening and for the discussion. Thank you. I’m forever grateful and I look forward to continuing the dialogue.

Dr. Katy Hinman (01:17:13):

Well, thank you both so much. Drew Lanham, Sevim Kalyoncu, thank you again for being with us tonight. Thank you to all of you who have joined us through Zoom or YouTube. We are delighted to have been able to share this time with you. I will invite you again to keep in touch with DoSER, stay connected. You can visit our website at aaas.org/DoSER, and our resource hub at the ScienceReligionDialogue.org, or drop us an email. And if you’d like to support the work of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, you can make a donation at aaas.org/SupportDoSER. Thank you again for joining us for the 2021 December dialogues, have a great night and a wonderful holiday season.

All social change, large or small, is ultimately about people. In a rapidly changing world, where environmental news is so often bleak, how can individuals and communities recognize and deepen their connections to the natural world? What forms can these relationships take, and how do they relate to physical, mental and spiritual well-being? What historical and contemporary barriers to engagement must be acknowledged and addressed, so that natural spaces and efforts to enjoy and conserve them are inclusive and accessible?

On December 1, 2021, DoSER hosted a conversation with award-winning author J. Drew Lanham and the executive director of Green Muslims, Sevim Kalyoncu, about personal engagement with nature and deepening humanity’s relationship to the natural world. We also explored how diverse faith groups, other community organizations, and individuals can support and sustain positive change – whether at the scale of their cities, towns and neighborhoods, within their families, or for themselves.

To read an article about the event, click here.


  • J. Drew Lanham, author and professor, Clemson University
  • Sevim Kalyoncu, executive director, Green Muslims

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