Spiritual responsibility for desert

The San Bernardino Sun
Rabbi Hillel Cohn and the Rev. June Boutwell
Thursday, December 9, 2010
It is known that the greatest spiritual leaders of the world set out to nature, to the desert, to find their place of worship, prayer and meditation. Moses first met God in the desert. Jesus prayed in the desert for 40 days. Muhammad meditated in a cave in the desert. Buddha left his palace to meditate under a tree.

The world's deserts hold a history of momentous actions taken in quiet beauty.

Honoring this tradition, local faith leaders here in Southern California have joined together to establish the Desert Stewardship Project. They have been brought together by their conviction to connect the wonders of the California deserts with the spiritual beliefs brought forth from the desert and nature-based history of worldwide religions.

The Desert Stewardship Project brings together interfaith leaders to educate their communities and inspire the wisdom of protecting a sacred land. As such, we share a commitment to the conservation and protection of our California deserts.

Comprised of the Mojave, Sonoran and Great Basin deserts, the California deserts spring forth with beauty and life. Visitors and residents are captivated by cactus gardens and Joshua tree forests, hidden springs and palm oases, impressive rock formations, sand dunes that dwarf skyscrapers, rugged mountain ranges, fields of wildflowers and multi-hued canyons. Native Americans from these areas believe these lands are alive and they see where they breathe.

Now, through the Desert Stewardship Project, there is a commitment from faith groups around the region to promote the safeguarding of these areas.

The emergence of the Desert Stewardship Project is timely as controversies about appropriate uses of the California desert lands are so often in the news.

Californians and visitors from around the world value it as a place to camp, hike, hunt, drive off-highway vehicles, find solitude, explore Highway 66 and other cultural resources, view wildlife and the stars, create art, and more. The region is home to growing communities, national parks, wilderness areas and military bases. Desert-inspired tourism is an essential part of the region's economy. A variety of materials that we use every day are mined in the desert. The desert is also a prime location for generation of solar, wind and geothermal energy.

Although the desert region appears to be vast, the ability to cohesively accommodate all of these activities there is increasingly difficult.

In deliberations about land use and the desert's future, the voice of the faith-based community is infrequently heard. Yet all of the world's religions express an ethical responsibility on the part of humans to exercise stewardship of the environment and its creatures. Thus, the Desert Stewardship Project has coalesced around the following simple yet substantial "Desert Stewardship Principles" in hopes of providing a fresh and relevant viewpoint to benefit these deliberations.

We declare interdependence spiritually and physically with the desert.

We affirm that when we humans must interfere with desert life and landscape, great care must be taken to restore ecological balance and preserve its native cultural heritage.

We affirm that the natural features of the California deserts have a right to exist that comes not from human beings, but from the divine Source of all creatures.

We pledge to connect more people to the desert, so that their souls may be nurtured by its serenity and beauty and share our commitment to preserving it.

Walking humbly on the Earth, on the sacred lands provided by the divine, where life breathes and has a living soul, a servant observes the communion between God and nature. The desert brings each person serenity and peace, a home to find solace and to pray, and a location of life and history. To preserve a portion of that would be right and to steward the desert responsibly would be grace.

The Desert Stewardship Project invites all to participate in an invocation of awe for the California deserts and recognition of our responsibility for its stewardship.

Connect with the Desert Stewardship Project through www.facebook.com/Desert.Stewardship.

Rabbi Hillel Cohn is rabbi emeritus of the Congregation Emanu El, San Bernardino/Redlands; and rabbi of the Sun City Jewish Congregation,

Palm Desert. The Rev. June Boutwell is executive director of Pilgrim Pines Camp and Conference Center, Yucaipa.