Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Gifts of Biology

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Gifts of Biology

Article excerpt

I'm writing this article in January, just as I return to classes after the winter break. It was a wonderful respite, in part because I had time to do some uninterrupted reading, to lie on the couch and really get into a book, and then another, and another. Fortunately, I received several great books as Christmas gifts--and I augmented this stack with a few gifts to myself. There was no real rhyme or reason to the selection, but as I look back over my reading spree, I notice that a couple of themes weave the books together, and I'd like to examine them here.

I began the holidays with Sara Maitland's (2008) The Book of Silence, which describes her exploration over a number of years of silence and solitude. They go together. It's difficult to have true silence in the company of others, as Maitland discovered when she slowly moved toward a silent life. First, separation from her husband found her living alone, but that didn't seem to be enough for her, so she tried a number of experiments in deeper silence. These included a six-week retreat on the Isle of Skye. She had stocked up on food and other necessities so she wouldn't have to interact with anyone, though she does admit to having had a cell phone and a car radio for emergencies. She found this a deeply transforming experience, which just made her hunger for more silence. This led to three years in a small house in an isolated part of England, a silent retreat in the desert, and another in the primeval woods of Scotland. Maitland finally built her own retreat because she simply didn't want to give up the silence she had discovered.

Actually, Maitland discovered more than one silence. She found that the silence of the desert was very different from that of the forest--and that silence was entwined with nature and with the spiritual. She noticed that with silence came an intensification of her senses. On the long walks she took, she became much more aware of the birds and plants and terrain she encountered. Maitland includes descriptions of living in silence written by naturalists such as Thoreau and Gilbert White, so her book is in part a meditation on nature. She developed a great sense of connection with the living world, in part from her explorations and in part because of the time she spent in prayer. This really is a comprehensive book on silence, because she includes what she learned by reading about the hermits of old, particularly the early Christians who went into the desert to find solitude. Her own time in the desert made her realize that their solitude in an arid and relatively unchanging landscape had a very different character from what she had experienced in Britain. In the desert, silence created a form of freedom "from one's self and freedom to be oneself (p. 221). This was possible because of inner emptiness that made room for religious experience, but it did not make room for creativity. Maitland was surprised to find that silence made it more difficult for her to write, and particularly to write fiction, even though in the past she had published several novels.

Maitland contrasts desert silence with that of the forest and of other British landscapes, which she describes as leading to a more "romantic" experience of silence, which writers like Wordsworth found a rich source for their creativity. Maybe being in the forest would reawaken her ability to write. As she ends her book, the jury is still out on this question. Obviously, she can write nonfiction--very well indeed--but stories still elude her. However, in her newly built aerie she hopes to find a balance between the two silences and stoke her storytelling fires once again.


On the same day that one friend gave me The Book of Silence, another presented me with The Good in Nature and Humanity (Kellert & Farnham, 2002), which has the subtitle "Connecting Science, Religion, and Spirituality with the Natural World." These two books set the tone for my vacation reading because several other books I read were also related to the themes presented in these. …

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