Sanctuaries in Southern Indiana: A Faith-Based View of Sycamore’s Work

By Rabbi Brian Besser


From our Winter-Spring 2021 issue of  The Twig, “The Trails Issue”:

Nature is my oldest, deepest source of spiritual renewal. I fell in love with hiking in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where I spent all my childhood summers.

In 1988, I trekked 2600 miles from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail through the High Sierra and Cascades. I used to travel far and wide to explore on foot some of the grandest landscapes on Earth— including the glaciers of Iceland, the volcanoes of the Andes, and South Africa’s vast, untamed beaches.

When I moved to Indiana eight years ago, I wondered: “how will I ever find inspiration from such ho-hum terrain?” Then, walking through a local preserve in late March, I happened upon a hillside covered with white trillium in full bloom, and I realized anew that transcendence is not confined to mountain summits and ocean expanses. As the prophet proclaims: “the entire world is filled with God’s glory.” (Isaiah 6:3) One doesn’t have to cross the globe to exult in God’s Creation. I have come to appreciate the subtle and restful beauty of a quiet walk in the woods of Southern Indiana.

Notwithstanding its undeniable challenges, COVID has brought some unexpected gifts. Deprived of our usual outlets for sports, recreation and indoor entertainment, we are prompted toward the one safe venue for socializing: the great outdoors. Unable to plan trips to exotic destinations, we must seek out nearby points of interest. COVID has reinforced a profound spiritual lesson: joy in life is not achieved by chasing peak experiences but by cultivating the simple gifts of everyday life. This is where Sycamore Land Trust comes in. Sycamore makes available to all of us the everpresent blessings of nature.

Sycamore Land Trust’s vision statement enumerates important reasons for protecting natural areas in southern Indiana: to maintain habitat for native plants and animals, to foster clean air and water, to sustain productive working lands, and to improve the quality of life for Hoosiers by means of a healthy environment. I would add one more: to establish natural sanctuaries, intact parcels of Creation for inspiration, enlightenment and renewal.

I love each of Sycamore’s preserves for its unique features: the magnificent woods of the Canyon Forest Nature Preserve, the carpets of wildflowers at Porter West, and the rugged lakeshore at the end of the Amy Weingartner Branigin Peninsula Preserve. However, when I am looking to let go of stress, worry and anxiety, there is no better place than the Laura Hare Nature Preserve at Downey Hill.

Dating back to the Middle Ages, the Christian monastic tradition designed special labyrinths for spiritual contemplation. The idea is that by following the labyrinth’s circuitous pathway without regard to where it may lead, your mind is set free to focus on the here and now. Downey Hill’s six-mile hiking loop, which doubles back on itself so many times that you feel like you’re walking in circles, functions exactly like a labyrinth.

In discussions on environmental responsibility, many Jewish and Christian authorities cite Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God placed the human being in the Garden of Eden to till it and to tend it.” This common translation suggests a tension between developing the land (“to till”) versus safeguarding it for later use (“to tend”). What many don’t realize is that the original Hebrew can just as easily be translated: “to serve it and preserve it.” In this reading, the dichotomy in our relationship to the land disappears, and we are left with an unambiguous Biblical ethic of land conservation. Humans are merely temporary residents on the Land, which ultimately belongs to God. (cf. Leviticus 25:23) As such, we are obligated to act as good stewards of our sacred trust.

To be sure, Sycamore Land Trust is a secular organization. However—know it or not—every time Sycamore protects one more acre, it is fulfilling a basic religious obligation! The word “sanctuary” comes from the Latin: “place of holiness.” By definition, a sanctuary is set apart from the rest of civilization as a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. I am grateful to Sycamore for erecting dozens of sanctuaries throughout Southern Indiana.

Brian Besser

Rabbi Brian Besser has served on Sycamore’s Board of Directors since 2018. He is the religious leader of Congregation Beth Shalom, and Co-chair of the Bloomington Multifaith Alliance.