How I Learned Ecology at an Egyptian Mosque


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By Jack Phillips

The sky of Cairo, Egypt, featuring various mosque minarets. (ugurhan/iStockPhoto)I was enrolled in a graduate seminar in the early 1980s that met in Cairo. One warm afternoon I decided to skip class and take a nap. Finding a refuge from traffic noise and the desert sun was not easy, but I found a local medieval mosque that offered walled sanctuary with plenty of cool stone and cooing doves. Nestled in a carpeted corner, I awoke from my unauthorized snooze to find myself surrounded by young men sitting at the feet of an Imam who looked as old as the mosque. Realizing that I had skipped class only to wake up in another, I sleepily propped myself against the wall to be lectured in an unfamiliar language.

This experience was not completely new. I had slept through many sermons before, having been raised a Presbyterian. But I did learn something of great value. After years in a western academic tradition that values scholarly detachment, I realized that learning by immersion has its own rigor and method. My bearded accidental classmates were immersed in their studies to the point of becoming increasingly integrated into the object of their study. In that medieval mosque they were learning the heart of a living tradition.

To paraphrase a saying, it was “closer to them than their own pulse,” and their scholarship was intended to draw them more deeply into the community into which they had been born.

Likewise, there are aspects of the natural world that can only be studied by entering it more deeply. I am not advocating a retreat from science or promoting a sentimental and Disney-fied view of nature. Rather, I am advocating disciplined study that both draws on good science and encourages deep intimacy. Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson describes nature as “that part of the world we think of as eternal, beyond us, having no real need of us, yet is the cradle of our species.”

To this end, I found an appropriate cradle for science and sleep: an old bur oak. This is where I study, teach, spend time with my colleagues, students and friends, play, discuss photosynthesis and the meaning of life and snooze on warm afternoons. Of course, an oak (or any wild, native tree) isn’t a single organism but a dynamic system of complex relationships, interactions, and rhythms. Beyond our ability to fully comprehend, there is an aspect of the natural world that we can only come to know by participating in it with increasing frequency and depth and by discovering its cosmic rhythms within us.

When we remain sufficiently quiet and still, the wild community reassembles, emerges and gets back to the business of living. The oak savanna community includes trillions of members ranging from microbes to large vertebrates. Even where exotic forage plants have been introduced, we can find a surprising diversity of remnant native grasses, forbs and sedges. Sitting or lying there, we begin to find evidence of a plethora of creatures that derive food and lodging from various parts of the oak: galls, fungi, mites, insects, spiders, birds, rodents, bacteria and hooved mammals.

We can imagine life in soil—a vast collection of creatures, many new to science and many more yet to be classified. When we dig for root and soil samples, the numbers of individuals and species that can be seen unaided or with a simple lens is astonishing. We sometimes dissect fallen or damaged sections of wood, and the numbers of different decay organisms always surprises us. If one remains open and curious, wonder overtakes knowledge and mystery exceeds certainty.

Every living thing that is not capable of photosynthesis must eat things that are. One might wonder how plants can survive the hunger of the world, and our mentor oak is under constant assault. Or so it seems. Perception is sharpened with time spent in nature, and we begin to sense that somehow the presence of each native creature makes life more vital for the others. We can read about nitrogen and carbon cycles, thermodynamics and food webs. We need such models and principles to facilitate our learning, but ecological immersion can provide the kinds of experiences that profoundly change our awareness.

We begin to see that somehow an oak needs what it feeds, and that the defensive responses to herbivory and symbiotic transfers of energy enhance vitality and create stability. Undulation, rhythmic movement and pulsing vibrations result from the movement of synthesized solar energy through the living system. Time under oak can make us aware of this moving energy around us and the resonating energy that is closer to each of us than our own pulse.

One of the surprising pleasures of Cairo is the ubiquitous laughing dove (Streptopelia senegalensis) that flits in and out of courtyards and old buildings. Their hooting coos can be heard throughout the daylight hours. Like big cities everywhere, populations of imported organisms have reached plague-like proportions, but the urbanized laughing dove is actually indigenous. When I saw it in rural areas along the Nile, it seemed a friendly bird; in the choked streets of Cairo it was a ruffian. But when I heard the funny coos in open-air mosques and courtyards, I heard reverberations of the vanquished ecosystems that made the Nile the life blood and bread basket of ancient Egypt. The doves took it upon themselves to remind us that nature is our cradle and future. Under a sheltering oak that has thus far survived modernity, I am cautiously hopeful and a little bit drowsy on sunny afternoons.

Time under oak is well spent (Quercus macrocarpa, Hitchcock Nature Center, Pottawattamie County, Iowa). (Jack Phillips)

Themes from this essay were presented at TEDx Omaha, October 2012. Learn more about this independently organized event at www.tedx For more information about TED, a nonprofit dedicated to “Ideas Worth Spreading,” visit

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