Out of the woods

I guess it started when I was four. I discovered a blackbird’s nest in a herbaceous border in our garden. If I poked it, four noisy little heads shot up – the original jack-in-the-box – captivating! A few years later, I saw starlings feeding on our lawn. They would stick their beaks in the ground before opening them against the pressure of soil to grasp leatherjackets. I wondered how they had the strength to do that. Years later, I learned they have specialised muscles. The childhood fascination with nature turned to an admiration and love of it.

Through my teens, birds were my life. I read Environmental Biology at Aberystwyth, immersed myself in the countryside with red kites, pied flycatchers and dippers. I trained as a bird ringer. I went to Aberystwyth in 1976, the year an Oxford zoologist, Richard Dawkins, published The Selfish Gene. By graduation, everyone was talking about it, and I had read it. It troubled me, and I spent the next 40 years discerning what is wrong with it. In brief: the biology is fantasy, the philosophy lacks rigour and the theology is cheap. Its thesis denies life value and purpose, the things that bless my relationship with nature. But the book did one wonderful thing for me. Through his gratuitously atheist rhetoric, Richard Dawkins unwittingly introduced me to Christ. As a Jewish ‘apathetic’ I had little interest in religion until he focused my attention on it.

In 1981 I became a part time field assistant in Oxford, studying bird ecology in Wytham Woods for my doctorate. The next thirty years working in Wytham were formative for me. I spent long hours alone in the cathedral forest. Under a fan vaulted canopy of oak, ash, beech and lime, I was led from the apparent superficiality of academic questions, through the gaze returned by a bird in my hand, into a deeper relationship of knowing. I reflected on whether this small, wild miracle of life might know my only concern was for its welfare. I was productive academically at that time, but I remember thinking in 1997: “So is this it? Is this my life?”

I now see that God heard that prayer, for soon after everything changed! I started to teach, which focused my attention on the humanity from which I had retreated to the woods. My life began to resonate with the growing understanding and experience of the Christ I’d found in the woods. I joined a church and was baptised in 2000. As my academic career changed course and deepened, others recognised God’s call on me: the call to be a Franciscan and a priest. So how do I see my life’s story at this point? God answered my prayer, leading me out of the woods to share the peace of the forest with a world that has lost touch with its roots in faith and nature. He taught me that if I want the world to love birds as much as they love people, I must learn to love people as much as I love birds.

We’d love to hear how others helped you on your journey to faith. Send your stories to communications@oxford.anglican.org

As told to Pathways by the Revd Professor Andrew Gosler, Associate Professor in Applied Ethnobiology and Conservation at the University of Oxford, Fellow in Human Sciences at Mansfield College, Curate in the Benefice of Marston and Elsfield.