Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, “Love is the most universal, the most tremendous and the most mysterious of the cosmic forces.” In their book Teilhard de Chardin on Love: Evolving Human Relationships, Louis Savary and Patricia Berne note that “According to Teilhard, God has implanted a divine spark of love in everything created, down to every last subatomic particle and photon of light.” I wonder if Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters folk music singer-songwriter duo ever read anything by Teilhard. Maybe not, but whenever I hear her song NaCl, I smile and think of Teilhard.
Here are the lyrics:
Just a little atom of chlorine Valence minus one Swimming through the sea, digging the scene Just having fun She’s not worried about the shape or size Of her outside shell It’s fun to ionize Just a little atom of cl With an unfilled shell
But somewhere in that sea lurks Handsome sodium With enough electrons on his outside shell Plus that extra one Somewhere in this deep blue sea There’s a negative For my extra energy yes Somewhere in this foam My positive will find a home
Then unsuspecting chlorine Felt a magnetic pull She looked down and her outside Shell was full Sodium cried “what a gas be my bride and I’ll change your name from chlorine to chloride
“Now the sea evaporates to make the clouds For the rain and snow Leaving her chemical compounds in the absence Of H2O But the crystals that wash upon the shore Are happy ones So if you never thought before Think of the love that you eat When you salt your meat
In the opening chapter of Walden; or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau wrote “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Too bleak a statement? Perhaps, but during the past few years many white people have been learning about the quiet (and increasingly not so quiet) desperation of people of color seeking relief from systemic racism in a country that isn’t paying enough serious attention to their suffering. Have Christian Cooper’s periodic birdwatching visits to Central Park helped him deal with any stress he may feel from being a Black man in America – before and (I hope) after the sad events of May 25, 2020? (See previous post.) Cooper lives not only with the frequent commonplace slights and behaviors aimed at Blacks but also with the steady stream of news about police violence against African Americans, an inner burden that he portrays in story form in the newly published “It’s a Bird” (more information). I would hazard a guess that his walks in the Ramble are a much needed refreshment of mind and body.
I don’t know if they ever met, but if they haven’t, I’m sure Cooper would find much to talk about with fellow Black birder J. Drew Lanham. Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University, Lanham is a birder, naturalist, hunter-conservationist, and the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. As part of a speaker series offered by the Walden Woods Project, Mass Audubon, and several other organizations earlier this year, he gave a talk he titled “A Declaration of Natural Interdependence or Why I Write about Birds.”1 In his presentation, Lanham admitted that the time he spends observing birds is “a selfish act and a small personal space that I do not willingly share with other human beings.” But when focusing on birds, he can inhabit a stress-free environment: “I write about birds because birds will not profile or persecute or imprison me.”
But he realizes he can’t isolate himself from the “daily toxic stream of news that passes through my mental binocular view. I must write to the violence of my people being killed in the streets.” Instead of writing about the violence being inflicted upon the Black community, Lanham writes about birds and the threats they face from climate change. Indeed, he makes a direct connection between the seriousness of his purpose in writing about birds (his “ornitherapy”) and the harsh social realities facing African Americans today.
It is within this socio-politically fragmented and climate inflamed Anthropocene landscape over which we are all migrating. And so it can’t be ignored. To write about birds and not write about their struggles would be akin to writing about Black people as if enslavement and Jim Crow and police brutality and mass incarceration didn’t exist.
Being a birder and a writer about birds define the essence of who he is: “My Black life matters most to me and I won’t deny my own soul’s wellbeing to make birds small and just something to be seen without deeper connect and feeling.” He’s not interested in simply increasing his number of bird sightings, an activity which motivates many birders, but in taking the time to observe each bird and appreciate its remarkable physical features and behavior.
Lanham is concerned that the sheer number of critical issues demanding our response today prevent us from seeing how deeply related some of them, like climate change and racism, are.
So then, in the stream of so many causes that would seem disconnected from birds and disconcerting enough to cleave us from nature, I write about birds. I write about birds because I need to somehow discount the “dis.” Connection and concert are what I, what we, need most, especially now.
In his closing words, he said “I believe it is our mission to not just watch but . . .to move our action, as Thoreau did, beyond the watching, not just to revere the lives of the wild things but of our fellow human beings, and to see all of us as . . . sharing the same air, same water, same soil, same earth, and same fate . . .”
PS: Highly recommended: Lanham’s conversation with Krista Tippett on her On Being podcast.
1 The following summary of Lanham’s talk is based on my notes taken when viewing a recorded version of his presentation on Zoom. The recording was still available as of 7/31/2021.
Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux as a “wild garden” within New York City’s Central Park, the Ramble has long been appreciated as a sanctuary offering a quiet respite from the big city since its opening in 1859. Beloved by people drawn to its winding paths, forested landscape, and lack of roads and bridle paths, the Ramble is exactly the kind of green space many of us need to refresh body, mind, and spirit. (I’ve written about the various salutary effects of nature walks in previous posts; see here and here.) Among the many visitors who enjoy a stroll through its 37 acres are birders who have spotted over 230 bird species there over the years, and dog owners who have enjoyed using the park as a wonderful area to explore with their pets, an activity fully approved by the Central Park Conservancy (but with certain restrictions). All of this suggests that because of the Ramble’s intended purpose as a forest refuge, you wouldn’t expect it to be a place of racial conflict. But it was.
On May 25th, Memorial Day 2020 (the same day George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis), Amy Cooper, a White woman walking her rescue cocker spaniel Henry, encountered Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black man engaged in birding, something he did often in this part of the park. Seeing that the dog was off leash, Mr. Cooper asked her to put him on leash, in other words to follow the rules. What followed has been widely reported in the media (CNN’s report here), and the video recording by Mr. Cooper of the exchange went viral. She immediately interpreted his request as a threat and called 911 for help, describing him as an African American three times.
Although no one was physically hurt, news of Amy Cooper’s reaction went viral as one more example of racism in this country. Ms. Cooper perceived Mr. Cooper as a potential mugger, not as a fellow visitor enjoying the Ramble’s peace and quiet, and certainly not as an expert of any sort who could be there to study some aspect of the Ramble’s wildlife. But Mr. Cooper, a one-time president of the Harvard Ornithological Club, and currently on the Board of Directors for NYC Audubon, was there on one of his frequent bird sighting walks.
During this time of racial turmoil, many Americans of European descent (myself included) have become more deeply aware of how racism or implicit bias affect their perception of Blacks. The unfortunate confrontation in the Ramble that day would not have happened if Amy had seen Christian not only as a Black man but as fellow human who loved nature and the restorative peace of the Ramble.
We have seen how commitment and persistence are necessary to deal with the climate crisis despite climate change denial. Similarly, commitment and persistence are essential for dismantling racism. We need to see all persons as members of a common humanity as urgently as we need to see all beings as members of the earth community. In both racism and climate change the root cause has been exploitation – exploitation of human beings as slaves and an underclass and exploitation of natural resources. I hope and pray that the memory of the terrible events of May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis and New York (just two of the myriad acts of racial violence in our recent and not so recent history) will keep stirring us to work on creating the “beloved community” envisioned by Martin Luther King, Jr. After all, we’re all in this together.
Today is a day for reflection and prayer – gratitude for the beauty of the earth, grief at all the species we have lost. This time of pandemic and climate crisis calls for a unified response from the many often antagonistic segments of humanity and offers an opportunity to see how much we are part of a single earth community. Toward that end, here is a slightly adapted version of the Chinook Blessing Litany:
We call upon the earth, our planet home, with its beautiful depths and soaring heights, its vitality and abundance of life, and together we ask that it
Teach us, and show us the Way.
We call upon the mountains, . . . the high green valleys and meadows filled with wild flowers, the snows that never melt, the summits of intense silence, and we ask that they
Teach us, and show us the Way.
We call upon the waters that rim the earth, horizon to horizon, that flow in our rivers and streams, that fall upon our gardens and fields and we ask that they
Teach us, and show us the Way.
We call upon the land which grows our food, the nurturing soil, the fertile fields, the abundant gardens and orchards, and we ask that they
Teach us, and show us the Way.
We call upon the forests, the great trees reaching strongly to the sky with the earth in their roots and the heavens in their branches, the fir and the pine and the cedar, and we ask them to
Teach us, and show us the Way.
We call upon the creatures of the fields and forests and the seas, our brothers and sisters the wolves and deer, the eagle and dove, the great whales and dolphin, . . . and we ask them to
Teach us, and show us the Way.
We call upon all those who have lived on this earth, our ancestors and our friends, who dreamed the best for future generations, and upon whose lives our lives are built, and with thanksgiving, we call upon them to
Teach us, and show us the Way.
And lastly, we call upon all that we hold most sacred, the presence and power of the Great Spirit of love and truth which flows through all the Universe, to be with us to
In a January 28th article in the New York Times, author and journalist David Quammen, whose 2012 book Spillover examined emerging diseases, wrote:
We are faced with two mortal challenges, in the short term and the long term. Short term: We must do everything we can, with intelligence, calm and a full commitment of resources, to contain and extinguish this nCoV-2019 [an earlier label for COVID-19] outbreak before it becomes, as it could, a devastating global pandemic. Long term: We must remember, when the dust settles, that nCoV-2019 was not a novel event or a misfortune that befell us. It was — it is — part of a pattern of choices that we humans are making.
Clearly the world did not do enough to contain the novel coronavirus and we are now in the very pandemic Quammen and others have been warning us about for years. Indeed, in 2005 scientists published a paper identifying bats in China’s Yunnan province as potential sources of dangerous viruses. The paper concluded with the following:
These findings on coronaviruses, together with data on henipaviruses (23–25, 28), suggest that genetic diversity exists among zoonotic viruses in bats, increasing the possibility of variants crossing the species barrier and causing outbreaks of disease in human populations. It is therefore essential that we enhance our knowledge and understanding of reservoir host distribution, animal-animal and human-animal interaction (particularly within the wet-market system), and the genetic diversity of bat-borne viruses to prevent future outbreaks.
In his New York Times article, Quammen emphasizes the importance of listening to what the scientists are saying: “That the virus emerged from a nonhuman animal, probably a bat, and possibly after passing through another creature, may seem spooky, yet it is utterly unsurprising to scientists who study these things.” Indeed, a search using Google Scholar for the terms “Yunnan bats SARS” yields 408 articles published between 2005 and 2019. (SARS or Severe acute respiratory syndrome was an epidemic that had 8,009 cases and 774 fatalities during November 2002-July 2003. COVID-19, the disease, is caused by SARS coronavirus 2, a mutation of the 2002-2003 SARS virus.) For example, in an important 2017 paper researchers wrote:
As a whole, our findings from a 5-year longitudinal study conclusively demonstrate that all building blocks of the pandemic SARS CoV are present in bat SARSr-CoVs from a single location in Yunnan. . . . Thus, the risk of spillover into people and emergence of a disease similar to SARS is possible.
That scientists have been warning the world about the growing reality of a serious epidemiological crisis sounds familiar to those of us who have been deeply concerned about climate change which has been studied and reported by scientists for decades. While we know that climate change has been caused by human activity, can the same be said of COVID-19? Quammen thinks so. In a podcast interview titled Shaking the Viral Tree, he explained:
My friend, Peter Daszak, who’s president of EcoHealth Alliance in New York, one of the important organizations working on this, he is a co-author on that paper in 2017. He may have gone to that cave, or some of his colleagues from the Wuhan Institute of Virology clearly went to that cave to research, to sample bats, to find out what was there.
Humanity, generally, is bound to be moving closer and closer to that cave. China’s population is not growing very quickly anymore but it’s huge and it’s consuming resources. Our population in the US is not growing quickly anymore but our consumption continues to grow. And the global population does continue to grow. So even a population of bats in a cave in Yunnan—it’s only a matter of time before we come knocking on their door, wanting what they have.
As the title of that podcast episode so aptly described it, our increasing numbers are “shaking the viral tree” and as a result toxic microbes like the SARS-COV-2 virus can metaphorically “fall down on us,” that is to say create the pandemic ravaging our world today. Our species is disrupting the balance we as a species maintained with our environment since the first appearance of humans on the planet. And as with climate change, this is happening despite the availability of scientific data confirming the destructive effects of our presence.
Although scientists and others raised red flags much earlier about damage being done to the environment, it could be argued that the world’s more widely accepted awareness of climate change began with the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1989. Pandemics have been occurring for centuries (see one timeline of pandemics here), but there has never been a global effort to address a need for an international approach to prevent or mitigate future outbreaks of the sort infecting the world’s population today. Scientific meetings like the biennial International Conference on Infectious Disease Dynamics have occurred, but the scientific data discussed at these conferences have not led to intergovernmental agreements like the environmental accords of the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Climate Agreement (2015).
Of course, these climate change accords are proving to be easily ignored, but we as a species must at least get our act together and do our best to avoid the worst of the possible scenarios. Scientific data must be taken seriously and realistic environmental and public health policies and legislation must be enacted. In order for this to happen, nothing less than a universal realization of humankind’s deep relationship with the earth and all its creatures needs to happen. However, our current governments, corporations, and the business and financial world in general have been unable to act as decisively as needed for restoring a balanced relationship between humankind and nature.
The pandemic has resulted in a dramatic halt to our normal human activities. The effect of this great pause can be seen in the decrease in pollution of the air surrounding our busiest regions and cities. Might this pause be an opportunity to reconsider our values and reenvision ourselves as members of an earth community? Visions of the way forth are available, for instance the Earth Charter of 2000:
We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.
Some are saying that the pandemic’s aftermath will indeed offer an opportunity to radically change many of our behaviors toward our environment. So writes Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian:
Ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe, an obscenity of inequality. It is too soon to know what will emerge from this emergency, but not too soon to start looking for chances to help decide it. It is, I believe, what many of us are preparing to do.
My hope and prayer: May we emerge from this terrible pandemic with a deeper consciousness of the interconnectedness of all life, and a universal commitment to preserve the beauty and vitality of of our dear planet earth.
 Weng Dog Li, et al. “Bats Are Natural Reservoirs of SARS-Like Coronaviruses.” Science 310, (Oct. 28, 2005): 676-678.  Ben Hu, et al. “Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-related coronaviruses provides new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus.” PLoS Pathog 13, no. 11 (2017): e1006698. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1006698
People around the globe, both Christians and non-Christians, recognize the historical figure of Jesus Christ as the teacher, healer, and preacher whose actions and words led to the formation of a world religion. Centuries of reading and praying over scripture have informed Christians’ understanding of their faith in Christ as the Son of God, but cultural and intellectual expressions of that understanding have changed over time. See, for example, the excellent survey by Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries, which explores how that understanding as found in images of Jesus varied through a succession of historical periods.
Despite the tendency of many religious folk to regard their beliefs as eternal, unchanging truths, any history of Christian doctrine will show that there has never been a single unified theology but rather a variety of schools of thought often at odds with each other. For example, the basic question “why did God become a human being” has received various theological explanations. What did Christ’s life, death, and resurrection accomplish? InCreation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril, Elizabeth Johnson argues that historically the most influential explanation was articulated by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 CE). In Cur Deus Homo(Why God Became a Human), he argued that Christ died on a cross in order to reconcile God and sinful humanity. The breach between human and divine realms was so deep and profound that only Christ’s crucifixion could erase it. Here is Johnson’s take on how dominant Anselm’s view, sometimes called the satisfaction theory of atonement, has been:
I sometimes think that Anselm may well be the most successful theologian of all time, for what other theory has dominated theology, preaching, and liturgical practice for almost a thousand years? Joseph Ratzinger, a critic of this treatise, comments on its influence in words that are beyond dispute: it “put a decisive stamp on the second millennium of western Christendom, which takes it for granted that Christ had to die on the cross in order to make good the infinite offence that had been committed and in this way to restore the order that had been violated.” (CC, Introduction)
But Anselm’s focus on the need for reconciliation between humankind and God invites the kind of criticism summarized in a previous post. According to Lynn White, the human species should not consider itself as exceptional but part of “a democracy of all God’s creatures.” Does a focus on the human in the Christ story mean that God is unconcerned about the rest of his creatures? Au contraire, according to Johnson. All you need to do is to read scripture, this time with contemporary environmental concerns in mind, to see a more expansive view of God’s purpose in Christ. Johnson invites her readers to consider a scripture-based theological approach more appropriate for our times.
I invite you to explore an alternative to Anselm’s influential theology. Drawn from a wide range of biblical sources, this alternative envisions the living God actively accompanying the world in its evolutionary and historical breakthroughs, its human sinfulness, and its universal suffering and death, with overflowing mercy that endures forever. Such a theology of accompaniment is but one way to understand redemption that will support planetary solidarity and work for ecojustice. (CC, Introduction).
While it’s beyond the scope of this blog post to survey the many excellent points made in Creation and the Cross, perhaps a few excerpts can suggest its value for spiritual reflection in a time of climate change.
Among the prophets Second Isaiah makes the most extensive use of God as Creator; citing one or another verse from this poetic scroll would hardly do justice to its interweaving of YHWH’s creating and redeeming work. The key motive is identifying Israel’s Redeemer with “the Creator of the ends of the earth” (40:28) in the effort to encourage trust. The Holy One of Israel who is coming to free them is the very same God who created the heavens and the earth and all that dwells therein. (CC, 2.5)
The link forged between the creating and redeeming activities of God opens the door to bringing the natural world into the text in an organic way. It amazes me how many creatures are mentioned: the rising sun; all forms of water such as roaring waves, rivers, streams, and fresh springs; mountains and hills; deserts, rocks, and fertile earth; fish and all kinds of wild animals; jackals and ostriches; and a gorgeous array of trees; cedar, acacia, myrtle, and olive, plane, and pine together. All are party to the glad tidings of salvation. (CC, 2.5)
Jesus’ whole ministry was centered on the coming of the reign of God. Given that this God is the Creator who loves the whole world, this means nothing less than the flourishing of all creation. Since the reign of God is especially attentive to the needy and the outcast, Jesus showed a partisanship for suffering people that we can today interpret as extending to encompass the earth and its myriads of distressed species and ecosystems. His ministry reveals a wideness in God’s mercy that includes all creation. (CC, 3.4)
It is enormously helpful to see the way early Christians connected resurrection with creation. The logic of the connection allows this impossible hope to make more sense. Paul forges this link in a quick line: God “gives life to the dead and brings into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17). There it is. Just like that, you can see that if the living God can create the world to begin with, then God can create anew in death. (CC, 3.9)
In the tangle of our lives, graced fragments of personal, social, and ecological flourishing give foretastes of this blessed life, the fullness of which is still to come. The liturgy of the Easter Vigil employs a wealth of symbols to point to this joyful truth: new fire struck from darkness, the paschal candle lit, the flame spreading throughout the community, an exulting song, ringing bells, green branches and flowers, water of baptism, oil of confirming, bread and wine of Eucharist. God raised Jesus from the dead, and the gift to this one historical person gives assurance of what lies ahead for all creation. (CC, 3.11)
God covenants with all creatures of flesh, as we saw in the Noah story with its covenant sign of the rainbow. Made of flesh, animals are vulnerable to pain and death, in need of God’s redeeming care. One psalm makes this explicit in startling language: “You save humans and animals alike, O YHWH” (Ps 36:6) (CC, 6.5)
Given that one of the sources of inspiration for this blog has been Teilhard de Chardin’s thought, it’s interesting to note that he found little in the Jesus narratives of the New Testament that was relevant to his thought and therefore didn’t pursue the kind of scripture-based scholarship modeled by Johnson. In his words,
. . . the face of the historical Jesus, embroiled in all the historical improbabilities and moral inadequacies of the Gospel, becomes less clear and distinct for me. My basic disposition? What is past and dead no longer interests me. (Quoted in CM, 125)
But I think Johnson’s “theology of accompaniment” is in some ways close kin to Teilhard’s mystical vision of Christ deeply present within an evolving world. Moreover, I consider Creation and the Cross to be a contribution to the New Story project that Thomas Berry called for in his seminal essay cited in an earlier blog post. It can be seen as part of a worldwide endeavor by religious scholars mining their traditions with renewed energy to uncover spiritual resources for dealing with the environmental crises facing us all. See, for example, Overview of World Religions and Ecology by two former students of Berry’s, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim of Yale University’s Forum on Religion and Ecology.
But scriptural scholarship and theology can only takes us so far. According to Johnson,
As with any theology, the path laid down here will prove its worth if the faith convictions it generate motivate individuals and communities to passionate, ethical, practical commitments to the natural world in tandem with all the earth’s poor and marginalized people. (CC, 6.7)
FYI: Elizabeth Johnson spoke on similar themes at Boston College earlier this year. A video recording of her talk is available.
The increasing numbers of species that have become extinct or threatened with extinction was the main message delivered by the recent report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Here are some of its findings specifically about birds:
–3.5% domesticated breed of birds extinct by 2016 –23% of threatened birds whose distributions may have been negatively impacted by climate change already
A 2009 report on the state of birds in the United States found that 251 (31 percent) of the 800 species in the country are of conservation concern . Globally, BirdLife International estimates that 12 percent of known 9,865 bird species are now considered threatened, with 192 species, or 2 percent, facing an “extremely high risk” of extinction in the wild — two more species than in 2008. Habitat loss and degradation have caused most of the bird declines, but the impacts of invasive species and capture by collectors play a big role, too.
The wood thrush (pictured above), a bird species with a declining population, has been celebrated for the beauty of its song, as for example in this observation by Henry David Thoreau:
As I come over the hill, I hear the wood-thrush singing his evening lay. This is the only bird whose note affects me like music, affects the flow and tenor of my thought, my fancy, and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me.
Henry David Thoreau, Journal 22, June 1853
Can we imagine a world with fewer and fewer birds singing and calling to each other (and to us)? There have been many efforts to alert the public about the mounting threats to a number of avian species. Some, like the following short video, do a beautiful job making the case for supporting action to forestall their decline.
I recently experienced a work of sound art at Mass. Audubon’s Boston Nature Center lamenting the loss of certain birdsongs. Created by musician and former software engineer Steve Norton, it consisted of audio recordings of ten birds and two frogs which became extinct during the past 100 years. The recordings were made available to Norton by The Macaulay Library of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and The Amphibian Foundation in Atlanta.
In 2016, Norton left his day job to pursue an MFA at the University of Maine. Having developed an interest in recording the sounds of his surroundings near his home in Medford, MA, with the equipment he had used to record his saxophone performances, he became more and more interested in recording the sounds of nature. He eventually created Requiem, the sound installation of twelve extinct species I heard at the Boston Nature Center. It’s currently available in SoundCloud. Because the twelve recordings, which have been programmed to play in a continuous loop, are of unequal length, the combinations of songs and calls will always be different. According to Norton:
It’s entirely unpredictable. . . . Sometimes it gets very dense and then also falls silent. . . .There have been occasions where people have said, ‘Is it over?’ It’s theoretically never over. It could run until the power goes out.
Norton’s purpose behind the piece is clear, stating that he hopes visitors will remember that “all of these species went extinct because of things that we [humans] did.” Source
But there was a bit of good news from the IPBES report:
–29%: average reduction in the extinction risk for mammals and birds in 109 countries thanks to conservation investments from 1996 to 2008; the extinction risk of birds, mammals and amphibians would have been at least 20% greater without conservation action in recent decade
I’m grateful that conservation efforts are making some difference. Birds provide a wonderful stream of calls and songs throughout my day. They show us that hey, it’s OK – sing your heart out if you want to, like Rumi: “I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.” And they can inspire us to hope despite a bleak outlook, as one bird did for Thomas Hardy.
The Darkling Thrush
I leant upon a coppice gate When Frost was spectre-grey, And Winter’s dregs made desolate The weakening eye of day. The tangled bine-stems scored the sky Like strings of broken lyres, And all mankind that haunted nigh Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
—————————————————————————– October 30, 2019 Update A recent report published in Science states that 29% of North America’s bird population has been lost in the past 48 years, a drop of nearly three million birds.
We love art because we enjoy the beauty of what artists create, but art can also be appreciated as a record of human cultural values and beliefs. An excellent example of this approach is Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum available through May 5th, which uses art to show the evolving attitudes of Americans of European heritage toward nature and how different they were from those of Native Americans. Rachel Allen, a member of the Nez Perce tribe and one of the exhibition’s Curatorial Fellows, writes:
When you explore this exhibition, I hope you think about your walks, your sphere. What are the artists communicating about our environment? How do these works challenge your ideas about nature? How do you influence the world around you? Can we do better?
In one of the exhibition’s first display cases, the museum goer can see a traditional Christian depiction of the universe.
This pictorial version of the universe as a Great Chain of Being was based on “a theory . . . which dominated cosmology from the Middle Ages to the dawn of modernity.”1 In this hierarchical order, spiritual and human realms exist above the creatures of air, sea and land. Below all is the underworld with Satan reigning over the damned. The greater the proximity of a being to the Creator and Ruler of the Universe, the greater its inherent goodness and value. This metaphysical distinction between human and natural worlds in Western thought has deeply influenced much of the Western religious and cultural imagination which sees the natural world as something that can be manipulated and controlled for humanity’s benefit.
In art, examples of early American painting on display in the exhibit include portraiture typical of the period where nature appears in the distance behind the portrait’s human subject as an ornamental background. But by the mid-19th century, painters of the Hudson River School like Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), inspired by the magnificent vistas they encountered, had introduced a more expansive and romanticized vision of the American landscape. Cole’s Home in the Woods (1847) shows an idealized image of family life available to those eager to move westward into new territories following the 19th-century Manifest Destiny doctrine justifying the nation’s expansion across the American continent.
Such idyllic scenes, while representing a deep feeling for the land the settlers may have had, were also leaving out quite a bit of the westward expansion story. Near the Cole painting are the following pair of artworks:
The painting on the left, Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt (about 1871-1873) is paired with a 2007 artwork, Fallen Bierstadt by Valerie Hegarty. According to the accompanying gallery text,
Paintings like this one [Bridal Veil Falls] legitimized U.S. land theft and violence against Indigenous people. Hegarty’s Fallen Bierstadt questions the way such traditional landscape painting idealizes nature as an untouched retreat or a tourist spectacle that ignores complex histories and fragile ecosystems.
But throughout the exhibit one encounters examples of a very different artistic imagination like this 19th century robe by a Tinglit artist.
According to an accompanying gallery text, the robe “embodies deeply help beliefs about humans and other beings in a shared environment, and asserts . . . values encompassing the natural world and the wider universe.” In Western art like the Cole painting above, the settlers established themselves and their farms within a pristine wilderness functioning like a theater stage for their activity. In the Tinglit robe, its design of a closely linked pattern of killer whales and human artifacts “vividly expresses Tinglit ideals of community and environmental reciprocity.”
The contemporary non-Native art selected for the exhibition doesn’t provide a new vision of a deeper relatedness between human and natural realms. Rather, it offers a sharp critique of our misuse of the environment like this piece:
The work captures the tragedy of seabirds who feed on the plastic material which forms the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. According to the artist, “Like the albatross, we first world humans find ourselves lacking the ability to discern anymore what is nourishing from what is toxic to our lives and to our spirits.” (From the accompanying gallery text.)
The painting below provides a Native American response to disruptions of their natural environment by non-Native activity:
According to the gallery text, Romero (Cochiti Pueblo, b. 1966) has painted a “declaration on the authority of the Pueblo world, achieved through intricate networks of relationships that keep the universe in balance through dance and ceremony.” In the Pueblo belief system, this balance is sustained by their spiritual practices despite being surrounded by a radically different culture. The two worlds of Pueblo ceremonial dancers and the F-15 Eagle fighter seem to be in completely different spatial zones with nothing to bridge the distance between them.
The exhibition’s final section is devoted to an installation marking a particular action which occurred during the 2016 protests on the Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota. The protests were against the construction of an oil pipeline across water and land sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The face-off between the Water Protectors (Native Americans and their supporters) and the police led the artist Cannupa Hanska Luger (b. 1979, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Austrian, and Norwegian) to create the following installation of video and photos of the Mirror Shield Project.
According to Luger, the project was inspired by protesters in the Ukraine in 2014 who used mirrors to show the police what they looked like in their full riot gear. It was an appeal to their humanity that had been swallowed by all their armor. Luger adapted the Ukrainian’s approach:
I liked the idea of bringing these mirrored shields to the front line to create a barrier that actually unites rather than separates and remind the riot police that we’re trying to protect water for them and their children as well. So this was a way conceptually to put them on our front line as well and reflect that conversation back.
In the installation area, visitors can view a drone video of protesters holding the mirror shields while walking in a procession which eventually coils into a circle they called a Water Serpent. The purpose of the video was to record the mirror holders practicing making the Water Serpent for the times when police airplanes and helicopters made their daily fly-over. (The video is available for streaming,)
In the weeks since viewing Nature’s Nation, I’ve been thinking about what this exhibition is saying to us, the Americans of European heritage. Given the evidence of climate change and global warming, the exhibition’s claim that we have distanced ourselves from our natural environment is on target. Of course that’s not the case for everyone, but so much of our collective life is governed by decisions made by corporations and industries with negative environmental consequences. If the dominant position of our leaders is that the economy and its metrics like GDP and stock market indices are what determine our society’s well being, then an important factor has been left out of the equation. “The economy and the environment are both two sides of the coin. If we cannot sustain the environment, we cannot sustain ourselves,” said Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.
Our notions of what makes our society healthy and vital must be radically revised. Perhaps indigenous mythologies and cosmologies can inspire us to rethink the ones we have inherited. Thomas Berry has argued that we are require a New Story (see related post). It’s clear from this exhibition of more than 100 pieces art on view in Nation’s Nature that we need new visions of how we are an integral part of the natural world we inhabit.
_________________________________________ 1 Maxim Khomiakov. “Hierarchy and Order.” New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, edited by Maryanne Cline Horowitz, vol. 3, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005, p. 990.
Forms of greeting vary around the world. In India, you would say “namaste” and bow. In Ukraine, it’s the triple kiss, left-right-left, etc. Masai warriors in Kenya, even those without children, greet each other with “Kasserian ingera” which translates as “And how are the children?” The usual reply is “All the children are well,” in other words all are safe and peace prevails in my village.
Could we say our children are well? Our initial reaction might be that on the whole, the kids are safe, especially if we compare our situation to countries like Syria, South Sudan, or Yemen where “children are being targeted and exposed to attacks and brutal violence in their homes, schools and playgrounds” (UNICEF press release). But if we reflect on the question more deeply, can we say unequivocally that our kids are doing well?
Studies show that many of our children feel anxious and depressed, although the reasons may not necessarily be related to physical violence. Causes might be parents’ stress and unmet medical needs, but social media and classroom pressures have also been identified as serious sources of anxiety. And unfortunately there are children who live in violent neighborhoods where death is a frequent reality in their daily lives.
Can a larger issue like the worldwide concern about environment degradation be a source of anxiety for children? There’s no lack of opportunity for them to pick up on the tension pervading public conversation about the topic. If they don’t hear about it at home, they will from the media. The news has been filled with headline-making reports like the one published last August by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that said crucial policies to reduce global warming must be in place by 2030 to avoid the worst. An intelligent 16 year old can easily understand that at 28, she very well may be facing a global catastrophe.
When I try to imagine what some children might be feeling, I remember having a scary dream as a child about an atomic bomb explosion. It was a time when the possibility of a global catastrophe in the form of a nuclear war hung heavy in the air. At school, teachers periodically would call out “take cover” and we would have to hide under our desks. Novels and films like Fail Safe and On the Beach succeeded in rousing our dread about a worldwide devastation. Might climate change be having a similar effect on children today?
According to one study, based on interviews with fifty children ages 10 to 12:
Findings revealed 82% of children expressed fear, sadness, and anger when discussing their feelings about environmental problems. A majority of children also shared apocalyptic and pessimistic feelings about the future state of the planet. These results suggest that many children are “ecophobic” (i.e., fearful of environmental problems), which scholars argue may have serious implications for children’s participation in environmental stewardship and conservation efforts more broadly.
Other research studies corroborate these findings, for example this one.
For those of us who might be concerned that the younger generation is disengaged because they feel there’s little they can do, it’s heartening to see that some are taking action. Students around the world have begun skipping school on Fridays as an act of protest. A 16 year old, Greta Thunberg, has become a remarkable spokesperson for her generation, as this TED talk shows. After gaining her nation’s attention by starting the first school strike in Sweden last August, she was invited to address the United Nations Climate Change Conference and later to give a talk to the World Economic Forum at Davos. In Oregon, protest has taken the form of a series of legal suits against the Trump administration. A legal team led by Julia Olson has argued on behalf of 21 young people ages 11 to 22, saying ”We will keep shining light on our fundamental constitutional rights [to life, liberty and property ] until we obtain justice for our children and put an end to U.S.-sanctioned climate change” (source).
If some children are increasingly fearful of the natural world because of global warming’s effects on the environment, we (their elders who have contributed much to the problem) owe it to them and their future to make sure their relationship with the earth is positive and full of love for its wonders. A leader of RiverLink, an organization promoting the environmental vitality of a particular river area in North Carolina “as a place to work, live, and play,” writes:
We are so lucky to live in a place with such beautiful natural resources. It makes sense that we want to do everything we can to protect places like this, and that often includes sharing the environmental burden with our children. However, if we want our kids to thoughtfully and genuinely engage in conservation we absolutely have to give them the space to develop an appreciation for nature first. After that, it’s up to them whether or not they deem it to be something worth fighting for. (Source)
In the same vein, Thomas Berry wrote:
A truly human intimacy with earth and with the entire natural world is needed. Our children should be properly introduced to the world in which they live, to the birds and the insects and the various animals that roam over the land, to the entire range of natural phenomena. . . . (TB, 34)
Tomorrow, March 15, 2019, students around the world will engage in a Climate Strike. May we listen closely to their demands, share with them our love of our beloved planet earth, and pledge to work with them to transform the ways in which we live in relation to the natural world.
Soon after her death on January 17th of this year, the loving eulogies and appreciations began appearing in the media universe. Whatever critics might think about the plainness of her style (which she consciously aimed for), many readers of Mary Oliver’s works grew to “own” her poems. In her interview with Krista Tippett, Oliver compared poetry to prose: “People are more apt to remember a poem and therefore feel they own it and can speak it to themselves as you might a prayer.” At another point during that interview, Oliver showed how writing a particular poem (one of her more famous) was an exercise in the craft of poetry:
MS. TIPPETT: “Wild Geese” is in Dream Work, and I’ve heard people talk about that, “Wild Geese,” as a poem that has saved lives. And I wonder if when you write something like that — I mean, when you wrote that poem or when you published this book, would you have known that that was the poem that would speak so deeply to people? MS. OLIVER: This is the magic of it. That poem was written as an exercise in end-stopped lines. MS. TIPPETT: As an exercise in what? MS. OLIVER: End-stopped lines. Period at the end of the line. I was working with a poet. I had her in a class. MS. TIPPETT: So it was an exercise in technique. [laughs]
Oliver, who lived and wrote for five decades in Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, was often aptly described as a nature poet because of the many wonderfully detailed natural images that appear in her poems like the following lines from “The Summer Day:”
Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
Close observation of and listening to the natural world was her preferred way of life.
The Old Poets of China
Wherever I am, the world comes after me. It offers me its busyness. It does not believe that I do not want it. Now I understand why the old poets of China went so far and high into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.
Wandering the Provincetown landscape was Oliver’s version of slipping into the mountain mist.
It’s interesting to note that Oliver’s poems are deeply appreciated by believers across religious traditions. Here are Christian,Buddhist, and Jewish examples. But she is also beloved by people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious (see for example the eighth commandment on this page). Given that her poetic vision is rooted in her love of the natural world, her poems are being read like a prayer book of an earth-centered spirituality.
United Church of Christ minister and seminary professor Thomas W. Mann believes that Oliver’s poetry is to be read as “the Other Book of God,” the Book of Nature that a number of Christian spiritual teachers since the early church have regarded as a second scripture alongside the Bible. Mann quotes St. Anthony the Great (251-356 bce): “My book is the nature of created things, and as often as I have a mind to read the words of God, they are at my hand” (GD, xiii). And for Mann, her poetry is an essential resource for our times:
Before any attempt to address the problems of environmental degradation, however, we must undergo a change of consciousness. We must come to a new sense of the sacredness of the earth under our feet and the sky over our heads. We must come to the humble awareness that we humans are only one part of “the family of things.” We must experience a new vision of the beauty of the world. That is why we so desperately need the artists among us.
“I am a performing artist,” Oliver says. “I perform admiration. / Come with me, I want my poems to say. And do the same.” That is exactly what we intend to do. (GD, xv)
Tippett’s 2015 interview with Mary Oliver is available as a podcast and transcript. I highly recommend it. May you come to “own” some of her poems if you haven’t already.
Note: The post’s title was inspired by Mary Oliver’s statement in one of her essays: “I walk in the world to love it” (LL, 40).