Archives for category: Creation

In homage to Smokey Bear’s 73rd birthday, a reflection on water.

You have been deputized, by any and all environmental groups, to do something about resource consumption. Yes, you, the individual. Because, we are told, one multiplied by thousands and even millions becomes many. This kind of multiplication of ‘one’ is seen all around the internet. For example, Woodchuck uses the tagline, “buy one, plant one” meaning that if you buy one of their products, they’ll plant a tree. The Nature Conservancy (among others) provides a carbon footprint calculator so you can know how your household rates. And, perhaps the most ubiquitous expression is in the petition. Sign up to receive news from the Sierra Club and you are guaranteed a petition a week which, with just one more signature added to many others, is destined to communicate something important. The one flows into the many to create a swell of influence and change.

Or so we believe.

Smokey, straight talking for 73 years.

But the one and the many are simply not enough. By the time an individual receives the information needed to persuade him or her, damage is already done. As I type, the Cascade region has been enshrouded in smoke from B.C. wildfires for a full week. The particulates in the air are still dangerous to breathe beyond minimal exposure. And, while the daytime highs are coming down, we are on day 12 of 80+ degrees, day 52 with no rain. No rain, in Seattle.

Wildfires are a normal part of the season. What is disconcerting is that they start earlier in the season, last longer, and hit some unusual places. For example, in 2015 the Hoh Rainforest caught fire, in June. Those two words–rainforest and fire–are not supposed to be used in the same sentence, except once every 500 or so years. For the Pacific Northwest region, the new normal of climate change comes in a haze of smoke with less and less water to temper the flames.

You have heard it said, “Conserve water by taking shorter showers,” but that isn’t enough. In fact, according to an Orion article by Derrick Jensen, it doesn’t even really address the situation. Contrary to consumer culture belief, it is not all about you because the vast majority of our water is redirected before it hits the tap. You do not have access to 90% of the water currently consumed. It goes predominantly to agriculture and to manufacturing. Sure, the juicy tomatoes and cucumbers are a manifestation of some of that water, as is the wheat that went into the hamburger buns–and don’t forget all the water needed to raise cattle for hamburger meat. Thinking of going vegetarian? While it might eventually reduce some agricultural water consumption, your one change is but a drop of dew.

But I want to make a difference–or feel something other than helplessness. And Grist.org would love for us all to believe we can use the power of individual choice to make a difference. They have the infographic to prove it. Yet in this instance, the ‘proven’ change culminates with “Have one fewer child”. How many families would consider whether or not to have a child in the same way they think about, say, car ownership? Even the editors hinted that might not be a compelling message by highlighting the “real takeaway” that personal choice matters, and every action counts.

What we are up against requires a tectonic shift in the rhetoric. The accumulation of personal choices will begin to make a difference when they are an expression of many voicing their dissent against the primary users of water: industrialized agriculture and major manufacturers. But this is a radical message for consumer culture because we are supposed to power progress and good change through buying more, or at least buying into the myth that the best thing we can do is simply take care of ourselves.

 

Listen to the opening paragraph of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si:

“Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

Mother Earth, our common home, is the conduit of God’s care and sustenance for humanity. But we have split her open for rare minerals and to mine her veins.

He continues, “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.” We are plunderers, and we violate the very soil that nurtures us. This is not a new message. It is a confession of sin much like that recited with each communion. The underlying question is, does ‘we’ mean ‘me’? Read in the consumer culture of North America, we only pertains to me–it is not connected to brands, labels, box stores, and corporate entities. Forgive me, Lord, for I have sinned, is the more common confession of sin. In film, in newspapers and on Sunday mornings, we are so consumed with the sins of every-one, that we do not look upstream to see those redirecting the pipes at their source.

You have heard it said, ‘Take shorter showers, and turn out the lights’; but I say to you, follow the waters from tap to source, and find out who it is that drinks deep from our sister’s aquifers, draining her sides with unfathomable speed.

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Today was my day to present in our seminar on Augustine’s Confessions; somewhat nerve-wracking, since everyone else had already taken their turn. Presentations this late in the semester are always problematic. On the one hand, you’ve had all this time to work on the material. On the other hand, you’ve had all this time filled with myriad other assignments and responsibilities. It isn’t like I would have been able to do this earlier, though, seeing as I presented on Book XI, Augustine’s musings and theorizations on time and eternity. Fitting.

I chose the topic of time because, as a procrastinator, it is not my friend. In recent years I have become more wary (and weary) of passing days, weeks, months. Studying time is a little like engaging in the art of war with a much larger and dispassionate foe. I know I won’t win, but I sure as hell won’t go down without fighting.

What I found refreshing in studying time with Augustine is that he asks me to get out of my own contemporaneity. It is impossible to understand him through the digital clock. Instead, I have to put the phone down, close the computer, and simply watch the sun pass overhead, the shadows change on the building, note the difference in air temperature as the day progresses. For him, too, music becomes a teacher of time and measuring time.

Long before treble clefs and 4/4 time signatures, Augustine reflected on measuring time by recounting hymns and songs of the church. Here he had Ambrose’s liturgical renovations in mind with imported tunes and chanted psalms. By inhabiting the song to God, Creator of all things (Deus Creator omnium), Augustine notes, we can know that one syllable is shorter than the next, we can perceive that this phrase is half the length of the one that follows. In this way, we measure time. The breath in our lungs as it pours over the larynx and resonates through the cords is running in time.

Our class discussion picked up on the challenges of defining time over and against its effects. Time is not defined through its measurements because it exists ever only in the present outside of measurement. Once a song slips through our teeth, it becomes past. We can repeat the verse, the line, the song–but to repeat is not to delete and redo.

This got us thinking about the periodization of time. Scores of music are broken into bars of time. Syllables denote length and frequency, forming patterns and periods. Waves of sound have cycles. None of this is purely linear, even when we graph along a straight line. Of course, this prompted our professor (also my advisor) to recount the experience of pregnancy and labor, when pain comes in waves.

I wish that I had thought then of infertility’s counterpart, where pain comes in monthly tides as, yet again, the blood flows. But I am in the habit of letting references to pregnancy wash past me.

The experience of time changes with waiting and non-expectancy.

I learned yesterday (Thursday) that this is National Infertility Awareness Week. I had seen penguins for World Penguin Day, and (daily, multiple) invitations to protest at the People’s Climate March, but infertility is one of those things that is simply difficult, if not impossible, to celebrate. I myself feel conflicted about speaking up. What are we inviting people into with Infertility Awareness? What would come if I were to say in class, ‘Well, actually, I will never know what it’s like to be pregnant. And I am in this class at this time because I could not get pregnant.’ Personally, I am not interested in pity. However, I recognize that the experience of barrenness, the fact that I cannot conform to normalized womanly identity, does in fact drive certain lines of theological inquiry for me. But, how do I insert such snippets into conversation so that others might understand, when I myself am still wandering in the wilderness of non-expectancy?

There was a time when I cried, How long, O Lord? That time is gone.

Near the end of Book XI, Augustine states, “without the creation no time can exist.” I know that time and creation are interlocking concepts, yet my bodily response is ‘yes, but, How?’ Apart from any signs of life within my organs, my follicles are sputtering toward death. So, what is the creation that will bring music to my soul, and help me measure the seasons with joy? For now I must lean on my old friend, Augustine, and pray with him:

You are unchangeably eternal, that is the truly eternal Creator of minds. Just as you knew heaven and earth in the beginning without that bringing any variation into your knowing, so you made heaven and earth in the beginning without that meaning a tension between past and future in your activity. Let the person who understands this make confession to you. Let the person who fails to understand it make confession to you. How exalted you are, and the humble in heart are your house. You lift up those who are cast down, and those whom you raise to that summit which is yourself do not fall. (Confessions, 11.31.41)

 

I often forget there’s a lake. People reference it, and I see it every time I pull up Google maps. But to see it requires walking, all the way over there, across campus, beyond the tall shady trees. It isn’t like where I come from.

Where I come from, instead of saying that the clouds have lifted we say “the mountains are out,” as if they had been playing coy behind a mottled grey curtain, then decided to bless us with their majesty. When the mountains are out, all one has to do is look up to see them. Certain street corners are better than others, but it doesn’t take long before even a half-caffeinated gaze wakes up to the nature just there, peeking between the buildings: snowy peaks, rolling foothills, the salty water lapping at the piers below. You’re never out of earshot of a wailing gull, nor off their radar for lunch scraps. To be confronted by nature in my city is simply to look up.

Living in the Puget Sound region forms a kind of contemplative practice of perpetually seeing nature. You learn to look for the bald eagle sitting atop the highway light that overlooks the estuary. Or watch the waves for the round bump of a harbor seal’s head. Every season yields its own icons. As a kid, I remember thinking what a hot summer it’s been when the Olympic mountains lost their snowy shawl by August. We could count on one week of glorious sunshine and buttercups in May, before a late spring chilling rain set back in until the 5th of July. Backyards and roadsides processed like clergy with their entourage—February pussy willows, March scotchbroom, April daffodils, May azaleas.

In June the salmon start the inland return to spawn, then die. First the Chinook and Sockeye in June and July, then Coho and Chum in August and September. They are the blood of the region, the pulse of the rivers. The waterways and arteries swell with hoards of silver and ruddy scaled creatures following some mysterious internal compass that directs them back to the very stream from which they hatched. This year a total of 58,585 Sockeye salmon navigated the fish ladder at Ballard Locks in Seattle. In the last decade, according to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, the numbers have ranged from 418,016 (2006), to 21,718 (2009).

Where the salmon run, there is life. When they are well, we are well. When they are in danger, we know it’s probably our fault. We move dams for them, provide ladders for them to jump. They feed our souls and our communities, blessing our tables and streams.

~~~

I moved from my city of Seattle to Chicago in 2015 for graduate school. While, technically, I remained within the same country, the landscapes and vegetative visual culture are utterly and completely different. There is no backdrop, but only foreground. Culture shock is defined as “a feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in a place that is very different from what you are used to.” In this new land of Chicago tree names escape me, the birds and creatures scampering over the branches whistle question marks at me. Walking through the park sets me in a dizzying state of nature shock.

But the worst is when I go to the lakefront. I’ve heard folks use the term “third coast” for Chicago’s waterfront areas and beaches. That’s cute. Where are the kelp beds, the endless tangles of seaweed? Where are the jelly fish, the barnacles clinging to rocks and muscles exposed on the pier at low tide? Do sea lions bark out of boredom on a ship lane buoy in Lake Michigan? Perhaps my sea otter friends at the Shedd Aquarium can speak words of comfort.

I know, biologically and theologically, that where there is water there is life. Yet it still shocked me one day to look down at the lake shore sand and see small, perfectly tear drop shaped shells. Suddenly I felt gripped to know more—what do people call these little darlings? Are they native to the waters or hitchhikers? Whose mouths do they feed? Shells mean mussels, and mussels are mother nature’s wondrous filtration system, and filtration draws in creatures great and small to breathe deep.

Lake Michigan at Grosse Point

Lake Michigan at Grosse Point

Looking up and out across the water, the clouds jostling one another atop the lake, I see a hint of the Olympics amid their cotton peaks.

 

This essay was originally written for the Zygon Center Fall Seminar in Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology Chicago.