[I preached this four years ago and it seems so inadequate to the enormity of the subject that I am embarrassed. What do we say? This coming Sunday, I will be using Bill McKibbon’s “Eaarth” as my inspiration, and reflecting on an article in this month’s Christian Century called “Missing Winter: Notes From the Farm” by Terra Brockman. Wendell Berry’s “In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a Changed World” is also a source. – PB]
“Stay Together, Learn the Flowers, Go Light”
An Earth Day Sermon, 2008
Rev. Victoria Weinstein
“We affirm the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.” – the 7th Unitarian Universalist Principle
I think of those times I am on an airplane looking down over a city, flying in over water or farm fields, or mountains or rural emptiness. Before we see the busy patterns of lights that characterize any city from the sky, there is first the darkness of the empty landscape – a deceptive darkness that seems to indicate nothing is going on in that place. Which is untrue, of course. Wherever there is land or sea, there is busy, messy life happening, perhaps invisible to the human eye from a distance (or even up close), but nevertheless intricate, immense and important.
And it is all part of the interdependent web: not just the evocative electronic beckon of the city where I will be landing, and getting into a cab or onto a bus or subway to find my hotel and food and rest and relationship with other humans, but the silent work of the earthworms, or the coral reefs, or the fungi, protozoa and algae.
I was sitting this past summer on the coast of Oregon looking at the gray, serene ocean at low tide. Gulls and terns were at their business on the shore, and I had walked in tidal pools full of mollusks and waving seaweeds, crouching down to see tiny crustaceans scrambling around on tiny legs feeding and running errands of their kind. But now, late afternoon, all was still.
I must have been so peaceful I was almost asleep, sitting cross-legged on the packed sand. I had given up searching the horizon for whales and dolphins and was staring at the water close by the shore. I heard a strong exhalation, a kind of snort, and blinked. Right in front of me – in fact, almost directly where I had been focusing my sight– was a seal, whose wet, puppy-dog eyes were looking right into mine. His sleek head had blended in so well with the dark water, I hadn’t even noticed him. He was such a sweet revelation of all the life going on around the human story that we so easily miss – creatures whose lives are bound with ours in a common planetary destiny, who need humans to pay attention and to take more responsibility for our impact on the Earth.
On a boat ride near the Everglades this past January, again, the dark waters opened up and dolphins jumped out, playing and diving in the wake of our boat, causing all the human riders pure joy and unadulterated reverence. I call this a theophany, literally translated as “appearance of God,” a divine revelation. All that life, that intelligence, revealing itself to us when all we saw seconds earlier was placid blue.
I walk my dog in a backyard that seems very much the same in the evening as it did that morning, but his nose, superior by far to mine, knows otherwise. Where I see nothing happening in our tiny corner of creation, he smells universes of activity, change, growth, and decay. From his perspective out there, humans are not front page news. Earth was given as a garden for him, too, and for the dolphins and the seals, and also for the enormous crocodiles I also saw sunning themselves in the Everglades, and the waterbug the size of my hand who sucks the life out of frogs in a pond. Earth was given as a garden for the praying mantis and the cockroach, and the tarantula, and even the stingray whose barb knocked into Steve Irwin and killed him. Mother Nature commands our reverence, but she’s not always cute and fuzzy. We will have gained a great deal of wisdom, I think, when we expand our consciousness of stewardship of the Earth to those aspects of it that are not pleasing to the eye or the ear, that are not meant for human comfort, speed or convenience, and whose purpose we have yet to determine in the grand scheme of things. There is good evidence that creation is its own grand scheme.
The Seventh Principle is often interpreted to be specifically and exclusively about environmentalism. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se: after all, we are living in a time of urgent awareness of climate change and other ecological crises. I think the challenge in thinking about the 7th Principle for me comes down to the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness, my cause vs. your cause, this people’s particular way of depleting the Earth vs. that people’s way of doing so. All sentient beings are connected through this magnificent web, not just the ones I personally like. Can I, an American who consumes so much fossil fuel, judge and condemn the desperate African man who illegally hunts gorillas and slaughters them for bush meat? Can I, the woman whose toxic hair dye goes down the drain at the hair salon every 8 or 9 weeks and who undoubtedly wears clothing manufactured in sweat shops, afford to consider myself morally superior to the men and women cutting their way through the rain forest because it’s the only job they can get?
This is a magnificent web we are part of, but it also a terribly tangled web of economies, cultures, competing ideologies, and government systems of varying degrees of stability. I wonder: Will environmental awareness be a trend of our times, and will it prove too hard and require too much sacrifice to really change our ways to last? Will we, community by community, nation by nation, be willing to honestly evaluate our destructive impact on the delicate balance and diversity of creation, find alternative methods for environmentally unsound practices, and do what it takes to make them habit and even enforceable policy? Even to the point of personal and communal sacrifice?
Who goes first? And if I’m not doing enough, which prophet should I heed who will tell me how much more I must do?
I am very aware of mixed feelings of panic, anger, guilt and self-righteousness in my own efforts to be use resources more mindfully. There is so much information to take in, such a wide world of connection to consider. I think, I will do the little bit that I can do.
I have told you of my efforts to eat food that is locally grown, which is how I became acquainted with Holly Hill Farm in Cohasset; by going regularly to the farmer’s market there. I find the effort to avoid buying food that has traveled thousands of miles to get to my local store extremely difficult. Sometimes I even forget to make the effort.
I recycle pretty faithfully and get angry when I realize that it’s not enough to recycle the cardboard box the facial moisturizer comes in if the empty plastic tube is eventually going into the landfill. I admit to over-using dish soap so my pots and pans aren’t greasy when I put them away, but have at least learned to turn off the water while I scrub. Not enough. But something.
I almost always carry my own cloth bags to the grocery, and I refuse bags of any kind when a purchase will fit in my purse. I read the newspaper online so as to avoid buying and recycling the newspaper. I call 800 numbers and get off catalog lists, but they just seem to come faster and faster.
I am a bit of a tyrant about bathroom water usage, remembering not only our drought summers on the South Shore, but holding in my memory a long line of Guatemalan women walking down a steep path to Lake Atitlan with clay jugs on their heads, and back up again with the heavy jugs balanced – their water for the day. My dog’s doody bags are bio-degradable but for all I know, his collar and leash were manufactured in a sweatshop somewhere. How much awareness is enough? Wouldn’t we like to raise our hands and say, “May I please be excused?”
This is the good news and the bad news: our religious commitment to respecting that we are all interconnected in a web of existence requires that we do think about what we use, how much energy we consume, our accountability not only to our neighbors and families but to all creation – even the dull, the mean, the oppressors of the animal and the human kingdom. There is a vigilance required of us on many levels that can seem exhausting when we first consider them, but for which we are, I believe, totally suited by virtue of our conscience and our intellect. Vigilance and attention to what we use and re-use. Attention and vigilance to how our combined consumption affects the Earth, but refraining from self-righteous of the other guy who isn’t doing enough. Persuading by example, not by harangue. Attention to government policy, attention and vigilance to how our needs and desires as consumers influence local economies elsewhere in the world. Refraining from condemnation until we have made the requisite effort to understand the full picture of someone else’s struggles to survive.
This is not to say that guilt, shame and anxiety are the motivators or the way we maintain this vigilance. Rather, let us be motivated by the spirit of reverence, what the Jewish tradition calls “tikkun olam,” the restoration of the world as it is. Reverence must be the starting point for all our meditations on the interdependent web of existence, for it is only if we are led by reverence that we can go forth in love.
In the work of vigilance and stewardship of creation, let us heed the poets as well as the prophets, and especially this poet today, who advised:
The rising hills, the slopes,
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
In the next century
or the one beyond that,
are valleys, pastures,
if we make it.
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers
— Gary Snyder, ”For the Children”, from Turtle Island