In so many ways, these days, I recognize that I am an environmentalist. Actually, a theo-environmentalist might be a better way to describe who I am and who I am becoming more of in this time in my life—a theologian/environmentalist, deeply concerned about care of creation and about helping others to pay attention to the myriad of ways that God can be recognized and known through the forests and the land, through the water and the creatures, through sky and cosmos, humanity and beyond. Creation is a gift that God presents to our planet and its inhabitants over and over again, with each sunrise and each moonrise and all space and time in between. While I am not a trained scientist, I am a trained theologian and over the last five years or so I have claimed the title of environmentalist as well because I am, as Dictionary.com indicates, “a person who is concerned with or advocates the protection of the environment.”
It is not surprising to me that September has become my favorite month for preaching and writing, because it is in this month that people all over the world observe something called Season of Creation. Originally coming out of the church in Australia, it was then adapted for use in churches all over the world, but the reality is that an observance of God’s creation, the mission for humanity to care for and live in gratitude for it, goes back to the very beginning of God’s creating, when God called everything good. The mandate to observe creation and to rejoice in creation is prominent in the psalms, calling especially on humans to rejoice in God’s creation and with God for creation.
This past Sunday was the first observance of Season of Creation, for 2020, when our focus was on forests and it seemed appropriate to begin with my favorite poem by one of my favorite poets—Wendel Berry, a Kentucky farmer and environmentalist, who taught English in his early life at the Bronx campus of New York University and then at the University of Kentucky. Berry’s poems reflect his love of nature and his commitment to respond to God’s call to care for it and inspire me with the images of nature that are woven with his words. This poem is from a collection called Sabbath Poems and in it, he writes about making peace with fears, the trees providing that sacred place for reconciliation.
I Go Among Trees
by Wendell Berry
I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.
Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.
Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.
After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.
I am very fortunate, currently living in West Virginia, because we have forests all around us. Sometimes those forests are closer than I even realize, such as the one that I discovered this past Friday, the Johnson T. Janes park near my home in Parkersburg. There is a chunk of woods that is directly behind the parsonage, where I live, and every morning, I go out first thing after awakening to say good morning to the squirrels and the birds, to the deer, and sometimes to a flock of wild turkeys that have numbered over 20 at one sighting. Every morning I say good morning to God, by gazing upon the beauty of the woods, by listening to the sounds of the woods, and by touching the leaves on my favorite honey locust tree, whose branches spread over the deck, just enough for my fingers to brush the edges of the leaves.
Forests are so much a part of the landscape of our beloved home that it is difficult to imagine life without them and yet, so many times we take them for granted, without considering how much they offer to us and how much we can offer to them or how much we need each other.
Earlier this summer I was in a zoom meeting with author and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of one of the most influential books for me in the last decade—Braiding Sweetgrass. She made a statement, in that meeting, that I have been thinking about since. She said that the average person who lives in the United States of America can name dozens, maybe even hundreds of companies and businesses just by looking at the shape of their logos, but most of us can name only about 10 trees. That startled me. So, I have gotten to work, learning to identify trees and learning about trees.
Did you know that trees are connected to each other, that trees growing in the same grove are connected underground by their root systems? When those underground root systems have been studied, it appears that exchanging nutrients and helping each other out in times of need and distress is the rule for the forests.
Or, did you know that trees talk to each other? We use language to talk to each other, but trees have a different way of communicating– they use scent. According to German forester and author, Peter Wohlleben, in his beautiful book, The Hidden Life of Trees: The Illustrated Edition, we have all been spoken to by trees by their scent language. We have received feel-good messages that reach us by the pleasantly perfumed language of trees. Fruit trees, nut trees, willow, evergreens, all get our attention through their scents. The scent language of trees can also reveal when they do not like something by releasing fowl smelling toxic substances through their leaves, a statement that says: “leave me alone!” The smell also speaks to other trees in the area telling them to beware and be prepared.
The scent language can send out distress signals and call for help, but trees also have other ways of communicating. Chemical signals are sent through root and fungal networks. Nutrients and water can be shared among the trees of the forests through their communication systems. There are many other examples of how trees communicate in ways that the whole of the forest, plants and creatures alike, are able to thrive. I am fascinated by the notion of trees speaking a language that I cannot really understand and thus providing ways to help the life of the forest thrive!
Forests are essential to our lives. God, the Creator made certain of that. Forests are essential to our physical health and to the health of our spirits as well. Forests contribute to our well-being in so many ways. Timber remains a principle material for construction worldwide. I couldn’t get through a single day without the use of paper—even in this electronic age. It is important for communication, education, and information as well as a cheery pick-me-up card that I often send to let someone know that they are important and cherished. For nearly 3 billion people in the developing world, wood provides the main energy source for heating and cooking.
Forests provide crucial ecosystem support, providing homes for nearly half of the world’s known plants and animals. Forests enrich the soils, sustain water quality and by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen, they give us healthy air to breathe. Forests also contribute to our spiritual health. We are created from the same stuff, the same hubris, the same minerals and more importantly by the same Creator. We are inter-connected by the air we breathe and by so much more.
In the third chapter of Genesis, there is the second of two creation stories found in this first book of the Bible. Here, the storyteller reminds us that there are trees for food and well-being and trees that are beautiful in appearance, suggesting that trees have impact on our emotional or spiritual well-being as well.
In the past few months, as I have asked people to tell me where they have seen or felt God in the midst of these pandemic days, more often than not, the answer describes nature around us—the trees, the sky, the colors, the flowers, the birds, the forest animals, the water.
By God’s design, nature supports us physically and draws us to God’s love and hope by the beauty we find there. An afternoon, hiking in one of our many WV forests, by myself, with my camera or without, can lift my spirits and call me to prayer without fail.
In this second Creation story, adam, which in the Hebrew means human, is created first, from the topsoil, from the arable land. And then, God planted a garden, specifically filled with trees.
We find in the midst of this story, God giving humans our first mission. Before any other commandment, God calls us to care for the world’s plants: God put the first human in the garden “to farm it and care for it.” So, the most fundamental work that we have been given is to care for creation. The Hebrew used here, avad, is even more precise in what God is expecting of us. Avad, literally means “serve,” and it is a word commonly used to describe the service of servants to their masters or rulers. It is a word commonly used to describe how we are to serve God. So, from the understanding of this word, humanity is to act as one who takes care of creation—to see to its health and well-being, to make sure that this gift from God thrives.
In this creation story, humanity is to care for creation, specifically trees, because they are important for our well-being—building materials, paper, fuel—but this is not the only reason. Trees have a majesty and integrity about them—they are beautiful and point us to God, reminding us that we are loved and cherished, and drawing us to prayer. It is important to note that our Bible—a book of faith—opens with trees in the garden and closes with trees that grow along the banks of the God’s river that flows through the city of God and the leaves of these trees are for the healing of the nations.
Care of creation is a controversial topic these days as are so many issues. We remember the devastating forest fires in Australia last year and recently, we have witnessed devastating fires in California. As I write, this afternoon, I am also thinking of the fires burning out of control on the west coast of our country. Nearly 100 fires are blazing, fueled by heat waves and windy conditions. Seven people have died as of this afternoon, thousands of people have been displaced and whole towns have been burned and destroyed. Where I am sitting on this beautiful September afternoon, where I am watching squirrels scamper through the trees and blue jays squawk at them for disrespecting their privacy, where I have waited patiently to see a hummingbird come to the feeder, for just a moment, it is difficult to imagine the destruction of the fires and disruption of life they are leaving in their wake. But imagine, I must! We all must.
According to BBC, reporting worldwide, today, on the wildfires currently burning: “There has been a rise in the number of extreme weather events, which experts say is part of a trend caused by bigger climate changes. While climate change itself is not the cause of the blazes, it helps set the conditions for massive wildfires.” In other words, while fires begin by carelessness or lightning strikes or deliberate acts, the trend of more and more devastating fires are fueled by climate change conditions.
Forest devastation is not caused solely by forest fires. Often I think about the deforestation that I have seen in my travels, where the forests have been stripped or taken down to solve more immediate problems, such as the need for fuel or for increased farm land in some of the developing countries, only for that deforestation to lead to other problems that could not have been predicted. Sometimes deforestation happens because of greed, where businesses see the availability of land that can be used to make money, despite the science and research that indicates that destroying forest is in reality destroying valuable ecosystems as well, causing pain and anguish to parts of the earth and the creatures and plant-life that these forests support.
We can see the problems, but the solutions seem so overwhelming. Despite the volumes of science and research that explains climate change and climate issues that can happen when we ignore that our climate is changing, the topic remains controversial and divisive and it seems easier for ordinary people to ignore it or leave it to the experts or the worldwide leaders. However, none of us are ordinary and all of humanity—adam—received the mission to care for God’s creation.
How do we as people of faith, who have been given the great gift of creation and the great task of caring for it, respond to a problem that seems so vast?
One answer is to remember who we are.
We are sons and daughters of God, loved and cherished, offered mercy and forgiveness every single day of our lives. In the third chapter of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus was reminded who he was on a night long ago when he went to see Jesus for answers to the questions of his heart about who Jesus was and how it could be that God loved him so and what it meant to live in and for the kindom of God.
Remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus?
Unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kindom.
Hearing the words literally, Nicodemus questioned what Jesus meant. How can someone enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born again?
Then Jesus told him about being born of water and the Spirit, about being born from above, about being born into new life—a life of transformation offered to us because we are loved and cherished, because mercy and forgiveness—grace—is offered to us over and over, for the forgiveness of our sins and so that we may experience God’s abundant, unconditional love and presence, here and now and beyond.
And this gift of new life, of a new birth that transforms us is highlighted in verse 16—For God so loved the world, that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.
The word that we translate from the original Greek as world, is the word kosmos, a big word that can mean the entire universe. Somewhat more specifically, it can also mean the Earth or humankind. God’s redemption of the world—the whole world–through Christ, is offered freely to all, calling us to a transformed life that reflects the love that God has for all people and for the whole of God’s gift of creation, which supports and sustains humanity. In return, God gives us the delightful, joyful mission to care for this gift.
So, how do we do that?
I think we begin this great task that God has given us by paying attention.
This past Tuesday, at our Tuesday evening First UMC, Parkersburg zoom check-in, I asked those present to tell me about their favorite trees. I heard stories about trees that were climbed in childhood, that offered shade, that offered food. I heard about trees whose shape stood out in memory. I heard about trees that were missed when they were gone. As we began to tell each other stories about our favorite trees, more memories came to us. More stories came to us.
I think we begin this great task that God has given us by paying attention, first to the trees that have meant something to us—the trees in our own yards or close by where we live, trees that bloom in the spring, that shade us in the summer, that shelter wildlife, that offer fruit or nuts, that will turn glorious colors in just a few weeks.
Our own special trees remind us of the larger creation of which we, too, are a part. Our own special trees can lead us to pay attention to trees of our neighborhoods, the trees of our communities. Are there places where we might consider planting more trees or gardens or greenery?
One community that I know lost many, many trees to a blight years ago. At first the spaces that once held those trees stood empty. The community missed the beauty of the green in the summer and the colors in the fall. They missed the shade, the branches that provided a place for songbirds. In a community wide effort, new trees were purchased, and the community came together to plant and care for them. Now, just a few years later, the community feels the joy that these trees offer, and they work hard to them thrive.
Paying attention to the trees of our community can lead us to paying attention to those old growth forests scattered throughout our beloved state and scattered throughout our beloved world. We can mourn when these forests are destroyed. We can rejoice when these forests rejuvenate, and growth occurs. We can pay attention to the ecosystems that they shelter and learn more about the life that these forests support. We can visit as many forests as possible and learn what is unique about them. We can ask God for wisdom as we seek ways to act and care for these forests. What we cannot do is ignore the forests or leave their preservation up to the experts, solely.
As we pay attention to these forests, we will discover that we are taking for granted these forest gifts from God less and less. As we pay attention to these forests, we will find ways that we can care for them, preserve them, enjoy them, and pass them on to our children and grandchildren and all those who follow. As we pay attention to these forests, we will discover more and more ways that God speaks to us through their beauty and the ways that we are interconnected. And I believe that we will also find the courage that God has already given us to speak on behalf of the trees of the forest, the forests of the world, and the creatures that these forests support—including us.
May it be so.