What will you do to commemorate Earth Day today? Will you pick up trash, plant flowers, go to the recycling center, feed the birds, or just breathe the fresh spring air and feel grateful? There’s an infinite number of ways—organized and not—we can honor the sacred relationship we share with our earth. I personally look forward to the day when the ideas we hold about the Earth and the choices we make rise naturally from our love and care for our planet. Then every day will be Earth day, every living choice a sacrament, as Elton Trueblood might say.
Earth day started in 1970 as an event on college campuses and then grew to become an annual—and international–event as the concern for our natural world deepened and spread. It makes me think of the energy, courage, and momentum of the Parkland students now. The students’ message then that the Earth needs care caught on, and last year there were Earth day celebrations in almost 200 countries around the globe. That’s something to celebrate—and perhaps not bad growth for 40 plus years. Attention is growing. More and more people continue to get involved. Folks are recognizing what a truly vital need this is. Without a planet to live on, none of the other causes we care about are going to matter in the long run.
But we’re living in a time when truth sometimes seems turned on its head, and environmental concerns can be contentious issues. A poll published yesterday by CBS News found that 54% of U.S. households believe climate change is real and caused by human action, 24% say its occurring because of natural patterns, and 12% believe it isn’t real, fake news. We don’t need more evidence than that to know that we each look out at life through different lenses that are shaped by our beliefs, our backgrounds, our experiences, and our desires. One person looks at a mountain and is awed by God’s artistry; another sees dollar signs and possible business growth. I might walk along a beautiful white sand beach and marvel at the beauty and richness of life I discover there; someone else could be thinking of all the off-shore drilling opportunities the coast represents.
I think the issue of relationship gets at the heart of whether we feel a kinship with nature or we simply see it is a resource, something we use, an object that is there for our benefit. When something is just an object to us, we’re thinking about it with our heads. When we’re in relationship with something or someone—a person, a beloved pet, a place in nature we care about—we’re connecting from the heart. That connection has a kind of warm energy, a divine flow, a kind of stick-to-your-ribs feeling that is pleasant and lifting and expansive. When we reduce something to an object, our energy feels cold, uncaring, intellectual, academic. We’re missing the life in it—in both of us—when we objectify our living kin.
For several years, I taught a course in eco-spirituality at Earlham School of Religion. My premise for the class was simple: We can’t love something we’re not in a relationship with. I hoped that students’ reading, writing, and experiencing would draw them into a deeper spiritual connection with nature. That they would find the inner in the outer. And then, by getting closer, love it more.
Throughout the semester, students engaged those ideas, writing about their earliest memories outdoors, talking about the landscapes that felt like home, getting a sense of the way they experienced God’s presence in the natural world. They also kept nature journals, reflecting on their experiences of buds and flowers, animals and insects. Many told me their noticing made their hearts more tender. They felt their spirits opening like the flowers they were relating to. By the end of the semester, invariably, a blossoming had happened, inside and out. It was an amazing thing to watch their tenderness and gratitude for nature grow over the months we shared together. Their awareness took them more deeply into relationship, and their reverence for life grew.
The process of using our awareness to go deeper into the divine of things is something we Friends have been doing for a long time. We know how to turn from the noise of outer world and seek silence within; we believe there is “that of God” in everyone and we try to remember to look for it. (Sometimes that’s harder than others.) We are familiar with the idea that there is more to life than meets the eye—there is a deeper center where we find peace and renewal as we wait on the clarity and leading of spirit.
William Bartram was a Pennsylvania Quaker in the late 1700s who had a gift for recognizing the essential nature—the depth and the surface, the inside and out—of all living things. His father, John Bartram, was a famous Quaker botanist, and although William also had a love of God in nature, he set out on his own path to make his way. But as a young man, he struggled to find what he wanted to do in life, falling flat first as a merchant in North Carolina and then as a rice planter in Florida. In 1773, supported by Quaker Dr. John Fothergill, he went on expedition to North and South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, and Florida, collecting plants and making drawings of local landscapes and wildlife. He explored the southern colonies—traveling safely, even though the Revolutionary War had started around him—and he visited with peaceful communities of Native Americans. He would later write in what would become his famous journal of natural history, Travels of William Bartram, that the Native American people he got to know were living balanced lives characterized by humility and generosity, honoring the land and the creator, existing harmoniously with all life. He felt their societies had much to offer ours in the way of peace, respect, and right order.
Bartram wasn’t comfortable with the prevailing view of the day that humans were the “pinnacle” of God’s creation and that there was a hierarchy of being in which animals, insects, and plants had less value. He answered that idea with his own about the “vast system of creation,” in which we are all “creatures of the supreme being, made for a certain and indispensable purpose…created to form a part in the whole.” Not top down, but side-by-side, connected with equal value to animals and plants and mountains and streams. It was a call to relationship, an invitation to cooperation and respect. And inside that call was an even more profound and difficult one: the call to humility. That first humble step is a big one. It takes us from the top of the ladder and puts us on the circle, just like everybody else.
From the time I was a little girl, animals were fellow companions, wise and gentle friends that cared about my comfort and I, about theirs. I felt like I could see the insides of them. When I was very small, we lived in a drafty old rental house in Greensburg, and in the winter, there were opossums who lived in the walls. I knew they were there because I could hear them sneeze from time to time. That sound always made me happy because meant I wasn’t alone in the dark. There was other beings nearby.
In another memory—also around the time I was five or six—I was visiting my aunt and uncle in Indianapolis. I didn’t know them well, and I was very shy, and there was lots of activity going on around me as my brother and cousins played and my family explored my relative’s big new house. Feeling a little overwhelmed, I went and sat down in the hall by the laundry room, beside their new little black poodle puppy Tasha, who seemed to me to be feeling as overwhelmed as I was. We sat there for a few moments together and then I began to gently pet her. Soon she laid down beside me and went to sleep with her head in my lap. I can still feel what I felt then–so honored that she trusted me so much. And I felt calmed and comforted myself. To me, that’s the power of recognizing our kinship. God’s child with God’s child, sharing a moment of peace.
After William Bartram completed his four-year expedition, he returned to the family farm and continued over the next four decades to write about what he’d discovered, about the natural world and share his views of the moral balance he found there. In later years, he also became a sharp critic of industry and the empty pursuit of wealth and power. And he continued to advocate for reverence and care toward all living beings, especially those who were often regarded as “less than” because of their species, or race, or capabilities.
Bartram’s life and writings show us that we always have a choice about the way we view our relationship to other living beings. We can learn to see ourselves as equals in God’s created order, and we can work to catch our own thinking when it seeks to put us up the ladder, making us feel more important than the life around us. When we catch ourselves thinking in a hierarchical way—by either puffing up our own worth or reducing the value of others–we can stop and hear that sobering, self-important voice as an invitation to humility. That type of thinking is a red flag letting us know it’s time to let spirit lead us back down the ego ladder and remember that we are part of God’s system, a system that doesn’t work because of us, but a system that needs all of us in order to work. I think that’s ultimately how the kingdom of God will arise. All life, together, as One.
So this open-hearted willingness to connect with the divine of things—pebbles, birds, mountains, and more–is more than just a way to find rest and a refuge from a loud, demanding world. It’s also an opportunity to connect to our source so we can learn to love from a deeper and truer place. When we begin to do that, finding a kinship of the heart, a new kind of tenderness wakes in us that is nourishing, reverent, and sweet. Goodness—in everyone, in everything–gets easier to find and share.
I like the way Quaker Douglas Steere says this his book The Open Life. He writes,
“It is in the principle that we have fellowship with the mystical body of Christ, here is the vine of which we are the branches. Here is the Spring which has no commencement giving itself to all the rivers, never exhausted by what they take. Here is the new order, the new community. Here is the center out of which comes the enduring concern for cutting away those barriers to equality which warp the lives of God’s loved ones, our brothers (and sisters) in the world. Here and not in some sociological or political doctrine is to be found the basis of any social reforms that Friends have ever undertaken. Here is a source of renewal in reverence for life and in fellowship with every man and every creature that never rests in one who yields to the principle. Here is a source that lets no natural barrier–like tradition or custom or numbers or the supposed incorrigibility of human nature–move it.”
Perhaps whatever we choose to do today in honor of Earth day, we can do it mindfully, in tune with the life around us. Giving up the hierarchy might just be easier than we think. And we have the added encouragement of knowing that we’re trading it for something infinitely better: coming back home to the family of God.
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EARTH DAY REFLECTIONS:
- Have you ever done anything special on Earth day before? Do you feel it is effective as advocacy for the planet? Why or why not?
- How have you experienced hierarchical thinking in your own life? [in which one life is valued more than another] How did you respond?
- Have you found that getting closer to someone or something makes it harder to judge or dismiss them? Why do you think this is?
- William Bartram felt that animals and Native Americans (who had the benefit of living close to the land and were therefore more in sync with life) lived by a kind of moral ecology that far surpassed what rational (and often greedy and corrupt) humankind had to offer. What do you think of this idea?
- What obstacles stand in the way of humans being able to learn from systems other than their own? Do we see any evidence of this working?
- Job 12: 7-10: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.”
- More about William Bartram: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Bartram
- Bartram’s Gardens: https://bartramsgarden.org/
- Journal of William Bartram: http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/bartram/bartram.html
- CBS News poll: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/americans-remain-pessimistic-about-the-environment-cbs-news-poll/
- Douglas Steere, The Open Life: http://quaker.org/legacy/pamphlets/wpl1937a.html
- Earth day: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth_Day