The Call, Column 95 – The Mysteries of Nature

13 05 2018

(May 13, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

The Mysteries of Nature

Today’s column is a little different than my normal ones. It was inspired by an interesting series of events, starting around the time that I got back from my trip two weeks ago (I went to London and Paris with my friends).

If you remember back a few months, to my column about the human circadian rhythm, I mentioned that I’ve suffered a bit from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Well, between the winter, not spending too much time outside in the early spring, and being under circadian-disrupting blue lights all day, every week day, the SAD sort of persisted a little longer than I would have liked this year.

That is until I got back from my trip. The weather had finally broken, and I could feel my soul singing – at the feeling of the warm sun, at the circadian-realignment, and at the blossoming of the natural world around me. I kid you not, when I say that it felt like I woke up from a particularly unpleasant, 3-month sleep.

That was the week of April 30th. Fast-forward to last Sunday, when I went to a May Day festival in Tiverton that my friend was taking part in. Now, you can probably guess that the leftist/union undertones make May Day quite an appealing holiday for me. But beyond that, the naturalistic, (dare-I-explicitly-say-it) Pagan elements of the festival really lit up my soul as well. I could feel the intimate, spiritual connection that the people there had with Nature, and I could feel that connection in my own right.

And then, there was work this past week. After having been away for just 8 days, I was stunned upon returning, at how quickly all of my favorite early-season perennials had made their appearance. So this past Monday, I decided to cut some of my grandfather’s abundant, many-years-old, perennial spearmint, and bring into work. This was partly in celebration of spring, partly in personal continuation of the May Day festival, and entirely because I’m a (paleo) granola-crunching hippy that likes to make sure everyone around me knows of my unabashed, enthusiastically un-Western affinity for the natural world.

When my friend liked the mint and took a couple of stalks for his own desk, I decided that I would make it “a thing”. So Tuesday, I brought in lemon balm; Wednesday, oregano; Thursday I forgot; and Friday, lilac and wisteria flowers. It was pretty invigorating, to have those good smells, and something green and living sitting in front of me all day. And equally as thought-provoking, was watching the once-living plants slowly wilt over the course of the day, knowing that their ultimate destination was the compost pile, and all of the potential for rebirth that exists there.

I realized that my week-long custom was reminiscent of the original, pre-Christian one that we now call the Christmas tree. Pagans would take in trees and other plant material during the winter, both to keep the (natural) plant energy alive and in the process reinvigorate their homes.

So, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all of this…

I’ve recently become very interested in some of the less-scientifically-rigorous, difficult-to-prove ideas that people use to explain the world around them. Things like personality tests and classifications, the horoscope and other facets of astrology, and “spiritual connections”, both interpersonal and between human beings and the natural world.

I’ve always had some sense of, and respect for these beliefs, but over the past year I’ve really started paying attention to how seemingly effective they are at describing the world around us. I’ll likely be tarred-and-feathered both by my Christian friends and my science-minded friends for saying this: but, I’ve basically decided to be open to – and even embrace – the possibility that certain ideas can be used as accurate descriptors of the world around us, even if there isn’t science to support them, and they are not directly the teaching of the biblical writings, and the Son of God, that I very much do still follow.

Now, in between imaginary bricks getting launched at my head for publishing the last two paragraphs, I want to try to justify all of this from the very (in my view) convincing perspective of biological- and environmental-consciousness.

Nature is very, very, very, very complex. It is the one thing shared by every human being, every living creature, every religion, and every recognized scientific fact that has ever existed…and yet there is still so much that we don’t know about it. And here, I mean both “nature”, as in the entire universe, and “nature” as in the ecosystem on planet Earth. (The shear, not-fully-understood complexity of Earth’s ecosystem is why I have and will always argue against our ability to effectively, sustainably colonize another planet, at least in the long-term. We will probably never know enough about how the ecosystem works, and how our bodies depend on interfacing with it, to recreate it correctly…which is all the more reason to STOP DESTROYING THE ONLY PLANET WE HAVE.)

Whether you view the natural world as the product of fully-knowable, naturalistic, cosmological processes, or as a divinely-created and –maintained mystery, or (as I would passionately argue) both at the same time…you need to recognize that not everything you know or believe about it is everything that there is to know or believe.

That last statement is absolutely, unabashedly true, in the case of every single “you” who is or ever could read this column…including the one writing it. And that is the basic foundation that allows for the newfound openness to less-than-obviously-supportable ideas that I professed earlier on.

A study, performed a few years ago, found a distinct increase in mental calmness when participants were exposed to views of natural landscapes, as opposed to views of artificial (built) ones. Do we know why that is? Nope. Does that make it any less true…? Does the fact that we do not know the specific visual and neurological processes by which a natural setting is interpreted as safe, and the evolutionary reasons for that…or the fact that the Bible doesn’t (explicitly) say anywhere that our highest mental peace is achieved in nature…does any of that make it any less true?

Does the experience of basically every human being on this planet mean nothing, simply because neither of the two most accepted methods by which we come to understand the world around us can produce internally-consistent justification for that experience? Nope. Nope. Nopety-nope.

See what I mean? If we go back to the circadian rhythm discussion, I’ll reiterate the fact that our brains – and the entire biosphere – literally align themselves to the flipping solar system, for God’s sake! We don’t understand much of how that works, or the extent to which is affects us and every living thing on Earth…but it’s real. And from a practical perspective, if I see n=1 anecdotal evidence that some negative health effect is related to circadian dysrhythmia, and seems to be alleviated by more exposure to the sun, then that’s what I’m going to do…even if no neurology textbook and no verse of scripture tells me to.

As far we know, we are part of the most complex bit of chemistry-magic that has ever existed in the Universe. So when some piece of commonly-held wisdom, or some observation by someone other than a scientist or priest seems to accurately describe something in Nature, including and especially when that belief lends itself to the idea that there is some inherent spiritual, neurological, cosmological, energetic, divine,…natural connection between all human beings, and between human beings and the ecosystem and universe in which they exist…I’m now, more than ever, inclined to believe it.

And speaking of Earth being the only home human beings can and will ever have, global climate change is still a thing that needs to be fixed by the people that caused it. This coming Tuesday, May 15th, around 4pm, the House Finance Committee will be holding a public hearing on the Energize RI bill, one of the most effective ways to fight climate change that we have. The hearing is in the State House, Room 35. I encourage you all to come, and testify if you feel up to it. Email me for more information.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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The Call and Times, Column 30 – And God Saw That It Was Good – Where Faith Meets Environmentalism

29 09 2015

(September 27, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

And God Saw That It Was Good – Where Faith Meets Environmentalism

We’ve talked a lot about the environment – the problem of global climate change, the issues surrounding human waste production, and the environmental harms of industrial agriculture. In these and many other columns, I’ve quoted verses from the Bible as defense for my calls to action, and have used a more general spirituality to motivate a new environmental ethos. These parallels, and my frequent citations of them, are not an accident.

I am firmly of the belief that how sustainably we interact with Nature – the global climate, each local ecosystem, and our fellow living creatures – is a central, indispensible component of our religious beliefs. Not only is this treatment a reflection of one’s faith in a Creator God but, I would argue, a foundational responsibility of ours, as human beings living on this planet.

As a bit of background (if you couldn’t already guess), I am a Christian. And while I am not Catholic, I see the Office of the Pope as one of the most important, venerable leadership roles in the global Christian community and indeed, in global political leadership as a whole.

I, like so many others, have been delighted with the progress that Pope Francis has already made in matters of social and environmental justice. A central theme of his papacy has been the proper treatment of the Earth: this was the subject of his second encyclical, Laudato Si’, and has been a major discussion topic of his visits to the U.S. Congress, White House, and United Nations over the past week.

In light of the Pope’s visit, and his encouraging call to action on global climate change and environmental protection, I would like to make my own bold call to action: Environmental protection and sustainability are necessary components of Christianity. Here’s why:

  • The Earth belongs to God, and it is inherently good. In Genesis 1, the description of each era of Creation ends with some variation of the bold assessment, “God saw that it was good”. The story poetically describes the creation of all physical reality, beginning with the Big Bang and cyclically narrowing in scope to the Earth, its environment, and a few grander classifications of life. It is implied that each component is essential to the function of the greater whole, but it is stated very clearly that each is good and necessary in its own right. In countless other places in the Bible, notably in the Psalms of David and the Book of Job, it is made clear that God finds beauty in the functioning of the Earth and the diversity of its life, and that unadulterated Creation is the yardstick to which we must measure human successes and failures.
  • Flourishing, sustainable life was and is a central goal of Creation. Through Genesis 1, God’s basic commandment to each set of created beings is that they are to “be fruitful and increase in number”, filling ecological niches all throughout the Earth and building Earth’s fertility and solar energy capture. The inherent sustainability of this ecosystem is summarized in God’s promise to Noah and the Earth (Genesis 8): that the cyclic, regenerative nature of the days and seasons would not ever cease.
    In the familiar parable of Matthew 6, similar in nature to Psalm 104, Jesus emphasizes the idea of Divine Providence – that every creature, from the birds, to the flowers and grasses, to human beings, have their needs met by a divinely-created and –maintained ecosystem. This principal is what Wendell Berry has more recently termed “The Great Economy”, where the very nature of the Earth is to create and maintain life while actually expanding its ability to do so.
  • Human beings were created as caretakers of this good Earth. In Genesis 2, we are placed in the Garden of Eden with the explicit instruction to “work it and take care of it”, to enjoy the bounty of Nature while working to improve it. Even the command to have dominion over the Earth and to subdue it speaks to this general goal – that we must work against the harsher elements of the ecosystem but together with the constructive ones.
    This idea, that human intervention can improve Nature, has actually been borne out by Allan Savory’s ideas of Holistic Management. Through the “technologies” of holistic land and resource management, our footprint can become a monument of carbon sequestration, topsoil growth, and biodiversity. That is our purpose here.
  • It is possible to harm the Earth with our bad decisions. In Numbers 35, God commands the Israelites, “Do not pollute the land where you are…Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell.” Warfare is given as the immediate example of this pollution, but from here arises the idea that we are spiritually connected to the land, and that our actions have lasting effects.
  • God does not want this. Ever. The Bible is full of examples of self-imposed limitations – placing boundaries on our expansion and exploitation, even when Nature or our abilities would not otherwise do so. A case in point comes from Deuteronomy 22, where we are given the cryptic commandment: “if you come across a bird’s nest beside the road…do not take the mother with the young.” We can enjoy the products of Nature, but we must stop ourselves short of destroying the source of these products – in this case, the mother bird. Especially as human populations were expanding (and in all the time since), the need to stop ourselves from destroying the well while pumping the water is one central to our lives on this planet.
  • But we have disobeyed. We have harmed the Earth. Climate change and generalized environmental destruction were not really occurrences in biblical times – but they are now. And the prophecies given in Isaiah, particularly in Isaiah 24, sound eerily like a description of global climate change.
    Anywhere we look, harm is being done to the Creation. Loss of biodiversity, exploitation of limited natural resources, depletion of topsoil and freshwater reserves – these are all the products of human activity, and will all be further exacerbated by climate change.
  • It is our duty to act; inaction is the same as opposition. In the well known parable of Matthew 25, Jesus states firmly that “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Ignoring a problem here on Earth – whether it be one of social welfare or environmental protection – is akin to ignoring God. Beyond this, climate change and other environmental problems are issues social justice and welfare. By inaction, we are allowing others – often those who did not cause the problem – to suffer. God has deemed this unacceptable.
    At the White House last Wednesday, Pope Francis called us to action on climate change, deeming it “a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.” In front of Congress on Thursday, he made a bold statement, that “now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at…protecting nature.” Just as the verse above tells us, it is our duty to act, and inaction is unacceptable.

 Before I eat, I say a prayer of thanksgiving for the work of the sustainable farmers, the sacrifices made by the plants and animals, and the indispensible value of the Earth and its ecosystems, for providing me with sustenance. This is a sincere prayer, and one whose value I hope others can see.

For much of human history, we understood Nature – and God – enough to know that the two are inextricably linked; that God is the maintaining force behind the natural world, and that the global ecosystem is capable of providing for all of our needs, if we make our goal to protect, rather than destroy.

As a Christian, and more generally as a human being who believes in the Divine power that drives our material world, it is my duty to be an environmentalist. Pope Francis, the leader of the largest Christian church in the world, shares this belief. Do you?

I’d like to give a quick shout out to the North Smithfield Garden Club. Two weeks ago, I had the honor of being invited to speak at their monthly meeting about natural pest and weed control methods. They’re a great bunch, committed to the beauty and productivity that comes from growing a garden, and guess what? They are looking for additional members! Shoot me an email if you are interested, and I can put you in touch with their President, Jo-Ann McGee.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.