One winter, a man travels from his home in perpetually sunny, southern California to the snow-bound Upper Midwest and, from there, to a tropical island in the Pacific. He observes that in his home in southern California, the windows are almost always open to the constant, ambient hum of city activity, mixed with the sounds of a subdued version of nature.
Flying into the Upper Midwest, to stay in the home of friends, he is amazed by the nighttime silence of a snow-blanketed winter. There is an almost dead silence, common to the closed-windowed deep winter months. Even though he is in a large urban area, the home’s double pained windows, substantial insulation, combined with a doubly thick blanket of snow outside, keep audible sounds to a minimum. Who is not hibernating?
Finally, after a very long flight, he lands on an island in the Pacific Ocean. On his first night there surrounded by the lush jungle, a cacophony of sounds—typical of any viable tropical forest—keep his eyes wide open. Awake amid the common night calls, clicks and cries from the forest coming through the open window, he lays listening. Nothing seems to sleep.
“Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved a whole world.”
“You weren’t here, but you should have seen it,” my neighbor from across the hall is talking to me in the entry of our triplex. “The man drove up to the building in his van, hopped out and suited up until he was covered from head to toe in something that made him look like he was going to handle radioactive material. Then, he unwound a hose that was almost as large in circumference as a fire hose and started spraying poison all over the tree in the front yard. I thought you asked Mr. Roehler not to spray? I kept thinking about Matthew and his asthma.
“The overspray went everywhere—on the front porch, the outside furniture, the picture windows and, of course, all over the lawn and tree. Evan should be careful to wear gloves if he digs dandelions in the yard. I just wanted you to know.”
Retreating to my own apartment, I watch as the neighbor closes his door; then I close our door in mild disbelief.
When our family moved into the building, we negotiated a special rental rate which required us to shovel the walks during the winter season and maintain the yard organically during the spring, summer and fall seasons.
My husband, Evan, was out with his dandelion digger almost every-other day. Mr. Roehler had said that he would spray if he saw even one yellow dandelion head.
We made these arrangements in exchange for a reduced rate in rent and because we had hoped that the agreement would help us protect our asthmatic child, as well as reducing chemical runoff to the small lake immediately across the street.
Initially, finding this apartment had been a dream-come-true in that we were able to portage our canoe directly from storage in the garage and put in to the lake by walking across the street. The community is full of natural lakes with a myriad of interesting waterways to explore. Many local people have sizeable sailboats, canoes or motorboats, which are enjoyed when the waterways are not frozen.
A week later, I see Mr. Roehler and stop to have a brief conversation with him.
“What’s one or two downy woodpeckers?” Mr. Roehler responds to my expressed concern about the pesticides, as he faces me—smiling—when I ask him about why he had the tree sprayed.
According to Mr. Roehler, the tree “needed” to be sprayed because of the “unsightly mess” that the caterpillars—one of the food sources for the downy woodpeckers—make in the tree and in the corners of the large picture windows on the front porch.
Without bringing up our family’s personal health concerns, our previous agreement involving organic lawn care or the broader issue regarding the damage the pesticides will do to the ecological systems in the lake across the street, I had mentioned to Mr. Roehler, who loves birdwatching, that the woodpeckers would be harmed by his actions. His response amazes me.
What is one or two downy woodpeckers?
There is some deep disconnect, not only in the psyche of this now dead old man, but in all of our psyches causing us to disassociate our consumer-based, often misguided “aesthetic” choices and myopic habits with the profound damage being done to the natural world.
This is not a statement of despair or harsh ridicule; it is a statement asking us to begin making more conscientious lifestyle and consumer choices because we, as a species, need to begin attending to the well-being of the ecological systems and creatures with which and whom we share the planet. Life is sacred-all life.
Describing an encounter in the Pacific Ocean, with a wild animal tangled in fishing line, a committed distance swimmer related how completely Still the ensnared creature became as she stopped her swim to approach and liberate the entangled animal.
When we learn to move on the Earth, as swimmers do, to the regular rhythm of our own life Force and breath, we bring ourselves in sync with the rhythm of the natural world, and we are able to approach those in need without fear. In turn, those in need are able to receive our assistance without struggle.
This is not a paternalistic model for human behavior in relationship to nature.
But, this is a call, a reminder, to stay close to our own inner Light and develop the regular rhythm of our own breathing–because we do not breathe alone; we either breathe in sync with the Life around us or we choose, in our flailing, to destroy the harmonious rhythm of the Kingdom of God.
This spring , as the edges of my garden expanded into the alleyway, I purchased and planted a large bag of wildflower seeds for the pollinators coming through our neighborhood. More than anything, I wanted to create a place of refuge—not only for myself in terms of the beauty of my natural yard—but also for my neighbors in the natural world. In this narrow space, of perhaps a foot in width and twenty-five feet in length with intensively productive flowering plants, there have been a myriad of visitors: bees, butterflies, moths, cardinals and hummingbirds, among our many known flighted friends. All summer long, they have been busy coming, going and otherwise retrieving what they need to live.
In contemplating the idea of refuge, I consider how we, as individuals, may choose to offer refuge in the context of our human relationships—through the extension of kind speech, generous acts, our gifts or talents, as well as shared education in community—but, also, how we are capable of broadening the framework for the extension of refuge.
It seems that, in all of our busy, human and myopic doing, we have forgotten that we are part of a broader world—the natural world. We are not the only creatures on the planet, placed here to live and thrive. We are not the only creatures on the planet seeking to live our lives in relative safety as we rear our young. Thus, our concept of refuge needs to expand. And, to that end, as co-inhabitants of the earth, changers of the planet’s landscape and configuration, we—as consumers—need to remember that our daily life-style choices have a tremendous impact on the ability of our fellow creatures to simply carry on with the business of their lives.
As we enter the park to camp, a new sign greets us on one of the established sign posts: Firewood Collection is Prohibited.
“Hmmm. That’s a change,” I comment to my camping companion and in-house collector of dried twigs, sticks and ‘repurposer’ of downed branches.
“Yes, a big change,” comes the reply—with more emotion behind it than one would think four words could hold.
“I wouldn’t take it personally,” I add. “Something must have happened. Someone must have been irresponsible.”
Normally, when we go camping, we go off-season, enjoying a quiet park mostly to ourselves with the exception of a few year-round employees and a handful of fellow committed nature-lovers. Generally, we choose camping sites that are more remote, collecting refuse—fishing line, cans, bobbers, packaging, etc.—in a trash bag we have brought from home. While collecting trash, we also pick up dried and downed twigs and branches to supplement our own supply of kindling. (Park staff have commented in the past that we usually leave a site “cleaner” than we found it. Thus, our relationship with staff has been mutually respectful.)
On the second morning of our current stay, one of the park staff stops by and confirms that there has indeed been an incident causing the posting of the new signage. Two living trees were felled and killed by someone wielding an axe, who then proceeded to try and burn green wood in a fire pit.
“Who tries to burn just-cut, green wood in a fire?” my camping companion turns to ask me in disbelief, after the ranger has gone.
“Someone who is really out to lunch—out of touch and profoundly disconnected from the natural world,” I commiserate by stating the obvious. “I have met people who do not realize that their paper bags come from trees and that plastic bags require an oil well.” And, then in a moment of frustrated steam release and in an effort to find some humor in the human condition, I ask “Didn’t you know that fruits and vegetables come from a grocery store?”
We are part of a beautiful, natural web—a web of both visible and invisible ‘matter’ that needs to be honored. Share what you have. Consume only what you need.
I. According to my most recent reading, dandelion seeds first appeared purposefully on the North American continent in the mid-1800’s at the request of a Scandinavian immigrant, who wrote home asking that seeds be sent because she could find no other curative and reliable, fresh-greens, nor a comparable medicinal herb.
II. Very late for class one spring day, after a long winter, a foreign-exchange student was seen by her high-school peers, frolicking through a full field of bright, spring blossoms. Her speech class and teacher watched as she progressed through the expansive field of flowers reveling, stopping, dropping and picking blossoms–until she dropped out of sight only to burst into her first-hour class, breathless and powdered with fine yellow dust.
“Why are we in school today?” she blurted out. “Why are we not on holiday, celebrating the beautiful field of spring blossoms?” Her throat pulsed from all of her racing and cavorting.
“You mean the dandelions?” the teacher asked.
“The beautiful field of flowers,” she responded emphatically.
Then, another student said, “Those are weeds.”
III. Although this last narrative is not a story of my personal witness, I share it because I trust the teller, the tale and the lesson: perspective.
The next time you sit down with someone, check-in with that person about what he is seeing, hearing, feeling and experiencing–before making any assumptions, judgments or conclusions. Just because you now share the same proximity and circumstance does not mean you share the same perspective on events and the environment around you.