I was out in my garden this morning harvesting potatoes and then planting squash and peppers in their place. They are an experiment. Everything is an experiment these days. While I hope they grow and create food for my labor I do not expect it. I do it because I like being outside, even in this heat, taking part in the ecosystem around me. Its not like a hiking trip at all. However, in the midst of the constant sound and presence of cars, lawnmowers, walkers, and leaf blowers there is some nature to be had. It is in the garden and under the tress where the landscaper doesn't go. Sometimes, it is in the sound of the river that runs just across the street.
The Charles River (called the "Quinobequin" in Algonquin) here in Natick is a catalyst for argument these days. You see, there is the issue of the dam (an earthen barrier referred to more often as a park) and the spillway (a concrete barrier colloquially referred to as a dam). Regulators say that something must be done. It is unsafe as it is and the solution comes down to repair of the spillway--which would require removing all the trees (and therefore the ecosystem) in the park--or removal of the spillway (which would mean restoring the flow of the river and lowering the water level above it as well as taking away our tiny waterfall).
Emotions are high. It will be a change either way and people are rarely comfortable with change. I feel it too. I know that--after the better part of two decades living here--whatever will happen will feel a little bit like a loss to me. I have raised my children by the river. We have paddled as far as we could manage both upstream and down. I walk past it many times each day and wave to the people I know enjoying their coffee and watching the water go by. I have sat by the spillway with family, friends, and congregants having some fairly momentous conversations. I have made observations concerning the local flora and fauna here in the weblog. I will miss the way it is now and am grieving what is to come.
I have friends on both sides of this debate--repair v. removal--and I understand why people feel so strongly about this issue. We are talking about our home and our homes. However, things have gotten heated in some quarters in ways that reflect the current political landscape. No doubt they will continue to be. On the social networks (which I am not fond of but have to use) it seems that we cannot help but slide a bit from finding our way together into devaluing the opinions of others. There is lots of snark these days. There are arguments about whose opinion "matters most."
Just like on the national stage each side even has a different language for the discussion. I will tell you my opinion, but fellow Natickites already know it because I used the word "spillway" instead of "dam" to describe...um...well...the spillway.
I have recently noticed that most (but not all) of my neighbors have put up signs in favor of maintaining the spillway in South Natick. This does not surprise me. I will not hazard specific reasons because they can speak for themselves. It is a nice spot and--as I described above--part of a profound set of memories and connections for all of us who live on its banks. That said, I cannot agree with them. I am in favor of keeping the trees in the park and removing the spillway.
There are reasons for my position and, again, if you live here you probably already know what they are; Removal of the spillway would increase biodiversity, expanding the range of a number of species. This is something I believe in strongly. Heck, I have an ecology blog. Also, restoring the river has been a priority for the local Nipmuc people for a long time. After all we have done to Native Americans in this country, removing a spillway that serves no clear purpose seems literally like the least we could do. Finally, removal and restoration is the most cost-effective choice. This town is growing and will be for some time. Our needs are growing too. I would like the money to be put elsewhere in support of this community.
There is also another concern. Maybe it is a personal one but I will share it anyway. When I decided to become a minister (I was 19) I decided also to walk a path of faith as I see it. Seminary, fellowship, and ordination reinforced that decision. My theology has changed but my walk has not. Part of that walk is doing what you think is the right thing to do. I fail plenty of times. I am a pastor not a saint. That said, When faced with as clear a decision as this--where the ecological, cultural, and economic impact point in one direction--I cannot go back on that walk because right now it might feel inconvenient to me. I believe the world isn't about me. It is about the "Great Whatever." It is about living in harmony with nature and with each other. It is about taking the time to set aside my own ego to work for restoration of rivers and, frankly, of many other things. I have to stand on principle, even if I don't know exactly what will happen next.
Of course, another part of the walk of faith is understanding that change--the very thing that makes us anxious--does, in fact come. We cannot stop it. There will be change either way. Things will not be the same. Both paths can lead us to wonder what it will be like in our neighborhood in a few years. However, I have spent a great deal of time on and beside rivers without dams and honestly they are pretty, too. I expect that--no matter if the spillway is there or not--people will still be called down the banks of the Quinobequin with our coffee and our thoughts for a very long time.
This post is already too long. I am going to stop now and just leave you with some links to more information that might help if you are interested in either my reasoning or the specific issue here in town.
First, my ecological theology is in development. However, I have posted a three-part "curriculum" that I wrote here at the Walks Blog;
Environmental Literacy In Creation I
Environmental Literacy in Creation II
Environmental Literacy in Creation III
Also here is the link to the FAQ page from the town government. It is regularly updated as we learn more about the project and its impact and is worth looking at. Generally the evidence here--written by engineers and scientists with expertise in dams and their removal--supports spillway removal. So...
Here is the webpage of Save Natick Dam
Finally one version of a psalm I wrote for the river as the first thing I posted here.
Sometimes you are never good at something but it still makes you happy. As we go through life there are many things that feel--or become--too difficult, even when we put in our time and effort to get good at them. As the years and days go by the results trickle in and we slowly turn toward the things that complement our skills and abilities. There is a toxic way to go about this--just look at the comments on the Celtic's fan page--and there is a non-toxic way. The non-toxic way requires maintaining interest and appreciating the skills and gifts of those who have succeeded. When we fail we also learn. We gain insight we wouldn't otherwise have and even though we drift away from the doing, we still find joy in experiencing the success of others.
Sometimes, too, we keep on doing the thing...even though we do not expect much growth or success. I mean this is a good way. Continued trying also brings joy. For me, one of those areas is music. I play (or try to play) a number of instruments pretty poorly. I do not seem to get better. There was a period, in fact, when I was a kid where my piano teacher kept giving me easier and easier method books. I was literally and measurably getting worse as I played! However, I enjoy it. It is part of my "walk" as much as walking, itself. Therefore, I am sharing with you a bit of that journey too...when it makes sense.
It kinda makes sense these days because I am getting ready for a gig. You see, I am in a loose band of sorts that mostly plays in church. There is a core of three or four people and then a broader cloud of participants when they are available. We play folk and gospel songs in church mostly as hymns and "special music". The group is an outgrowth of a youth ministry called the "Eliot Church Ukestra." Kids grow up of course. This leads us to the gig. Some of the former ukesters went on to form a much better band and now we amateur few get to play during their lunch break once a year at a party known as the Endwar Biathalon.
This year I am playing the banjo. The banjo deserves its own post, of course. It was born out of the African-American experience when enslaved people adapted the gourd instruments of Africa using the material around them on the plantations of the south. This is why a banjo looks so different when held up against a guitar, for example. There is a drum head and metal bits creating a sound that can be sublime or can be unpleasantly--and occasionally pleasantly--like witnessing a car engine throw a gear or two. However, that is part of its appeal. It is not "nice." It has resistance built right into it.
It is worth noting that if you didn't know that the banjo is an African American instrument there is a reason. Of course that reason is racism. The banjo was nearly taken over by white people in black-face during the "Minstrel" craze of the early 20th Century and then continued to be popularized in "country" music as defined by the traditionally racist recording industry in Nashville. As a white person who plays, I find this important to be aware of. Of course black banjo players didn't go away. Now the banjo is being taken up again by innovative performers like Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, Hubbie Jenkins, Layla McCalla, Trey Wellington and many others. It is good to see and to hear.
Banjo is actually a family of instruments. The most famous--and the one Americans refer to as "the" banjo--has five strings, is open-tuned (if you strum it without pressing any strings it makes a recognizable chord), and is featured in bluegrass, country, some rock-n-roll, and anywhere hipsters gather. It has a pretty sound with each note ringing (according to Pete Seeger) like pinpricks or tiny stars. I love it. There is something special about lying out in a field some summer night at a music festival listening to the banjo, fiddle, and mandolin (I also play mando) bouncing off the hills.
However, that is not the one I play. I play a four-string tenor banjo. To be precise (because it matters) I play a 19-fret, open-backed (no resonator), "Irish Tuned" tenor banjo. The tenor (in all its iterations) was adapted for jazz and was a go-to for filling out the rhythm section. They are ideal for choppy, staccato chords that can be heard over the horn section. If you ever go to Honk, you have seen them near the drums in the marching line. The tunings vary, so does the body. In any case it is loud and sometimes harsh sounding. Today it continues to have a place in New Orleans jazz, Irish music and folk-punk. To hear it played well you can look up Don Vappie, the Dubliners, The Pogues, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dropkick Murphys, and Devil Makes Three. Those last two bands have mosh pits. The tenor banjo has edges which I like, but, of course, that makes it hard to play and--as I mentioned before--I am not a very good musician. I have to practice a whole lot over the next few days.
Anyway, this is a long post to ask you to pray for me as I once again try to find joy in the midst of my inadequacy. If you have a similar hobby I urge you not to give up. Not because you are going to get better--though you might--but because it brings you joy and you bring joy to the world.
OK...this is the 3rd of 3. It is part of a potential workshop/presentation on the subject of Environmentalism and religion. I suggest starting with #1. Then it will make more sense. All of them can be found in the "Spirituality/Ecology" category to your right.
Section 3 The Approach
Now, this approach, I think, has three elements that I will list individually but of course occur simultaneously. They are based on what we need for any good ongoing conversation:
First, there is the simple act of witnessing the earth; of making the effort to actually see it in as wild a state as possible. This can be hiking, or camping, or taking the canoe out on the Quinobequin to study the miracle of skunk cabbage as I have been doing recently.
This last piece may be worth dwelling on for a minute. I will have to say that I did it as an assignment for a workshop I am taking. However, once I got out there, just by observing, I could see how the roots of the skunk cabbage hold on to the banks. It turns out they generate their own heat, so they are the first up in the spring. They hold those banks so that the birds, fish, and all those turtles we see can make a home amidst the dead reeds and grasses that shelter them. It is possible to learn a great deal--as in all relationships--if we take the time.
Still, though, your witnessing can also be picnics or sitting outdoors, or just taking a moment to observe the hawk eyeing the squirrels and mice that run across our lawns. In fact, we can learn by reading, too. Through delving into other people’s research. Here I am talking about real research based on the scientific method, tested and challenged by a number of different scientists.
It is important to take this work seriously, after all. We have known about the phenomenon of climate change for a really long time. In the 1820’s a French scientist named Jean Baptiste Fourier suggested that the difference between his calculation between the rate the sun alone was heating the earth and the actual temperature of the earth had to do with a layer of air trapping heat. In the late 1850’s and early 1860’s people like Roger Tyndall and Eunice Foote separately began to experiment with a variety of atmospheric gasses. Among the most effective at trapping heat was CO2. We could have done something back then or at any number of stops on the way as further discoveries proved the same or related points. Resistance was even understandable at first as old theories needed to be debunked, but it hasn’t really been understandable for a long, long time.
This leads us to the second element. Delving in to watch the skunk cabbage or to measure the effects of greenhouse gasses lead us into greater interaction. It is not enough to witness; to see the Earth as holy and magical, and a gift to life. We need to actually “speak” to it. We need to touch it.
Here, again, we have resources and we have skills. We can, in fact, touch the Earth just a bit more deeply. We can plant, like we do at this church all the time, there are trees and vegetable gardens, right here on our lawn. Also, we do the same thing at home. Even cooking, preserving, and eating. All these actions are fundamental parts of being alive. Anyone who has struggled with the ecosystem to get something to grow knows that there is vulnerability in the process
We can be more ambitious than that, too. In the Religious Education committee here at church we sometimes talk about teaching the kids how to forage. Originally we meant it as a long-running joke about mushrooms. However, as time goes on, we have become more serious. This, too, is touching the earth; an act of mindfulness; learning and understanding through our interactions that the earth touches us back.
Now we get to the third and most difficult part of this spiritual practice…accepting our vulnerability and changing our behavior.
We need to do this, and not just in small ways–though that is a place to start. Now, I know this can be difficult. We like the way we live for the most part. Or, at least, we have become used to it and don’t know how to change. I am well aware, for example, of the fact that spending most of my free time driving around New England to go hiking is neither responsible nor sustainable in the long term even if I walk to work.
There is a web page that I can give you after the presentation that calculates how many planets we would need to sustain everybody if everybody lived like us. I confess that I am somewhere between four and five. I think I can do better. I bet we all could do better.
So we have to work on these things; to struggle with our impact. It is a logical extension of this conversation. After all, when we have a relationship–or a good relationship anyway–with someone or something we take their needs into account. We modify our behavior when necessary.
Therefore, if we are truly participating in steps one and two–witnessing and interacting–then we will naturally turn back our egos a bit, in order to slowly descend back into the pool of every being and make changes for what we love.
Now we cannot just do this on a personal level–though that personal level will make some greater sacrifices easier. As I said–or at least implied–earlier, it has to happen on the community level as well. In some ways the current emphasis on the personal acts of recycling, driving less, and buying local is a cover for our institutional malfeasance.
For all of us to make that change we have to do it together. For that we need to be held accountable. We need to be regulated. We need to be encouraged and incentivized. This will not happen without advocacy.
For this reason–as we touch the Earth–we pray for the strength to not just change ourselves. We have to change that culture we talked about at the beginning of this presentation. We have to change the society we live in.
This is a lot to think about. It has taken us generations to get to this point in our relationship with nature and our task is to turn around; to start walking back to where we once belonged. That will probably take generations too but the time to start is now. We cannot wait.
So let us take a moment to think once again about how we already touch the earth, how we interact with it, and what we can do in the future to pursue this conversation further and make a better place for those who come after us.
This is a continuation of the previous post...so maybe you start with that? Otherwise it picks up abruptly...
Section 2: Religion and Scripture
From a religious perspective–At least in the west–the root of our approach frequently Comes from that passage in Genesis–from the creation story–that we heard today. You are all no doubt aware of it. We read it every year at least once. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that crawls on the ground.’”
Now, what our Bible translates as “be stewards” is more frequently translated as “have dominion”; “Let them have dominion over the fish in the sea…”
That translation (which you may be more familiar with) has most often been used to legitimize our exploitation of the earth. In fact, it has remained unexamined for a long time. After all, it stands behind the idea that the Earth was “Given as a Garden” as a “Cradle for Humanity” as one popular hymn in this church puts it. It implies that it is here for us to harvest in whatever way we wish.
While we in this church might like to think of ourselves as being on the side of the “stewards” as our Bibles translate it–to be those fighting for environmental regulations and incentives–that interpretation still gives us dominion, doesn’t it? In many ways we are those stewards, but only when it suits us. We don’t always actually live that way because we move in a world built for human conveniences. From how we make our homes to how we work to how we spend our free time we still act as dominators. It is hard not to! After all, dominion is the side our human culture–certainly our privileged western culture–has chosen and, to some extent, we are trapped in it.
Of course we are only trapped in it only as long as we fail to make a cultural change.
This is possible to do and it can start with these words from Genesis. It can start by reexamining them in the light, not of recent tradition, but of linguistic and historical interpretation. You see, it also turns out that this same Hebrew word that has been translated as dominion for so long can also be translated to mean “To descend” or “go down”. So you can read that passage as “Let them go down to the fish of the sea, let them descend to the level of …everything that crawls on the ground.”
This is not exactly stewardship but it is really not dominion either. In fact, it is something more radical than both. It is the “far pole” of belonging to the Earth and all that is in it as part of a commonwealth of life.
That translation changes our starting point doesn’t it? It places us inside creation once again along with everything else that makes our ecosystem function. It also underscores what poor citizens of the commonwealth we humans have become.
Now, if we human beings are going to survive, we must find our way out of the lifestyle web–As individuals and as a group–that has been created for us over the course of generations. Things like this new approach–or new again approach–to Genesis, along with the teaching of people like Thich Nhat Hanh, or Isaiah, or Jesus can help to lead the way. If we had more time we could go through the Bible now and find many, many passages about living in harmony with creation as well as passages about the wisdom of the non-human part of the natural world.
Can you think of any?
First: Pause for suggestions
Then (if no one comes up with anything): Suggest Psalm 104, Isaiah 5:1-17, Matthew 6:25-34
When we read the Bible in this way it turns out that we are all called;
To bend down and touch the Earth
To descend from the high point we have created for ourselves
And to renew an ancient conversation
With the world we are a part of
So I took a course recently in order to prepare for my sabbatical. My sabbatical will be about spiritual disciplines outside of the church. This weblog is part of it. The course was an attempt to work on thinking scientifically and ecologically rather than philosophically and theologically. It has been a long time since my college science courses and I wanted to get an update on the language and a reminder of how to think scientifically about environmental issues. In the end the course was a bit of a dud. However, The syllabus was excellent and the assignments generated a lot of material. My final project was a three part "presentation" on religion and environmentalism. So...here is Section 1!
Note: I do not normally write out an entire presentation, preferring an outline format. However, this particular 30-50 minute speech/workshop is based on a 15-minute sermon on the same subject that I gave during this class. You can still see parts of the way I format my sermons. Apologies for any unconventional punctuation. The actual presentation would probably not be read directly but would hit these points.
Context: This is set in the context of the original sermon, which is to say The Eliot Church of Natick, MA, located in the western suburbs of Boston, and affiliated with both the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association made up mostly of teachers, social workers, nurses and the like. Naturally It assumes their background, which includes a firm grounding in the scientific method.
Section 1: State The Problem
Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that “When [the Buddha] was challenged by Mara–who personifies delusion–[he] touched the Earth…and said ‘With Earth as my witness, I will sit here in meditation until I realize true awakening.’”
(from a short meditation entitled “Touching the Earth”)
There are few places where we can go today; where we human beings are not in charge, where we have not altered the landscape or the ecosystem in some way. After all, we can hike through the White Mountains among some of the tallest peaks in New England–places that feel so remote and wild to our citified and suburbanized selves–only to reach an open place. There we look down and see the result of human activity; towns and forest operations…and ski resorts…and the long ribbon of Interstate 93, which is how we all got there in the first place.
The ecosystem that supports us is fading. We know this.
We hear and read stories about “mountain top removal” in southern Appalachia, where whole hills and mountains are destroyed, sending toxic fumes into the air and toxic runoff into the water and the land below, permanently destroying the landscape. We know about Climate Change. The increasing levels of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide that have created this crisis are the result–we know–of our own human conveniences and economic desires.
Also, we are well aware of more local issues. That Increased car and foot traffic in the White Mountains is an example. We know that this is the tip of the iceberg in the somewhat paradoxical situation we eco-tourists can find ourselves in. We also know that there is collateral damage evey time we leave our houses, whether we are going to work or to play.
Even more locally, the debate around the removal of the spillway across from our church is another example. We have a choice to either free and repair the river’s ecosystem that has been struggling for almost a century or keep it, preserving human memories and perhaps property values along the shore. We know, or have learned through this last debate, about the diverse ecosystem of the Charles River–whose Algonquin name is Quinobequin–that we rely on in our human-constructed neighborhoods. And we have learned about how much healthier it could be if we gave nature more power over its future and gave ourselves less.
In the noise of all these discussions–from the global to the particular–there are occasional fights over facts. There is actual confusion on the particulars, which is to be expected. However, the fight goes farther than that. I guess there are some folks who would like to fight over those details, to bend the truth to fit their needs.
I don’t want to get bogged down arguing scientific facts like they are opinions. The forces at work are well-researched and documented. They have been tested and we know that the ecosystem that supports us is fading because we do not seem to be able to change our ways. We can argue other things–like what to do with these facts and where to put our priorities–but the facts remain. The earth is warming because of us. The water and the air are filthy because of us. We may have passed the tipping point of sustainability, again, because of us.
Now, compounding the issue is that–In the midst of all the other very real and very immanent crises–this environmental crisis seems slow moving. As if we could put off worrying about these things until we fix other things. We can’t wait, of course, and we shouldn’t. These issues are intertwined, after all. At the UCC webpage you can find a statement from the People of Color Environmental Summit, for example, that makes that message clear.
They state, in part, that they “Hereby re-establish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth; to respect and celebrate each of our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves; to ensure environmental justice; to promote economic alternatives which would contribute to the development of environmentally safe livelihoods; and, to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples”
Which is to say, that the old argument of economics, or defense, or jobs, versus the environment perpetuates a false dichotomy. A just and sustainable human ecology requires all of us to live in ways that do not destroy our home.
So, let’s return to the topic of “touching the Earth”. As many of you know, over the year I have made a study of this. I have been concerned with finding ways;
To return to conversation with creation
To take time out of the manufactured human rush
To reflect and to communicate with the natural world
To Touch the Earth as Thich Nhat Hanh says
And see what this planet, this universe, this holy Creation has to say.
How do we do it? How do we touch the Earth? Needless to say, given my tendencies, I believe that we must approach the issue spiritually and religiously. We must make our connection to Creation our “practice.” We must, in fact, practice it every day.
Now, those of you who know what I am talking about when I mention looking down from a high mountain and seeing the highway must have climbed a mountain or two. You must already have the seeds of this practice within you. So before we move on, let us take a moment, first in silence to lift up those connections, and then to share them with your neighbor.
First: 1 minute of silence
Then: 5 minutes of sharing
As some of you know from an earlier post, one of the things I am doing to connect with nature is spending time on the river across the street from my house. The plan is the engage in close observation. This project brought me into closer-than-usual contact with skunk cabbage.
I watched Symplocarpus Foetidus over the course of a couple weeks. It was always on the list because–it being early spring–there were few plants available along the banks of the Charles River where I live outside of Boston. The most prolific early grower in my area of observation, in fact, was the “burning bush” (Euonymus Alatus) an invasive that is now illegal to sell in Massachusetts and New Hampshire because of the tenacious hold it has on the local environment. It came here as an ornamental for lawns and "gardens". Other landscaping staples like Rhododendron can be found along the banks as well. Some migrated, no doubt, and others were planted.
Skunk cabbage, on the other hand, is indigenous to this part of the world. Perhaps ironically, part of my interest comes from the fact that it, too, has been banned or regulated in parts of Great Britain. Apparently context is everything with invasive species. They are survivors, which also attracted me. These days--much of the time--I and the people I know are thinking hard about survival. Economic crises, plagues, and war seem closer to us than they were before. Our human ecology is frayed and fraying. Taking the boat out to visit a species resisting the incursion of civilization is restful, even inspiring in ways.
Henry David Thoreau recognized this in his own observations. Writing in his journal on October 31, 1857, “If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year.”
Along the river–even when the invasive burning bush is just beginning to awaken–the skunk cabbage is already well established. If the observer is in the right mood, it can be remarkable to look at. Its broad green leaves and alien flower evoke the times of the far past or far future. Its smell--designed to attract pollinators--is more rude than off-putting.
Unlike most plants, the skunk cabbage is “thermogenic”, meaning it generates its own heat. This keeps much of the frost at bay, allowing it to establish itself in the wet areas of its habitat by spreading roots out and down for the majority of the year. This aspect–possibly more than its famous smell of rotting meat–is a key element to the survival of its habitat along riverbanks and other areas susceptible to erosion. My own observations, of course, did not cover its fall transformation, when the old leaves die off to reveal Thoreau’s “spears” underneath. However, I was able to see some of the benefits this provides the landscape.
The approach for my observations--as I noted earlier--included regular trips by canoe or kayak out on the Charles to see how the cabbage and the ecosystem itself is doing in the human-dominated suburban community where I live. The role of the cabbage–particularly during this early spring part of the year, is a key element. It is easy to miss in many ways, but if one knows what to look for, the situation is quite clear.
The Charles River (Its Algonquin name is “Quinobequin”) is a narrow, meandering body of water as it passes through Natick, MA where these observations occurred. On each side of the river at its widest points are large marshy areas that are home to a larger percentage of the wildlife that makes the Charles home. The tall grasses and brush rising out of these banks provides protection to at least two species of turtle as well as nesting areas for Blue Herons, Canadian (and feral) Geese, 3 observed species of duck, a mating pair of swans, amphibians in their various stages, and fish. There are also insects and songbirds in abundance.
During this time of year the grasses have yet to recover from their winter. The wildlife conceals itself within the gray, dried remains of last year. The lone green–with its complex root system–belongs to the skunk cabbage.
I was careful when taking the above picture not to disturb any of the geese who were nesting in my proximity. However, it shows the very edge of the largest of these marshes which, in addition to providing habitat for wildlife, also are responsible for flood prevention, absorbing a large portion of the excess water we experience in March and April. The limited number of green grasses that can be seen around the base of the cabbage may actually be benefiting from the warmth of the cabbage itself. It is not unusual in the spring and fall for them to heat the ground enough to eliminate the frost layer nearest their roots, giving other species a head start as well.
Just visible in the picture above is a large, white house. The Charles is not in a wild and remote place. Over 900,000 people live in its watershed. Even more commute into the area daily for work or other activities. This means the ecosystem must contend with air, water, light and noise pollution on a regular basis. There are human-made structures that disturb the flow of the river and the ability of plants to take root. There is toxic runoff from the street above. Those invasives abound. The invasive plants are mostly from a couple of centuries of home and public landscaping projects. Some invasive animals–like the red-eared slider turtle–are descendents of pets and were later released into the river when their novelty wore off. Others--like the rat--are opportunists. Some of these species play nice with the environment. Others do not.
The skunk cabbage functions as part of the team of species keeping the river habitat together and is frequently able to make headway in places other species cannot. At the top of the first picture, in fact, one can see the barricade that indicates the presence of a major commuting road into Boston. Twice a day it is clogged with cars and trucks going to and from the city. However, just below, in the mud that has gathered around the foundations of that road are the skunk cabbages, helping to absorb sound, clean the water, and provide safe haven for the rest of the river community. They are hard to kill and impossible to remove, which is a problem in Britain. However, it is ideal for life on the Quinobequin, where it has always made its home.
Again, this isn't really just a hiking blog. That is no more true than right now. A family-wide Covid epidemic has left us isolated at home and sick as dogs. Thankfully, we are vaccinated. I actually had my second booster the day my wife started showing symptoms. Though that last shot turned out to be a couple weeks too late, I am glad for the other ones. Who knows how horrid it would have been otherwise.
Anyway, this hiatus from our usual weekend hiking expeditions has made me realize how important they are. The hiking part is important, sure. More important, however, is just being outdoors. Being cooped up indoors most of the time is exhausting more than any hike. It is why I don't like winter. You are either moving around skiing, snowshoeing or whatever or you are trapped at the office or the living room. It is hard to just sit. Drives me crazy.
So the past few days on into the weekend I am getting familiar with my garden. The garden is pretty much my project. My eldest son--who normally grows vegetables for a living--has customarily helped, but now he is on the Appalachian Trail. Middle son--who also grows veg--has no interest in more gardening when he gets home from work. Youngest son hates gardens and vegetables. My wife is content to let it be my project. This means it usually takes a back seat to hiking and any other free-time activities.
But here I am...sick. So the past few days have consisted of me planting, weeding, dividing, and harvesting...runny nose, startling hacking cough and all. Then, exhausted, I stumble into the shade with my coffee to stare at the garden while I plan my next project...once I catch my breath. My garden--two raised beds, an herb bed, and some old plastic planters--is not pretty. Even when everything is in peak season it has the look of an amateur. That said, it is important to me. It is another way to interact with nature. It is a way to touch the ground even in my imperfection.
Mid-plague when we were all falling apart and I couldn't walk more than a few feet my eldest bought me a little kneeler so I could weed the herb bed, which was all we had at the time. Then he lobbied me to buy myself the first raised bed. After the surgery on my back, he helped me put it together. It is a good memory in a dark time. I still couldn't walk much or well. Now, though, I could be outside with a reason other than feeling sad. Yeah, I had "outdoor office hours" during the plague and I am outdoors typing right now. Still, it was [and is] different when you are doing inside activities outside. My neighbors probably think I am total nerd for doing this...which I am.
The garden also gave us something to talk about. It wasn't that we lacked topics! Still, this one is different. It is about resurrection and growth. It is about getting better in spite of everything that holds us down. Now--while he is marching across Virginia--I text him garden questions and send him pictures a couple times a week. It is something to share other than mountain pics, which are a bit coals-to-Newcastle right now.
This week I divided the near-dead lavender. I hardened-off and planted some iffy pepper plants, basil, sage, fennel (for the flowers and the parasitic wasps that will make it home) rosemary and bush cukes. I made a tiny salad out of the greens that are coming up. I searched for and found a few reluctant perennials as they made their appearance, marking them off with parts of a pair of glasses I broke in my delirium. Then I wrestled with the mint. I have some spaces open for kale and eggplant and some empty flower pots still but--given my positive status--it is all over except the watering and weeding for a a couple more days.
Now it is getting hot. So here are some pictures of my ugly garden. The middle ones are from past years. The first and last are from this week, taken from the relative shade of the parsonage during coffee breaks. You can see the kneeler in its "banjo seat" position. May your encounters with Creation be good ones this weekend, whatever they may be.
I know that this weblog looks for all the world like it is about hiking. However...it is a little broader than that. As I have mentioned in other places, it is an attempt to find ways to experience spiritual connection in nature, and outside of church. What we think of as church is dying. The plague has accelerated the tendencies that already existed in our society. I am not worried. People are still finding social and spiritual connection. They are continuing to be active in the world.
All this writing is part of a larger project just forming as part of my sabbatical time next year. Yes, ministers (many of them at least) get sabbaticals. They are not as long as the ones we know of from academia or business. They still exist, though. Mine is formed to delve into this question of connection and to report back here and in other places...like church...which I said was on its way out but still serves many many people who are asking life's deep questions.
Anyway, this is a sermon inspired by my project and delivered to the Eliot Church of Natick, MA. It is non-creedal, so people have a wide range of views on religion and theology. Still, they have these questions and like examining them together. I preach most weeks and will NOT be posting many sermons here. This one did seem to be relevant however...
Yes... I know that this is the non-church blog. Still, this is more about nature and spirituality than anything else and that is really what this is about. I am taking a course/workshop online about ecojustice and ecological literacy for religious leaders. We had an assignment to write a "psalm of praise" for our local social ecosystem. The "praise" part hung me up a bit because humans--even well-meaning ones--make quite a negative impact on the environment wherever they live...and that is pretty much anywhere.
But this is what I came up with after taking the kayak out on the Charles River (Quinobequin in Algonquin). I could praise the river and the life it supports, and the people who are fighting to restore and protect it...
April on The Charles: A Psalm of Praise
by: Adam Tierney-Eliot
Praise God for the awakening of creation
In the In the temperate biomes of New England
In the Inland marshes and deciduous forests of Massachusetts
In the fertile valley of the meandering Quinobequin
Praise God in all the miraculous wonder
That emanates from its waters
From the kin-dom of animals;
Both sliders and painters
Rolling off the logs at another's approach
The rustling on the banks of new life;
Of Rodents and their predatory foxes
finding their place by the water
The swans on their nest,
The geese (mostly Canadian),
And mallards on the river current
Searching for insects darting under the surface
And in the air;
The red-tailed Hawk,
The Herons hidden away
Waiting for their fish,
And the frantic flight of the red-winged black bird
Reveling in the new growth
Of new buds and insects on the old decomposing logs
Praise God for the kin-dom of plants, too;
Growing river grasses pushing up amid the spindly burning bushes
on the wet, spongy soil
Too new to know their names
And the first buds on the pines, the maples,
The native skunk cabbage
That thrives early on Quinobequin’s banks
All these many organisms and more
Diverse yet overlapping helping, feeding, being fed upon
Native, non-native, and invaders
In a constant cycle of life, death, and new life
Each organism reaching out to others
Both hostile and hospitable
Praise the power of life and wildness
To flourish in the cramped confines
Of human sprawl
And praise the river-keepers
Working for its return
Walking onward toward reconnection
To the ecosystem no living thing can escape
Praise God for the power of creation
From the small local habitats
To the grand biomes
That ebb and flow
According to the shifting
Of temperature, water, light, heat and cold
God’s creation is beautiful in its complexity
And its interconnection
Beautiful Creation in its complexity
We are connected and interconnected
Praise for all God’s people
Praise all God's beings
Who also praise and act
And bring us closer
To the divine universal interconnection
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.