Love Thy Nature

This sermon given by the Rev. Alison Cornish at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster on April 7, 2019. Readings precede the sermon below.

Time for All Ages: “The Agreement” by Barry Lopez

South Fork of the Salmon River ( source)

One time…before there were any people walking around this valley there were bear people. They had an agreement with the salmon people. The salmon would come upriver every fall and the bears would acknowledge this and take what they needed. This is the way it was with everything. Everyone lived by certain agreements and courtesies.

But the salmon people and the bear people had made no agreement with the river. It had been overlooked. No one thought it was even necessary. Well, it was. One fall the river pulled itself back into the shore trees and wouldn’t let the salmon enter from the ocean. Whenever they would try, the river would pull back and leave the salmon stranded on the beach.

There was a long argument, a lot of talk. Finally the river let the salmon enter. But when the salmon got up into the country where the bears lived the river began to run in two directions at once, north on one side, south on the other, roaring, heaving, white water, and rolling big boulders up on the banks.

Then the river was suddenly still. The salmon were afraid to move. The bears were standing behind the trees, looking out. The river said in the middle of all this silence that there had to be an agreement. No one could just do something, whatever they wanted. You couldn’t just take someone for granted.

So for several days they spoke about it. The salmon said who they were and where they came from, and the bears spoke about what they did, what powers they had been given, and the river spoke about its agreement with the rain and the wind and the crayfish and so on. Everybody said what they needed and what they would give away.

Then a very odd thing happened—the river said it loved the salmon. No one had ever said anything like this before. No one had taken this chance. It was an honesty that pleased everyone. It made for a very deep agreement among them. Well they were able to reach an understanding about their obligations to each other and everyone went (their) way. This remains unchanged. Time has nothing to do with this. This is not a story. When you feel the river shuddering against your legs, you are feeling the presence of all these agreements. 

— Barry Lopez “The Agreement”

Reading: “Earth Teach Me” from the Ute Indians

Earth teach me stillness
as the grasses are stilled with light.
Earth teach me suffering
as old stones suffer with memory.
Earth teach me humility
as blossoms are humble with beginning.
Earth teach me caring
as the mother who secures her young.
Earth teach me courage
as the tree which stands alone.
Earth teach me limitation
as the ant which crawls on the ground.
Earth teach me freedom
as the eagle which soars in the sky.
Earth teach me resignation
as the leaves which die in the fall.
Earth teach me regeneration
as the seed which rises in the spring.
Earth teach me to forget myself
as melted snow forgets its life.
Earth teach me to remember kindness
as dry fields weep with rain.

—from the Ute Indians

Meditation: “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver

Blackwater Pond (image source)

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars
 
of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,
 
the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
 
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
 
is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
 
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
 
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.

— Mary Oliver “In Blackwater Woods”

Reading: excerpts from “A Sand County Almanac,” Aldo Leopold, 1948

Image from the Aldo Leopold Foundation

On a land ethic
Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land.  Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen and by innumerable physical gadgets.  He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow.  Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a “scenic” area, his is bored stiff.  If crops could be raised by hydroponics instead of farming, it would suit him very well.  Synthetic substitutes for wood, leather, wool, and other natural land products suit him better than the originals.  In short, land is something he has “outgrown.”

The case for a land ethic would appear hopeless but for the minority which is in obvious revolt against these “modern” trends.   The ‘key-log’ which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this: Quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem.  Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient.  A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as emotional process.  Conservation is paved with good intentions which prove to be futile, or even dangerous, because they are devoid of critical understanding either of the land or of economic land-use.  I think it is a truism that as the ethical frontier advances from the individual to the community, its intellectual content increases.

The mechanism of operation is the same for any ethic:  social approbation for right actions; social disapproval for wrong actions.  By and large, our present problem is one of attitudes and implements.”

— Aldo Leopold, excerpted from “A Sand County Almanac,” 1948

Sermon: Love Thy Nature

The Rev. Alison M. Cornish
As I was meditating on the theme of today’s service, and the musical offerings and readings selected by the Green Sanctuary Committee, a vivid childhood experience came rushing back to me. 

I was perhaps 9 years old, visiting a zoo with my mother and some friends, and watching a dolphin cavorting in a deep pool; sleek and lithe, moving through the water the way I dreamed I, too, would love to – arcing up and slicing through the clear waves it was making for itself. 

Nearby, a zoo worker talked about the animals.  Looking down into the water, I noticed some pennies at the bottom of the pool – as is so common in fountains and ‘wishing pools.’ 

I dug a penny out of my pocket, and tossed it into the pool, watching it flutter down through the water.  Suddenly the zoo worker was yelling –at me – scolding me in front of everyone.

What a stupid, dangerous thing to do he shouted.  That dolphin thinks you just threw some food, and is likely to choke on what you just thoughtlessly threw in the water.  I felt myself turn red and hot. I was as embarrassed at being called out in front of others as for having done something wrong.  Others had done what I had – there were lots of pennies on the bottom of the pool, but I was the one who got caught.  I remember walking slowly away, tears brimming and cheeks burning, and – perhaps the worst feeling of all – unable to undo what I had done.

Fast forward a few years. Now I’m an adolescent, again on a family outing, this time at an aquarium.  Again, we stopped to watch the dolphins swimming about.  No zoo worker this time – instead, there was an interpretive panel mounted on the railing by the pool, showing a picture of one of the aquarium’s dolphins taken during an autopsy, its intestine filled with – pennies, made bright and shiny by the animal’s stomach acid. The grisly display was clearly intended to stop people – people like me – from throwing pennies into the dolphin’s pool.  As I looked at the picture, my heart sank, and my stomach twisted.  This wasn’t ‘my’ dolphin – I hadn’t thrown a penny into this particular pool – but … it could have been. It might have been. 

I tell you this not as a personal confession, or as a glimpse of me as a flawed human being capable of making egregious mistakes, although it is both.  This story rose into my consciousness – and my conscience – in contemplating today’s theme – Love Thy Nature, I think, for a couple of reasons.  The memory suggests to me a more apt name for today’s service is ‘Love Thy Nature’2 – that is, ‘Love Thy Nature Squared’ – because there are really two ‘natures’ we need to love – the nature seen in that glorious dolphin – as well as in the transient world Mary Oliver describes – and our own human nature – us, the often exasperatingly wrongheaded beings we are.  Love for these two ‘natures, are two different tasks; but, I believe both are necessary and critical to our survival, as well as the survival of those with whom we share this planet.  And the stakes are high – for if we fail, we stand to lose both ourselves, and this precious place we call Home.

This morning’s reading from Aldo Leopold, written in 1948, is but one plea from a long line of philosophers, conservationists, theologians, and yes, even musicians, who decry the separation between humans and the natural world – and the consequences of that separation. “Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen and by innumerable physical gadgets…

[they have] no vital relation to it …” Leopold laments.  “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot,” sings Joni Mitchell.  Barbara Kingsolver writes, “We have a habit of naming a new development for what we just cut down and bulldozed – ‘Hidden Valley Condominiums’ – Whispering Pines Resort.’”   I imagine you, like me, are sympathetic to their cries, and share their sadness of losing what we love – a hallowed place, a habitat teeming with life.  Most of us would like to see more open land preserved from development – most of us see real value in animal and plant species having unpolluted, undisturbed, land to call their own, to live unfettered and free lives.  And most of us are all too familiar with the forces set on pushing ‘nature’ further away, to the edges of our towns, and our consciousness.  And, most of us are not as connected to the world of nature as we could – or – should be.

Saltwater tidal creek, Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Gateway National Recreation Area; Gregory J. Edinger; source

Before moving to Philadelphia, my husband and I lived for 27 years on the east end of Long Island.  We were blessed to have a house fronting directly on a saltwater creek, which led out to a bay, bordered by a wildlife refuge, and a county park.  At this time of year, osprey would return from their winter homes in Florida, their distinctive chirp announcing their presence.  As the creek water warmed, so did the turtles, who floated to the surface from their winter quarters in the mud.  Geese hatched goslings in the reeds.  We were surrounded by the rhythms and cadences of nature because they were literally in our front yard.

Life in the city is an altogether different enterprise.  Nature exists in the interstices – between pavement and steel and the machinations of human invention.  Tree roots explode through concrete sidewalks. Birds nest in rowhouse gutters.  Cherry blossoms float down the river, swirling around plastic detritus. 

What I want to say is – while it was easy to be aware of the natural world when it was everywhere around us, it was also frighteningly easy to take it for granted, to become inured to its astonishing richness. Finding nature in the city is more like a scavenger hunt – there if you look for it, precious and remarkable in its tenacity.  But here’s an uncomfortable truth:  in either place – surrounded by close-by trees and water and marshland, or the carved-up gridded cityscape – to truly be in touch with nature, and to allow nature to touch us, requires acts of intentionality on our part.  Because whether we are habituated to its presence, or too busy to search out its slim existence, it has become entirely possible to live out the daily patterns of our human lives in ways that touch – us to nature, and nature to us – simply does not happen. 

image source

Think about it – reaching for the shrink-wrapped chicken or fish in the grocery store’s refrigerated case – do you remember it once breathed the same air we do? What about that carton of almond beverage squeezed from nuts fed by California’s water ‘borrowed’ from the future? 

Slipping on a pair of jeans, do we think about the fabric’s fibers spun from countless cotton bolls, grown and harvested under the relentless sun?  The metals in the battery that powers my smartphone – do I picture them mined in far-away Congo? 

from:World Wildlife Fund impact of cotton

This separation I’m describing may not look exactly like the mindlessness of my penny tossed into the dolphin’s pool all those years ago; but the consequences are similarly dire – though magnified by multitudes.  When we have eyes only for the human-made products of our world, it is so easy to simply not even see the rest of the world – the plants, animals, seeds, minerals; the rivers, salmon and bears; the insects, soil and compost for next year’s crops.  And what we don’t see, we can’t love. And what we don’t love, we can’t save.

Just as there has been a steady flow of those who call out our separation from nature, there has been another, more recent stream of thinking about the human species’ place in the world: that it’s just a matter of time before the conditions set in motion by the agricultural and industrial revolutions manifest a world that is simply impossible for us to live in – and, so goes this line of thought, the world will be better off without us.  Without human activity that pollutes and destroys, endangered species pushed to the edges of extinction will rebound, habitats will be restored, and the natural order will be returned, as enemy number one – us – fades away into history.

forest in recovery; image source

I cannot analyze how realistic this scenario is – or isn’t.  But I am sympathetic to those who are drawn to it, and hold it.  The condition of the world is grim, and the cause of that condition is us.  We drive the cars, cut down the trees, and build pipelines so oil and gas can snake across the countryside.  We destroy intentionally, and unintentionally.  We preference our own needs above the health of the air, water, and soil needed by all that lives. Even if we wish it were different, we are embedded in a system built on a foundation of ‘humans first,’ voraciously fed by resources taken for our own needs. 

I will admit, there are days when I wish, fervently, that I was other than human, just to separate myself from the species most responsible for this desecration and destruction. But we – humans, that is – are here.  And we have a purpose in being here.  To me, that purpose is not to find new and creative ways to exploit and plunder the gifts that surround us, and on which we and all life depend.  Our call now is to claim and use the unique gifts of our species – that which makes us special – to do what we can – and must – that which no other species can. 

A dear friend, John Andrews, wrote beautifully about this, ruminating on why humans are necessary:

We [humans] have subjective, conscious experience – the greenness of grass, the tinkle of bells, the smell of a rose, the pleasure of sex, the pain of torture, the joy of human bonding, the anguish of loss, the “aha” experience when we solve a difficult puzzle.  Equally special, we are able to pursue goals that go beyond mere self-preservation.
 
People may differ on whether there are other beings that share our gifts of consciousness and purpose.  …  Do some of our cousins among the animals qualify?  Perhaps dolphins create ballets and symphonies that we don’t yet appreciate… if there is any other class of purposeful, sentient beings you think might exist, [think now of] them …
 
Because the next thing I want you to do is imagine a universe in which there are no such beings.  Such a world would be empty of meaning – no joy, no awe, no hope, no love. 

In such a world – however vast, however complex, however charged with energy – nothing would matter.  It is we – perhaps together with other beings of similar or greater capacity – who lend importance to events.  We are indeed the measure of all things.  We can comprehend the awesomeness of the cosmos, the delightful intricacy of a flower.  We can transcend our selfish genes.  We can seek, we can approach, we can even, perhaps, sometimes attain the true, the beautiful, and the good.  Therein lies our dignity.

— John Andrews

John’s description of the role of humans carrying the consciousness of creation reminds me of the words of Annie Dillard found in our hymnal – “We are here to abet creation and to witness to it, to notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.” 

John called out human’s unique role in being conscious; I would add to the “specialness” of the human species – conscience.  Again, our knowledge may be limited, but as far as we know, we are the only species that has a sense of moral awareness about right and wrong, of understanding what is actually our responsibility, and the impulses that move us to act.  This, too, is a special charge and position of our species. 

Consciousness and conscience – these are the human endowments we must nurture and grow faster than any other unique human quality.  We know enough about the interdependent nature of the world to know the web is in tatters.  We have collected abundant information and developed plenty of technological expertise to solve the problems we face.  But without fully developing human consciousness and conscience, we lack the strength and fortitude to live up to our full humanness.  Consciousness, the direct experience of the awesomely beautiful and complex world in which we live, leads us to love nature.  Conscience, to enliven us so that we might act for good, leads us to love ourselves.  We need generous helpings of both – consciousness and conscience – to love our way into the times ahead.

The world is on the brink. We are facing the pressing reality of climate change, particularly the rising surface and ocean temperatures of our planet, Earth.  The cause of that warming is clear:  human activities, most especially the production and combustion of carbon-based fuels, as well as agricultural activities such as factory-farming of animals and clear-cutting of rainforests.  The changes wrought by rising temperatures pose a risk to humans and the multitude of ecosystems of which we are a part, and on which we depend.  Climate change is real. It is here, now – not someday ‘out there.’ The changes are now in motion.

What do we do?

And you know there are lots of pragmatic steps each and every one of us can – and do – take every day. We recycle. We walk or bike. We use less paper, drink tap water, pick up litter, and eat lower on the food chain. We bring our own bags, we take the train.  We know how to do these individual actions.

But there’s a whole lot of space between the aspiration of our 7th principle and the practical steps we take each day.  This is the space for growth for us, so we can face the hard tasks before us. 

This is the space where we must show up as the curious, creative, empathetic – and yes, flawed – humans we are, to ‘remember who we are, to remember how we can live.’  This is the space where the lessons ‘earth teaches us’ become our root tradition, our primary lessons upon which all else can be built.  This is the space where ethics are crystallized, where “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community, [and] it is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  This is the space where the astonishing beauty of nature can break our hearts, and disturb our consciences, so we may begin again, in love.

I will be honest: this work is not for the faint-hearted.  Nor can it be done alone.  It may be odd to close a sermon with the hope we each feel our hearts sink, our stomachs twist.  But this is how we will answer this clarion call of our times:

Come, be fully human. You are needed.

Benediction: Excerpts from the Adorers of the Blood of Christ Land Ethic

Whereas, we Adorers of the Blood of Christ believe creation is a revelation of God, we proclaim that:
 
As Adorers, we honor the sacredness of all creation; we cultivate a mystical consciousness
that connects us to the Holy in all of life…
 
As students of Earth, we listen intently to Earth’s wisdom; we respect our interconnectedness and oneness with creation and learn what Earth needs to support life…
 
As prophets, we reverence Earth as a sanctuary where all life is protected; we strive to establish justice and right relationships so that all creation might thrive…
 
As advocates of Earth, we choose simple lifestyles that avoid excessive or harmful use of natural resources; we work in solidarity with all creation for a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.
 
As companions with creation, we enjoy and share its bounty gently and reverently; we seek collaborators to help implement land use policies and practices that are in harmony with our bioregions and ecosystems.
 
As co-creators, we participate in God’s dream for Earth; we offer new visions and vistas that expand consciousness and encourage creative expression…

— The Adorers of the Blood of Christ
The complete Land Ethic is downloadable here.
Image by Charles Mostoller for The Intercept