As part of the ‘Season of Creation’ Penelope Turton, of St James’s Eco Team, writes her Thought for the Week about our sense of deep communion with the rest of nature.
The sounds and scents, the sights and touch and tastes of the natural world must surely be amongst life’s most supreme gifts. All the more so because we recognise that they come to us through grace, poured out freely to all, irrespective of how we respond or interact with them. They surround us from our cradle to our deathbed, delighting, inspiring and comforting us.
In her poem ‘My work is loving the world’ Mary Oliver takes our imagination to successive images of these wonders – the sunflowers, the hummingbird, the quickening yeast, the blue plums, the clam deep in the speckled sand, the phoebe, the delphinium, the sheep in the pasture. And she writes:
“Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished. ….
which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.”
So natural does our sense of deep communion with the rest of nature seem that it can feel like a birth-right. But like everything we treasure, it is as fragile as it is real. As we accelerate into the destructive ravages of the Anthropocene, I find my joyful astonishment at the wonders of the natural world is increasingly punctured with fear, my rejoicing with grief, and my gratitude with remorse. As Pope Francis’ ground-breaking encyclical letter on ecology, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home expresses so forcefully, the “cry of the earth” is making itself heard in the devastating impacts of climate change – not just the extreme weather events and rising sea levels, the severe droughts and devastating floods, but also in the disappearance of entire species from the face of the earth and the loss of biodiversity of its ecosystems, forests and woodlands, river basins and oceans. We can no longer allow ourselves to feel so at home in the world, and for many, particularly migrants and refugees, this experience is now deeply rooted.
We know that in the last half century roughly 60% of all individual mammals have been erased from the face of the earth and 20% of species of organisms may now be on the verge of extinction. We know too that these numbers are set to increase dramatically(1). We realise that of course they are not just numbers, that the losses and deaths are preceded and accompanied by pain and terror – and multiple domino waves of harm and anguish will follow in their wake. It is heart-breaking to think that every time a creature dies, a song dies. And every time a species is extinguished, its song dies forever(1). As the ecological catastrophe tightens its hold, we have to confront something that is hard to bear: ours is the species that is destroying that which we most love and that upon which all life is dependent. And each of us is playing our part.
Scripture tells us that we have been here before. The prophets give voice to our destructive power: “Disaster overtakes disaster, the whole land is laid waste … I looked on the earth and lo, it was waste and void … I looked on the mountains and lo, they were quaking … I looked and lo, all the birds of the air had fled … I looked and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord (Jeremiah 4). The Psalms offer us the voice of lamentation: “My soul is in deep anguish. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears” (Psalm 6). And Jesus himself was often the voice of weary anger at the intransigent hard-heartedness in which we can so easily get stuck. If ever there was a time for us to get in touch with these voices in ourselves, it is surely now?
But our voices cannot only cry out our sorrow, our lament and our despair. We cannot lose faith with beauty or cease to align ourselves with the Creation that God declared to be “very good”. Our song must also be the voice of loud and insistent protest against the forces that are perpetrating the harm and the governments that are failing to promote the forces of regeneration. Our mouths must also give Mary Oliver’s ‘shouts of joy’ and sing a song of hope and light, as in these lines from the beautiful ‘Lost Words Blessing’, written in Scottish Gaelic folkloric form by a group of European musicians:(2)
Walk through the world with care, my love
And sing the things you see
Let new names take and root and thrive and grow
And even as you stumble through machair sands eroding
Let the fern unfurl your grieving, let the heron still your breathing
Let the selkie swim you deeper, oh my little silver-seeker
(and) Even as the hour grows bleaker, be the singer and the speaker.
(1) Kathleen Dean Moore’s “Earth’s Wild Music – celebrating and defending the songs of the natural world” has given me much food for thought.
(2) video at https://youtu.be/-E1nedPYsj4