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His obituary online doesn’t offer much but Cole died at 18. There’s no way an 18 year old’s death is anything but a searing tragedy. And if Cole’s family or friends should read this, I am sorry for your loss and deeply admiring of the memorial you provided for him.
Cole is remembered lovingly with a hill-prairie bench in the shade of a stately bur oak facing south over Pheasant branch, where a creek bubbles from bedrock and flows into Lake Mendota. I sit on Cole’s bench in every season, absorbing Creator rhythms, listening, and wondering about the young man.
Our church offers small outdoor services to mitigate Covi risk. Sunday, we met at Pheasant Branch Conservancy and Pastor Doug led while we sat on a bench facing the hill prairie. Halfway up, I could see the bur oak that stands sentinel over Cole’s bench.
I’d already been doom-scrolling twitter with my coffee and likely wasn’t my best self, but late February sun warmed my face and chest despite the cold, spilling full from a pristine blue sky. Here with elemental presence, we prayed and celebrated communion, surrounded by winter-rank prairie, and crusty snow, song sparrows and a hopeful wind.
Hill prairie burial mounds are as old as Christianity, a quiet sanctuary at the very top. My Ho Chunk neighbors claim the mound-builders as ancestors and this hill prairie is a singular geography in the four-lakes region we know as Madison.
I led a natural history hike for some undergrads Saturday, and we explored the marshes on Mendota’s south shore. I told them my muskrat story and then pointed them northwest across the lake. Nearly five miles off, one can see distinctive savanna skylined above the neighborhoods, standing sentinel over the ancient burial mounds.
The news is awful. War in the digital age means photos coming to my screens in near real time. I carry the photo of the dead Russian soldier covered in late winter snow, the bloodied Ukrainian woman, the children huddled in the subway. I grieve for Ukrainian civilians and young Russian soldiers (described as poorly trained and even demoralized by what their leaders call them to do).
I remember other stupid wars. I remember the corrupting influence of oil money and nationalist power-lust and I remember that my presence here, right now, is itself linked to genocidal and racist removal of native people. I carry it all as I hike to the top, and I have no flags to wave. Worship is done, I have work to do and an exam to give on Monday, but we are here and I want the bur oaks to weigh in. They take the long view.
It’s a perverse irony that the IPCC released its latest report on Monday. I haven’t digested it fully, but climate scientists are tweeting that our climate emergency is even more dire than we knew. The headline comes from the IPPC’s press release: “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”
Already the fossil fuel companies are lining up to profiteer. More drilling, more fracking, more infrastructure. “It’s the war effort dontcha know.”
“Human-induced climate change and the war on Ukraine have the same roots — fossil fuels…We will not surrender in Ukraine, and we hope the world will not surrender in building a climate resilient future.” says Svitlana Krakovska (Ukrainian IPCC delegate).
Ukrainians are teaching us moral clarity. It’s a remedial lesson.
The proximity of Cole’s bench and the burial mounds testify to the spiritual gravity of this place. Here we honor our dead. Here, the impulse crosses the centuries. We leave our memories in the landscape. Here we step into history and invite it to absorb our grief – even again. I am convinced of a human impulse, that our species has spiritual antennae. We know the thin places, many of us. We seek them out.
I’ll be in my class this week, surrounded by young people. Many of them not much older than Cole was. Many of them, the age of soldiers. In previous stupid wars, I’ve had students leave to go and serve. Typically, they’re working-class kids, funding their education through the National Guard and they get called up to advance the interests of the petro-state. They tell me they’re leaving and that they’re sorry.
Over 100,000 people protested in Berlin, there have been heroic protests in 55 Russian cities despite the heavy authoritarian threat. Young people have been protesting for action on the climate crisis for years now. The Ukrainians and the protesters are showing their mettle. Pray for them. Listen to them. This is a righteous people’s resistance.
The world is signaling its support but how is it that we let megalomaniac authoritarians (note: plural here) cause so much chaos? Blessed are the peacemakers who put Ukrainian flags on their social media pages and talk about unity. I wonder if all that resolve dissolves when the price of gas for the SUV begins to rise.
Lent begins this week. A few of my students will show up to class with an ashen cross on their forehead. Good for them. I may get mine too and I’d like to think that I’ll visit Cole’s bench and sift these things through a prairie soil and listen through a primal prairie wind. But I have to take my professor schtick on the road, so I’ll do my introspection through the windshield. They want me to speak at a forum on ethics, for crying out loud.
Sometimes, I think that the greatest thing that religion offers is a language for lament.