With the coming of spring comes the return of a grief that I have just been discovering over the last few years.
A couple of summers ago I read Cal Dewitt’s Earthwise. In it he discusses God’s love for the world and the incredible ways that God provides for all living things, then he asks us to imagine how we, as the people of God, might put God’s love on display. How do we show the world that God loves God’s creation?
I came up with answers you might expect, but it was as if the Spirit had a highlighter in hand, and one answer leapt from the page, necessary for all the rest: to learn about it. The simplicity of it shocked me. I began to confess my failure to love what God loves. Surely knowing the names of the trees on my street or the plants in my yard is only the very beginning of love.
Gustavo Gutierrez has a wonderful quote that I return to often, “You say you love the poor. Tell me their names.” And now I can extend the particularity of love: You say you love the trees. Tell me their names.
It turns out that there is so much more than names to learn. God made a beautiful and intricate world and I knew so little. In truth, I still know so very little, and the learning curve is steep. What once was common knowledge – people had to know the plants and how to care for them because their lives were bound up together – is now so far removed from me that my learning has been slow and halting. But I am on the way.
And being on the way, I have come to grieve not just my own failure, but the much larger cultural ignorance of the manifold gifts that God has given. My eyes have been opened and now each lawn, each garden bed (with notably few exceptions, even in my own yard), each grass covered median, each field’s mowed edge stand as testaments of our collective carelessness. We have not loved what God loves. We couldn’t. We know so little. We cannot love without knowing.
Authors like Robin Wall Kimmerer and Doug Tallamy have helped me along the way. Here are a few things I have been learning:
Plants work together. They are not as individual as the pots that we buy them in. They are a community, interconnected and interdependent. Plants need each other, need living soil, need the bugs and the birds, and even need us. They are not just decorations. And, it turns out, we need all those things to live as well. We are not the robust individuals we fancy ourselves to be either.
In the community of plants, there are some plants that are substantial contributors. Those plants are usually the plants that are native to a particular geographical area. They have evolved in that climate together with the bugs and birds of that area. Many of us know that monarch butterflies need milkweed, but many, many bugs have a 1:1 relationship with a plant. As we replace native plants with lawn, those bugs die. That may seem like a good thing if you’re just imagining creepy, biting bugs, but bugs are the basis of our food chain. If the bugs die, we die too.
Native plants will also filter the polluted water that runs off your house (and into a creek or river) and capture carbon in the soil. They often have very long root structures which means they do much more of this work than non-native plants. But most of the time we think of these native plants as weeds.
Other plants, usually plants that we have brought from other places, non-native species, like the grass we love to spread everywhere and many of our more decorative choices, contribute almost nothing to the community. I have heard lawn referred to as “ecological dead space.” Most non-natives are only slightly better than lawn ornaments. There’s nothing wrong with the plants in themselves, but if they don’t belong in the place, they do not serve the place or its creatures.
There are other plants that are downright vicious. Invasive species are non-native species that don’t feed anyone, and also take over and crowd out the natives. I have only learned a few of these species so far, but now I see them everywhere. Creeping bellflower, and Siberian squill, invasive in Grand Rapids, can each be found in my yard and all through my neighborhood. Roads are lined with Callery Pear, though now some states will pay you to replace them. Invasives are tough to get rid of, but much more so because so few people know or care to know. Many invasives are still sold in local nurseries because they’re pretty.
There is plenty to grieve in climate change, but this beginning of learning about God’s good earth has opened my eyes to our collective “meh” about the whole thing. Now I can see not just the impact of our decisions, but how we got here in the first place. We failed to love what God loves.
Part of what baffles me about this learning is that it is so infrequently encouraged by the church. I have been a very eager Christian for about 25 years, learning everything I could, and I am just now discovering that it is important to care about this. How is that? Christians believe that God created and upholds the world. That should be enough. But there is so much more.
Genesis tells us that our first vocation before sin entered the world was the tend and keep creation. Those are the same Hebrew words that are used for the priests in Exodus who are charged to tend and keep the sacred articles of the tabernacle. This place whole is holy.
Our psalms tell us that God’s creation worships, just as we do. Job tells us of God’s pleasure in what God has made. God watches as the deer gives birth, delights in the ostrich’s run.
When Mary meets the resurrected Jesus at the tomb, she mistakes him for a gardener, which is a fabulous mistake, since when this whole creation is resurrected, Revelation tells us it will be a garden city. How can we be so careless?
It reminds me of a line in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Farmers are being removed from their land and replaced with a combine drivers who plows straight lines through land they do not own, with no connection to its flourishing, not even to its profits or losses. Steinbeck says, “The land died because it was neither loved nor hated.” It died because it was unknown. It died out of the carelessness I now grieve in my neighborhood, in my own yard. I wonder if Steinbeck knew how prophetic his words were.