Ecology/Environment Feed

Great Plains Weather

Great Plains WeatherGreat Plains Weather by Kenneth F Dewey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fun exploration of the crazy, extreme weather of the Great Plains. One thing I learned was that the wild swings of temperatures and conditions has always been a feature of this region. We all have our personal stories of weird changes of weather (like wearing shorts in the morning and snow boots in the evening), but the ones in this book are truly wild.

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Works of Mercy

Works of Mercy

Matthew 25:34-40; Micah 6:6-8

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

4 April 2022

            In sixth grade I played soccer.  We practiced on a field about a mile from my house that was part of the campus of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, close to the football stadium.  When soccer practice was finished, our legs would be covered with a sticky, orange dust.  When you showered at home, the orange would run off of your body in waves.  Also your soccer shoes and socks took on an orange stain regardless of how many times you washed and bleached them.

            We knew that the orange dust was the result of the field often being flooded by nearby Tar Creek.  Because the water in Tar Creek was a bright orange ribbon running through the landscape.  We knew it was stained orange because it flowed through an area of closed mines.  For in the time of our grandparents and great-grandparents, our county had provided much of the heavy metals that the US used in manufacturing and fighting two World Wars. 

            To me it was ironic that this polluted creek flowed through the richest neighborhood in town, for a long stretch bordering the estate of the Coleman family who had owned the mines. 

            We knew it was polluted.  But somehow, we never really thought about how toxic it was.  It wasn’t until I was an adult and read an article in Time Magazine that I had the epiphany that I had routinely been poisoned as a child by heavy metals such as lead, zinc, and magnesium.  I’ve long pondered how we didn’t know that, didn’t realize it, weren’t up-in-arms as a community about that?  Willful ignorance?  Corrupt and venal political leaders?  The effects of that lead on our brains?

            It wasn’t just the orange residue in the soccer fields.  The mine tailings, called chat, which is something like gravel, were/are piled in giant mounds that rise in northern Ottawa County near the Kansas border like small mountains, creating a weird and fascinating moonscape.  People went there to play, to climb the chatpiles, to ride dune buggies.  People also used the freely available chat for all sorts of things, in particular as gravel for roads and driveways.

            My grandparents driveway was gravel.  As a young kid I’d play in it much like a sand box, using tools to shape roads and hills and cityscapes to drive my cars and toys.  I don’t know that my grandparents gravel came from a chat pile, but it very likely did.  As did that along the county’s gravel roads.  Which means I played in the residue of heavy metals.  And every time a car drove down the county road and kicked up dust that blew in across the farm, dust so bad that my grandmother would clean her living room twice a day, we all were likely breathing toxins.

            The person who did finally take the lead on addressing this problem and both informing and mobilizing the community was Rebecca Jim, who was one of my high school counselors.  It was in her role as sponsor of the Indian Club at high school that she and a group of students began to raise awareness.  Eventually Rebecca retired as a school counselor in order to full-time lead the agency working on cleaning up this environmental disaster and restoring the waters.  Some people believe the problem is too big and that the creek will never be clean again, but Rebecca refuses to believe that.  She says, “We want swimmable, fishable, drinkable water. I’m still working for the day when we can say, ‘yes, meet me at the creek.’”

            This very familiar biblical passage in Matthew 25 includes a list of ministries that have collectively come to be called the “Works of Mercy.”  Feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison.  And most churches, regardless of their theology or politics, usually have ministries that try to address some or all of these needs.

            Ragan Sutterfield, whose article has guided our Lenten worship series, writes that “A world in the midst of ecological crisis is a world in need of mercy and compassion.”  And so as we contemplate what spiritual practices are required of us in order to living faithfully, sustainably, and resiliently at this time in the world’s history, Sutterfield believes that the Works of Mercy in Matthew 25 are a great place to begin. 

            And so he invites us to renew our imaginations and look again at this familiar list of ministries and see how we might embody them in the midst of an ecological crisis.  So, for example, if one of the teachings of Jesus is that we must give water to the thirsty, surely that means we must have fresh, clean, healthy water.  Which means that if Christians are to faithfully live into this work of mercy, we must also be concerned with the state of our waters.  Our work of mercy then means being concerned about a place like Tar Creek and the heavy metal pollution from discarded mines and its many impacts upon the landscape, the waters, and the health and well-being of humans, plants, and animals.  Our faithfulness to God expands our vision, our concern, and ultimately our work far beyond what we might have initially thought.

            As Ragan Sutterfield writes, any work we might do on a particular environmental issue actually must be seen within its wider connections to a host of other moral concerns, so we should seek to do our works of mercy “within a frame of healing the whole.”

            He was one of seven contributors to a booklet entitled Embodying Care: The Works of Mercy and Care of Creation that engages in this act of reimagining the teachings of Matthew 25 through this wider lens of creation care.

            If Love is the “center of creation,” which follows from our Christian teaching about the nature of God, God’s work in the world, and God’s expectations for human beings, then love will be at the center of our focus in spirituality and service.  The booklet reads:

Our work is to cultivate our affections for the gifts of creation, which includes our own lives.  When we begin to love the creation, giving our care and attention to it, we will begin to move into the life of the Creator, the community of God called Love.  Love binds together all.

            This being a communion Sunday, I was particularly drawn to the discussion of feeding the hungry by Episcopal priest Nadia Stefko.  She ties this work of mercy to communion.  She describes the communion table as “our fullest expression of covenant eating,” and points out that this “sacramental encounter must infuse and inform all of our eating throughout the weeks of our lives.”  So the lessons we embody at communion should be shared throughout our normal interactions.  How so?

            She asks us to consider what it means when Jesus talks about feeding the hungry. Who exactly is hungry?  Honestly, we all are.  She writes, “So when we talk about how best to feed the hungry, we are talking about how best to feed all of us—about how we humans take our life from the life of the world around us.”  And so our concern and our work of mercy should broaden to include how food is raised and prepared, the many issues related to the agricultural economy.  All of this enters into our covenant with God and with the world.

            Nadia Stefko provides six suggestions for how to reimagine this work of mercy, feeding the hungry.  First, we need to learn what we can about food and its production.  Second, we can’t just be passive consumers, but should be engaged in our food preparation through gardening, cooking, hunger relief efforts, and more.

            Third, we should do our best to eat locally.  Her fourth suggestion builds on this idea—we should also build local community around our food by getting to know people through food—eating together, cooking together, raising it together.

            Her fifth suggestion is very important—“acknowledge your limits.”  Our individual actions will not fix everything that’s wrong with our current food economy.  We cannot achieve a “morally pure diet.”

            And her final suggestion is to “remember always to say grace.”  She expands on this idea:

Giving thanks for food is a countercultural act in two ways: It speaks against the commodification of food by naming it as gift . . . and it articulates gratitude for what is present before us, over against the fear about what is absent—the fear that fuels the myth of scarcity that is embedded in our dominant food systems.

            So, these are just a few ideas connected to one of the works of mercy.  We could perform the same reimagining with each of the others.  I encourage you as part of our Lenten reflection and preparation to engage in this reimagining.  How might your spiritual practices, your acts of service and ministry, be conceived of through the lens of creation care and healing the whole?  What then are some specific new things you might do to continue to live, in this season of sustainability and resilience, as a faithful and effective disciple of Jesus?

            I want to close with another statement from Ragan Sutterfield.  He writes “Our call is to love and care for our neighbors within our limits.  This is work enough for those who engage it fully—and for some corners of creation, it can make all the difference.”

            I loved that statement.  Sometimes we get overwhelmed by all the issues of justice, peace, and morality that call for our attention and time.  But we each individually have limits.  We need to remind ourselves that the church universal and all people of goodwill are working together and collectively on these issues.  All we must do is our part.  Rebecca Jim was just a school counselor who got concerned and motivated about the polluted creek that flowed where she and her students live.

            So go and do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  This is work enough for all of us.


Bewilderment

BewildermentBewilderment by Richard Powers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Powers is an astonishingly and agonizingly good author. He continues the focus on climate change explored in the Overstory, but this time with an intimate novel as one grieving father tries to parent his special needs son who is overcome with concern for animals and the environment. Powers is able to beautifully describe birds and grass and far off stars and planets, while also capturing the rich textures of the emotions and the inner lives of humans. He writes about sadness with such beauty. This book will leave you thinking and feeling, haunted by what it portends and inspired by what it imagines possible.

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Once Upon a Tar Creek

Once Upon A Tar Creek   Mining for VoicesOnce Upon A Tar Creek Mining for Voices by Maryann Hurtt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maryann Hurtt, despite not being from my home county, has portrayed it quite well in this volume of poems. She has captured the spirit of the place.

The book also contains detailed documentation, so there were facts and stories that I learned about my homeplace while reading this book.

It's core subject is the lead and zinc mining that has polluted Tar Creek. But she ranges through the history of the county, particularly the stories of Native American tribes relocated there.

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Wendell Berry's Lifelong Dissent

A good essay in the Nation on Wendell Berry as his new volume of collected essays is published.

Even as Berry made himself a student of the flaws of local life, he sought to refashion its patterns of community and culture into something that might repair them. For him, narrowing the horizons of one’s life is the only responsible way of living, since it is how we might actually heal old wounds, clean up our own mess, and give an honest account of ourselves. Throughout his essays, he makes this case for ecological reasons but also for moral ones. Farming on a local scale, he argues, can respond to the nuances of soil and landscape and can rebuild the fertility cycle of dirt to plant to manure to dirt. Ethics also has its limits of scale. “We are trustworthy only so far as we can see,” he insists. The patterns of care that give ethics life also require a specific space. To hold ourselves accountable, we need a palpable sense of what is sustaining us and what good or harm we are doing in return. Community depends on the sympathy and moral imagination that “thrives on contact, on tangible connection.”


River of No Return

A powerful essay by Ted Genoways (whose book This Blessed Earth I just finished reading) on the flooding in Nebraska this spring and how this demonstrates two failures--a failure to maintain our infrastructure and a failure to cope with climate change.  He lays the blame on the far right ideology of the GOP and Democrats ignoring the realities of rural life.  The essay is a moving portrayal of the damage done to Nebraska farmers.  


Berry Criticism

This review of Berry's essays in the New York Times seems woefully unfair to me.  The author is correct that Berry has often written on the same topics, which is a reason one doesn't really need every essay he's ever published.  But the author fails to highlight some of the key themes that are so important, such as affection or what it takes to really build community.

Yes, Berry can sound like a crank at times, but I have found his an essential voice.  I read both his essays and poetry, admiring the latter deeply while often feeling challenged by the former.

And, yes, he is "conservative" on many issues while being "progressive" on many others, meaning he doesn't fit well into our current political divides.  I think he likes it that way.  I believe this is part of his essential function, however.  He is the rare voice trusted by folks across the spectrum who can speak words of challenge to them on some of their sacred cows.


This Blessed Earth

This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family FarmThis Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I moved to Nebraska in 2010 all new UCC and DOC ministers gathered at Camp Kaleo in the center of the state in the Sandhills near Burwell for an orientation to ministry in Nebraska. One of our speakers was a western Nebraska rancher. He talked about rural-urban divides and how urban folk don't understand ag issues. I pointed out that many urban people were deeply concerned about agriculture as evidenced by the growing interest in eating locally and organically; I almost mentioned my long fondness for Wendell Berry. The rancher was very dismissive of what I said. Later, I was talking to my Conference Minister and asked him about it. His answer, "For a family to have survived farming in Nebraska, they have bought up the land of their neighbors and they now run such big industrial farms that the ideas of organic farming challenge how they've been living for a couple of generations." It was a good learning moment for me.

Genoways book is a story of one year in the life of one Nebraska farm family, a liberal family at that, but ones who still farm with contemporary industrial practices. The book helps you to understand why and the history of getting there. I deeply appreciated it for conveying how difficult and complex farming is today and the breadth of skills and knowledge required to be successful--from mechanical and IT know-how to grasping global trade, chemistry, bio-engineering, energy policies, climate science, and more. SO different from the life my grandparents led and their farm I have such nostalgia for. The book left me dizzy and wondering why anyone does it anymore.

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Great Plains Bison

Great Plains BisonGreat Plains Bison by Dan O'Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What have we done? This well-written book is about one of the great ecological catastrophes in human history--how human beings have in the last few centuries ruined the thousands years old ecosystem of the Great Plains. Not only did we slaughter the bison to near extinction and commit genocide against the nations of the Plains, we ruined the entire habitat with our plowing, irrigation, pesticides, GMO crops, etc. If you thought the sad part of this story ended a hundred years ago, and we began improving things after the Dust Bowl, O'Brien's book will surprise, for the catastrophe continues apace.

But he is a good writer, with a beautiful imagination, so this is not a depressing read. Hopefully it is a call to action for those of us who love the Plains.

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