“Composting for Our Future”  Mark W. Harris

 March 25, 2018 –  First Parish of Watertown, MA


Opening Words from Thich Nhat Hanh

 Waking up this morning, I see the blue sky

I join my hands in thanks for the many wonders of life;

            For having twenty-four brand new hours.

The sun is rising on the forest

            And so is my awareness.

I walk across the field of sunflowers.

Tens of thousands of flowers waving at me;

My awareness is like the sunflower;

My hands are sowing seeds for the next harvest.

My ear is hearing the sound of the rising tide on the magnificent sky.

I see clouds approaching with joy from many directions . . .

I can see rice fields stretch their shoulders

Laughing at the sun and the rain . . .

Tomorrow, the hills and mountains of the country will be green again

Tomorrow the buds of life will grow quickly; . . .

The whole family of humans will sing together with me in my work.


Reading – “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens  (excerpts)


Complacencies of the peignoir, and late 

Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, 

And the green freedom of a cockatoo 

Upon a rug mingle to dissipate 

The holy hush of ancient sacrifice. 

She dreams a little, and she feels the dark 

Encroachment of that old catastrophe, 

As a calm darkens among water-lights. 

The pungent oranges and bright, green wings 

Seem things in some procession of the dead, 

Winding across wide water, without sound. 

The day is like wide water, without sound, 

Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet 

Over the seas, to silent Palestine, 

Dominion of the blood and sepulchre. 


Why should she give her bounty to the dead? 

What is divinity if it can come 

Only in silent shadows and in dreams? 

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun, 

In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else 

In any balm or beauty of the earth, 

Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven? . . .


She says, “I am content when wakened birds, 

Before they fly, test the reality 

Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings; 

But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields 

Return no more, where, then, is paradise?” 

There is not any haunt of prophecy, 

Nor any old chimera of the grave, 

Neither the golden underground, nor isle 

Melodious, where spirits gat them home, 

Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm 

Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured 

As April’s green endures; or will endure 

Like her remembrance of awakened birds, 

Or her desire for June and evening, tipped 

By the consummation of the swallow’s wings. 


Is there no change of death in paradise? 

Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs 

Hang always heavy in that perfect sky, 

Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth, 

With rivers like our own that seek for seas 

They never find, the same receding shores 

That never touch with inarticulate pang? 

Why set the pear upon those river-banks 

Or spice the shores with odors of the plum? 

Alas, that they should wear our colors there, 

The silken weavings of our afternoons, 

And pick the strings of our insipid lutes! 

Death is the mother of beauty, mystical, 

Within whose burning bosom we devise 

Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly. 


Sermon – “Composting for Our Future”  Mark W. Harris

The poetry of Wallace Stevens is what most of us would call obscure. Do you remember, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream?”  What was he talking about? Perhaps the idea is that ice cream is so good it deserves an emperor. Enjoy. Our reading today, “Sunday Morning,” falls into the same obscure category. Because of length I only read some excerpts. The poem tells an interesting story. It is Sunday morning and a woman decides not to go to church. She is thinking about heaven, which she likes the idea of, but it turns out that the natural world provides just as much comfort, and ultimately she decides there is no divine apart from the emotions she experiences in nature. In a section I didn’t read, she compares Jesus with Jove or Jupiter, a powerful God in mythology who represents the sun and the sky, and she wonders if our worship of these Gods represents a desire to praise nature.  Do the Gods lead to paradise, or is earth the only paradise? She worries that the field won’t feel like paradise anymore once the birds are gone. Does she need to believe in a beauty and happiness that lasts forever, but the poet says that nothing beautiful exists without change, and a paradise without death and change would ultimately be terribly boring, and sad.  “Death is the mother of beauty.” New life comes, and life goes to create life again. Everything humans experience and value exists in time and that fleetingness makes everything more valuable than it would be if it lasted unchanging forever.

I have been thinking about this sermon all week, even as I was away on vacation.  As I walked the beaches, and felt the wind, and heard the tides, of islands and shores that will be lost or washed away in the Carolinas, even as we have seen pounding surf in Scituate, and water flooding into Boston in March storms. In all these, I thought constantly of transience- of what comes and goes, of life and death. I thought about it as I bought coffee along the road from Sunset Beach, North Carolina to Charleston, South Carolina.  They served it in a Styrofoam cup. This is something that usually makes environmentalists cringe. Yet on the side of the cup it said: average weight paper hot cup with a cardboard sleeve requires 47% more energy to produce than a comparable foam cup. I momentarily wondered, have we been steered in the wrong direction?  Then Andrea said how someone once told her that Styrofoam is more environmentally friendly than paper, BUT, and this is a big BUT, it is much harder to recycle.  So, of course, most places don’t take Styrofoam, and it turns out that chemicals from the Styrofoam leech into the liquids and food in the containers, poisoning you. Probably better to bring your own cup, and avoid Styrofoam altogether.  And who wants chemicals mixed with their coffee as a flavor enhancer? Yet the experience made me wonder, what is the best course of action when it comes to environmentalism? Probably no one in this sanctuary is a global warming denier, like many of our politicians, including the head of the EPA.  Yet it is also not always clear what the best thing to do is. Didn’t Darwin teach us that the extinction of species and transience were natural phenomenon? How much can we save?  How much are we willing to sacrifice? I don’t mean owning a Prius or recycling. What about cell phones? They have become ubiquitous.  Even Mark Harris owns a cell phone. Yet mobile technology poses serious environmental challenges, both because of the raw materials needed to produce the hardware and the pollution associated with disposal.  Would you give it up?

I thought about the sermon some more as I visited Morris Island on the edge of Charleston harbor.  Morris Island is where Battery Wagner was located in 1863, a crucial part of the defenses of the city. Here Col. Robert Gould Shaw and his 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the 1st black regiment in the Union army assaulted the parapets and tried to take the fort, as depicted in the movie “Glory.”  They failed, and Shaw, a Unitarian, and about half of his men were killed. Later that year the earth and sand walls were abandoned, and thirty years after that the entire fort washed into the sea, along with the remains of all the fallen soldiers.  Our tour of the former site was an ecological adventure as we searched for shark’s teeth and shells along a beautiful rain swept beach. Where was Battery Wagner I longingly inquired of our guide, and she said about 50 yards off shore, out there, as we looked out into the harbor.  Morris Island lost fifteen feet of beach last year alone. The land is forever eroding, naturally, with the tides, and also speeded up by climate change.  Later we visited Fort Sumter, the site of the first battle of the Civil War. This, too is on an island in the harbor, one made by human hands. I was surprised, and somewhat disappointed by what remained of the Fort. Yet it was a reminder of the devastation of war, and the terrible conflict that led to the emancipation of the slaves, the preservation of the union, and the beginning of our modern nation. As we began to leave the island I noticed a sign of how climate change effects Sumter, and saw that in fifty years, it is expected that the Fort will have washed away. This is among daily reminders of devastation. The surge from Tropical Storm Irma last September entered Fort Sumter, and kept the historic site closed for nearly two weeks. A recent report suggests some 32,000 important archaeological sites in North America could vanish to rising seas over the next few centuries. Many more areas in danger of washing away forever are yet undiscovered. Charleston is on the frontlines. We can feel grief over what is lost, and reverence for what remains, even as we participate in efforts to conserve and preserve.   Each storm a reminder of the transience of life.

Thinking about the environment can make us feel like the apocalypse is going to strike. Just the other day I read that there is a large plastic garbage patch floating in the Pacific.  It is three times the size of France and growing. Plastic seems to last forever, which is why it is a hopeful sign that some towns are banning plastic bags, and yet they still proliferate. The remains of my Styrofoam cup are a form of Polystyrene plastic.  Yet one does not have to go very far to see the effects of pollution and environmental degradation.  A simple walk along the Charles, especially on the Newton side during the winter months reveals large amounts of trash.  Some of this is alleviated with the Charles River clean up next month in honor of Earth Day. While our President is renouncing climate accords, our EPA chief Scott Pruitt is spending thousands flying frequently on first class, and becoming a harbinger of grave dangers with the pronouncement he is making plans to restrict the agency’s use of science in rulemakings, which would threaten public health and environmental protections.

Science plays an interesting role here.  Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist has a new book called Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Pinker says that we need to think about global problems, such as climate change in a different way.  He says they are not apocalypses waiting to happen, but problems to be solved.  Studies show we can do more about a problem when we think its solvable, than when we are frozen by fear. I sometimes see islands disappearing or predictions of worsening storms, and melting arctic icecaps, and I want to run away and hide. Yes, these March storms were caused by a melting arctic. Will we have more storms, or fewer storms that are greater in intensity? What can alleviate some of this threat?

Pinker believes that science can give us the answer. Undergirding all of this is his belief in progress.  No longer considered an outdated notion, Pinker provides page after page of evidence that things have gotten better over the centuries, from fewer war deaths to less poverty, to greater human rights. I know what he is saying about one aspect of the environmental movement, and that is that science has provided some answers to environmental degradations we humans have caused. We have cleaned up rivers that were once polluted and odorous. A couple of years ago I swam in the Charles, and if you walk down the streets of Lewiston, Maine, the smell of the Androscoggin no longer knocks you flat. We might say that it was science that created those problems in the first place with industrial waste, but who is ready to give up the comforts of life provided by such things as home heating fuels, automobiles and those darn cell phones?  Most of us would conclude that technology has made our lives better.  There is the trade-off. Some environmentalists want to renounce technology like the Luddites of old; English workers who destroyed machinery, in cotton and woolen mills, that they believed was threatening their jobs. Pinker looks at what he calls neo-Romantic forms of environmentalism that subordinate the human species to the eco-system, and seek a green future by giving up modern ways of living, renouncing technology. I am for urban farming and alternative forms of fuel, but I also want technology to help find answers to our environmental conundrums.

The other day I went to the Watertown Senior Center to procure my senior parking pass. This provides free parking to people who are over 65 years of age, if you display it on your dashboard. The woman at the desk seemed to know me, even though I did not know her, a casualty of being a public figure. She asked me for my registration, and then quickly corrected herself, knowing that I probably did not have a car because, as she said, you walk everywhere. In fact, I sheepishly said, I do have a car with me, and I’ll go get the registration. Yet the expectation was that I had walked. No one is perfect, and I sometimes drive locally, but the desire to walk is an appropriate response for all of us, not merely for our health, but for the sake of the environment.  It is overwhelming to try to respond to sinking islands and disappearing glaciers, but it is not overwhelming to engage with nature on a human scale. This is where composting comes into play. For the past few years Andrea and I have been mixing up a stew of compost in our backyard. Thanks to our First Parish member Tristan Lawson, I have learned a little bit about something I was totally ignorant of. The last few years he has helped us cultivate a garden on our front lawn, and helped with composting the earth, even as I add the vegetables and fruits from our kitchen while mixing in some leaves. In this way I get to know the earth in my own backyard.

We can all do that. We might learn what grows wild in our local area and whether we can eat it.  We might go out at night and plant seeds in vacant flowerbeds near where we live. We might work to save bees or butterflies or water meadows or woodlands or playing fields that we know and have a relationship with. We might walk in the hills, or down by the river and get to know our place and how it works.  This is not going to save the world but it does mean we can see the beauty of the flowers, feel the earth, smell the rain, and see what causes change and growth in the environment. In that composted earth that germinates our seeds we will soon see worms, those wiggly creatures that point to a symbiotic relationship of mutuality and collective care. Worms find themselves nourished by others’ waste, their waste in turn nourishing the soil where things are able to grow.

We often hear the story of Buddha becoming enlightened under the Bo or Bodhi tree. While he is meditating there, the demon Mara tries to frighten and distract him, much like we might think of the devil trying to tempt Jesus. Mara sent his three daughters using violence, sensory pleasure and mockery in an attempt to prevent the Buddha from attaining enlightenment. How did he respond? He touched the earth.  The earth grounded him, and became his witness to life. The earth was his voice that reconnected him to life from all these distractions. Once Gautama was reconnected to earth, and signaled as such, the demons fled. When the morning star rose, Buddha had achieved enlightenment. Thinking of those earth worms, we know he touched something that was filled with life, and ready to connect him to the growing spirit alive in the world. This stabilized his frightened soul.

One interesting trend that Pinker reports as a sign of progress is that since the Enlightenment we have increasingly put away the gods. The advance of science has meant that mythologies of Gods have been described as bogus, stories to convince people that there is a permanent paradise somewhere in the beyond. Those of us who believe in preserving the beauty of earth know that a focus on the afterlife or a world other than this one can be in tension with improving the world or caring deeply about it. Remember James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, who declared that we didn’t need to preserve the environment because the end of the world was coming?  I would hate to think we would neglect this world because we believe there is a better one coming. I began this sermon by sharing the story of the woman in Wallace Stevens’ poem and her Sunday morning dilemma. Doesn’t it make more sense to champion the beauty of nature right here and now, rather than contemplate a static world that promises eternity but no prospect of growth, change, or love. How boring heaven would be.  I recall an old Doonesbury cartoon strip in which Gary Trudeu has Zonker ask what they would do in heaven after they all become reacquainted. “Well”, he says, “I guess we’ll all go bowling.”

There is a bit of gallows humor about environmental issues these days.  We used to joke that the first property we owned in Maine, that was about a quarter mile from the ocean, would soon be waterfront. Now that we have a house on the harbor, we wonder if it will wash into the sea, but more often we think of the warming water and air temperatures in mid-coast Maine, and conclude it will soon be more desirable. Maybe thinking this way is how we learn to survive spiritually in a world of constant change. Our way of holding on to a sense of place – touching the earth like the woman in Stevens’ poem, or like Buddha when threatened by demons. A few months before he died First Parish member Mike Altamari had a tremendous burst of creative energy, producing painting after painting.  One day he handed this landscape to me for no particular reason.  It depicts a cloudy sky and a dry earth, and when we lose someone we love, and come to grips with our own mortality, we can feel a sense of aloneness and fallow ground.  But nature shows that life comes again, even as islands disappear and storms threaten.  Life dies, but then somehow comes again, providing new love and meaning, and sustains us now and in the days to come.  As Julian of Norwich once said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Unison Closing Words

We feel the firmness of the earth.  We hear the voice of the waters.

We sense the warmth of the sun. We notice the movement of the air.

We take the spirit of this place into the world.


Thanks to colleague Susan Ritchie for inspiration on Buddha section.