Opening Words: adapted from Henry Beston, The Outermost House
“Nature is part our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery, we cease to be fully alive. …The Pleiades and the wind in the grass are a part of the human spirit, a part of our very flesh and bone, ..and part of what makes us at home in the universe.
Reading from The Home Place: Memoirs of a colored Man’s love affair with nature by J Drew Lanham
This book tells us the story of the life Drew Lanham shared with his grandmother – a woman one generation removed from slavery, who knew all about herbs and healing and lived with one foot planted in the South Carolina clay and the other in the spirit world. In his writing, trees in the forest are so entwined with family trees that it feels like he is describing the exact place where nature and human nature come together.
I hated Sundays then. I came to hate most Sundays because they caged my mind, body and soul into four walls. I couldn’t look beyond my physical discomfort to see that going to church was a kind of social glue. Black folks and church in the south are stuck fast together like cockleburs on a dog’s back. Church for black folks has always been an escape from a week of toil, a place of refuge where the community’s news can be shared. Sunday was one of the few days we could call our own. Back then, though, all I knew was that I hated going to church…. I was pulled from the roaming rhythm and natural worship that truly fulfilled me. A church Sunday meant that God was suddenly confined to something that seemed much less miraculous than the woods and fields where creation was so evident. Inside the church wall, the wind didn’t blow and the bobwhite quail didn’t call, the hawks didn’t soar and creeks didn’t gurgle.
Later, through studying with great people, and reading folks like Aldo Leopold, and EO Wilson – I came to see church as a place with a heart-filled plea to notice, to nurture, to care. Nature and god are the same thing. Evolution, gravity, change and the dynamic transformation of field into forest move me. A warbler migrating over hundreds of miles of ocean and land to sing in the same tree once again is as miraculous to me as any dividing sea.
There is righteousness in conserving things, staving off extinction, and simply admiring the song of a bird. In my moments of confession in front of strangers, talking about my love of something much greater than any one of us, I become a freer me. I am reborn.
I find myself defined these days more by what I cannot see than what I can. As I wander the predawn dark of an autumn wood, I feel the presence of things beyond flesh, bone, and blood. My being expands to fit the limitlessness of the wild world. My senses flush to full and my heartbeat quickens with the knowledge that I am not alone.
Sermon The Church Without Walls
Once, years and years ago now, a child of mine responded to a question on a diagnostic test with the mysterious phrase, “winged migration.” This answer, in its elegant evocation of both flight and return, worked its magic; for the examiner abandoned the test and turned to me, the mother responsible, with a quizzical eye. The child was being evaluated for language skills – clearly vocabulary acquisition was not the issue. But still, she needed some perspective. WHY did he say “winged migration”?
I explained that we had been to the Museum of Science a few weeks earlier, and seen an i-max movies about migrating birds. It was transporting. The entire curved screen and domed room was alive with floating, dipping, soaring birds. It felt as though we were flying with them. Also, although I did not tell this to the test lady, two years earlier, my children and I had witnessed the butterfly migration. On the pre-dawn beach in Maine early in the month of September, five days after my father’s sudden death, my sleepless boys and I had been tracking a deer, when suddenly the grey morning sky, which had just been starting to light up, turned dark, then flashed orange as the hidden Monarchs opened their wings, and set sail over the ocean. When he murmured “Winged Migration” was my son wishing for release; searching his mind for a time he felt free; escaping the only way he could?
I remembered all this when I read recently about an elementary school teacher, teaching his second grade classroom about Monarch migration, because he was preparing to go, with his parents, to the remote, forested mountains of Mexico; the origination and destination point for the butterflies. Dan’s father was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and his mother had recently been diagnosed with ALS, and they thought that the trip, which involves riding packhorses for hours up very narrow trails on a steep mountain deep in the Sierra Madres, might be inconvenient now, but impossible later. Hobby naturalists, his parents had spent decades growing milkweed instead of grass, trying to entice the butterflies to their yard, and for fifteen years had volunteered in the annual Monarch count. This trip was essential. And so they planned.
Part of Dan’s preparation was to watch the metamorphosis in his classroom. He found some tiny eggs in his parents’ milkweed, brought them to school, and observed with the children as the eggs transformed into caterpillars, and then, eventually, the class had two chrysalises; one of which was attached to a book in the corner of the room instead of on the leaf that had been thoughtfully provided. This book chrysalis had a slightly odd shape, and when the butterfly emerged he had a hole in his wing. According to Dan, this deformity endeared him to the children. He said, “I have a video of the kids on the day we released the monarchs. The butterflies were just out of reach, and they were chasing them and calling out “Holey! Holey!” It looked like a church service.”
Well. One of the first things I thought of, after being delighted and moved by this description, was, that does not look like any kind of church service I have ever been to or even heard about, although it does sound like a rapturous experience. Little bits of orange wing flitting about, having materialized out of nothing but some milkweed leaves and time; this seems miraculous enough, but to be recognizable! The children could tell the butterflies apart. They asked Dan – who was amazed that this butterfly could fly at all — to look for Holey when he arrived in Mexico; to keep an eye out for him all those thousands of miles away.
A couple of weeks ago, I traveled just about one thousand miles, to North Carolina, in order to attend a conference where Drew Lanham, the author of this morning’s reading, was speaking about stories in the land; about how our personal sense of meaning is tied to place. Lanham is a scientist; originally his training was in engineering. After three years, he realized that this was not how he wanted to spend his life. He needed to be outside, with the birds. This meant giving up everything – his scholarship money, his status, his standing in his father’s eyes. Following the birds did not sound like responsibility to the older generation. And yet, to some degree, that choice was what allowed Lanham to find security. Birding connected him to his home; even parts of it that had felt once stiff and confining. He was no longer locked away, cut off from anyone or anything arising from that land. Echoes of the apostle Paul can be felt in Lanham’s story – despite any losses, an eternal home, a house not made with hands, was provided for him, and it is a home right here on earth.
Lanham stayed a scientific kind of birder; performing counts and documenting flight patterns, checking off the date and place of each sighting, until after years of studying naturalists and nature writers, he wanted to develop as a writer himself. At our talk in North Carolina, he described himself as perhaps the only black man in South Carolina who would claim Aldo Leopold – an old dead white guy who was a Midwesterner and Lutheran to boot – as his god father, as his mentor. The fact that Leopold dared publicly to love this earth drew Lanham to him, and made him want to write about nature as Leopold did. So he went to a writing conference. On the first day, all the participants were instructed to sit in a circle and share, and Lanham wanted to bolt. He said, “Scientists don’t share. To us, sharing means criticizing; finding the flaws in someone’s work – where there is room for improvement; or places where there is data missing.” He spent the evening working on the assignment, and panicking about having to share the next day. And then when he read from his work, he just broke open. It was as if he was back on the land of his childhood, back home at the time of his father’s death, out in the field studying the birds, and in the room with the other students, all at the same time. His book, The Home Place, was born that day.
Once I read that knowing the wildflowers of an area – not just identifying and collecting them like so many trophies – but really and truly knowing them means that just seeing a well-loved plant can generate an uplift like that of singing an old familiar hymn. This makes me smile, and spurs me on; makes me want to learn more. But this kind of knowledge does not come naturally. It stretches my memory skills; and more than that, requires a willingness to look beyond the lovely aggregate landscape; to sacrifice it and basically disassemble the big, transporting picture in order to see the individual specimens that create such a scene. Yet detailed knowledge of a landscape can provide transport, too. – the Latin names reveal that the clover that seems to be right at home was introduced to us from Italy, so the patch of green out front takes on a Tuscan glow; or that the waxy green pincushion plants above the treeline on Katahdin are native to Lapland. Suddenly the place where reindeer roam is not so far away; not so very different from Maine’s exposed arctic tundra. What Thoreau once said of traveling much in Concord is true. Being immersed in the details of our spot on the planet can carry us around the globe.
Lately the spot I have been immersed in is a church in another town. Bedford is celebrating the 200th anniversary of their building, and I have been studying the architectural plan, the carpenters, and the timbers, hewn from trees blown down in the terrific winds of an 1815 hurricane. In a history of the congregation, the outreach efforts – which include renovations so that they may house undocumented immigrants in need of sanctuary – were described with the phrase, “the church has left the building.” It is a wonderful, and I think correct, image – no church can be contained if the congregation is fully engaged in its mission. Of course, it is also a little ironic, if I am to be discussing the very building they have so faithfully left! But don’t we all need containers to grow in; to be nurtured in, if we are to venture out into the wilds?
Back in North Carolina, Drew Lanham was talking about his area of the planet, and mentioned in passing an area that the Cherokee called the Blue Wall. Never having heard of this before, I looked it up and learned The Blue Wall is the spot where the Blue Ridge Mountains come to an abrupt end; where the elevation drops drastically. It is a half-mile drama of cliffs and gorges and the largest concentration of waterfalls in the eastern half of the United States, many of them hundreds of feet high. Can you imagine this sensory experience? In addition to the visual spectacle, there is the noise of the rushing and falling water; the scents carried on the moving air…. And it turns out that area around this wall; a relatively small geological area, contains more species of trees than in all of Europe, and is the habitat for more than 400 rare plants. Until the English settlers migrated south, forming villages along the native’s ancient trails, this wall formed the eastern edge of the Cherokee’s home. Each new day arrived by rising up over the Blue Wall. In 1776, hoping that the colonists would by distracted by fighting the British, the Cherokee tried to rebel, and reclaim their sacred land. Instead, they were crushed; those who survived were forced west, into Spanish territory, and the land was ceded to South Carolina. The forests were cleared and waterways diverted. Mills, schools, and farms popped up; the wildlife was hunted until it disappeared, and when the natural resources became scarce, the settler’s population boom ended; until slaves were driven into the area, because the cotton gin changed what could be extracted from the land.
This is where Drew Lanham has his roots; this land where so much blood has been spilled. It is a history that might make a person turn away from the place. But it is not really the land that gave birth to this story. It was people, and policies. The land itself nurtured and sustained everybody, even those who suffered there. When I was reading about the Blue Wall, thinking about the Cherokee removal and the history of slavery, I started to feel with Lanham, just cracking apart trying to write about the place that was his home. It is just so much. Everything is there – the devastation and the horror and the injustice, and also everything he ever loved, and lost, too.
In an interview elsewhere, Lanham said that he first noticed birds because they could fly; that he was jealous. This makes it sound as though he wanted to escape, and yet that seems to be the very opposite of what he ended up choosing. He migrated back home. Migration has always been a central part of our collective story – being ejected from Eden, stolen from Africa, blown across the sea because of starvation or persecution, moving west, moving on. But now there is talk that we live in a post-natural world; that human activity has changed the planet so much that we have altered the course of nature, so the exodus we are experiencing is very different. As we have been seeing, some of it is dramatic, with huge groups displaced and moving across international borders; while other experiences are quieter, with smaller numbers moving slowly, edging towards new horizons. But there is no victory for one group at the expense of another anymore. Instead more and more people are forced out of their habitats by disasters – hurricanes, floods, droughts, earthquakes, changes in climate – that are neither natural, nor within human control, even if they are of our own making.
What does this all mean if you are someone whose religious sensibility relies on the natural world? If nature is what grants you a sense of mystery and peace and reverence, what does it mean to be in a post natural world? This week the newspapers report that the Secretary of the Interior is recommending scaling back many national monuments; introducing mining, grazing and logging in areas that were designated as conservation land. We can no longer preserve a wild world that is free from human intrusion; that stands apart from the effects of people. To think about this seemed overwhelming to me; especially because so much of what we hear sounds apocalyptic, and the message I get is to worry more; to repent somehow – or make others do so – that it is up to me to fix this broken world. I end up feeling trapped and powerless, responsible for something far too big, and longing to escape; to fly with the birds; to feel awe and mystery along with my fear.
Yet I also think we do have to think about these changes; to learn as much as we can; to study the particulars – not just because we are responsible for this earth, but because we love it. Drew Lanham wrote, “church is a place with a heart-filled plea to notice, to nurture, to care,” and it seems to me we can’t understand his story without taking note of what we have considered natural, and address that. Nature cannot be an excuse for inequality. It is not natural for some people to be considered inferior, or to categorize some kinds of love as unnatural, or for the devastation of places where poor people live to be seen as an inevitable part of nature. Inequality is a human product; the result of human manipulation. So nurturing the planet means nurturing life for everyone; nurturing more equally and fairly. We need to understand more and fear less, — both about this place we inhabit, and the other creatures who are here with us – because that is the only way forward. Nature as it once was is no more; there is no return to a mythic past. We are all here together.
In Mexico, the schoolteacher Dan did see a Monarch with a hole in its wing. He didn’t quite believe it was Holey, but the possibility was there, so he took a picture for his students. Even if was not their butterfly, though, doesn’t this say something about the amazing strength of even ragged wings? And won’t those students be encouraged; knowing that the creature they nurtured and loved made it all the way across the ocean, and found a home; a house not made with hands where someone cared enough to be looking out for him; to make sure he was safe?
The internal compass that guides the butterflies can also guide us. May it be so.
Closing Words From Janisse Ray
Something happens to you in an old-growth forest….. There’s this strange current of energy running skyward, like a thousand tiny bells tied to your capillaries, ringing with your heartbeat. You sit and lean against one trunk…- and it is your spine, the nerve centers reaching into other worlds, below ground and above. You stand and are part of all that is ancestral and enduring.