I have spoken before about having grown up in The Bronx with its concrete streets, buildings and attitudes. But sometimes within such an urban environment is when you learn to appreciate the things you don’t have. Every piece of green space became a sacred space. I would be remiss if I didn’t speak about the green spaces in my life growing up.
I was fortunate to have lived near literally one the greatest zoos in the world, The Bronx Zoo. I would quite often spend afternoons, not in the zoo, but in its surrounding park, where the Bronx River flowed and there was a little waterfall. We also had a world renown botanical gardens, and I have vivid memories of falling asleep on a blanket staring up at the stars as the Metropolitan Opera would give a free summer performance every year there.
We often are looking for intellectual reasons why we should be environmentally sensitive. Society is looking for cold hard facts that are logical that point to proof that we as humans are damaging the environment. But Nature in and of itself moves us on an emotional level. Nature can be the common ground for all people, it is something we all can understand, no matter what background we have. Who is not moved by the sun rise and sunset, or by a waterfall, taking a deep breath of clear air, or staring at the stars at night? We must maintain this wonderful gift of nature that we have been given. Also Nature tends to follow a causal, logical process. If you sow, you will reap. If you pollute, you will destroy. I believe an ecological theology will lead the next century as more and more devastation to our physical planet becomes apparent. Our societies will break down if we do not care for and love the planet. We cannot wait for the next great invention to save the earth. We must start to understand that it is in our best interest, to live our lives in harmony with the planet and not look at it as a resource to be plundered. If an interdependent environmental theology does not become our leading theology, we will not only lose the beauty and wonder of nature but will become extinct.
So today we celebrate Earth Day. What does it really mean to us. There are many to whom this symbolizes the impassioned need for our society to wake up and change how we live in the world in order to preserve the world for future generations. We as a congregation are pursuing the Green Sanctuary designation within the Unitarian Universalist Association. That is an outward expression of what our internal values are. The seventh principle of Unitarian Universalism calls us to have respect for the inter-dependent web of existence of which we are apart. Our congregational vision asks us to be a vibrant welcoming thriving congregation that among other things encourages responsibility for the earth and its creatures. If these are to be more than just mere words on a piece of paper, which is printed on the back of your order of service by the way, and on our website, we need to live them out in our lives.
For our values to be congruent with our actions we will need to embrace a new paradigm of living. How can we go on living the way we live knowing what we know. How can we continue to pollute and destroy our planet knowing that our descendants will still need to live on it. We dream of garden of Eden. But if we would just wake up, we would realize we are in Eden and we are destroying it. This world has such a diverse and beautiful eco-system. It in some mysterious way is built to sustain itself. But this is the theological question. Is it built to sustain itself as a whole versus to sustain the human species? Is the human species created in a way to survive or is it just another species among many within the larger ecosystem. So let us look at the traits that gives us the best chance to survive as a species. I believe that cognitive thinking is certainly an evolutionary process that has developed for our species that can lead us into the future. I think we are so used to looking at things short term that we say within the last 100 years look at how bad things have been how can we be progressing. But lets look at life over a thousand year period or a hundred thousand year period. Of course evolution is about what survives, and what traits are needed to survive as a species.
My belief is that our species will learn that by working together we are more likely to survive. Sadly it may take a calamity to make us realize this. Maybe it will take 100 calamities to realize this. Hopefully we wont all be dead before we realize this. Maybe it will take another 1,000 or 100,000 years. But we have to start somewhere. That is what religion points us to….to a future that is better. But not a future in a far off mystical land but a future in this land. But not better in the standard of living sense, but better in the human condition sense, a better understanding of our place in the universe . Will only people who can withstand pollution or nuclear waste survive like in all these apocalyptical zombie movies?
Or will we change how we live in the world, so that natural selection chooses in a different manner. This is our eternity….our vision of the future, that the choices we make will create the world that we dream about, that will create the world where natural selection for survival will be compassion, that the natural selection for survival will be empathy, the natural selection for survival will be cooperation. Let us live our lives in that manner. Not competing for resources, but sharing them, not hoarding our wisdom, but sharing it. And by sharing of ourselves, we free others to share themselves. By trusting we build trust with others. We can overcome cynicism with acts of love.
In my life I have found manifestations of love in the arts and so I was thrilled when Adult Religious Education offered to do a reading of The Chekov play the Cherry Orchard. This play is complex and tells the story of a changing society. A society where those who were once enslaved are now taking power. It talks about personal tragedy and how such tragedy often impacts our ability to deal with the world. It talks about how inherited wealth can lead to debilitation of one’s spirit and ones ability to act in the world. It speaks to our idealization of the past and our struggle to adapt to changing times. It also talks about forgetting the nature of who we are and what we can do. It talks about the dangers of ignoring our present condition.
And although this all may seem negative, it allow us to see our human condition and examine it cognitively and hopefully by becoming aware of it, adapt it. Just as they did in the play we as a society often don’t adapt until it is far too late. I am more familiar with the Gulf of New Orleans than the Mississippi River, but I am sure some of the questions are the same. Why weren’t the levees built to withstand a hurricane in Louisiana, or why did we allow development of the wetlands, that if left intact, would have prevented or at least lessened damage from flooding, why did we build houses in places where we know it is going to flood. Which raises the question, can we really protect ourselves from nature.
Can we impact nature for better or worse. Our religion tells us, but more importantly, our experiences of cause and effect, and our intuition tell us we are interdependent with the universe so the answer is we can choose to impact the world or we can choose to ignore it and let the inevitably of our inaction of what we know will happen happen. The thing that struck me the most about the cherry orchard was that they viewed it as a wonderful memory of time gone by, a time of innocence before loss, a picturesque view of what once was, not looking at what could still yet be. They had forgotten who they were and what their purpose in life was.
They were waiting to die and living their life as pleasantly as they could until the end came taking no responsibility for their fate or the fate of the cherry orchard. It is telling that in the play they talk about having lost the recipe for cherry jam, a jam which they could have then sold if they used the orchards for the purpose for which they were created, to create cherries. Nature for nature’s purpose, not for human’s purpose. We are just a part of nature. If we work in conjunction with it we will all prosper, if we ignore it, if we try to make it into something it is not, if we forget to tend to it, both nature and humanity will be destroyed just as it was in this play.
So let us think about what is our nature and what is the nature of the land we are on. It was once Prairie where a diverse ecosystem loomed. Now I have to admit, being new to the Midwest, I have had to do a little research on what Prairies are. So quoting from my research, The Prairie is an ecosystem mostly of grasses and flowering plants that creates an ecosystem where life is interdependent upon each other. The prairie is an intricate web, with more of its living mass below ground than we can see above ground.”
And in talking to some of our members who have restored prairie as we have also done in a small way on our congregations grounds, I was interested to find out about the need to burn the prairie to rejuvenate and strengthen the prairie. Growing up, burning things was always considered a bad thing. So again I investigated. Again quoting from my research, “As prairie plants grow, Two-thirds of the living portion of the prairie is below ground in a deep root system. As fire burns the Prairie, it burns the dead material from the top of the plants, returning its' nutrients to the earth. Fire eliminates most plants that have shallow roots and can't survive fire. Prairie plants then re-sprout from its deep roots” This made me think about the Cherry Orchard in a very different way. Metaphorically, chopping the down the cherry trees was also symbolic of our need to chop down our own preconceived notions about what our place in the universe is, to chop down our delusions, to chop down the things that inhibit us from moving forward, and doing what must be done. But then we need to ask ourselves, What are our deep roots that will come to be reborn yet stronger. Let us grow those roots now Let us burn away our indifference, and let us grow our deep roots by consciously thinking about what kind of people we want to be.
Let us burn away our isolation and let us grow our deep roots in our caring and loving of each other, and not just each other, but caring and loving of others who have yet walked in our doors. Let us burn away our need to plunder nature but rather let us grow our deep roots in the work we do to live in harmony with the environment. Let us be gentle with the earth, not just one day a year but every day, let us appreciate its wonder and beauty and sustenance so that its wonder can enrich us. So we can recognize the Eden we live in. I may no longer have a stake in Con Edison, But I do have a stake in this planet, and so do all of us, and our descendants. So let us make the changes that need to made, May we live out our principles and vision so that one day both our descendants and nature may experience the world we dream about. May it be so.