“Touched By the Earth”
“Mommy, why don’t people care about the trees?” This quote from an article in the March issue of Sojourners magazine entitled, “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaw” by Lydia Wylie-Kellermann, speaks volumes about the plight of parenting in a time of impending climate catastrophe. She asks what we ground ourselves in while facing what feels inevitable, what surely is apparent to even our youngest. The dragon, from a reference to the book of Revelation in Christian Scripture, waits for the birth with the intention of devouring the child in this end-times tale. The metaphor for her and her children, living in Detroit, means the dragon is disguised as “the spirit of a ‘comeback city’ while at the same time turning off water service to homes and threatening privatization . . . uses the Marathon oil refinery 4 miles from her home to poison the air . . . lives in children’s asthma-swollen lungs and pours raw sewage . . . into basements and the river when the rain falls hard.” She equates the dragon with environmental racism.[i]
[i] “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaw” by Lydia Wylie-Kellermann in Sojourners Magazine, March 2022, Vol. 51, No. 3, pp. 20-25.
In scientist, professor and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nations, Robin Wall-Kimmerer’s "Braiding Sweetgrass” I read about the Indigenous belief system that counters the notion of ownership of any part of our planet. Instead, we are one with our Earth home.
We take nothing from it without first asking, without first assessing what we really need, without giving something back in return. We are in a reciprocal relationship with our planet, with the land upon which we stand. It is only our colonialist roots that employ the idea that where we live and make our homes belongs to us, having taken or purchased it from a previous owner. In our case that is a people who lived with a mind toward reciprocity, the land not their property to withhold or to give, but a living, breathing being with which they were in relationship, perhaps assumed we might be too at the outset, learning differently by experience. “All flourishing is mutual,” she has said.[ii]
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks to this concept of mutuality also in words that have become familiar to us from the readings in our hymnal – “We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.” Victoria Loorz, co-founder of the Wild Church Network says that religion’s purpose is to restore our relationships with one another and with the earth. We belong to a larger community that contains people, but this community can also be understood as containing other species, other life forms. The apocalyptic nature of what is happening to our planet now makes it hard for even those of us who live a privileged life to look away from the reality, but still, we manage to deny or ignore.[iii]
Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, suggests that the Earth is above, below, around and within us. It is everywhere and all that we are made of comes from the same elements. It is more than just our environment. “We are the Earth” he says. And so, we come to see our planet something alive that we are bound up with and must be compelled then to transform our relationship with. When we treat the earth like someone we have fallen madly in love with, there is no separation and whatever we do for it brings us only joy and nourishment. This is the kind of relationship we need if we, the Earth and all of its component parts, are to survive.[iv]
The Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley, activist, scholar, teacher, and Cherokee descendant, in his new book, “Becoming Rooted,” a series of meditations designed to reconnect the reader with Sacred Earth, talks about indigeneity. We are not, many of us, capital “I” Indigenous people here. But he says that we are all indigenous to somewhere, that if we trace our lineage back far enough, we will find ourselves among a people who lived in relationship to a land for perhaps eons of time, having worked out their relationships to plants and animals and weather and the like. And that relationship is part of our DNA, carried forward through the generations. He invites us to get in touch with that indigeneity, saying that it matters from whence we have come, connecting past to present in order to heal into the future. Becoming rooted to the land is the only way to restore our Earth, he says.[v]
Friday was Earth Day, originally celebrated in 1970 at the behest of US Senator Gaylord Nelson. Every year since on this occasion people, gather and march and listen to important talks about the state of the planet, and educate themselves about what might happen next or what they might do to effect change. It is a festive time of honoring our Earth and a heartbreaking time as well, given the realities of our days. So, every April the fervor rises and wains, and we go back about our business. So much to think about, so much we could do in response, where to begin, will it matter. What is one small step we could each take for the sake of planet, our body, this pulsing organism in space?
Here on Cape Cod, we are fortunate to have organizations who are in touch with the issues that affect us most. Our oceans are warming, and sea levels are rising, effecting the creatures that dwell within them; wilder storms cause flooding and erosion while we continue to build on the edge with little regard for the bigger picture. All of this fueled by our penchant for fuel, honestly! There are few climate change deniers in our midst here as we acknowledge the increasingly rapid pace of climate change. Nonprofits like the Cape Cod Climate Change Collaborative, 5C’s for short, our designated Community Outreach recipient for the month provide webinars and educational opportunities, keep us in the loop through their newsletter, maintain a website full of great information and do advocacy work for legislation and policy change at all levels hoping to protect both people and our planet. They are driven by a love, though, for this place, by a connection to this land that may well go back many generations, regardless of the origin of their ancestor’s arrival here. And they see the whole of it – not just Cape Cod or the northeast, or the US – but a planet in jeopardy.
In all the pieces of this puzzle this morning – be they Indigenous persons, academics or scientists, religious leaders or activists – one thing stands out for me as pivotal in creating hope for the future: a deep understanding of our mutuality as people at one with place. In my study time at the UUMA Institute this winter I took a course entitled, “Mourning the Earth” led by Claudio Carvalheas, Associate Professor of Worship at Union Theological Seminary. His premise was that if we are paying attention, we can’t help but be in mourning for our planet. He talked about “extractivism” – the process of extracting natural resources for the Earth for sale, something that exists in an economy that depends on this very thing for survival. And he said that it is impossible to exploit something that you also love, that you are in relationship with. He suggests that nature is a European construct wherein we find it as either transcendent or as something to be feared and that we have an antagonistic relationship with it, needing to dominate or control it. It is in the dismantling of such theologies of omnipotence that we can become rooted in relationship and co-creativity.
During one of our sessions Claudio asked us to go outside or to find a houseplant and to sit with it for a while. He gave us twenty minutes for this exercise. He asked us to transcribe a conversation we might have with this living being. What would we say to it if we could engage with it as an equal part of our coexistence? It felt a little silly at first, I will admit! But there was Eve Ensler in our reading this morning, laying in a hospital bed with nothing to attend to but the tree outside her window. And over that short period of time, she became intimately acquainted with it.
I imagine you can guess where I am headed with this! It has been a while since I have asked you to do anything participatory in worship together – maybe since were on zoom alone, so we are long overdue for a bit of moving out of our heads and into our bodies! When you arrived you were given a little glass jar of sand and sea, the two things most affected in our part of the world by climate change, and something to write on and with. So, I ask you, if you could say anything at all to these elements, what would that be? Expressions of love or regret, hope or sadness? A shared memory? I am going to give you a few minutes to jot some things down – the beginnings of a conversation while we listen to the sounds of the waves so familiar to us. I won’t ask you to share them unless you want to. So, let’s listen and connect. I will ring the chime when it is time to stop.
Sharing included beautiful poetry and heartfelt words that you can hear on the video here on our website.
Back to Lydia Wylie Kellermann’s piece. She posits that we need to teach connection to our children in order that they come of age already in relationship with the Earth and all its inhabitants. She advocates naming into being the world around her children, loving and mourning and taking their anger and grief to the streets. She notes Buddhist scholar, Joanna Macy’s belief that we need these new generations of people coming to the table carrying their grief and moving forward to the life sustaining culture that can be born of it. It’s not too late for us to become a part of the process either. When we truly connect with our Earth as a part of who we are, develop a real relationship with it – reciprocal – mutual – the flourishing will come.
So I want to offer now a water blessing on this sand and water taken from the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. You can hold your jars up to receive it.
“We give thanks to all the Waters of the world. We are grateful that the waters are still here and doing their duty of sustaining life on Mother Earth. Water is life, quenching our thirst and providing us with strength, making plants grow and sustaining us all. Let us gather our minds together and with one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the Waters.”[vi]
Later this afternoon I will return our blessed sand and sea back to Linnell Landing beach, return them with the love of this place and this people, a first step in building our relationship, our connection with our Earth home. May we deepen in that understanding and felt sense of mutuality, that all may flourish.
Blessed be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, April 24, 2022
[i] “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaw” by Lydia Wylie-Kellermann in Sojourners Magazine, March 2022, Vol. 51, No. 3, pp. 20-25. [ii] “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants,” by Robin Wall-Kimmerer, Milkweed Editions, 2013. [iii] Center for Action and Contemplation Daily Meditations, “A Connected Universe: Restoring Relationships,” Richard Rohr, January 17, 2022. [iv] Center for Action and Contemplation Daily Meditations, “A Connected Universe: We Are the Earth,” Richard Rohr, January 18, 2022. [v] Becoming Rooted: One Hundred Days of Reconnecting with Sacred Earth,” by Randy Woodley, Broadleaf Books, 2022. [vi] “Braiding Sweetgrass,” Wall-Kimmerer.