“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” — Rachel Carson
Let’s begin with birdsong. Listen for the winter wren with her bubbly cascading notes, for the mourning dove and his drifting coos that resurrect the long, outdoor days of childhood. Hear the wood thrush whose flutelike ee-oh-lay, ee-oh-lay reverberates through woods. Picture the barred owl who wondrously asks who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? Those sounds coming out of a heart-shaped face.
I found it difficult to write about creation and climate change, even though it’s one of the fearless dialogues the church is called to have now. I can’t seem to get the words out. I can’t get the words out because I am afraid. No — I am terror stricken by what our species has done to this good earth. I am petrified by thinning ice, alarmed by worsening storm systems. And I imagine you are, too. But what if we held fast to the possibility that there is much to hope for? What if we let that hope be a kind of mantra. Right now, outside my window, a chipping sparrow bops across the winter grass, so full of verve, its rusty head like a bouncing ball.
My mother died because she played in contaminated dirt as a child. Of course, she didn’t know it, nor did anyone who could warn her. But it was there, the poison, the arsenic that will kill her at the age of 62. Here is a poem I wrote about it:
The Year of Not Believing
My mother is six and does not know
what I have just read in the paper.
Kneeling in the backyard dirt,
she makes a fort for her doll Clara.
Her father’s away on business so much
lately she’s taken to spending early
evenings here, digging a world on her own.
Right now she’s humming lullabies
so sweet I can hear them six decades later
in my chair, in my office, at this college
where each day I read The Washington Post,
where today’s front-page story is about her
childhood neighborhood, a chemical
testing ground during WWI.
I call the Army Corps of Engineers because
that is what the paper said I could do.
Because that is all I can think of to do.
When I cite the slope of her backyard,
say her hematologist had never seen this leukemia,
not even in Nagasaki, not even in the worst of it,
I get hung up on. She died so suddenly
all I can picture is the oxygen mask fogging
because she was humming then, too.
She was still humming the sweetest tune.
When I asked my judicious husband, Albert, what thoughts he had about fear and what to do with it, he suggested facing it straight on. Start by looking at a picture of your fear several times each day and at unexpected moments. Yup. Just whip out that glossy photograph of a spider and stare at it for four seconds. Next, hold a plastic replica of it in the palm of your hand. I suggest even talking to it, making friends so to speak. Then, watch a real one in a jar, get used to how it moves. Learn all you can about its ways. You might take a trip to the nearest reptile house and say to yourself: Behold, my fear is contained behind glass. It is good advice for many circumstances.
Regrettably, we cannot contain our terror of climate change behind glass. We cannot stick our heads in the sand and pretend this polar vortex is not a sign of things to come. So what should we do? In addition to all the small changes we ourselves can make – recycling, composting, using a refillable water bottle, driving less, consuming less, capturing the sun and the wind – perhaps, through the collective power of our thoughts, we can help spread some hope.
Fact: Earthquakes can turn water into gold. And just last week baby saddleback tortoises were found on the Galapagos Island of Pinzón for the first time in 100 years. As I read on the internet this morning, “The tiny turtle find validates more than 50 years of conservation efforts.” Envision those baby turtles scooting along the sand, employing their front wing-shaped legs to make a go for it. Watch them in your mind’s eye. Those little guys and gals scoot out to sea. Validates conservation efforts. That is buoyant, heartening.
The first book I remember reading with my mother was Rachel Carson’s “The Sense of Wonder.” Carson was an American marine biologist, writer and conservationist. Many are familiar with her book “Silent Spring” and its warnings about pesticide use, but not have heard of “The Sense of Wonder,” a remarkable book (with charming black-and-white photographs). It was the book she was at work on when she died of cancer at the age of 56. It was published posthumously.
I remember being wedged on the loveseat next to my mother who has “The Sense of Wonder” propped on a bolster pillow. She clears her throat and reads Miss Carson’s words: “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
Now, my mother and I sit in silence for a few moments staring at the words on the page as if they might transmogrify, as if they might turn into something magical. Except they already have. Just read a few of them again: “If I had influence with the good fairy I should ask that her gift to each child be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last as an unfailing antidote against the alienation from the sources of our strength.” Indeed, those are stunning, extraordinary words.
Next, my mother turns to look at me earnestly, asking with her expression, what I, at age 4, think about what she has just read. She is eager to listen to my thoughts on the matter. Looking back, I see that my mother was so passionate about Rachel Carson’s work, so full of admiration for her stewardship of the environment, that she needed me to know about her. She needed me to understand what it was to try to make change both forcefully and faithfully.
She needed me to know of this brave woman. When Robert White-Stevens, of the American Cyanamid Company, challenged her expertise, accusing, “The major claims of Miss Rachel Carson’s book, ‘Silent Spring,’ are gross distortions of the actual fact, completely unsupported by scientific experimental evidence and general practical experience in the field,” Carson responded with this question: “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?” Oh, Miss Carson, how brave and prescient you were.
How did she do it? How did she make change forcefully and faithfully? How do we? Well, she began by loving the earth. She began by paying attention. She spent a lot of time noticing. She took long walks. She spent whole afternoons at the edge of the sea collecting shells and mollusks, learning all she could with her hands and her eyes and her ears and her nose and her heart. It’s what let her observe such wonders as the fact that “the lobster feels his way with nimble wariness through the perpetual twilight.”
And we can do that, too. As Carson herself said, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
What if each of us took Carson’s lead and strove to make change both forcefully and faithfully? What if we started by paying more attention? My guess is that we, and the earth our home, will be healthier for it. What if we set aside genuine time in the outdoors, undistracted by anything artificial? What if our only goal was to notice the creation with tenderness and to pay attention to it with devotion? Let’s at least try. After all, you and I are nothing more and nothing less than the interiors of collapsing stars. Commissioned by the maker of the stars to be stewards of the rest of creation. Let us tend to the wonder and mystery by paying attention.
As stewards, we are not left helpless by standing idly. This sentiment is communicated well in a prayer by Walter Rauschenbusch:
O God, we thank you for this earth, our home;
For the wide sky and the blessed sun,
For the salt sea and the running water,
For the everlasting hills
And the never-resting winds,
For trees and the common grass underfoot.
We thank you for our senses
By which we hear the songs of birds,
And see the splendor of the summer fields,
And taste of the autumn fruits,
And rejoice in the feel of the snow,
And smell the breath of the spring.
Grant us a heart wide open to all this beauty;
And save our souls from being so blind
That we pass unseeing
When even the common thornbush
Is aflame with your glory,
O God our creator,
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
CHARLOTTE MATTHEWS is associate professor in the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies Program at the University of Virginia. She lives in Charlottesville with her husband Albert Connette (who is the pastor of Olivet Presbyterian Church), her two teenage children and a big galumphy black Labrador.