Vol 3, Num 10 :: 2004.05.07 — 2004.05.20
It is eleven at night. My two sons are in bed, the kitchen is clean, and the laundry… the laundry is good enough for now. I should go to bed, but the coolness outside calls to me. The moon dares me to step out and check—could it really that be that bright? I put on my walking shoes.
In the back of our house lies a creek and woods, but that’s not where I go walking tonight. There are various native species living back there: a giant old walnut tree, some maple and oak, a lot of sycamore and a little poison ivy. Then there’s the sentient life: ducks in the creek, of course, and a great horned owl, a barn owl, bats. The grubs in our lawn probably come from those woods, as do the moles that feed on them and create tunnels that drive my husband crazy. Up to forty deer pass through twice a day, at dawn and dusk. We’ve seen as many as five turkeys, countless squirrels, and once, after a flood, something that could have been a weasel, dragging away a dead duck.
When we have visitors, they look with longing out our back window, usually at the deer grazing there. They talk about how lucky we are to live near to nature. I smile and nod, but something about the comment always seems to settle wrong.
Tonight, instead of the woods, I hit the sidewalks of our sub-division, sometimes walking on the street itself. I like to look down at the blacktop, at the gravel trapped within. I suppose I’m the neighborhood crazy lady, though noticed only by teens driving in just before curfew and second-shift workers ending their day. But walking at night in the silence, with only the streetlights for company, is too good to give up for convention’s sake. Ideas that have been rattling around to no visible use seem to take a journey, through my limbs and pumping heart, out among the dark shadows and damp smells, and back into my mind, where they finally have recognizable shape.
And so, on this late night walk, it occurs to me what’s bothering me about the “nature” comment that we so often hear. It occurs to me that the sidewalks I walk on, the houses I look at, even the cars that I touch softly as I pass, that these are as much a part of nature as are the woods, the bats, the deer. I am surrounded by the natural habitat of homo sapiens. This is part of what our species does—we build two-car garages, we choose siding, we lay concrete.
Bees build hives and we build malls and movie theaters.
Squirrels pick up acorns and we go to the Safeway after work.
Termites live in nests, complete with brood chambers and fungus gardens, and we live in apartments, complete with cable modem and microwaves.
Nature, all of it.
What our visitors mean, I think, when they refer to “nature,” is their appreciation, still intact after all the damage we’ve done, for other species. A delight for those who were created alongside us; a concern for those who journey with us.
As I’m walking by my neighbor’s birch tree, spidery against the moonlit sky, this distinction seems important. When we think of “nature” as separate from us, then perhaps we do not comprehend the consequences of treating it poorly. But if we are one among God’s many created species, then we are as dependent upon the others as any bird who relies on worms and insects for its food, as any beaver who relies on the health of the river and the forest for its livelihood, as any scavenger beetle who relies on decaying plants and animal dung.
Of course, with over 200 species becoming extinct everyday, our lives and our culture do not currently reflect this extreme dependence on God’s creation. But if Christianity has taught me anything, it is to have hope, even in the darkest hour.
I have a friend, raised a Christian, who has an amazing capacity for respecting and admiring all the world religions—she can recite stories from the Bhagavad Gita as easily as she can quote Scripture. Though she sometimes describes herself as interfaith, she told me once that her studies of other religions have helped to inform and to nurture her Christian faith, the faith of her childhood that she can never bring herself to leave.
As I look for the connections between faith and other species, I have to admit that shamanism and the Native American worldview hold a certain appeal. This is a faith that can inform my own.
For instance, I have read that the practice of choosing an animal totem is not animal worship, as early Christian missionaries originally thought. It is simply a way to acknowledge the specific gifts given by the Creator. To (over)simplify for example’s sake, the playful man who can lighten a workload with the gift of his attitude might be likened to an otter. A woman with a passion for simplicity might be likened to a songbird, an animal that’s linked in turn to her patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi.
I step over a frog on the sidewalk. In a practical sense, totems are a way to remember the importance of other species. If my son had chosen, say, the wolf as his totem, I might not dismiss lightly any news of the wolf being eradicated by ranchers, not even when told this was to protect my own food source.
Perhaps this is part of the secret then, of the hunter-gatherers, the First Peoples, and how they were able to live in an almost Eden-like condition, taking what they needed from the earth without having to till the soil. To live without working at jobs, without going to Safeway, without decimating the land that gave them life. To find a way to work within the limits of the creation they were given.
What’s more, they got to walk a lot.
This is not to romanticize other species, or the hunter-gatherer way of life, or to say that plants and animals must never be harmed. But I do long for a faith practice that takes me and my fellow believers by the chin, that turns our faces gently out of our own struggles, that says, “Now look at the wolf, and think of it as brother. Now the cougar, very like your mother. Now the butterfly—can you see your daughter?”
With such a faith, practiced every day and every week, I would think that each choice to take the life of a plant or animal (much less an entire species) would be a very well-considered decision, made with grave awareness and gratitude. I would think that the choices to have a large family, or to build a new house, or to dispose of anything after one use, would be much harder choices to make.
And so I walk, and soak in, as through my pores, the interactions of “nature.” The hoist on my patriotic neighbor’s flagpole bangs and rings in the night breeze; the young maples that line the street face the growing cold with a gentle slenderness. And the smell—the smell of the buds, the seeds, moist sidewalks, the planted turf, the feeding of young, the mystery that is the smell of the coming spring fills my nose—is the smell of hope, after a winter’s death.