“Greening Our Wounds and Fears”

In North Enough: AIDS and Other Clearcuts, Jan Zita Grover writes this:

The Minnesota and Wisconsin cutovers are northern counties that were logged over several times between 1860 and 1920. Never particularly habitable on a permanent basis, their soils were too thin or too sandy or too acid for farming, their growing seasons too short. [Still] the timber and railroad companies set out to create a market for the land they had depleted and defaced. . . . The ignorant and the desperate came to homestead. . . . Two or three growing seasons and the thin soils were exhausted.[1]

In the 1990s, Zita Grover moved to a cabin in these ruined woods. She came from San Francisco, where she had cared for friends dying of AIDS. Looking at properties with a real estate agent, she was distressed by the mournful quality of this landscape. And yet, she says,

I have learned to find beauty in places I never would have searched for or found it before—an edematous face, a lesioned and smelly body, a mind rubbed numb by pain. Fat-tired ATVs and their helmeted riders lay the land bare, ream it continuously until it runs red and open, as disease has defaced the bodies of my friends. I learn to love what has been defaced, to cherish it for reasons other than easy beauty. I walk after the ATVs now, collecting beer cans and plastic leech tubs from the bank of the bass hole, tutor myself in the difficult art of loving what is superficially ugly. Beauty flashes out unexpectedly. I try not to anticipate its location, merely to trust its imminence. (p. 20)

Resurrection, as the Gospel of John describes it, is all about finding beauty in what is damaged, learning to love what has been defaced. On the first Easter evening, the community of Jesus’ followers gathered behind locked doors. They were gripped by fear, held in its prison. Fear ruled their thoughts and actions. In describing the appearance of the risen Jesus, the Gospel writer does not remark on the radiance of his face, or the warmth of his eyes. No, the first thing the disciples saw and touched were their own fears, embodied in Jesus’ wounds. He held out his hands to show them the ugly raw holes where the nails had torn his skin, pierced his muscle and shattered his bone. He opened up his clothing to reveal the gash left by the spear.

Surely these signs of torment were frightening and painful to contemplate. And yet, it was through these battered hands and this broken side that they recognized the beauty of the one they loved. “The disciples rejoiced,” John writes, “when they saw the Lord.”

Jan Zita Grover finds inspiration in the writing of ecologist Aldo Leopold, who also cultivated an intimate engagement with logged-over and worn out land. In his journal, in the 1930s or 40s, Leopold wrote:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to lay[people]. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or [she] must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.[2]

Zita Grover reflects on these words about wounds through the lens of the successful efforts to restore the valley of the Whitewater River in southeastern Minnesota. She finds hope in “the extraordinary resilience of a system that had been reduced . . . to something approaching biological death.” She notes that Richard J. Dorer, the architect of this healing work, who “oversaw the replanting of Whitewater’s hills to native shrubs, trees and grasses, the elimination of grazing on its mucky bottomlands, and the filling of erosion gullies . . . did not live to see the fulfillment of his vision of a restored valley. . . . But he chose to doctor rather than to numb himself.[3]

Climate scientists say that we have eleven years left, not to begin, but to complete, a radical transformation in the way that we live on this planet. Starting now, everything needs to change: how we get around, how we build, how we heat and cool, how we make stuff, even how we eat. This practical resurrection will have to coincide with the blossoming of a new spiritual climate—a total reformation of what we value, how we relate to each other and to the land, and how we view our human place in the universe.

I’ve been pondering the fact that so much of what gets said about climate change is fear-based, how often we try to scare each other into taking action. After her decision to allow refugees to come into Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel was confronted by a woman full of worry about having Muslims in the country. Merkel’s reply struck me. She said: “Fear has never been a good adviser, neither in our personal lives nor in our society.”[4]

Fear is a fact of being human. Fear is always with us—paralyzing us, stealing our joy, closing us off from beauty, deciding that the loving labor of greening our planet is impossible practically, politically, and spiritually.

My friends, as followers of Jesus, as a community rooted in God’s resurrection power, we cannot allow fear to advise us.

Last year, in China, 60,000 soldiers were put to work planting trees, as part of a plan to combat air pollution by reforesting an area the size of Ireland.[5] In the San Francisco area, aquatic biologist Tim Wong has singlehandedly brought back the iridescent blue of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly. He did this by propagating its sole food source—the California pipevine plant—in his backyard.[6] William Kamkwamba’s community in Malawi faced a severe drought. For years in a row, crops failed and people went hungry. At the age of fourteen, William built a windmill from spare parts and scrap, working from rough plans he found in a book in his school’s tiny library. William used the windmill to pump water from the ground so that the crops could grow again.[7]  And right here in Minnesota, this past week, the House of representatives passed a bill that calls for our state to find a path toward 100% clean energy by the year 2050.

We have choices that those who come after us will not have. Amid the distress of climate chaos, we can numb ourselves. We can hide behind the locked doors of what is deathly, and yet is also familiar and comforting. Or we can refuse to let fear be our advisor. We can join our great physician in the work of healing ourselves and healing creation. On that first Easter evening, the locks on the doors did not keep Jesus from entering the house, or from breathing God’s peace and power upon those gathered. In this intimate and immediate way, he joined his body to theirs. He sent them into a world of wounds full of divine breath, equipped with divine forgiveness. The word Greek word for forgiveness, aphiemi conveys a sense of release. It describes a motion of putting something aside, leaving it behind, letting it go.[8] Our work is simply to breathe with God, to allow this breath to release us from our fears.

May we come alive, and all creation with us, in the resurrecting greenness of our God, God who is greening the clear cuts. Greening the ATV tracks. Greening the fertilizer-choked streams. Greening the storm-ravaged and the drought-starved. Greening the ugly poisons that sicken us. Let us learn to find beauty in what is damaged and to love what has been defaced. Let us welcome all that is green, and growing, verdant, vital, and fresh. Let us give ourselves to new shoots of hope, tender buds of possibility, and to the unfurling leaves of joy.

Amen.

 

[1] Jan Zita Grover, North Enough: AIDS and Other Clearcuts, (Minneapolis, Graywolf Press, 1993), 14.

[2] Aldo Leopold, Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1993), 165.

[3]3rdrdy of Easterr families and youth Parloropportunities for congregations to join the growing climate justtice Grover, p. 81–82

[4] http://time.com/time-person-of-the-year-2015-angela-merkel/

[5] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/china-tree-plant-soldiers-reassign-climate-change-global-warming-deforestation

[6] https://returntonow.net/2019/04/24/how-one-man-singlehandedly-repopulated-a-rare-butterfly-species-in-his-backyard

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Boy_Who_Harnessed_the_Wind

[8] https://www.preceptaustin.org/forgive-aphiemi-greek-word-study