It is spring and the season of warmth, wind and yard work has arrived. For me it is the season of digging and seeding and moving plants from one area to another. I am gardening, engaged in what Father Thomas Berry calls “an active participation in the deepest mysteries of the universe.”
I once heard a story on NPR about a man who had recently moved to the suburbs and acquired a lawn and the equipment to mow it. He woke up one morning to find his neighbor re-trimming his front sidewalk after he himself had cut the grass only the day before. He marveled at all the effort his neighbors put into maintaining their patches of miniature prairie and wondered if they were not all just part of a ‘conspiracy of the grasses to keep the trees at bay.’ The trees will surely return to our lawns if we leave them unattended, just as they have returned to the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl after the nuclear power plant meltdown, just as they have returned to the slopes of Mt St Helen’s after its eruption in the state of Washington.
My other outside activity is hiking with a group of folks from the Oak Grove Methodist Church in Atlanta. We hike in state parks, national forests, state and national wildlife refuges and national battlefields, either free of charge or with a park pass. I spend a lot of time looking at my feet when we hike, because to look elsewhere is to risk tripping over rocks and roots but I still manage to see many wondrous things in the woods.
It’s the trees that draw your attention and your eye. The valley in a recent trip was full of trees and the ridge line defined by them. We hike among the solitude of trees, the oaks and hickories of the ridges and the sourwoods and persimmons lower down the hillside and the maples and sweet gums in the moist valleys. There is no gardener here to arrange them or fertilize them and yet they manage to grow in the fallen leaves to great heights as they cling to rocky ledges above water falls and over boulders.
Why is it important to have places that are wild, where Nature rules the landscape?
I can remember several days as a kid when my mother would quietly turn the latch on the screen door, locking my brother and me outside while she worked indoors, to encourage us to stay outside as long as possible; most of the time we were too busy to notice. If it takes a village to raise a child, the village must include a place for physical activity in a backyard or a park or a patch of woods, a place free from structured play and the controlled adult supervision, a place to wander and wonder.
Long ago I recognized my connections with the world around me. I understood that I was part of an interdependent web long before I learned the words of our Seventh Principle. I was thrilled to find a religion that would put humans alongside the rest of the natural world and not apart from it, a religion that would name the spiritual connection we have with the natural world and honor it. For me, tending my own garden or the Keyhole garden here at church or picking up trash from the road or signing Sierra Club petitions are all part of doing the work of the church responsibly, of keeping the covenant of our faith. Spiritual life begins with a sense of wonder and there are no better miracles for wonder than those Nature show us every day.
If we Unitarian Universalists are to make the world a better place in which to live, we need to insure that future generations are engaged with it. No one can be expected to have compassion for the fate of the planet and its inhabitants if they have never interacted with it. Get out there and see what there is to see, smell what there is to smell, feel what there is to feel. Get dirty. Collect a park patch. The world awaits….. outside.
Excerpted from her homily given in the April 10 service