Sunday February 7, 2016: The Mind’s Old Wilderness Cut Down

Prelude: Out in the Country – Three Dog Night

Welcome: Wind, Water, Sun – Seth Carrier-Ladd

Wind that whispers through the willow trees
Sun that sustains us
Water that washes over willing earth and weathered stones
A smile shared and savored
A child’s squeal of delight as she dances in the daisies and daffodils
The quiet joy of gathered community

This, this is the spirit of life and love that we call forth now into this gathering

May this spirit infuse our hearts, fill our souls, and carry us forward like a wave on the ocean as we enter now into this sacred time and space.

Come, let us worship together.

Chalice Lighting: As One Small Flame – Celia Midgley
Global Chalice Lighting for January 2016

As one small flame
fills a whole room with light,
So may we radiate
hope, courage and good cheer
in our homes, in our worship
and in all the corners
of our world.

Song: Come, come, whoever you are

Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving
Ours is no caravan of despair
Come, yet again come (5 times)

Principles of Unitarian Universalism:
Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Story for All Ages: Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky
(From: Best-Loved Folk-Tales of the World, selected by Joanna Cole)

Responsive Reading: The Stream of Life — Rabindranath Tagore (HCL 351)

Offering and Response (Unison)

For the gifts which we have received—and the gifts which we, ourselves, are—may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.

Song: The People’s Peace (HCL 179)

Reading: Genesis 1:24-31

24 God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: cattle, creeping things, and wild animals, each according to its kind.” It was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the cattle according to their kinds, and all the creatures that creep along the ground according to their kinds. God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.”

27 God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I now give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the entire earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the animals of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” It was so.

31 God saw all that he had made—and it was very good! There was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.

Lesson: The Mind’s Old Wilderness Cut Down: A Reflection on the Seventh Principle (Robert Helfer)

“Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” This is the seventh principle, one of the standards upheld by Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States, incorporated into the UUA bylaws in 1985. The seven principles are “not dogma or doctrine, but rather a guide for those of us who choose to join and participate in Unitarian Universalist religious communities.” But even if it’s not dogma, what is incumbent upon us if we accept this principle? How do we show this respect?

I. The Middle Ages

I have a fondness for reading Mediaeval history, looking back, as the personal coaches tell us not to do, into a world that has been badly caricatured as hundreds of years of faith, ignorance, and darkness. As with most such caricatures, it’s only somewhat true. I have recently been reading of the industrial revolution in the 11th through the 13th centuries in Europe. The story is a fascinating tale of human energy and invention. But a point one author (Jean Gimpel, The Medieval Machine) made struck me with particular force He claimed that the introduction of Christianity into Europe, and the resulting dethronement of the nature gods of the old religions through establishment of a new god outside of nature, had the effect of divorcing nature from what was holy. Previously every tree had its spirit, or a more general spirit dwelt in everything. One could cut the tree down, but first one had to make peace with the resident spirit. But with the conversion to Christianity, one no longer had to worry whether the spirit of the tree would be upset if you cut it down — there was no spirit of the tree. Humans were now free to exploit nature as they wished, and, to a degree, without thought for the consequences. They had, in fact, been given dominion over all creation.

Now, I think the case was a bit overstated. Surely humans have exploited their environment quite freely for a very long time, even those who believed in plant and animal spirits. We certainly see the signs of environmental destruction all over the world, long before Christianity arrived in each place. Nevertheless, perhaps this author had a point.

The European settlers, when they arrived in the Americas, did act as if they had dominion. They believed that the old wilderness they found needed to be cut down and replaced with fields of grain, broad roads of commerce, houses and towns. Beyond that, they saw the wilderness, the trees, the rivers, the land itself, as an unexhaustable source of raw materials, something to be shaped for human purpose.

And more than that, the wilderness was a hindrance to creating a civilized world, a world where people could live in peace. The song we just sang opens with an image of “the mind’s old wilderness cut down”, allowing people to live in peace and prosperity. It suggests an image of human mind filled with clutter, of wildness, which must be brought under control, a metaphor that would have been familiar and reassuring to people who saw their lives in conflict with an often unfriendly nature.

II. The Change

A different attitude toward wilderness has long existed as well. Thoreau, among others, saw the wilderness at least in part as a place where a person could be at peace. In the late 19th century some people began advocating preservation of at least some wilderness. The first national park in the United States, Yellowstone, was created by act of Congress in 1872, and soon after several more parks were created. In 1916 the Organic Act created the National Park Service, with a purpose “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Wilderness was now seen much less as a hindrance to human life, much more as something beautiful and valuable.

In the 1960s an increasing part of the US population was coming to see preservation of wilderness, preservation of the environment in general, as important. They were tired of polluted water and air, they were tired of the sound pollution of modern life. They had begun searching for greater connections to nature, to the old world, to a more spiritual life. Earth Day was created. People began to reach out into the wilderness more and more to find peace of mind, calm refuge from the hectic modern world. And over time people who believed that wilderness was invariably a positive thing found the idea of cutting it down increasingly offensive. If nature was the source of peace, then cutting it down would necessarily result in the opposite. The song’s metaphor felt increasingly wrong and the verse containing those words was removed from the new hymnal.

III. Rewilding

Now preservation is one thing, but what do you do about what’s already been spoiled?

A couple of years ago I ran across the term “rewilding,” the attempt to return wildness to neglected or damaged land. Of course, this does not mean simply abandoning the land, to let whatever grow willy nilly onto it. It means restoring the land, removing as far as possible the alien species, planting and encouraging native species, trying to bring the place back to what should be its natural state. And most importantly, learning how the environment works so that we know what its “natural state” is.

About the time Lisa and I moved to Texas in the 1980s, a group in Illinois acquired a piece of farm land, a few miles from where I was born and bred. They started with a bit of land that had never been put to the plow, a rare find in corn country. And since it had never been plowed, had never been planted with alien food crops, it had stayed a remnant prairie despite the surrounding area’s very heavy agricultural use for over 150 years. And they began the tricky task of removing the non-native plants. Since then they have acquired more land, former plow land. Work crews, volunteers all, have spent many hours each year going over the land, pulling out weeds; locating native plants among the fields and gathering their seeds to ensure that they would be replanted. Nachusa Grasslands now encompasses 3500 acres, a “large remnant prairie, woodlands, and wetlands being reconnected through habitat restoration to create one of the largest and most biologically diverse grasslands in Illinois”. Last year a small herd of bison was reintroduced into Nachusa, an attempt to reestablish native animal life as well as native plant life.

But we have to remember that prairie isn’t a “climax community”. Prairie is always in transition to something else. Shrubs, and then trees, naturally move in; the water system that supports the community changes. The prairies that the Europeans found as they moved west in America were not pure nature at work, but at least partly the products of native American engineering, making the environment serve human purposes. Simon Schama, in Landscape and Memory, his huge study of the interactions of environment and human culture, commented about California’s Yosemite: “The dazzling meadow-floor of the valley … which its white eulogists, like John Muir, supposed to be untouched and Edenic, actually looked the way it did because of the Indians’ repeated set-fires, which cleared it of brush and opened the space for grazing.” Preserving the “natural environment” actually means a certain amount of human interference. At Nachusa this interference includes burning the prairie every year.

IV. Clarksburg

So, what can we, what can I, do to show my respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which I am a part? I suppose we could move to Illinois and join the work crews at Nachusa. Or we could join similar volunteer work crews trying to heal the environment here in West Virginia.

But for now, Lisa and I have been more focused on trying to heal the environment in our own yard.

When we arrived in Clarksburg, we moved into a house that had been neglected for many years. I’ll not talk now about the interior; but the yard was in chaos. English ivy and wild grape had been allowed to grow rampant, so much so that several trees were bent down by the weight of hanging vines, and piles of discarded branches and trunks of fallen trees were invisible except as odd mounds of ivy. Poke and other weeds were firmly entrenched everywhere.

We started by pulling up miles of ivy, discovering in the process that they included miles of poison ivy as well, much to my discomfort a few days later. When we discovered the piles of branches under the ivy, we bundled them and set them by the street for the city’s municipal yard waste pickups — many bundles of branches. We pulled and dug up poke and dock.

And in the course of all this, over the several years that we have been clearing up, we have made amazing discoveries. We found a very small cement pool, a perfect goldfish pond, that had at one time been fed by a waterfall but had been filled with rock and overwhelmed by ivy. We found blue-eyed grass and at least five different species of native violets scattered in the lawn. Far in the back of our lot we discovered several clumps of peonies, barely surviving from lack of sun — we moved them to form a border along the streets that pass the house.

The year before last we stopped mowing most of the yard. Lisa spent hours pulling coarse, unpleasant grass out of the yard, and we encouraged the softer grass, which naturally falls over in waves when it is long. And as a result of this change we discovered much more. We have turtles, although we rarely see them, and for two years in a row we have been charmed to discover luna moths unfolding on the trunk of our sweet gum tree. Small blue and yellow flowers cover the ground; bees, butterflies and moths, praying mantises play in the yard; and on dewy mornings, spiderwebs sparkle in the grass.

We plan to continue our current practices, to learn more about what is here and what we might add to enhance this ground, to make our yard into a haven for local wildlife and native plants. And we will apply for certification under West Virginia’s Wild Yards Program.

V: Conclusion of Sorts

“Fixing the environment” is not without risks. Human interference to “improve” some aspect of the world has far too often gone awry. The introduction of kudzu as an erosion control plant springs to mind. Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn commemorates the perseverance and indestructibility of the alien tree ailanthus, or Tree of Heaven, which was widely planted in urban areas which were otherwise totally devoid of greenery. It is now considered a “nuisance injurious to health”.

But not doing anything, not even trying, seems totally wrong. I’ll leave it up to others to make this choice for themselves. For now, Lisa and I will continue to follow Candide’s advice and tend our garden.


Joys and Sorrows

If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;
or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.
For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.
These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Silent Meditation

Song: Go Now In Peace (3 times)

Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go

Closing: Four Element Blessing — Eric Williams

May the firmness of the earth be yours.
May the flow of the water be yours.
May the freedom of the air be yours.
May the fierceness of the fire be yours.
May all of the gifts of this life,
The Below and the Above,
Be with you now and remain with you always.

Go now in peace.