We are so small. Yesterday, I ventured up to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, to check out the Hudson River School painters’ works at the Atheneum Museum in St. Johnsbury. After walking into the beautiful old brick library and weaving around gorgeous wooden shelves and spiral staircases, I was faced with an entire wall canvassed with the sublime landscape of The Domes of Yosemite by Albert Bierdstadt. Looking at the painted canvas, my eyes moved from rock to water, peak to valley, and tree to open sky. It made me feel distanced and small. The intricate and intimate details of rock fractures and edges; rugged tree tops struck by lighting and those still lush and leafy; unruly waters flowing down falls; and wide open terrain weaving through massive outcrops of earth – all so clearly detailed by the stroke of a brush, it all put shame to my relationship to nature. But, this relief moved me, moved me to want to see and adventure into what’s left of our wilderness. The sublime, it calls us, so adventure I did.
I ended the day on a gorgeous semi-frozen lake, Lake Willoughby, which is about 5 miles wide and 300 feet deep. After gawking at insane geology and basking in 65 degree weather alongside sweet friends, I thought of the Domes, of the lake, of the natural world, and us. I thought of just how small we are, how much we do not know.
In a society where we spend 90% of our time indoors, in front of screens and running laps in the mental mazes we’ve both created and succumbed to, it’s not surprise we think ourselves omnipotent. If you were taken somewhere blindfolded, and once the blindfold was removed, could you tell which direction was north/south based on the position of the sun? Could you determine what the soils are like? What about closer to home — Can you name 3 plans within walking distance and two useful outputs for them?
If these questions seem hard, contrast them with navigating iPhone’s latest iOS, or using an ATM machine. What do we conceive of as hard? Easy? Common? These mind mazes of our daily lives are common, but they are not natural. We have become unnatural beings in an increasingly unnatural world. But there is still a lot of goodness and much hope for preserving what’s left – through each adventure, each awakening, each reminder, because truly, life is the greatest teacher. Each plant’s name learned, each organism’s function understood in the grander ecological system, and each layer of understanding developed of our relationship with the environment, is progress forward. Hope for reconciliation and preservation is not lost – it cannot be, but we must do our best and help others to access the information and experiences that our mind mazes have excluded from so many. We must, too, remind ourselves of just how small we are, because truly, Mother Nature is the finally arbiter.
I found peace yesterday, and in trying everyday, to remind myself that we are so small in this glorious gift of creation. Humility, a reminder we all need.
Things have been busy, as I’ve been chipping away on research of faith-based approaches to food justice and navigating my way through Vermont’s wintery mix of snow, ice and rain. It’s crazy how caught up we can get in being busy, only to convince ourselves that we don’t have “time” to rest or pause. Time has been a concept I’ve struggled with for a while – especially after reading Heidegger and Derrida in social anthropology. Time is a cultural construct, it’s something we agree on and clock our days with accordingly — but what if our watches, clocks, meridians, and time zones ceased to have meaning? What would time be then? Interestingly, as I go about my work and projects, I, like many others, am able to hold space in my mind to meditate on these questions.
I’ve found that in my search for some rest in the “busy”, poems have helped to occupy that space in my mind to keep things in perspective – the work at hand is not the be all end all, it’s just a part of it all, as critical as it may be. The most recent poem to occupy this space is Lost by David Wagoner. It beautifully depicts our place in nature, and that our place is always moving – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. But, nature belongs to all cultures, and, as result, to no culture at all, and no culture’s projected construct. It is vast and wide, and open to interpretation – but that does not mean our interpretations are correct. Oftentimes they are deeply wrong, and, as result, we become lost though hard we try to find ourselves. In truth, we cannot escape the wisdom and movements of nature – no matter how many mountains we remove, forests we clear cut, wells we drill, waterways we spoil, soils we degrade, and air we pollute. Nature will come back and remind us where we are, how small we are, and how much we do not know – how much we cannot know, perhaps because of all the “busy.” Some food for thought.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.
When I moved up to Vermont, almost everyone I encountered asked, “have you ever been through a Vermont winter?” When I’d answer no, I was met with shaking heads, “uh oh”, or “oh, just you wait.”Now we are moving into February, and have only had a couple of snow falls since the new year. While walking this morning, my boots were met with mud puddles and soppy snow, melting from this week’s 40 degree weather. Though I’m relived that I don’t have to shovel myself out of the driveway or battle icy roads (yet, anyway), I feel strangely moved by this unlikely winter. And not in a good way.
“Warm winters” happen, but this winter’s warmth was record breaking for many regions across the country. Something isn’t quite right, and Mother Nature is letting us know. Buds are budding, daffodils are sprouting, and the birds and insects are beginning to emerge from rest, looking for food that isn’t necessarily there – and if it is, it likely shouldn’t be, at least, not yet.
“Nature is alive and talking to us. This is not a metaphor.” Terrence McKenna, ethnobotanist
My scientific knowledge is limited beyond the field of geology, but from my experience working in gardens and on farms, these signs – this language of creation, is not something to be ignored. Though I don’t think we (general society), will realize the effects of this warm weather until spring time, when those buds and sprouts that are lively now have died off from a cold spell, I do think that we can continue to or begin to cultivate an awareness to these signs, this language.
“Based on field observations, [Linnaeus] divided flowers into three categories. The meteorici open and close with the weather. The tropici follow the changing hours of daylight. And the aequinoctales, Linnaeus wrote, “open precisely at a certain hour of the day and generally shut up every day at a determinate hour.”
From this third category, the aequinoctales, Linnaeus compiled a list of a few dozen plants to open and close with the hours: hawkweed, garden lettuce, marigold, day lily. Horticulture meets horology.”
Telling time based on the opening and closing of flowers – “Who needs a watch when the flowers know the time?”
What a beautiful and intriguing concept. Interestingly, I think it is the intrigue of this flower clock that is most beautiful; “Over the years, the Linnean Society has received regular inquiries about the flower clock and how to make one.” This intrigue of nature being able to do the work of a human-made mechanism being so foreign, interesting, yet perfectly sensible, embodies at once, I think, both our distanced relationship from nature, as well as our essential rootedness in creation. How funny for flowers to take the place of a clock, but how funny for our clock to be the arbiter of all time. Who are we to say? We are, after all, the ones who give the clock face its meaning.
I do not admit to having any of the answers, and honestly, I do not think anyone does. But, I think there is much goodness that can come from a posture of awareness and gratitude to the signs that Mother Nature gives us – both positive and negative, and that interpreting those signs will undoubtedly offer us more clarity as we move forward.
“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.” ― Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House
The past few weeks have served as a Sabbath, “man’s eternal rest in God.” It has been a period of rest, reflection, and receiving the nourishment of all that I experienced last semester. Four months of law classes, community projects, intensive studying, congregational engagement, and all the new relationships and experiences I’ve gained since moving to Vermont, have finally had some time to settle – to process, integrate, and be appreciated. Though I intentionally make time throughout the days for rest and doing things I enjoy (going on adventures, time with friends, contemplative and self-love practices, and the like), I do them with the knowledge that once they’re over it’s back to the grind. This is sometimes a complacently accepted truth, other times it’s a truth that keeps me from being present. It keeps me watching the clock, wondering what else I need to do and what else I should be doing, i.e. keeping me in a seemingly constant state of forward looking.
Forward movement is of course beneficial, but there is much to be learned, enjoyed and benefited from in resting in the present. Looking to the current moment for all that it is, not for what it could, should, or will be – but for what it is now. I’ve been doing that these three weeks of winter break – traveling to visit family, cooking with loved ones, relishing in new and old traditions, and celebrating in the joy and love that Christ brought into the world.
Being present to these experiences was a needed reminder that there is much to be celebrated in simply sitting and being, with whoever you’re with wherever you are – in that moment. Besides the festivities, once things calmed down and we settled back home I had much time by myself, time to just be – to breathe, to be silent, to rest, to listen. The Sabbath is a true blessing and a necessity. We are not made to always be in forward movement, which is something I’ve noticed about the environmental field. Climate change, food insecurity, resource pollution, and biodiversity loss has inspired many to action, to intensive fast moving action. It is needed, of course, but we are part of the system too. We have our needs, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. We also have so much to learn from ourselves, from the good work we are planting and harvesting that we do not always recognize when we’re always onto the next season. This is what I believe the concept of the Sabbath can bring to believers and seculars alike – time to deeply rest, reflect, and engage in the work of nourishment.
“We tend to demean contemplative rest as something unproductive and unnecessary, but this is to do away with the very thing which is most important about work: its meaning. We are called to include in our work a dimension of receptivity and gratuity, which is quite different from mere inactivity. Rather, it is another way of working, which forms part of our very essence. It protects human action from becoming empty activism; it also prevents that unfettered greed and sense of isolation which make us seek personal gain to the detriment of all else.” – Pope Francis, On Care for Our Common Home
I’ve said this before, but I reiterate it to myself as I sit here and feel how much more full I feel after this Sabbath period – “No more good can be done, if the doer can no longer do good for self.” Resting is, to some – including me, surprisingly hard work. Meaningful rest can easily be misidentified as inaction, even laziness. But this is not so. There is so much work to be done within ourselves that resting enables, so much goodness for self. For a month, a week, a day or even an hour, let us all try to truly rest in the meaning of our work, in the meaning and beauty of our lives, so that we can emerge fulfilled by our passions and progress, and go forth in nourished pursuit of our life’s calling.
Tomorrow I emerge from my period of rest ready to dive into my next adventure – Wake Forest Divinity School’s Re:Generate Fellowship on ecological vocation and religious leadership. I’m honored to be in this year’s inspiring class of fellows, led by one of my spiritual and sustainable agriculture inspirations, Fred Bahson. It will be a period of deep connection, reflection, and exploration of the work we are doing in our individual communities around sustainable food systems and climate change, within the vital context of belief and spirituality. In building thriving and forward moving communities of practice, we aim to grow networks of successful change – communities built around learning in collaboration, loving in tandem, and growing in support of each other. To do so, we must first start with finding connection and meaning within ourselves, a process to which rest and reflection is sure to nourish.
From Wake Forest Divinity School:
Building a network of young faith leaders working on ecological issues
In January 2016, the School of Divinity will convene twenty young faith leaders from across the U.S. and Canada for its second annual Re:Generate Fellowship on Ecological Vocation and Religious Leadership.With generous support from the Byron Fellowship Educational Foundation and Kalliopeia Foundation, the fellowship provides a holistic leadership development program for young North American faith leaders who are exploring vocational issues focused in the areas of food justice, sustainable agriculture, climate change, and ecological resilience. The cohort will gather at St. Francis Springs Retreat Center in Stoneville, NC.
“Fifteen years ago I was a young seminary grad entering the world of sustainable agriculture and earth care and didn’t have many peers to lean on,” said Fred Bahnson, director of Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative at the school and creator of the Re:Generate Fellowship. “My desire to start this fellowship came out of a deep need to connect faith leaders working on ecological issues and start building a national network.”
Over the past three years, the School of Divinity has emerged as a national leader in addressing ecological well-being, climate change, and food justice, with a specific niche in training and equipping faith leaders. Through the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative, the school trains future leaders through a 15-credit certificate program in Food and Faith nested within the Master of Divinity degree, and offers a robust continuing-education program. The initiative’s workshops, conferences, and retreats have attracted hundreds of participants from 17 states and five countries, from 10 colleges including Exeter University in England, and from more than a dozen Christian denominations, as well as from other faiths. Every June the school convenes a five-day summer immersion course in Food, Faith, and Ecology in the North Carolina mountains.
Read more about how you can partner with the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative, join our mailing list to receive updates, and attend an upcoming continuing education event.
I met Meghan, one of my closest friends, at the slaughter of her two pigs two years ago. I was a vegetarian going almost 2 years strong, and she was readying herself to part with two animals she had come to care for and love. She’s a farmer and had decided to raise pigs that year on her small-scale low-impact farm in New Hampshire.
I had never before seen a livestock animal killed. It happened on site – on the soil and grass on which they were raised, and didn’t take very long. One pig was killed at a time, so one had to see the other die. That really got to some of us, especially Meg. Once the pigs were dead, skinned, and strung up by the USDA certified slaughterers, we took the hogs to the local butcher. I remember saying to her dad when he joked if I was going to go back to being an omnivore, “No, but this is good. It’s good to see what the alternative is, this was more humane.”
“Without systematic animal death, you have no animal farm—factory or otherwise, big or small, conventional or organic.”
He goes through the moral logic of advocates against factory animal farms – that animals are sentient beings, they deserve to live happy and healthy lives, and there is a morality surrounding their existence that is not respected within the mass-scale animal production system. In this system, slaughter is the least of the worries. The animal suffers at every step along the production chain, to the point that slaughter may be the kindest act – relieving the animals of ghastly and deplorable conditions of life. But, as McWilliams notes, with slaughter, therein lies the moral dilemma. If a person holds moral convictions throughout the animals life, why not hold them to the point of slaughter – to the point of death. Slaughter is the act of killing, some would say murdering, an animal whose functional role within that system is to be raised to be killed and commodified. This holds true no matter the type of farm.
“[T]he moral argument for small-scale farms—crumbles on this point. To end a sentient animal’s life is to suddenly objectify the animal after previously treating her as a subject worthy of moral consideration.”
Last summer I apprenticed for Firsthand Foods, a sustainable meat hub in North Carolina and engaged with some of the most humane and sustainable small-scale livestock operations in North Carolina, which is one of the leading global producers of pork. Firsthand provides a consistent and reliable supply of humane pasture-raised pork and beef to many of the Triangle’s (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill) most socially-responsible and environmentally conscious restaurants, businesses, and consumers. Visiting those farms it was evident how happy and in their natural element the animals were – they were not suffering. But the elephant in the room was always… they’re going to die.
I remember being at lunch with some friends in the field and we were talking about the Carolina Meat Conference. The subject of large-scale commercial marketing came up, and the dissonance between what’s put out there and the reality of the industrially-produced product. Someone reiterated that humanely raised meat is of course preferable, but “No one actually feels good about eating it. It had to die for you.”
Now, I know that an animal raised on a smaller farm that practices sustainable and humane husbandry will be happier and healthier than any animal in a factory farm, but I see what McWilliams’ is talking about with the omnivore’s moral contradiction. Slaughter is an aporia, a word containing an irresolvable logical disjunction. To slaughter is to kill an animal for food, but just because that animal was raised for that purpose – for the means of commodity and ultimately profit of the producer, does that make it O.K.? I ask this question in all sincerity. My diet is plant-based, but I eat animal protein when I can afford to get it from a reliable local source (humane, no added hormones or antibiotics, small-scale production) because my body becomes sick without small amounts (I learned this the hard way). But just because the source is reliable, does it mean that it is just?
Saint John Paul II in his first encyclical warns that human beings “see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.” This is a blanket assertion, but it is the blunt truth. In our systems of meat production, “sustainable” or not, we produce to make profit (use) and consume to meet our own needs (hunger) which arguably could be met through other means (plant-based protein or other non-slaughter animal products). Saint John Paul II goes on to note the need to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology.” This notion of human ecology is all encompassing, it is the ecosystem of our existence as living beings in our lived environments, those natural, social, and built. It is not simply a matter of the food chain, and that we purportedly are “at the top.” We must ask these hard question, explore these contradictions, and challenge the morality of our actions and choices so that we do not get lost in the facade and temptations of our present wants and non-pressing needs. I for one do not need to eat meat everyday, nor do many others.
As Pope Francis writes in his Encyclical Letter, “authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must be concerned for the world”, and, quoting Saint John Paul II, “take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system.”
Thus, our development as humans is contingent on our subsistence but both systems are fractured not only when it comes to health and sustainability, but also and especially morality. With commodification, profit, and consumption being inherent characters of the act of slaughter, a moral re-evaultion of the whole system is required for us to understand what it really means to subsist and progress as human beings, not simply material beings who give and take life away to meet our needs. Ultimately, we are not the final say on which life deserves to continue and which life does not, but that’s all in theory – because in practice, in animal agriculture, we do.
Sentient beings deserve to have their emotions, thoughts and natural behaviors respected, but when sentience comes to slaughter moral questions abound. I don’t think any of us will ever “feel good” about eating a piece of meat. We may feel a craving, a sense of excitement, appreciation, or gratitude, but I don’t think we can ever truly reconcile the fact that a living feeling being had to die… not for us to live, but for us to eat.
Today as we celebrate the birth of Christ, may we love as He loved us and equally open our hearts to all – on this day and those going forward.
“An infant in a manger is as vulnerable as human beings get, and what an infant needs is simple: food, shelter and protection from harm. The same is true of all the good words seeded in our souls that long to become embodied in our midst. If these vulnerable but powerful parts of ourselves are to be incarnated — to suffer yet survive and thrive, transforming us and the wounded world around us — they need to be swaddled in unconditional love.” – Parker Oliver, Quaker Elder
May we love fiercely, openly, and unconditionally, lifting each other up along the way.
Wishing everyone a joyous, blessed, and peaceful day of celebrating love and community. Merry Christmas to you and yours!
I’ve returned to these words by the poet Yeats so, so many times this year. The Second Coming was written post WWII, and is interpreted as a lamentation on the decline of European civilization. A picture of a world spinning so outwardly of control that all conception of origin, tradition, faith, and belief are lost.
The period during which these words were written is not so different from our world today. Indeed, industrialism and materialism still reign supreme (especially during this time of year), but are now compounded with horrifically frequent mass murders (San Bernardino 4 days ago; Paris 23 days ago; Beirut 24 days ago, and hundreds of others just this year), loathsome religious targeting, and a level of racism that has demonstrated how far our society has yet to come – how much we have yet to overcome.
What are we doing? In thinking about the many awful realities, it does seem that the worsts’ “passionate intensity” is filling our world. But, I still have hope.
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all the flesh shall see the salvation of God”
A few moments ago my favorite mug cracked. I was unloading some things from my car – a classic case of too many things and too few hands, and one pottery mug jammed into another. And just like that, crack! I looked at my mug, let out a sigh, put everything down, and then picked up the couple of pieces fractured out. I had just gotten back home after an interfaith service of racial injustice recognition at my church that I had helped lead. More than 30 people gathered to create a space for sharing, listening, and understanding around the critical matters of race and justice in our world today, in our communities, and within ourselves. Needless to say, my mind was still digesting the experience. The service was extraordinary. Only, it was more than that.
The dictionary defines extraordinary as “adj. very unusual or remarkable.” I will agree on both of those grounds.
First, it was very unusual in that teachers, health practitioners, students, clergy, artists, lawyers, writers, and many other incredible community members gathered together in a physical space to allow an organic discussion to be born from a forum of openness, vulnerability, and the desire to connect. Why is this unusual to me? Because the discourse I’ve been privy to on the recent matters of refugee resettlement, the mass killings, and racism have mainly been within the forums of social media – Facebook, Twitter, online news, and the like. Virtually connected, physically apart. As was demonstrated tonight, nothing online can move one to tears and inspire a desire to act in the way that a physical gathering can. Nothing online can replicate the power of seeing each others’ faces, hearing the emotional tremble of words, and the feeling of connectedness and potential held within the breath of the person seated next to you.
Second, it was remarkable because of the diversity of issues and the evident sense of shared passion and concern regarding each that was demonstrated. Some shared from their experiences in the Middle East, with local police brutality, with internal conflicts due to feelings of white privilege, and with frustration because of the constancy and increasing horrific nature of each passing event. All of these stories and experiences were shared and met with head nods, soft and comforting eyes, and a silent yet powerful sense of solidarity. Special highlights include standing and holding the hands of criss-crossed arms as we sang “We Shall Overcome” and sharing quotes from leaders including Angelou, Mandela, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, the Quran, and others.
Why was it beyond extraordinary? I have never felt generational empathy in the way that I have tonight. Growing up with a father and aunt brought up in the racist South, I heard many stories of grief, disdain, anger, frustration, disappointment, and sadness from their experience with racism and classicism. My dad often reminds me at moments when I feel confused about my life’s path, that when he graduated college he had one foot on a plane to Tibet with the intention of joining a Buddhist monastery. My aunt, too, often shares stories of her adolescent confusion and resulting complexes in adulthood. Both have led incredibly admirable lives of public service, remaining hopeful that change is and will continue to happen – “the crooked will be made straight.”
When the time came in the service to read the quotes, I had the first one:
“The American Negro never can be blamed for his racial animosities – he is only reacting to 400 y ears of the conscious racism of the American whites.”
~ Malcolm X
I could barely get to the second line before I choked up, tears welling up in the corners of each eye. It’s been more than 50 years since Malcolm X spoke those words, and it is now my turn to hear and see first hand accounts of today’s persisting racism, reflect on my own prejudices, and witness daily classism that was not unlike what my aunt, father, and hundreds of thousands of others witnessed and fought against – and are still fighting against. Reading those words, I felt connected to them and to those around me, most in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, who, at my age, were fighting for the same matters of justice, hope, and peace.
In looking at my cracked mug, which is repairable with love and a bit of ceramic glue, I am reminded that our lives are not so different. The human experience is deeply complex and the issues we create and face are so deeply interwoven – but, when the layers of comfort and everyday complacency become ruptured by trauma and evil, we are afforded the ability to come together to see past nationality, color, faith, class, and all other “othering” identifiers. We have the ability to be reborn, from a place of love, kindness, and care for one another. Indeed, the Second Coming is still within sight – we still have reason to be hopeful.
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
~ William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939)
We may be beasts slowly slouching towards change, towards equality, towards peace, but our ability to be reborn – not even the most passionate and intense of the worst can take that away.