Nature

The Beginners' Guide to the Sound of Sap

Photo by Timothy King
Photo by Timothy King

If you listen, each bucket has its own special sound. First are the empty buckets and their muted ting of dripping sap falling straight to the galvanized steel bottom. Next is the dop that reverberates from the slightly sweet drop running off the spile to a thin layer of liquid below. But it is the soft, and all too rare and timeless plop that I wait for. That quiet plop (or sometimes plip) signals that over half of that the three-gallon bucket is full and the tap is giving in abundance.

There is a slight quickening of the heart when the bucket is heavy enough to need two hands to pull off the hook. Then an involuntary smile to hear the pitch of the shwoosh ascend as the smaller bucket presents it’s offering to the larger. But sometimes, before I touch the bucket at all, I stop and wait to hear what it has to say. Ting? Dop? Plip? Plop?

I look at the tree and then its neighbors. I strain to hear the rhythm of the buckets around me and wonder, what makes one tap run so well when others are nearly dry?

VIDEO: Do Trees Communicate?

“What do the trees know that we have yet to learn?” Sean McDonagh asks of readers in his article, “Forty Shades of Green” (Sojourners, November 2014). By disregarding the natural world in biblical studies, McDonagh argues, we have lost our connection to our roots in creation and the mysticism they hold.

Watch the video below and hear from professor and forest ecologist  Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia speak on the power of “Mother Trees” and the role they play supporting whole ecosystems.  

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Forty Shades of Green

I GREW UP IN RURAL IRELAND in the 1950s in a world surrounded by trees.

Close to my home, a ribbon of horse chestnuts lined both sides of the road. Each summer their intertwining canopies shut out the light, which gave the road its name—the dark road. In the fields around our house there were stands of oak, birch, elm, and sycamore. About 40 yards to the south and west, my father planted a shelter belt of Leylandii. We had different varieties of apple trees in the orchard, and two pear trees.

In 1962, just as the Second Vatican Council was beginning, I entered St. Columban’s seminary to be a priest. The seminary was located on a large estate called Dowdstown in County Meath. More than 150 acres were covered in woodlands full of indigenous trees such as oak, hazel, holly, ash, Scotch pine, willow, elm, and rowan. There were also exotic species, including a number of the sturdy cedars of Lebanon, a variety of cherry trees, and even a few California redwoods. The folklore in the area was that the trees had been planted in the 1820s by Gen. Robert Taylor, who had fought alongside Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo.

Trees are the dominant life form on land—and the longest-lived creatures on earth. During my seven years in seminary, while studying philosophy, theology, spirituality, and scripture, we never once looked to the natural world or trees for insight into our relationship with God, other human beings, or other species. And there is so much to learn! Sadly, theology and scripture presentations were isolated almost exclusively to the divine-human relationship, with little consideration given to the rest of creation.

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The Groan of All Creation: Come Lord Jesus

Nature illustration,  LYphoto / Shutterstock.com
Nature illustration, LYphoto / Shutterstock.com

In these days barren fields will sprout trees

The deaf and blind will hear and see

The dead will raise and begin to breathe

The earth will groan in pain to see

The sons of God declare to be

His full and glorious family

The beautiful, perfect bride of Thee (Wash Me Clean, Page CXVI)

I am a city girl through and through — I’ve never lived outside of an urban context. Although my family lived in Queens (represent!), our church and community were in the dense and often treeless “ghetto” of Alphabet City, a neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My experiences of nature have mostly consisted of front and back yards, parks, and occasional trips to the beach or camping. And because I grew up in and spent most of my life in communities of the poor and marginalized, most of my experiences of God have centered around what Divine mercy, justice, healing, liberation, and restoration look like in the human heart.

In other words, it’s very easy for me to grasp the idea of a “New Jerusalem” or “a city whose architect and builder is God.” It’s easy for me to see the human component of God’s kingdom and what it means for people. It’s not so easy for me to imagine trees “clapping their hands” or even fully to appreciate the majesty of God’s handiwork in the stars ... because I’ve rarely seen a night sky free from light pollution. It’s not easy for me to imagine what a renewed creation would look like apart from new hearts and restored people.

The Harvest of Fidelity

THE STILL, ATTENTIVE, affectionate, at times lamenting, always sagacious, well-defined, occasional poems in This Day, Wendell Berry’s most recent collection, are a magnificent gift to American letters.

For nearly 35 years Berry has kept the Sabbath holy. His practice is either unorthodox or so deeply orthodox that professional religionists may not recognize it. On Sundays Berry walks his Kentucky “home place,” the roughly 125 acres of bottom land in the region his family has farmed for more than 200 years. From the seventh-day silence, solitude, and natural world, Berry has crafted his Sabbath poems.

“Occasional poems” commemorate public events, but here Berry lays quiet markers to remember personal days in the life of one man. He writes in the preface: “though I am happy to think that poetry may be reclaiming its public life, I am equally happy to insist that poetry also has a private life that is more important to it and more necessary to us.”

Berry’s first collection of Sabbath poems appeared in A Timbered Choir, uniting work from 1979 (“I go among trees and sit still”) to 1997 (“There is a day / when the road neither / comes nor goes ...”). This Day includes this previous material plus dozens more written through 2013. It opens with “Preface: From Sabbaths 2013” and places Berry in his human landscape:

This is a poet of the river lands
a lowdown man of the deepest
depths of the valley, where gravity gathers
the waters, the poisons, the trash,
where light comes late and leaves early.

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Mourning for the Earth

The most precious place on Earth for me is a camp on a lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. During the next century, climate change will chase northward things that I cherish. Spruce, tamaracks, sugar maples, balsam fir, moose, mink, and loons will no longer grace the shores and waters of that lake. Like most people in northern climes, I see the changes happening already. I have to fight hard against despair, for my personal losses, yes, but also for the universality and injustice of the calamity, which already affects so many of the poor and innocent.

WHY IS IT so hard for people to respond effectively to the reality of climate change?

Changing people’s minds—with facts, tables, and predictions—has proven extremely difficult. Even showing people the miraculous beauty of the planet alongside the predicted losses is not working. Guilt, anxiety, and anger can be motivating forces, but they have debilitating side effects: They are all soul-destroying.

So I wonder about our hearts. Have we ignored our emotional and spiritual connections to the planet? Could the noise swirling around climate change—science, politics, media blitzes, as well as the weather disasters themselves—drown out the voice of a loss so profound that it rests unnamed in our souls? Could our breaking hearts be part of the reason we are immobilized?

In the 1960s, Rachel Carson’s image of a “silent spring” due to the proliferation of pesticides was as heartrending as it was controversial. Carson was ridiculed, her predictions dismissed. The corporate world paid millions to have her silenced. But eventually the love of bird songs won out. People read Carson’s book, grieved at the prospect of a silent spring, spoke up, and insisted the chemical-company-supported politicians ban DDT.

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Keep On Keepin' On

IN ORDER TO imagine the solutions needed for our environmental crises, we must understand the depth and breadth of their severity—but understanding can all too easily lead to guilt, despair, and hopelessness.

Our response to climate change can no longer be about fear. The more overwhelmed, fearful, guilty, or bitter we are, the less likely we are to spring into action. Corporate monopolies, fossil fuel industry giants, and big money lobbyists have succeeded in getting us to be our own worst enemy. Anger and outrage can only get us so far, and no one knows that better than they do. And in my case, only the good Lord, and my loving husband, know the depth of my daily, ongoing struggle with this.

So what is a faithful, God-fearing, creation-loving person to do? One thing that I have found helpful is to purposefully set aside time to immerse myself in nature, appreciating God’s creation in its vast and intricate beauty. Even a 15-minute stroll through a city park helps me to calm down and regain perspective. Watching fuzzy animals, finding colorful creepy crawlies, and overhearing snippets of people’s conversations gives me pause and reminds me that ours is very complex and witty God.

Another thing essential to sustaining myself in this work is to interact with others for whom creation care and eco-justice is a passion or vocation. The interpersonal relationships build community and nurture my soul. And in them we most deeply experience the grace and presence of the Holy Spirit, at work among us, inspired by one another through our faith and common efforts.

Prior to coming to Sojourners, I coordinated multiday workshops for Lutherans Restoring Creation. Each one gave pastors and lay leaders an opportunity to share best practices and resources for integrating creation care into all areas of church life: worship, education, buildings and grounds, advocacy, and discipleship at home and work.

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Owning the Future

Vernon Bowman speaks outside the Supreme Court following arguments against Monsanto.

IF THEY HAD met, Aaron Swartz and Vernon Bowman probably wouldn't have hit it off. The 26-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y. computer whiz and the 75-year-old Indiana grain farmer might have been from different planets. But they were brothers-in-arms in a historic struggle over the shape of the 21st century economy and culture. Each, in his own way, has challenged the iron, unyielding hegemony of copyright law that increasingly protects permanent, private, for-profit ownership of artistic creations, scholarly research, and the very processes of life itself.

Aaron Swartz won't be around to see the outcome of this struggle.

Swartz was a successful internet innovator who used his wealth and position to promote "free information." In 2008, he wrote a program that was used to liberate thousands of public-domain federal court records from a site that was charging 10 cents per page for their use. More recently he used his access to the M.I.T. computer network to execute a massive robo-download of millions of scholarly articles from the subscription database JSTOR. The idea was to make the scholarship available free.

After he was caught, JSTOR reached a civil settlement with Swartz that included his surrender of the hard drives containing the articles and then treated the case as closed. But federal prosecutors decided to throw the book at Swartz. He was under a felony indictment for computer fraud and facing a possible 35-year prison sentence. Finally, in January, Swartz, who had a history of depression, killed himself. His parents blamed overzealous prosecutors for his death.

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The Minister's Treehouse

The Minister's Tree House in Crossville, Tennn. Photo via Wylio.
The Minister's Tree House in Crossville, Tennn. Photo via Wylio.

God told Noah to build an ark, and God told Horace to build a tree house. That’s pretty much how this story goes.

In the 1990s, Tennessee landscaper Horace Burgess discovered a tall mass of trees near the road, and decided he wanted to turn into the world’s largest tree house. After years of working on his epic project, just as he was running out of steam, he became a Christian and then later a pastor.

Compelled, he says, by the Spirit of God, Burgess finally finished his project in 2004. And, to put it lightly, it’s pretty divine.

Hating the Invisible Man (Day Seventeen)

Invisible Man, Brian A Jackson / Shutterstock.com
Invisible Man, Brian A Jackson / Shutterstock.com

We finally made it to the Oregon Coast yesterday. I took some pictures in the redwood forest that I’ll share soon, but this post isn’t about that.

We got in before dinner and were happy to learn that we had a hotel room with an ocean view. Not only that, but it actually is right on the beach. So of course, we decided to sleep with the windows open.

It’s one thing to fall asleep to the nature sounds on my iPad; it’s entirely another to drift into an alpha state to the real thing.

And then came the noise. It was this periodic buzzing/honking/humming that started sometime in the middle of the night. It sounded like someone snoring through the wall in the next room. Seriously? I drive two thousand miles to sleep next to the ocean and you’re going to keep me awake snoring?

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