I had the honor of speaking at the “Our Bay. Our Water. Our Moment” rally last night at the National Aquarium. Several hundred people gathered to show support for the new Chesapeake Watershed Implementation Plan set forth by the EPA. The WIP, as it is known, is designed to limit the pollutants that enter the bay and allow the streams, rivers and bay to heal and renew themselves. We need to show broad-based public support for these regulations, for other forces are fighting them. Check out the plan and send in your comments.
You needn’t focus on the arcane details. You can simply speak as a concerned citizen, in your own words, according to your own dreams for our water and our bay.
I heard, too, that Baltimore’s Waterfront Partnership has pledged to make the harbor fishable and swimmable by 2020. A huge commitment. We need to help and support them too.
For those who are interested, I post my comments from last night here:
We gather here today with one clear message:
We must restore the health of our waters, restore the health of our bay.
And we are committed to this message for one simple reason:
All life depends on water.
Songs and grass, trees and babies, fish, food, health.
[Life begins with that miracle liquid in which we were all conceived, in which we were all swaddled and fed, floated and flourished till we - both our gilled and finny ancestors and we ourselves – heaved our bodies onto dry land and burst out into this bright world to explore what lay beyond.]
Everything we do, everything that grows, everything that breathes owes its existence to earth’s water: fresh, clean, healthy, flowing water.
[Water is what sets our awesomely verdant planet apart from the millions of barren, lifeless places we see when we scan the heavens—still vainly seeking other signs of life.]
For as long as we have walked upon this earth, humans have depended upon water to keep us healthy and full of life.
Today, the tables are turned. It is the water that depends upon us to keep it healthy and full of life.
Over the past 150 years, with all our inventions, all our discoveries and all our industry, humans have become a geophysical force, altering the very mechanics of this world. Yet it is daring to tamper with earth’s delicate balance, for there are so many things we still do not understand.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” God rails at Job in that book of the Bible.
“Tell me, if you understand….
“Who shut up the sea behind its doors when it first burst forth from the womb?
Who was there when I fixed limits for it and set its bars in place?
Who cuts channels for the torrents of rain, and paths for the thunderstorms … to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass?
“Are you the rain’s father? Are you the mother of the dew?”
We are indeed neither father nor mother of the rain, or the dew, or the water.
We are neither the masters nor creators of this world; we are not the designers or manufacturers of water. We are, when all is said and done, the users, the consumers, the needy beneficiaries of this awesome, earthly elixir that was here in healthy abundance before we were ever born. And which we need to leave healthy for life yet to come.
We are water’s rightful users. But we cannot allow ourselves to become its destroyers.
Yet, unless we change our ways, that is precisely what we will be.
We use water broadly, voluminously, in all kinds of ways: we drink it, bathe in it, swim in it; wash our cars, dishes, and clothes in it. We baptize our babies, purify our bodies, and gently wash our dead, in it.
We manufacture almost all our stuff with it, create energy that powers our cities with it.
Then we dump it, trash it, throw our garbage and poisons and waste into.
We need to change our ways. We need to re-imagine how to do farming, manufacturing, transportation; we need to re-design how we construct our buildings and homes and cities and streets.
We need to live in nature as good guests, for indeed we are here but a short time, and nature is our host, patiently and generously opening herself to us. But if we continue to behave badly, nature’s patience and generosity will run out. And we will all suffer for it.
We need to change, to do things better. This is not a matter of choice but of timing. Not a matter of “if” but of “when”. The sooner we act: the more effective the fix, the more equitable the impact, the less burdensome the cost. We need to do it now.
Thomas Berry taught that each generation has a Great Work that defines it; each generation has a sacred calling that ties “their human venture to the larger destinies of the universe”.
Our generation’s Great Work is healing this earth. We might not have asked for this task, but it is ours. It lies before us. The good news is: it is ennobling, inspiring, fulfilling to do it and do it well.
And we have already begun. We have begun to see how we can live in harmony with earth’s rhythms and capacity; we have begun to see how we can restore the waters of our planet and the life that pulses within it.
But we need to do it more, we need to do it better, and we need to do it now.
That is the message we bring today. That is the work we pledge ourselves to do.
This week is the Jewish holiday of Sukkot – it is best known as our fall harvest festival, but it is also the time we celebrate the gift of water and pray for the healing presence of rain.
We speak of the miracles God did for us through water, and we ask that the healthy rains come, and the pure waters flow:
We ask that water be there for us:
As a blessing and not a curse;
For abundance and not for famine;
For Life and not for Death.
Today, the choice is up to us.
We must: Choice Clean Water. Choose Now. Choose Life.
New York lost over 2000 trees this past week due to a fierce storm - and most likely two tornadoes - that swept through Brooklyn and Queens. The question, beyond the tragic loss of one life and the effort and expense of cleaning up, is: how does one mourn the loss of a tree?
Many of these trees, some 100 and 200 years old, provided local workers and residents with a sense of stability and reassurance in an era of movement and uncertainty. They were seen as familiar, steadfast companions; silent confidantes; comforting refuges of shade; statues of beauty; and trustworthy guides. There is now a yawning hole, a telltale scar, in the personal landscape where the tree used to be.
And yet, it is not generally socially acceptable to mourn the loss of a tree. As a society, we take trees down with great ease, even aplomb, to create our questionable, even undesirable, impermeable roads and sprawling suburbs, often replacing whole acres of woods with nostalgic arboreal names such as Laurel Court, Linden Way or Maple Street.
Mt Vernon Conservancy in Baltimore is seeking to take down 100 historic trees, albeit with the intent of replacing them with large, 35-foot trees more securely planted in improved soil, better suited for the location and more neatly aligned. And while it may indeed make sense to do this - many of the marked trees are stressed and unwell - still they add their unique character and history to the plaza. Trees, unlike money or bricks, are not fungible.
Maryland did a great job with the Wye Oak. We began harvesting its acorns years before its demise and now there are thousands of little Wye Oak saplings across the country. After it came down in a storm in 2002, some of its wood was salvaged and made into a desk for our Governor. Thousands of trinkets, crafts and tchotchkes of all sorts were made from the tree.
So the question remains, is it socially acceptable to mourn the loss of trees and if so, how shall we do it? When my family had to take down our 90 year old poplar in our back yard, I was eager to find an artist or carpenter who could make it into a table for our home. Haven’t found one yet so I will likely end up burning it.
Native hunters thanked the animals they killed for giving themselves up for food. Such a meditation restores a sense of balance and tames the rising hubris that comes when exercising the power to take a life. Perhaps we need something like that regarding trees. Perhaps before the whine of the chainsaw, we should thank the tree for its goodness and gifts. Perhaps too we can grow a whole cottage industry of artists who can help us take the wood from local trees and make them into keepsakes, reminding us of the presence and value of particular trees.
And then what should be done when loggers harvest whole forests, far from our view, out of our consciousness? Perhaps public officials and the press should cover the first cuts, broadcast the views and the noise on the web so we can see the source of this blessing and know that it comes at a price, as indeed most blessings do.
Cultures create traditions and rituals around moments of shared significance. Perhaps it is time we created one for lost trees.
(drawing: The Wye Oak)
It recently occurred to me, in the midst of these glorious early fall days and soothing, lengthening nights, with Jupiter blazing in the night sky, that our ancestors celebrated Yom Kippur outside.
They gathered in the courtyards and by the gates of the Temple, in the streets and throughout the broad places of Jerusalem. The center of activity held forth behind a curtain in the Holy of Holies and on a tidy, if bloodied, table on the westward end of the Temple plaza.
The action for the most part was beyond view. The people were, when all is said and done, left on their own. They kept each other company. We can imagine what kept them occupied.
No doubt they chatted a bit; shared stories of the year past; imagined good things for the future; perhaps told jokes; napped; strolled around; grew anxious, grew bored; visited and watched the sun progress from morning to evening, trudging its steady, stubborn path across the Mediterranean sky.
More and more people I speak to these days are returning to this age-old practice. They are celebrating Yom Kippur outside. Some by a lake; some in the woods; some by a stream or in a meadow; or on a long garden path.
The world becomes their synagogue; a rock their pew; the heavens their ark. They can see the sun tracing the arc of their lives. They feel the pace and passage of time, where it speeds up and where it drags on, where it delights and where it tugs. They fill the earth and are filled by it. They are everything; and they are nothing. It is a day of audacious dreams and profound humility.
Two pockets, we have, with two notes in them. In one: “For me the world was created.” In the other, “I am but ashes and dust.”
We can feel the power of each in the great outdoors on Yom Kippur.
May this year bring you its full measure of blessings. And may you be inscribed in the Book of Life.
I have always wondered why there were two goats in the Yom Kippur ritual, one that is sacrificed and one that is sent off into the wilderness.
Last year I imagined that the one that was killed in the Temple bore our atonement for all the wrongs we committed, the wrongs we could name: the hurts we caused, the lies we told, the gossip we spread.
The other carried with it into the wilderness something less tangible, less culpable: the misplaced fantasies of our lives. We all are weavers of fantasy. That is what carries us forward from day to day: imagining enchanted moments that might burst upon us tomorrow; irresistible strangers who might come our way; unnamed longings that might be fulfilled; mystical truths that might be revealed; or even earthly discoveries we might make.
But while fantasy stokes the fires of our will and drives the passion that pulls us from day to day, not all fantasy is good. Those that distract us from the work we must do, from the loved ones who lay claim to us, from appreciating the quotidian, the present, and the goodness close at hand, those we must release. It is those that the second goat carries with it into the wilderness.
But perhaps this is also true: Every new year, we cross a new threshold, a turning, a possibility of change, where past and future meet and diverge. (Indeed, every moment possesses the magic of such a threshold, though we rarely acknowledge and act upon it, except now.) Every new year, we stand and pause on that threshold looking back, and looking out.
Perhaps the first goat, then, the one that must be sacrificed, is the one that looks back, the one that carries upon it the regrets and mistakes of our past, all that we wish to undo and forget, all that we apologize for. That goat helps us put an end, close the door, to a past that should remain that way.
The second goat is the one that is sent out into the vast uncharted space of the wilderness, the space that lies, waiting, before us. Perhaps this second goat is not about the past but the future, about promising us that no matter how tight a place we find ourselves in now, if we turn our eyes to the wilderness, we will see that spaciousness and opportunity lie before us.
One goat represents the past; the other, the future. They meet at this moment, on this threshold of time, in the place where we stand. We begin with the one on the altar, and then turn our eyes to follow the one that we send into the wilderness.
We have always been drawn to and wary of the wilderness. It is a place of opposites: a place of danger and freedom, revelation and loss, abundance and lack, God-filled and empty, Sinai and struggle. It is the opposite of the Garden of Eden. And yet, paradoxically, it is the place where we as a people were fashioned and flourished.
Perhaps that second goat is there to tell us not to be afraid to enter the wilderness. It is there with the big sky, the vast horizon and room to grow that our future lies.
We just have to dare.
(Photo from bibleplaces.com)
It is hard to remember a more glorious Labor Day weekend. No rain, low humidity, and mornings and evenings that are cool enough to nudge sweaters out of closets from their summer-long slumber.
For the first time since spring I returned to my yard.
There is a trail behind our house that leads to our neighbor. It runs through our back, continues 50 feet further through our gently-packed woods, then spills out into daylight onto our neighbor’s grassy yard. We created it years ago when my not-yet-daughter-in-law lived with us one summer and had to trek through the woods to catch the camp bus she chaperoned on her way to work each day.
We have called it Lianna’s path all these years, but since another of my sons and his family now live on that neighboring street, I think we might rename the trail, The Children’s Path. In a most enchanted way, the route my children have to take to reach me is literally over a river (okay, a stream; but it is unarguably there) and through the woods.
The wooded part of the trail is lined with fallen branches and raked clear to create a dirt walkway. Where the trail breaks into the open on our back yard, I laid facade stones (left over from renovations we did ten years ago) along the sides to guide the way. And to finish it off, I went to a local quarry, purchased two tons of white crushed pebbles and set them down between the guide stones. It may not be elegant but it works just fine.
The path is not complete. It never will be. I must clear it regularly of debris and intruding grass. In autumn it gets all but obliterated by the falling leaves. And I continually imagine how to make it better.
But it has brought whimsy and enchantment to our backyard. It possesses all the ingredients of childhood fantasies: safety and danger, daylight and darkness, home and adventure, stasis and prospect, beckoning but a bit frightening. What could be better?
My husband and I picked these apples today, the first harvest of our very own.
He held the bowl and pulled aside the netting that protected the apples from the deer while I reached in and plucked them all.
It took a total of about one minute, including the walk from tree to tree. Five years of growing, one mammoth snow storm, innumerable stakings and drapings, worrying and watering, mending and waiting. And the picking took about one minute.
(How many things are over too quickly, no matter how long it takes to prepare? A great meal? A wedding reception? A longed-for vacation? Childhood? Life?)
Two trees. Seven apples. One minute.
We had eleven apples when last we looked. One we picked two weeks ago so my son could take it to college and have it to celebrate his first Rosh Hashanah away from home. Three must have fallen off. Perhaps the deer ate them. Seven remained for us to pick today.
I have picked apples in the past, from branches so high we needed a claw on a stick to tug them toward us, and branches just right so the children could reach them on their own.
These trees, our trees, were in the middle. The apples hung breast and shoulder high, just so, ready to be plucked.
I grasped the first one, from the taller tree. It was beginning to show spots and I worried that we had already let it go past its peak. And yet, when I tugged at it, it tugged back. Resisted. I turned the stem a bit, gently urging its release. It didn’t let go.
I remembered a conversation I had with my doctor years ago on the question of miscarriages. A healthy baby will stay in the womb, he assured me, as much as a healthy apple will stay on the tree. No manner of everyday knocking about will set it loose. But when it is ripe and ready, it will come down.
This apple sure looked ripe, and over-ready, yet it did not easily let go. I had to twist it and tug it til it finally surrendered. The other apples came down more readily, though they too did not give in without a fight.
Or so I thought when I was standing by the trees. But now I have a different perspective.
Now, as I sit in my study and see the trees, bereft of their fruit, I wonder if it wasn’t that the apples clung tightly to the trees but that the trees clung tightly to the apples. Who, exactly, was holding on to whom?
I remember leaving my children with a babysitter one particular night 25 years ago. One of my sons was anxious and upset. I reassured him that I would be back when the clock struck eight. And I remember thinking as I turned my back to the house and walked away: today I am the one walking out the door and he is the one at home crying. Someday, it will be the other way around. Only he will not be back by eight.
The apple trees stand in our front yard now, like my husband, the empty house, and me. The leaves and furniture; roots and trunk; health and buoyancy; dreams and wishes all remain. But one grand purpose of our lives, one weighty and draining, luscious and beautiful cluster of ornaments that defined and molded the shape of our lives for so very long has been plucked from our midst. We are lighter, no doubt, but also a bit sadder.
Yet, that is how it is meant to be. How much sadder would we be if they did not grow up and go away?
How fortunate, then, that our first harvest should coincide with this new chapter of our lives, reminding us of the seasons of time, the various harvests with which we are blessed. And the new year that is about to unfold before us.
In 10th century Iraq, a remarkable Sufi parable was penned. It told the tale of a lawsuit that the animals of the world brought against humanity. The animals claimed that they were enslaved and mistreated. They spoke of the horrors and injustice they endured as they were beaten and burdened and eaten by their oppressors.
Set in a palatial court of law on the crest of an island mountain, the proceedings permitted animals and people to plead their cases before the Spirit King.
What is perhaps most stunning in this wildly woven tale, is the assumption that animals, and by extension all nature, can claim to have divine, inalienable, rights. And what’s more, that these rights can stand toe to toe against the rights of humanity.
What is being argued, it seems, is the quality and extent, not the presence, of those rights.
Almost 40 years ago, Christopher D. Stone, Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, penned an article in the California Law Review that stands to this day as a landmark in legal thought. He asked the unthinkable question: should nature have standing in a court of law, in our legal tradition, and affect the way we adjudicate our cases on torts and recompense.
His answer was yes. Trees, natural objects, discrete areas (streams, fields) can claim rights in the court of law to be protected. In generally accessible language so that even a layperson like me can mostly understand, he outlines three conditions that must be met when nature is given standing:
1) Claims can be made directly on nature’s behalf. That is, harm done to a stream or field or tree is enough to bring suit. No human need first claim to be directly harmed before this claim can go to court.
2) Nature’s own unique damages (and not those of owners or other interested human or economic parties) may be considered. If someone pollutes upstream, even if there is no human downstream who can claim direct harm, friends of the stream can bring suit to redress the damages to the stream itself.
3) Nature itself needs to be compensated for the harm done to it. That is, nature itself, and not just its owner, must be the beneficiary of award. Clearly, the award then is not money, but the cessation and remediation of the harm.
This position is still shocking to many today. We still largely argue that it is people directly harmed by pollutants and natural destruction who have the right to protest in court and not those who fight on behalf of nature itself.
Of course, this is a spurious distinction, for if nature is harmed, we too are harmed.
And yes there are questions regarding how far and how broadly such rights of nature would be applied. But I would prefer that that be the arena of our dispute, that is, how far do the rights of nature go, rather than does nature have rights.
For the bottom line is, she does. And she will claim those rights somewhere down the line if we do not protect them now. Only, if we get to the point where she has had enough and calls in her chits, it won’t be pretty.