Are people of faith too worn out and apathetic to care about the earth anymore? A mutual, living relationship with the earth as an expression of our spirituality may be what helps us keep going, writes Carlyn Chen...
A recent Sydney Morning Hearald article on “Green Fatigue” by Cosima Marriner (3rd June 2012) suggests that consumers - particularly Australians - are less and less concerned about the environmental impact of our daily living habits, and that the way to recapture people's interest in green issues is to sell the message of the economic viability of environmentally sustainable projects. For sure, it would be a positive thing to help people see that good environmental practice means good business, and for this to become the norm rather than the exception. We need our best minds to be engaged in this.
However, for people for whom matters of the soul, spirit and faith are important, is the good economic argument enough to keep us from succumbing to “green fatigue”? While it is a great incentive if being green makes sense to our “pockets” – it has to make sense to the deepest parts of us – our souls - to really bring change. In my experience, a good intellectual (or economic) argument alone is not enough to transform me at the deepest level in a way that sustainably changes the way I live. We all know this from experiencing the phenomenon of believing one thing in our heads, but living a different reality in the everyday. The earth needs us to be truly transformed in order for it be renewed for future generations (or at least to reduce the rate of destruction we are responsible for), lest our commitment remains shallow (but trendy) “green talk”.
One of the great contributions I think people of faith can bring to the work of caring for the earth is long term commitment – faithfulness - driven by a deep inner conviction. In my expression of my spirituality, I am learning that to come to this place, I need to see my relationship with the earth as being integral to my relationship with God – I can’t have one without the other. This is something that Australia’s Indigenous peoples have always known and practiced – but it is a vital aspect of my spirituality that I have only begun to discover in recent years.
I am re-learning my own faith afresh, seeing how the faith texts I grew up with are laden with images and metaphors about the earth and creation – but to which I barely gave any significance before. Creation speaks, it groans, it withers, it swallows up, it provides refuge, it mimics death with eclipse and earthquake, it rises again. In fact, it provides the very context in which people can relate with God - the very first story about people interacting with God in these texts has them walking and talking together in the garden. I find this image beautiful and profound in its simplicity. While we can walk and talk with God anywhere, there is something about doing this in the setting of living nature that is vital to my very relationship with and understanding of God. "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - God's eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…" (Romans 1:20 in the Bible, New International Version). In this context, I am rediscovering the relationship of enjoyment, respect and care that is meant to exist between me, the earth and its Creator - and they are mutual relationships.
Going for a bushwalk or being in a beautiful place in nature has always been a spiritual experience for me, as it is for many people. However, more recently, I have moved from being an observer of nature, to taking an active part in caring for and interacting with it. Tending to my little veggie plot in the local community garden is something I have come to see as an act of worship to my Creator. I go in anticipation of connecting with God in some small way when I get my hands into the soil, weed, plant, prune, water or smell the herbs, or even when I just empty the compost and stare at the seedlings to look out for any new growth. I hope that in my little patch, I am helping restore the earth in a tiny way and I experience every time, that it restores my sense of wellbeing. But in the microcosm of our community garden and the micro-microcosm of my veggie patch, there are endless rich lessons of faith for me to learn.
Tending to the garden has brought me to appreciate the life and death cycle of sowing, growing, harvesting, eating and sharing produce, collecting seeds and composting. In the community garden we’ve had special moments when we have been able to celebrate the complete cycle, like when we shared cups of coffee together under the very coffee tree that bore the coffee beans, and then tossed the used coffee grains back onto the soil as compost for the original tree as well as the new seedlings popping up from the sprouting coffee beans under the tree.
Gardening here has not all been idyllic, though. It has included being confronted by destruction - people who steal whole plants by the dark of night, teenagers who use plants as targets for their anger, kids that don't understand that eggplants and oranges are food, not missiles, and the occasional person who is so drug affected that they genuinely think that pulling out someone’s entire veggie plot is being helpful. I experience grief when I see the effects of this destruction wreaked upon our little garden - but I know it is only a tiny fraction of grief that creation and the Creator have known from the result of people not choosing to take up their part in a relationship of respect and care - today, and over the course of history. "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." (Romans 8:22)
This destruction though, however devastating, never has the last word! It seems to me that the mantra many of our gardeners have adopted (perhaps inspired by Dory's "Keep on swimming" from Finding Nemo) is "Keep on planting". I am learning from the gardeners and the garden, how good is stronger than evil, and creativity greater than destruction – the very principle of resurrection and life-over-death that my faith tradition is built upon. On hearing how upset I was by the pilfering of my plants, another gardener planted silverbeet seedlings in my plot as compensation and suggested, “That’s just what we need to do for each other when someone’s plot gets damaged”. How simple, creative, and restorative. As I reflected on the generosity of this gardener I looked at the rest of my plot, and was reminded that much of my plot was made up of other people’s contributions: lettuce seedlings from one gardener, tatsoi seeds saved and shared from last year’s plants by another gardener, compost contributed from the many in the neighbourhood, mulch from our local coffee supplier, and random vegetables that had sprung up out of the compost itself. And I only had access to this veggie plot because a gardener offered to share her patch with me.
My veggie plot doesn’t exist just because of my work and faith, but because of the collective goodness and faith of the community around me. This far outweighs the destruction the garden has experienced. And sometimes, the plants themselves find a way to regenerate - where the rhubarb plant was stolen, one month later, new rhubarb plants grew - whether from an anonymous gardener planting them there, or from latent seeds in the soil unbeknownst to me, I don't know. But where there was devastation and discouragement, it tested our resolve to persevere and became a catalyst for creative solutions from the community. It also gave way for the seeds, the life latent beneath the soil and waiting for space to grow, to be able to emerge.
It is a privilege to experience such amazing life and growth in the garden, from being nourished by the food it provides, but also the beauty, complexity and the lessons it continually shares with me. This makes me want to make good choices for the earth, to advocate for it, to lighten my footprint on it. Just as I want the best for people I am in relationship with, so it is with the earth when I have a living relationship with it. The stronger my relationship with the earth becomes, the more the consequences of my daily actions on the earth matter to me.
The everyday choices we make to walk in the garden and care for it – even if just a small decision to take our own bags to do the grocery shopping, to bother to recycle or compost, to walk short distances rather than drive, to become informed about the issues, to compose that letter to your MP – these can be real expressions of our spirituality. As we choose to care for the earth, in return we find life, joy, mystery, and an understanding of the Great Spirit – and it is in this living, deepening relationship that we will find that “green fatigue” becomes less and less relevant. "Being green" won't be something that saps us of energy, but on the contrary, it will give us life. Nurturing life, creation and creativity will become the only option that will make sense to our souls. Now, time to go plant some seeds…