Spring has been peeking out of the darkness of winter for a few weeks now; at least here in the city where I live. The occasional warm days have teased us. Hints of green and fleshy buds have enticed us with visions of things to come. The bounty of life is poised to burst forth and grace us with color and fragrance, bird sounds and activity, delicate seedlings and earthy possibility.
I was just a little bit surprised, then, by the relative barrenness of the woods on the outskirts of town during my hike there last weekend. With the exception of the occasional swath of violet where a stand of almost blossoming redbuds seemed to glow, the forest was practically naked. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Urban centers are generally a bit warmer than the surrounding areas on account of the heat stored in the abundant concrete and asphalt. It makes sense that spring would arrive just a little bit later on the outskirts. It’s also the case that I was hiking in a hilly area, with many sheltered draws and hollows where the air stays cooler than elsewhere. Nonetheless, I was taken aback; and more so for reasons that I’m about to relate.
It was a windy day, far windier than seemed the norm for a spring day with no storms in the vicinity. It set the bare trees swaying, and their upper limbs swirling and clunking together like bone wind chimes. Eerier still was the occasional dead tree fallen across the trail, and the not infrequent sounds of limbs crashing to the earth here and there throughout the forest.
I’ve heard of people being killed by falling trees, a possibility that suddenly didn’t seem like all that freakish an occurrence. It seemed more like something that I needed to remain vigilant of as I walked beneath limbs and past trees that could potentially fall across my path – which, in my mind, was every one of them that I passed! Such awareness was necessary, I felt, just in case I needed to take some instinctive action to dodge this way or that based on whether a cracking sound was louder in one ear or the other, or based on how it echoed off the other trees in the vicinity.
The experience conjured up in me an apocalyptic vision. What if this forest wasn’t to wake up after all? What if climate change has already tipped the scale just enough with regards to temperature or moisture such that this woods is destined to become a dead zone until different species can take root and predominate? And what if that scale has already tipped too far? What if this area has already become too hot, too windswept, too dry or too acidic for much of anything at all to grow? What if this area should never again be any semblance of what it has been for me all those times in the past on so many hikes?
Some years ago, I rode my bicycle alone through Yellowstone Park. It was almost nightfall as I pedaled mile after mile through burned up forest stretching as far as the eye could see. The scorched gray remains of the pine trees pointed at various angles like the fallen dead on a vast battlefield. Thankfully, though, the fleshy green of new growth was already poking up out of the earth – less than a meter tall, to be sure, but present nonetheless. So many animals had been killed. So many trees had been killed. I had faith, though, that the earth would rebound.
For so long we’ve had faith in the vastness of the earth and its ability to sustain our numbers, regardless of how selfishly we behave or how wasteful we are. For so long we’ve assumed that we could count on the regularity of nature – the predictability of rainfall and a suitable growing season for our crops, the constancy of the sea level and the coming and going of the seasons, the infrequency of devastating storms such that we can have faith that what we build today will not be blown away tomorrow. Even when we’ve lost faith in just about everything else, our faith in the life-sustaining potential of the earth has remained. Alas, though, are we on the verge of losing even this most fundamental faith that has been with us since human consciousness first arose?
I have no particularly strong fear of death, although I do hope that it is yet many years in the future! I’ve come to feel that my afterlife, to the extent that I have one, is the perpetual right here and right now that I and everyone and everything now living help to create, along with everyone and everything that has ever lived in the past. Any joy that I feel as I pass away will be vicarious joy for those still living in this world that I’ve played a role in creating and nurturing. Any remorse that I feel as I pass away will be remorse that my actions have created or maintained a world still rife with suffering and fear. And I can’t imagine suffering and fear on a grander scale than that of humankind having lost faith in the earth’s ability to sustain it. Those who believe in God might rightly see this as the most Godforsaken of futures that could possibly await those who happen to be alive during such times of tribulation.
So, what is the nature of your faith? Have you placed your faith in an earth so vast that no amount of human negligence can possibly diminish its life-sustaining potential? Have you placed your faith in a God so loving that he or should couldn’t possibly let us destroy the very earth on which our lives depend? Perhaps you’ve placed your faith in humankind’s intellect and ingenuity being so great as to provide us with technological solutions to all the messes we've made and devastation we've caused. And me? Where do I place my faith? I have faith in our ability to wake up and transform ourselves – individually and in community – thereby transforming our relationship with the earth so that we never lose faith in its ability to sustain us.
Aftermath of Yellowstone forest fire by David L. Sifry via:
Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank