Storytelling & Relationship to Place

Below is the first in a two-part series Chelsea is writing for the blog, Inhabiting the Anthropocene. You can find the original post HERE


A Sense of the Sacred

‘Sacred’ is a word that has not been uttered often enough in discussions of conservation and climate change. In the sphere of religion, it is too often considered in the context of the churched rituals where it is most perceived to be present.

Not growing up religious myself, ‘sacred’ felt for a very long time like yet another heavy, “God-y” word, something I could perhaps analyze and observe but never comfortably participate in.

My relationship to the word has changed a great deal since I began working for a non-profit called Kairos Earth whose mission it is to “renew an understanding of the earth as sacred in both religious practice and practical action to conserve the earth.” We attempt both to insert ‘sacred’ into conservation conversations and to pull it out from behind the walls of churches.

Happily for our work, Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, has made great strides in popularizing the notion that the sacred is inseparable from our human relationship to the earth. In his postlast week on Laudato Si’, Stephen Weldon highlights Francis’ sense of an “integral ecology” which perceives “deep relationships between our actions toward the natural environment, our actions toward other human beings, and our own spiritual welfare.” Relations that, we can say, are sacred.

‘Sacred’ still feels heavy to me, but less now in the sense of religious rigidity and increasingly in the sense of evoking something profound and profoundly important.

Nonetheless, it was not without a good amount of trepidation that I took this word with me on a 2,500 mile bicycle trip this summer, and began asking a broad spectrum of folks — religious leaders, conservationists, state employees, community members, paleontologists — to tell me quite personal stories about their relationship to place and whether they considered that to be something sacred.

I began collecting definitions of this word from people I encountered along the first week of my ride from Harpswell, ME to Burlington, VT. Here are several of those definitions:

Essential, inviolate, irreplaceable, embodying highest value.

Sacred is set apart: touched by and infused with the creator. 

Something to be respected, cared for, revered.

An experiential sense, a sense of reverence and openness to God and life.

Across the spectrum from entirely religious to entirely secular, every single person I spoke with had something to say about ‘sacred’ and its connection to place. They said it with an ease and eagerness that often surprised even themselves. They said it as though they had never been asked but had always known exactly what to say. (Here is something I wrote about that first leg of my journey.)

Giants on the Plains

I stood under a graying sky on First Avenue in Malta, Montana, brushing persistent tendrils of hair out of my line of sight, checking my camera and double-checking the time. The wind was unquestionably picking up now, ushering in dark clouds. But the rain hadn’t started falling and I was early, so I lingered a moment to take in my surroundings.

grain elevator smallTo my right towered a corrugated steel-coated grain elevator and adjoining silos —
odd gray giants. Despite growing up in Nebraska and Oklahoma, I was raised an urbanite, forever tucked away in college towns, never attaining any real farming or agrarian knowledge. My move to Boston four years ago didn’t help. So it was nothing new that I couldn’t get an accurate read on this particular agricultural relic.

Or was it a relic? There it stood, sturdy and opaque, majestic and ambiguous. Was it operational? Or, like so many others I had seen over the past several weeks, was it a skeletal shout-out to better economic times, now long past — a once living beast, now fossilized in the landscape, an embedded footprint of history in a community now struggling to adapt to a new era?

Alas, mum’s the word with grain equipment when you’re a city slicker and new to town.

With a sigh, my lingering questions and I turned to instead gaze up at the odd giant to our left — a neon green and orange Brontosaurus. She stared indifferently over my head and I followed her long neck, turning to face an electric blue triceratops that was, somewhat disconcertingly, staring directly back at me with a frozen, head-tilting frown.

Abuzz with beasts and full of questions, I walked between these echoes of extinction and headed up the steps to the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum & Field Station to meet and interview someone who might have some answers for me.

Age-Old Questions for the Anthropocene

Lingering questions, urgent questions, and as-yet unarticulated questions about our planet’s mounting ecological crisis — one which continues to vastly surpass efforts and strategies to counter it — were the impetus for embarking on a six-week bicycle ride and interview project across the country this summer.

The foundational questions for this project were: How do the stories and narratives that we tell about ourselves have the potential to affect our way of being in the world? And: How do our perceptions and experiential knowledge shape our reality and affect our behavior?

When cast through the prism of the challenge we face of living in the Anthropocene,  the questions became: How do perceptions and knowledge of place affect the habitability of that place? And: If we transform how we perceive and imagine place, how will that affect our lived practices of habitation?

And of course, what does it mean to think of and treat a place as sacred?

I sought to capture tales of personal experience, intimate memories, small glimpses of perception, articulations of relationships to landscape. It struck me that stories, memories and local knowledge were perhaps the best forms in which to collect such information.

bike mail box smallSo, questions in tow, I hopped on my red bicycle in early June and rode from Maine to Vermont and then from Minneapolis to Seattle, stopping along the way to speak to people about their connection to place, community, landscape, and earth. In many cases, asking people simply, “Why do you love this place?”

The Dinosaur Doctor 

Dr. Freedman-Fowler, paleontologist, greeted me just past the rack of dinosaur-themed postcards inside the museum. I was somewhat flustered (per usual) and she was gracious and patient as I explained the project once more in person (we had been communicating over e-mail). She offered to give me the official tour of the museum and we spent 30 minutes walking through displays of fossils, geological maps, and placards of local history. Beneath its big skies and vast tracts of farm and ranch land, Montana, I learned, is absolutely chock-full of dinosaurs .

Quite obviously a brilliant woman, the doctor seemed slightly disappointed to be giving the same old tour to yet another person who had a dearth of scientific knowledge and was unable to truly engage her on the topic she loved most. Admittedly, I was more than a little glazed over after a mere half-hour of struggling to keep up with big words about big eras. (I tried to redeem myself by boasting about having a “cousin who just got her PhD in geochemistry” but, alas, I couldn’t remember a blessed other detail about her degree or research, apart from the fact that it involved dust and ash).

However, at the end of the tour I asked Dr. Freedman-Fowler a question that surprised her: “What about your work and living in this place do you find to be sacred?”

Throughout the course of the trip I was nervous about asking this “sacred” question, particularly when posed to scientists and conservationists. Clearly a little unfamiliar with using the word herself, Dr. Fowler began answering slowly and carefully, and then with seriousness and conviction, and then with joy. Watch the footage: there is a noticeable change in her body language, there is a light present in her face.

“It’s so spacious out here. There’s so few people. One of the places that we collect dinosaur fossils is down in Garfield County. I read in a book a statistic that the population of Garfield county is so sparse that if Manhattan had the population density of Garfield County, there would be 5 people living on the entire island of Manhattan. That’s how spacious is it out here. And so when you go out, and you’re doing field work, and digging up these dinosaurs, you’re out in the middle of nowhere and you know that there’s no human within miles of you, and that the particular part of the land that you’re walking on – maybe no human has ever walked on. And so you’re just kind of isolated. There’s nothing but you and peace and quiet. You hear birds chirping and the crickets…and the breeze. And so it’s the life of the surface and then the fossils that are coming out, and just no human interference. It’s just all natural. It’s very peaceful.”

And this is the core of what this project is about. This is the momentary capture of that love of place.

After purchasing several fossil-themed postcards, I descended the museum steps, glanced one more time at the dinosaurs to my left and the silos to my right, seeing each of them in a slightly new, slightly better-informed light. Some of my questions had been answered. Others had arisen.


Stay tuned for Pt. II next week!


Open House Photos!

 

We had a wonderful Open House day of hikes, trail work, fantastic food, church services, and watching the lunar eclipse around a bonfire! Check out some photos here:

Photo credit: Kelly Short (THANK YOU!) 


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Why it Matters to be a Church of the Woods

As we approach this first birthday of Church of the Woods, I have been reflecting on what happens at Church of the Woods and why it matters, at this time in history, to be a church that is in and of the woods.

Here are a few reflections on the central elements of our practice at Church of the Woods, salted with commentary from Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudate Si’:

Encounter  Church of the Woods provides an opportunity for a direct encounter with peace, beauty and wonder, all aspects of the divine mystery we call God. Following the patron saint of ecology, St. Francis and his namesake Pope Francis, Church of the Woods “invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness.” (Laudate Si’, 12)

In a world where such encounters with divine mystery and beauty are rare or absent, setting aside places and times for such direct encounter is essential. And in a time when the human relationship with nature is so often one of destruction and self-gratification to the point of global devastation, it is essential to break down the walls (including church walls) that separate people from nature and be reminded that “we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.” (220)

Contemplation  All too rarely, in our frantic world, do we take time to be still and to listen deeply. The biblical accounts of Jesus’s life repeatedly tell us that Jesus left the crowds, and even his disciples, and went alone up the mountain or into the wild places to pray.

We believe this is such a fundamental practice — and so foreign to most people in our culture — that we spend about 30 minutes in the middle of our service in silence and stillness in the woods.

“Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good…Nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise , interminable and nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances?… An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us…” (225)

Eucharist  The heart of the Christian ritual and mystery is the act of eating holy food. The radical belief that God took on physical form as a human creature reveals the union of the material world with divine truth and love. Accordingly, Holy Eucharist — Thanksgiving — is at the center of our service at Church of the Woods.

“Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures. The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter… Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed, the Eucharist itself is an act of cosmic love.” (236)

In keeping with this radical understanding of Holy Communion as an act of love and thanksgiving with and for the whole cosmos, at Church of the Woods we share the first morsel of holy bread and the last sip of holy wine with the Earth herself. It is a joy to see the other creatures of God, led by the ants, carrying away tiny fragments of embodied love. The mystery of divine love is intended for all the creatures of God.

Community  It is utterly obvious, at Church of the Woods, that the community gathered together in prayer consists not only of human beings. We come together and form a worshipping community of people, trees, birds, ants, chipmunks, ferns, rocks, wind… each present in its own way with its  own voice. We are reminded that we are but one part of the whole creation and that we live in community with many other forms of life and being.

“[T]he world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures turn toward God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend toward other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships.” (240)

As human beings, we have separated ourselves from the rest of the natural world in the false belief that everything exists to serve and support us. Our understanding of community has become poorer as a result. The radical reawakening to our proper place in the cosmos that is needed can only begin when we realize that community is broader and deeper than we can know.

Rejoicing and giving thanks!  As humans, unique among all creatures, our ability to shape the world is a gift — one that sometimes we use well and sometimes we use very badly.

What humans also uniquely do is purposefully give thanks and sing. Life is a gift, nature is a gift, our own existence is a gift. Along with shaping the world, we are distinct in our ability to sing praise and thanksgiving to the source of all gifts. In the woods and in all of our lives, may we become grateful, joyful, bearers of divine love!

“Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope…Praise be to him” (244, 245)

Hallelujah!


Rev. Steve Blackmer

 



A View from the Covered Bridge: Final Weeks

As Norman brings his year of daily reflections on the Ottauquechee River to a close, he ponders what it has meant to repeatedly ask the river, “What is it like for you?”


I began this river journal on September 27, 2014, with the intention of carrying it through for one year. With that plan in mind, I have three weeks and a day left before I finish.

My question of the Ottauquechee was and is, “What is it like for you?”  This must be an open-ended question.  The very nature of a river denies the idea of closure.  Of course, the river had a beginning, and will have an end, a lifetime beyond our comprehension.  Does the river have an experience?  For thousands of years, human beings took it for granted that rivers had spirits, conscious of what it did, even intending what occurred within and just beyond its banks.  We call this superstition.

In this age of human-caused damage to the Earth, the exercise of assigning a spirit to natural realities like rivers may have a surprising value.  Rivers have many characteristics we assign to sentient beings: movement, complex chemistry, acute responsiveness to its surroundings, voices, to name a few.

Whether conscious or not, rivers have a being: moving, speaking, nurturing, sometimes destroying.

Granting in the imagination a conscious being to the river, and asking the question – What is it like for you? – may allow us to know the river in ways we could not otherwise.  For sure, if we persist, we will meet the river in unexpected ways.

In the next weeks, as I bring this journal to a close, I will try to share the ways I have met the Ottauquechee, and admit the mysteries that remain.

Today, artists met the river from their perspectives, along the bank, near the bend before the now-dwindling rapids.


From: A View from the Covered Bridge