‘The reflections that follow are formed by a lifetime of loving the intricacies and wonders of a planet that never ceases to awe, inspire and comfort me.’
Extract taken from Field with a view: Science and Faith in a Time of Climate Change
By Katharine M Preston
Published by Wild Goose
Sometime after giving up on the idea of being a ballet dancer or a cowboy, I dreamed of being a forest ranger. My reverie was explicit: I lived alone in a cabin deep in the middle of some national forest or park. My ‘office’ was a fire tower – overlooking thousands of acres of forestland.
The point was not particularly the job itself, the responsibility for watching and protecting the area. Rather, the essence of the dream was in the intimate knowledge that I would acquire about the place due to a long and observant relationship. It is March – I look for the sow bear to emerge from her winter quarters; I suspect there will be more than one cub, as the fall berry season was so prolific. It is May – there are fewer warblers than this time last year … I wonder why. It is October – I mourn the absence of the hulking bulk of the wolf pine, destroyed by lightning last July, that used to stand in solid green contrast to the colourful fall palette.
I know this place; I feel this place; I am this place.
Eventually, I persuaded myself I could make a vocation out of this dream. I could be assigned to nurture that intimacy in the name of a job. So I attended forestry school, obtained a degree, and then, as realities and personal relationships intervened, ended up predominately behind a desk for the rest of my professional career. Not in a fire tower.
The French mystic Bernard de Clairvaux said, ‘Our yearnings shape our souls.’ I think he is right. And all our yearnings, fulfilled or not, are sacred.
Some of us yearn for intimacy with non-humans and with place. This yearning is an affliction of the modern world; in former times, people experienced that intimacy every day, eking out their existence alongside their fellow creatures. Over time, humans began to see themselves as separate, with a very specific and sacred role – appeasing and placating the gods, or God – which gradually placed them at the top of the hierarchy of the cosmology.
But ever since our very first view of planet Earth from space, we began to see ourselves differently, and finally, more realistically. This is frightening, challenging. Sometimes indescribably joyous.
* * *
I remember walking in the woods with my father or mother when I was very small, diligently looking for ‘signs of spring’. There is an intimacy fostered by taking the time to notice the first funky spears of skunk cabbage; a precious relationship is established that sets a child on a journey. The journey does not necessarily have to be informed by scientific knowledge of the heavens, earth or humankind, but it helps to be aware of place and to acknowledge the yearning for intimacy with it.
Over time, I found myself fascinated by the question: Where do people place themselves in the oikos, the home, the household of the rest of the planet, and how is that reflected in how they live and in their concept of the sacred?
In college, I studied anthropology, in particular, the indigenous Hopi people of northeastern Arizona. I wondered how their rituals reflected their relationship to their harsh environment. My thesis was that without the rituals, they could not have maintained their existence on their marginal ancestral lands, where they have lived, continuously, for nearly one thousand years. In forestry school, I studied ecology, particularly human ecology, and, as it was the early ’70s, became aware of the often-negative human influence on natural systems. Why this disconnect? What did it say about how humans saw themselves in relation to the rest of the natural world? In seminary – some thirty years later – I explored how the God/human relationship and religious teachings, particularly as reflected in progressive Christianity, liberation and process theology, might mend the human/environment relationship.
Looking back now, the forest ranger dream was my search for grounding. I think I was seeking confirmation that a human being could indeed learn to live in close harmony with a small bit of the planet.
For a long time, I resisted writing about climate change. I wanted to write lyrical descriptions about the landscapes surrounding me. I wanted to rest in the here and now, in the moment, in this place. I evaded the issue, pushing the terrifying science to the margins of my mind, along with the increasing evidence that migrations and wars reported on the news were directly or indirectly related to local disruptions due to a changing climate.
But the evidence caught up with me when I realised that some of the most precious beings and landscapes around me were already changing. Scientists were beginning to hint that we might already be beyond the ‘tipping point’ of catastrophic change. I look at my grandchildren. What kind of a world will they inherit and how will they inhabit it? And then there was the irrefutable fact that the people most innocent of contributing to the problem were the ones most affected and least able to adapt.
I simply could not ignore the injustice of this.
My scientific and theological training insistently whirled around in my mind, forcing me to consider some existential questions.
How do I, as a rational person of faith, make sense of climate change? I don’t mean trying to understand what happens, what might cause it, or how it affects humans and non-humans, although as a member of the species Homo sapiens I embrace the wisdom of trying to find out these things. But how do I, how do we, make sense of it? How do we incorporate this new reality into our lives?
Climate change forces people of faith to face some very profound and challenging questions about the God/human relationship:
How can God let natural occurrences such as hurricanes and floods and wildfires hurt so many innocent people?
Would God create a human species so flawed that we could do this to ourselves?
Would/could God actually let the human species die off?
And for all people, with or without faith in God:
What are our responsibilities to the people suffering because of climate change?
What are our responsibilities to the rest of creation?
The reflections that follow are formed by a lifetime of loving the intricacies and wonders of a planet that never ceases to awe, inspire and comfort me. Most particularly, the reflections spring from the pinewoods of my youth in Massachusetts, the fields surrounding our farm in the Champlain Valley of New York and the contiguous Adirondack Mountain wilderness. And they spring from my observations of the hopeful human/earth relationships developing in our small rural community. These reflections are also formed by my faith, which sees the earth as a sacred manifestation of God, and its human and non-human inhabitants as neighbours to be loved and defended from the injustice of climate change.
At the moment, I see people with different arms tied behind their backs, trying to save a world in crisis. There are those who have abandoned faith, because they think God is the same thing as church. A relationship is thrown away with the institutional bathwater. There are others who have abandoned science, because they feel it threatens a biblical narrative and somehow negates the workings of the Spirit. The possibility of awe and wonder at scientific discoveries is thrown out by a narrow definition of ‘truth’ and of the miraculous. I see both positions as sadly shortsighted.
So these reflections strive to be both theologically challenging and ecologically informed. I hope for readers with open minds: scientists leery of faith but open to unanswered mysteries, as well as believers who see value in every miraculous scientific discovery and are not afraid to say so. Many of my friends take the ‘spiritual but not religious’ road. I hope that they will see value in some of the unconventional views of divinity and church that I present.
I relate an ongoing journey; my personal response to what I believe is an apocalyptic moment. I have moments of anguish, moments of unbridled fear, but also moments of joy. Frankly, the hope is harder to come by these days, perhaps because I am discriminating: I do not want to embrace cheap hope (humans have always come through) any more than I want to accept cheap anguish (we are doomed). Solutions, if they exist, are far more complicated and nuanced.
Thinking about these things has sharpened my relationship with God. I do not have answers to all the questions posed; I can only relate what I feel and what I have learned, what decisions I have made in response. I invite you to ponder the questions, journeying alongside.
Field with a view: Science and Faith in a Time of Climate Change by Katharine M Preston is published by Wild Goose, priced £9.99