Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Much Deeper Source of My Passion For Trees!

When I talk or write about trees, I often tend to use aesthetics and economics and research to make the case for conservation and reforestation, but my personal passion and reverence in this regard come from my spirituality and a biblical sense of stewardship.

My two major influences could not be more different in many ways.  My paternal grandfather had just turned 16 and was already homesteading the Idaho ranch, on which I spent my early years, when Father Thomas was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, about 60 miles west of where I have lived for nearly the last 2 1/2 decades.00254_p_10aeuyf6sw0385_b

Both were Christian, my grandfather just a generation removed from Mormon Christian pioneers who fled persecution for the safety of the Rockies and FatherThomas, a scholar and “geologian” as he liked to refer to himself, a member of the Passionist Order Catholic priesthood.

With only a second-grade education my rancher-grandfather learned his respect and reverence for conservation as a homesteader with a lifelong reliance on the earth and rivers and forests and animals. Father Thomas earned a PhD and was a prolific author and although he found his voice for conservation late in life it was born of a boyhood epiphany in a North Carolina meadow of his youth.

My grandfather had witnessed as he came of age at the end of an intense 60 years of desecration across the nation and the rise of a Republican president determined to steward the nation’s natural resources in the spirit of Thoreau and Muir, the art of Cole and Bierstadt and the work of Olmstead.

Father Thomas, whose epiphany occurred in the twilight of that President’s life, was just 56 years old when the nation formed an agency in the 1970s under another Republican president dedicated to safeguard the environment.  What must Father Thomas think, if he is looking down today, as that same party appears bent on disabling that progress?

My grandfather passed away just as I started to turn the age he was when he first homesteaded in the very northeast tip of the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho, but it seems his spirit is always nearby even as I pass the age he was when he passed.

Father Thomas first caught my attention just as I was turning 40 and relocating to Durham, North Carolina when he wrote the book entitled The Dream Of The Earth, the classic that almost lyrically recasts “planetary well-being as the measure of all human activity.”

Just a few years after I arrived in North Carolina, Thomas Berry returned to this state and the place of his birth to live out his final years.  It is here, at the dawn of the century, that he wrote The Great Work- Our Way Into The Future which is my favorite of his books.

The measure of how much this book resonates for me is that I never seem to be able to hold onto my copy giving one away only to buy another as I did one recently only this time in digital format.  But it isn’t especially written for my generation.  As Father Thomas writes:

“While we have more scientific knowledge of the universe than any people ever had, it is not the type of knowledge that leads to an intimate presence within a meaningful universe… The world of human meaning is no longer coordinated with the meaning of our surroundings.

We have disengaged from the profound interaction with our environment that is inherent to our nature…

So completely are we at odds with the planet that brought us into being that we have become strange beings indeed. We dedicate enormous talent and knowledge and research in developing a human order disengaged from and even predatory on the very sources from whence we came and upon which we depend every moment of our existence.”

To those two men of professed faith who pushed legislation through the North Carolina legislature that sacrifices thousands of acres of publicly-owned roadside forests to amoral outdoor billboard companies under the guise of private property and without any requirement for payment or replanting and dismissing the result as just “cutting the grass,” Father Thomas reminds us that:

“We cannot own the earth…we own property in accord with the well-being of the property and for the benefit of the larger community as well as ourselves…

“The Great Work that is before (future generations) is moving the human project from its devastating exploitation to a benign presence…

“We are chosen by some power beyond ourselves for this historic task…The nobility of our lives, however, depends upon the manner in which we come to understand and fulfill our assigned role…

We cannot doubt that we too have been given the intellectual vision, the spiritual insight and even the physical resources we need for carrying out this transition…from the period when humans were a disruptive force on the planet earth to a period when humans become present to the planet in a manner that is mutually enhancing.”

I too have faith that the generations of my daughter, my two grandsons and their children and grandchildren will take up the challenge offered by Father Thomas and that the overreaching symbolized by the current giveaway to the outdoor billboard industry will ultimately backfire and lead to not only a repeal of that legislation, but in the end to a statewide ban of all outdoor billboards in North Carolina, such as is already in effect in other scenic states such as Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont and Maine.

I owe the fact that I have retained my sense of spirituality outside the bounds of any organized religion and that this same spirituality includes a reverence for nature to influences such as my grandfather and Father Thomas, who passed away in nearby Greensboro at age 94 in 2009.

I wish I had taken the opportunity while they were living to tell each of these very different people how much their influence has meant to me but I am dedicated in their memory to making sure their sense of reverence and commitment and respect for nature is passed along to my grandsons as it has been to my daughter.

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