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I saw them across the water in the early morning, on our lake in Ontario, just beyond Paquin’s Point: a band of geese, maybe half a dozen. What I actually saw, just barely in the low-angled light, was a passing vision of long thin necks and heads upon the water, gliding behind the point and out of sight. I ran up to the cottage to get the binoculars, but I had to wait an hour to get a better view of them, preening on the rocks of the point. Eventually I saw them fly back across our bay, honking, of course, and there were almost a dozen. I figured it was that same family-band of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) that I had seen resting in my neighbor’s cove a couple weeks ago.
How different are they in the wild from the great flock of Canada geese that inhabit the lake and its shores in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, across from our apartment. In the city we think of them as pests. They are not domesticated like the gaggles of geese in folklore farmsteads, but neither are they truly wild. They’ve become suburbanized and even urbanized, like raccoons and coyotes, and they compete with us. Canada geese eat grass, so with the lawns and water features of our golf courses and parks, we have inadvertently welcomed them to leave their natural migrations and take up year-round residence among us. In our suburbs and cities, they have no predators, so now we have great flocks of them, shitting on the grass. I guess our urban raccoons dine so lavishly from our trash cans that they have no reason to hunt for goose eggs – as our rural raccoons do here at the lake.
We humans are the worst pests of all.
In 2010, some 400 of Prospect Park’s Canada geese were killed, controversially, by the city. The reason given was that the geese were a menace to the airplanes in the flight path to LaGuardia International Airport, which goes right over the park, but that convinced no one. Particularly galling was how it was done: First, the public was never notified, and second, the geese were rounded up, herded into a warehouse, and, of all things, gassed! You can imagine the comparisons made by animal-rights groups. And yet not everybody mourns them. I confess I don’t.
Here in Ontario, in their native habitat, we encounter Canada geese far less often and in smaller numbers. Here, cottagers are no longer allowed to clear the shore line of its natural vegetation or make lawns going down to the water, so the geese don’t settle in. They keep on the move around the lake, just like the roving families of mergansers and mallards. All of these only gather in flocks when it’s time to migrate south. So they fit in, they have their niche, and they don’t have to be aggressive.
AN EVEN WORSE PEST
Sighting the band of them that morning triggered my imagining a band of our early hominid ancestors on the move across the landscape. This was how we were for millions of years, but now we Homo sapiens have become like urban geese and as problematic for the earth as the geese are for our park. We humans are the worst pests of all. But it’s not just our effect on the planet that I’m bemoaning, it’s also what our human nature has become. We’ve become the aggressive, obnoxious, demanding mass of birds that shits all over the landscape.
I was also put in mind of the great herd of swine that rushed down the steep bank into the Sea of Galilee and were drowned. Mark reports they numbered two thousand. Yes, two thousand, like a modern factory farm! Imagine their devastation of the groundcover. So, quite apart from the legion of demons entering them, how could such a huge herd of swine not be unnatural to begin with, destroying the vegetation and ruining the landscape?
I am increasingly amazed at the interwoven subtleties of Mark’s gospel. The whole of Chapter 5 deals with “uncleanness,” from the demoniac to the swine to the woman with the flow of blood to the corpse of the daughter of Jairus. But maybe Mark also means to suggest that the tragic violence of the demoniac expresses the accepted violence of the farming of the swine. Or am I reading in?
Once I was explaining to a Sunday school class what a legion was, and Paavo, a very sensitive first-grader, stunned me by solemnly responding that the Legion were the souls of a thousand Roman soldiers who had been killed away from home and who were now afraid that Jesus might hurt them even more. Holy smokes, what insight (whether he was right or not). It’s quite clear to me that the demons in Mark’s gospel are not the evil spirits from hell of the Christian tradition. Mark calls them variously demons, evil spirits and unclean spirits, and he doesn’t explain them. It seems to me that these things represent the natural spirituality of the landscape, but all disordered and corrupted and literally unclean and out of whack. I believe Mark saw an antecedent of Jesus in Joshua, who liberated the Promised Land from the Canaanite gods and goddesses and who inspired Our Lord to liberate Galilee from its unclean spirituality and put “everything to rights” (N. T. Wright).
SPIRITUALITY WITHOUT RELIGION
Let me suggest here that the swine, the demoniac and even the geese are all perverted examples of “spirituality without religion.” What I mean by religion here is that at once more general and more specific sense of the connectedness inherent in its root word “ligare,” the Latin verb that means to bind or connect (as in “ligament”). The urban geese are decontextualized and nasty, the herd of swine is unbounded and violent, both in life and death, and the demoniac cannot be bound by chains and is tragically cut off from society. Lots of spirituality, but no “religio.”
One of the chief functions of religion is to keep spirituality safe and under control. At its best, religion applies cultural forms of devotion and discipline to spirituality in order to yield some decent measure of love and shalom. Sheer spirituality is not necessarily good. Think Hitler. The opposite of shalom is spirits let loose, spirits out of whack, herds of pigs, hordes of geese, the masses manipulated by totalitarianism, people disconnected, people unbound to their natural environments but yet in other bondages. Spirituality without religion is bearing so little ethical fruit today because it’s ultimately as disconnected and unrealistic as hordes of geese in an urban park.
Scientists theorize that the aridity of the Middle East is human-made, from over-grazing sheep and goats. I once heard Princeton’s James McCord say that the history of civilization is that of the creation of deserts. Our planet is running out of room. Was it more violent to kill those 400 geese than to let them keep living? (But didn’t Hitler say the same about people?) The choices are daunting, and yet it feels almost too late. We’ve already passed the 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide that signals irreversible climate change (http://www.350.org).
I live right across from the Prospect Park, and our windows look over it. It is a great (mostly white) privilege. I can see from my window the very spot on the park’s lake where I fished on my 10th birthday. This is home, and it’s where I belong, at least to do my ministry. Prospect Park is a great park, and it’s used by some 8 million people a year. Which means that on summer weekends it’s overwhelmed by “all sorts and conditions of humankind.” I can hardly blame the people, but the crowds and the noise outside our windows are more than unpleasant. The geese retreat to the center of the lake. My wife and I retreat to Ontario, and that too is a privilege (the white kind, again). It’s how I can tolerate serving a challenging parish most of the year in the constant press of urban density.
When we’re at the lake, I go down every morning at sunrise to the rocky shore, where I pray my Matins and I meditate. That’s where I was when I saw that band of geese. I look for my visions across the water. It’s usually the birds who speak to me. That spot is not my home, but there my soul is both quickened and at rest.
Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church, Brooklyn, New York. He spends part of each summer at a cottage on Bob’s Lake, Ontario.
Image: Gary Bendig, Unsplash.