Every year it seems, a southwest wind blows the seed of a new plant into my yard, a small plot, about 1,500 square feet, between my house and the street. For the last 36 years I have witnessed its growing diversity. I have tried to convince Judy that biodiversity is a good thing and that we should let nature take its course as long as our neighbors do not complain. I have even tried to argue, less effectively, that the desire for a monocultural and meticulously manicured lawn should be resisted because it’s a manifestation of the deeper desire for a society in which everyone conforms and looks exactly the same.
Last spring, I resuscitated my lawn mower and went out to manicure my lawn for the first time. I saw that small patches had been upturned by some animal, perhaps a skunk or opossum that foraged in my neighborhood by night. When I began to mow, the grass peeled away like sheets of skin off a sunburned back. Confused, I dug up the exposed soil and found grubs everywhere, hundreds of them eating away at the grassroots. My lawn was lost.
I explained what had happened to an expert at the local garden center, and he recommended that I apply insecticides to kill the grubs before spreading compost and reseeding the lawn. I could not bring myself to do it. Insecticides and herbicides are used so extensively in agriculture and lawn care that they now permeate our world. Their so-called “active ingredients,” poisons like glyphosate, are linked to various cancers, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, of which I, unfortunately, have intimate knowledge.
I decided that I would clear my yard and reseed my lawn by hand. I got on my knees and humbled myself before my neighbors and passersby. Using my pitchfork, I turned the ground over stroke by stroke, exposing both the grubs and uprooting all the plants in my biodiverse lawn. For six days, my world narrowed to my small plot of land on this small planet of ours and my view narrowed to what lay at my knees. The narrower my focus, the wider my world became. I saw things that filled me with wonder and left me wondering. My yard became a door and I moved further up and further into a Narnia beyond.
I was surprised by how many different plants had taken up residence in my lawn. I came to identify both the “bad”: the crabgrass, creeping charlie, common plantain, dandelions, wild violets, nutsedge, and quackgrass; and the “good”: fescue, bentgrass, bluegrass, and ryegrass. With all of them uprooted together at my knees, I began to wonder about the moral code that we humans have established and enforced on the plants in our yards. I began to question why conformity and uniformity are so important to us that we are willing to poison our lawns and threaten our health to achieve them?
I was especially fascinated by crabgrass. I discovered that It spreads out both vertically and horizontally. Everyone sees and laments its horizontality as it spreads along the surface and overtakes a yard. But no one sees its verticality. Crabgrass has a taproot that goes down in many cases as deep as 12 inches.
The life-force is strong in crabgrass. It has adapted to overcome any adversity, whether flood, drought, or herbicides. Holding a taproot in my hand, I could feel its tenacity, its desire to live and spread. I thought of Jesus’ words, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). When we read “that they may have life,” we think immediately of human beings, but God, who binds all things together, intended the abundant life for the whole created order (cf. Psalm 104; John 3:16). The Creator endowed the flora and fauna of earth with both the desire and the ability to live abundantly, and this endowment has played out over 4 billion years and has resulted in the increasing complexity and diversity of life on our planet.
In an interview toward the end of his life, Anglican priest and theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne said that such a billion-year history of the increasing complexity and diversity of life should not be upsetting to Christians but uplifting of their faith in the Creator. He said that such a history is exactly what one would expect from a God whose heart is filled with love and whose love fills the earth (cf. Psalms 33:5; 119:64; cf. also 75:5; 72:19; 108:5). Thanks to the efforts of dedicated scientists across many disciplines, Christians know more now than they ever did about how the singular love of God flares forth and fills the earth.
Within hours of the first day of my digging, a group of robins appeared and began picking up the grubs and flying them away. There are exotic names for groups of birds: a boil of hawks, a bouquet of pheasants, a charm of hummingbirds, a murder of crows. I am not sure what we should call a group of robins, but, emboldened by such creativity, I propose that we call them a grub of robins. At first, the “grub” stayed a safe distance from me, but as the days passed they came closer and closer. I stopped frequently to watch them and began to recognize their unique coloring and distinctive behaviors. One robin was seemingly the leader and always stood between me and the others. His black feathers had hints of gray, so I named him Greyfeather. I began to throw grubs to Greyfeather, and he (?) would cautiously approach and grab them. By about the fourth day, he came close enough that I thought that he might be bold enough to eat out of my hand. But when I held out a grub, Greyfeather kept his distance.
At one point in our encounter, Greyfeather stood a few feet away, turned slightly, and stared at me with his side-eye. It was deep amber in color and exuded an intensity and ferocity that startled me. Greyfeather and his “grub” were hunting in my yard like the dinosaurs from which they had descended. I stopped my digging and stared back. When our eyes met, I felt a vestigial urge to say something. I said, “Hello, Greyfeather; my name is Tom.”
There are others who have locked eyes with an animal in the wild and later wrote about how the encounter changed their lives. Aldo Leopold wrote about a time when, as a young man, he was shooting wolves in an attempt to cull the wolf-pack and save the deer herd for hunters. Approaching a wounded wolf, he looked into her green eyes before she expired. He wrote: “I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain” (A Sand County Almanac, “Thinking like a Mountain”). What those eyes revealed to Leopold was the wisdom of the wild world where the delicate balance of the natural forces brings abundance, and the foolishness of the human world where the overconfident manipulation of those same forces brings abjection.
Annie Dillard wrote about a particular evening when she sat on a tree trunk by Hollins Pond near Tinker Creek (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “Living Like Weasels”). Swiveling to follow the flight of a yellow bird, she found herself looking down at a weasel who was looking up at her. Their eyes locked for a moment before the weasel broke away and disappeared behind a wild rose bush. For a brief moment all the barriers separating them were removed, and Dillard found herself in the weasel’s brain and he in hers. Like Leopold, she learned the wisdom of the wild world, something she called “the perfect freedom of necessity.” Dillard wrote: “I don’t think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in ‘particular’–shall I suck warm blood, hold my tail high, walk with my footprints precisely over the prints of my hands?—but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical sense and the dignity of living without bias or motive…open to time and death painlessly.”
Locking eyes with Greyfeather was not as profound an experience as that of Leopold and Dillard, but it did make me realize in a deeper way that like me he was a living, conscious being. Among conscious beings, the meeting of eyes initiates a relationship: eyes meet, names are exchanged, experiences are shared, responsibilities are assumed, and intimacy deepens. Such relationships unfold when one human being meets another, but also when a human being meets an animal, whether that animal be a pet dog or a wild robin. I had entered into a covenant with Greyfeather and by extension with his grub of robins, a covenant that carried with it commitments and afforded me a measure of intimacy and comfort.
The possibility of such a covenant seems strange, even absurd, to many of us today. We are shaped by a culture that draws a strict line of demarcation between human beings and animals and views the latter as raw material. Without a concern, we slaughter and process domesticated animals for their meat in massive and hidden abattoirs, and without a care we observe the extinction of wild animals.
The ancient Israelites, however, did not draw such a line of demarcation. In a visionary narrative about the origin of the world, they told how God had made both humans and animals in exactly the same way. God formed each and every creature from the dust of the ground and breathed into them the breath of life. They all possessed consciousness, that is, a nephesh (soul). The Israelites believed that this nephesh flowed with the blood and energized the body (Leviticus 17).
In the Genesis narrative, God was physically present in some form and brought each bird and animal to Adam, the representative of all humankind. Under the watchful eye of God, Adam looked into the eyes of each creature, saw its nephesh, and gave it a name. The significance of name giving in the Scriptures is often overlooked. Name giving was part of a covenantal ceremony, part of what we today call a christening ceremony. Whether pronounced over an animal or a human being, the name completed the work of creation and initiated the recipient into the community of the living.
This came home to Judy and me while we were living in Exeter, England, when our third child, Jeremy, was born. Immediately after his birth, we could not settle on a name. We wanted to include his older brother and sister in the process and they were still deliberating. I remember calling my mother and father in Michigan to tell them that “he” had been born, but we could not fully celebrate the birth because “he” did not have a name. The call was oddly flat and subdued. A few days later, I called my parents again with the name, Jeremy, and suddenly there was rejoicing. The name completed the birth, initiated Jeremy into the family, and allowed all of us to begin a life together.
The ancient Israelites believed that at the origin of the world, all three parties–God, Adam, and the animals–had stood together, exchanged names, and made a covenant to strive for the well-being of all.
God had hoped that this covenant would alleviate the loneliness of this inchoate being, Adam, but it did not. This covenant with the birds and animals afforded Adam some measure of comfort and intimacy, but he longed for more. God needed to act again in order to create a partner for Adam that was closer to his heart. The visionary narrative in Genesis ends with God removing a rib from Adam and fashioning it into a new type of living being, a woman, with whom a deeper and more satisfying intimacy was possible for Adam.
Pondering my encounter with Greyfeather in the days that followed and passing it through the filter of the Scriptures, I realized that I was not initiating a new covenant with him; I was renewing an ancient one.
On the fifth day of tilling and keeping my yard, a bright red cardinal appeared and began foraging for grubs. The robins were immediately agitated, and Greyfeather puffed up his chest and stretched out his wings, as did the cardinal. Like two knights jousting, they bounded toward each other and collided, chest to chest. They retreated and charged each other again. This time they met with wings flapping and rose in combat about five feet above the ground until they fell exhausted. They eyed each other, and hopped away to forage again for grubs. Apparently, they had reached a truce.
The cardinal picked up a grub and brought it to his partner whom I had not seen hiding in an azalea bush alongside the front steps. She took the grub and flew it to her nest in a rhododendron bush by the side of the house. I had no idea that cardinals were nesting there.
Robins and cardinals are territorial, and the ferocity with which they defend their territory gave me pause. These birds had laid claim to my yard, and the cardinals had even built a home there. We shared this territory.
I have a land-deed in a file cabinet somewhere that says that, after twenty years of payments to a bank, I own this plot of land. This deed initiates me into a movement that began in the 18th century when an army of surveyors headed west from the Atlantic colonies and plotted the ever-expanding frontier in ever-diminishing rectangles–from counties to townships to cities to neighborhoods. These surveyors drew invisible lines over every square inch of land, and these lines turned the land into a commodity to be bought and sold. Some say that these invisible lines are essential for ownership and personal freedom; others say that they are a spider-web in which we are ensnared and held captive. Whatever one may think about these invisible lines, they tragically laid the foundation for the extirpation of the indigenous peoples and the extinction of the flora and fauna.
My baptism initiates me into another movement with a very different understanding of land and ownership. The ancient Israelites affirmed that God and God alone owned the earth (Psalm 24) and had allotted all creatures their plot on it. (Psalm 104) The Creator made the earth fruitful and intended that its fruit be shared by both humans and animals (Psalm 145). God longed to hear the earth and its fullness–all who call it home–express their thankfulness in song (Psalm 96).
The ancient Israelites understood that God’s good earth was vulnerable and that God had given them the law to help them in maintaining its integrity. The various statutes and ordinances guided them not only in their relationship to God but also in their relationship to the land, animals, and other human beings. The Israelites knew that failure to keep these statutes and ordinances would bring an environmental collapse. The prophets warned that injustice would lead to the perishing not only of the poor and outcasts but also of the “wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea” (Hosea 4:3), and the priest warned that disobedience would poison the land and lead to the land vomiting out the people (Leviticus 18:28).
These statutes and ordinances inform us how the ancient Israelites sought to maintain the integrity of God’s good earth in the face of its vulnerability and the ever-present threat of its collapse. While they are particular to a radically different culture and time and are not directly transferable to today, they nonetheless reveal our need to recognize that the earth belongs to God and our need to seek the guidance of God as we attempt to formulate new statutes and ordinances in the face of the current threat of environmental collapse.
After six days of uprooting my yard, I spread a layer of compost and reseeded. By fall, the grass began to take root. Greyfeather and his grub were gone by then, headed south I presume, but the pair of cardinals stayed throughout the winter. The crabgrass came back, as tenacious as the love of God.
Jesus told us that considering the birds and plants would calm our anxious souls, and I guess that he was right about that. Jesus was reminding his followers that we will not find him by leaving the earth and flying off into space. We will find him by going deeper into the earth, by going further up and further in, closer and closer to the source of all. On my knees digging up my yard and communing with birds, I did feel less anxious and a little more certain that Jesus was with us even as we face the threat of environmental collapse.