The drive from Minneapolis to Omaha is so familiar I intentionally took a different route to and from my sister-in-law’s funeral last week. Despite these logistical adjustments, other factors and forces transformed my view of rural America. Nostalgia was soon replaced with an intensified sense of loss and grief!
About an hour south of the Twin Cities a persistent void began to vie for attention. The April afternoon was picturesque and perfect for travel. Yet, something was different. Absent. What? It took a few more hours to become clear – where are the birds? The turquoise skies were virtually devoid of birds! Even raptors that used to perch as sentinels scouring the roadsides were conspicuous in their absence.
Gone are the fences as cultivation seems to have encroached on highway right-of-ways. Stands of native trees along creek beds have been chopped with remnant stumps and branches bull-dozed high awaiting a “burn permit.” GMO corn stubble is ubiquitous, even on land previously thought too marginal for cultivation.
The farm-house and barns where my father was born have disappeared and a center-pivot irrigation system waters the thirsty land now devoid of family memories. Four humongous grain storage bins that a distant cousin previously used to manage the farmers’ share of the supply/demand cycle have been sold to a conglomerate known to locals only by its initials.
The calendar indicates that its springtime in mid-America. Yet, nature appears scarred, constrained. Much has changed in this land that feels like home and is known by heart. Throughout my six days of travel through Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska one persistent mantra tainted every sentimental memory: where are the birds?
Today is Earth Day. Every kid from Nebraska knows that it has its origins in Arbor Day which was the brain-child of J. Sterling Morton – a proud Nebraskan – in 1872 who later served as President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of Agriculture. Earth Day elicits a spiritual resonance among all people whose faith is grounded in the Genesis creation accounts. Even more, Christians profess faith in One so intimate with creation that God becomes incarnate in Jesus to bring all creation to fulfillment in Christ.
Passionist Father Thomas Berry observes that healing the earth begins by seeing ourselves and all creation as a communion of subjects instead of a collection of objects. Jesuit Joseph P. Carver adapts a popular Ignatian practice for all of us who look to creation as an easy and privileged place for encountering the Holy One.
Although living in Seattle, Carver sounds a lot like someone from Minneapolis describing our experience in Minnesota lake country. Up North we easily celebrate ourselves as creatures in a majestic world. From the vantage of a cabin, we savor life and are moved to deepen our commitments, to return to daily life with enthusiasm, inspired to transform, heal and recover the natural environment of which we are a part. Carver’s “ecological examen” makes explicit what we are naturally inclined to do:
We begin with thanksgiving and gratitude for all creation, which reflects the beauty and blessing of God’s image.
Second, we ask to have our eyes opened by the Spirit as to how we might protect and care for this magnificent creation.
Third, we ask: How am I drawn closer to God today through creation? How am I being invited to respond to God’s action in creation?
Fourth, we ask for a true and clear awareness of our negligence and failures – whether it be a sense of superiority and arrogance in our relationship to creation or a failure to respond to God in the needs of creation.
Finally, we end in hope asking for the grace to consistently recognize Christ in the dynamic interconnections of all creation and our place in creation — we are moved to action.
What happened to the birds? For Christ’s sake, we need to do something. If not for Christ, then let’s at least do something for our kids!
The reference to Thomas Berry, CP is taken from the America magazine article by Joseph P. Carter, SJ. You will find a fuller development of his ecological spirituality in that essay [here].