Updated: Oct 21, 2022
When I was a child I spent a great deal of time with my grandparents — Grams and Gramps — at their humble little summer place on Patterson Bay, just off of the Illinois River. It was by no means a luxurious place. The lack of air conditioning meant that one stewed in ridiculously high temperatures made even more wretched by the overwhelming humidity. Before I was about nine or ten and Gramps added on to the cabin, the only indoor plumbing was the kitchen sink, where hastily-dispatched “sponge baths” were the only nod to keeping clean, and the outhouse at the back of the garden was the only place to respond to the call of nature. There were mosquitoes that buzzed around at night that sounded like an attack of the Luftwaffe, spiders lurking positively everywhere, and wasps the size of the Hindenburg, always ready to swoop down and do harm. The bay itself was brown and muddy, and filled with horrible creatures such as gars that — according to Gramps — were good for absolutely nothing at all. The catfish — good for eating, of course — were some of the slimiest and ugliest critters I had ever seen.
But still, in spite of all of this, those days at the Bay were some of the happiest I have ever known. Much of this, of course, had to do with the fact that the family was always together, eating and drinking and playing cards and telling stories, but also because I was able to directly encounter nature there in a way that my ordinary daily life did not permit. Because in addition to the mosquitoes and wasps and spiders and gars and catfish, there were so many things of such surpassing beauty that there mere thought of them brings me joy to this day. There was the moss which adorned that place where the dock met the water of the bay, a beautiful green that when caught just right by the sun looked like the velvet of a gown from a Medieval painting. There were birds and locusts which sang songs that spoke of possibility and power, paradise and play. At nighttime countless numbers of fireflies (we called them lightning bugs) hovered, underneath a sky which was pocked with stars. Leaving the bay and making one’s way though a series of chutes and canals, one arrived at the grand river itself, teeming with life underneath its churning waters, life that the river could not entirely contain, as fish would burst free from its arms, dancing and arcing until falling once again into its embrace. As Kenneth Grahame wrote, describing the scene in which Mr. Mole sees a river for the first time: All was a-shake and a-shiver, glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated.
There is, I think, something about the natural world which thrills the human spirit in a unique way. I love Chicago, I have to say, and though I find it the most beautiful city in the world, what touches me most about it are not the gleaming skyscrapers reaching to the heavens, but rather standing with those skyscrapers at my back and looking out over the immense and majestic waters of Lake Michigan (which, for those of you who may not know it, is really more like a sea — half the size of England). I think this is partially because before modernity, humankind was necessarily connected to nature in a way that most of us no longer are. Perhaps I find nature so thrilling because it has the ability to tap into something within my soul which goes back to that time when our ancestors lived regarding nature as sacred, mindful that all was created for us as a gift from God.
Though there are those who try and deny it (mainly greedy men who would ignore the earth’s cries to grease their own pockets) the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that our earth is in peril due to the increase in global warming, most notably over the 20th Century. According to NASA: “The global average surface temperature rose 0.6 to 0.9 degrees Celsius (1.1 to 1.6° F) between 1906 and 2005, and the rate of temperature increase has nearly doubled in the last 50 years. Temperatures are certain to go up further.” This has had — and will continue to have — drastic effects. Global warming is not simply about having a hotter-than-usual January, for example, but has very real effects that go far beyond the polite weather-related chit-chat we were all taught to use as an acceptable conversational topic. Each year we are discovering new facets of global warming, but already we know that such things as droughts, diseases, the frequency of hurricanes, the rise of sea levels, diminishment of the coral reefs, a disruption of the food chain due to changing migratory habits, and health problems are direct results of the changing conditions of our environment.
And, of course, to this list must also be added the extinction of plant and animal life. According to the World Wildlife Federation, the rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. And a study by the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew found that one in five of the world’s plant species is threatened with extinction. As everything is interconnected, plant and animal extinction is a grave matter indeed, as the disappearance of even the smallest plant or insect can set off a domino effect whose ends may not be discovered for many years.
It follows, then, that we all need to do whatever we can in caring for the wondrous nature with which God has blessed us. There are ordinary ways — recycling, paying attention to the water we use, turning off lights, carpooling or using public transportation, reducing food waste, bringing our own bags to the supermarket, choosing food with minimal packaging, just to name a few — in which we can all do our part.
Everyone can do something, and just as nature itself is beautiful and creative, so, too, can our efforts lead us to extol the beauty of creation. On Saturday evening, the 13th of May, I was invited to preside and preach at a special sung evensong held at Saint George’s Anglican Church in Venice, in conjunction with the Biennale di Venezia, the massive art festival held every two years, in which the entire city becomes even more a work of art than it already is. I was asked by the Irish artist Michelle Rogers to close her exhibition of her painting Eco Primavera. The painting is a re-imagining of Botticelli’s famous Primavera, which extols the wonders of nature and rebirth by presenting rich allegories of spring. In Ms. Rogers’ version (the same size as the original — 2.2 meters by 3.14 meters) she has also demonstrated the careful detail of plants and animals as found in the original, but in her version the plants and animals painted are all in danger of extinction. The work is a testimony, not only to the painstaking research and mastery of the artist, but also to how all of us are called to use whatever gifts and talents we may have to ensure that the wonders of creation continue.
I said in my sermon that beauty does not just happen, that we need to step up and do our part in saving it, in using our hearts and hands and voices and resources to ensure that the wonders of creation continue for us, and continue through us. Some preach. Some protest. Some pray. Some donate time. Some donate money. Some write. Some sing. Some show their care for creation in caring for God's poor ones. Some empower the lowly. Some offer their voices for the silenced. Some do a little of all of this. And some, like Michelle, paint.
Dostoevsky famously wrote Beauty will save the world. May God inspire us all to do what we can to make sure that the divine beauty of creation continues. May we, inspired by the Spirit which breathed over the waters of creation, ensure that nature may continue to bewitch, entrance, and fascinate human kind for ever and ever.