Wednesday, April 21, was the birthday in 1838 of the man known both as “John of the Mountains” and “Father of the National Parks,” the man who wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”
John Muir was a farmer, inventor, sheepherder, naturalist, explorer, writer, and conservationist. After leaving the University of Wisconsin without completing a degree, he survived long, interrupted journeys, serious illness, and accidents, including one that temporarily blinded him in one eye, to finally become the country’s most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist. He cofounded the Sierra Club, laid the foundation for President Theodore Roosevelt’s innovative and historic conservation programs, and was responsible for the creation of Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon national parks.
John Muir wrote, “Keep close to Nature’s heart . . . and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” I’m thinking of John Muir today because Wednesday was his birthday, Thursday was Earth Day, and Sunday the Festival of God’s Creation, and because, more than anywhere else, nature is where I’ve so often washed my spirit clean.
“Climb the mountains,” John of the Mountains wrote, “and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” Muir wasn’t the first to write so eloquently of the good tidings nature offers. Three centuries earlier, Shakespeare wrote of “tongues in trees, books in running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything” (As You Like It, act II, scene 1). And the book of Job urges us, “ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you, and the fish of the sea will declare to you” (Job 12:7-8).
The creatures of the earth and skies and seas, and Earth herself, have a message for us. They’re telling us they’re in distress. They’re lonely for us, and they remind us we’re lonely for them. They’re awakening us to the reality that we’ve become disconnected from each other to a degree that threatens life as we have known it on this planet. And they’re reminding us that we share a deep, organic, creation-centered relationship with each other.
Dr. Susan Eirich, a pioneering conservationist and founder and executive director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary & Retreat Center, invites us to reconsider our relationship with nature. “What would happen,” she wonders, “if we expanded our sense of community to truly include all living beings in our thinking and planning?” “Many of us,” she writes, “have a deep longing for more in life, a sense of yearning; a loneliness. What if we are longing for something we innately have: a deep, visceral connection to the wild, animals, nature and true community” (gratefulness.org).
This Festival of God’s Creation is a fitting opportunity to tune the ear of our hearts to what nature is telling us, so here’s a simple exercise to try. Choose anyplace outdoors in nature, someplace where you won’t be disturbed; seat yourself comfortably, and offer this prayer in your heart: “Lord, help me see what you see. Help me hear what you say.” You’ll probably need to repeat the prayer several times to maintain your focus. Do that for one hour as your vision clears and the ear of your heart awakens. Take notes, maybe simply jotting down a few words or phrases to describe your thoughts or feelings, or maybe journal more extensively as you record your impressions of what you see and hear. There are many ways to praise and serve God, whose name alone is exalted and whose glory is over heaven and earth (Ps. 148).
The first Earth Day was observed April 22, 1970, to launch a “national teach-in on the environment.” It has become an annual event and a worldwide movement of environmental consciousness, education, and care that organizers expect to involve around a billion people this year. As big as the day is, the best thing, sometimes, is to do what is simplest and most local, starting with the little prayer exercise I described.
Creation Justice Ministries has offered a list of several things you might do for the healing of creation. You’ll find many other ideas and connecting points in your local area.
1. Get your soil & water tested for lead.
2. Learn about public transit and advocate for better access – air pollution leads to respiratory conditions such as asthma. Advocate for better public transit in your municipality. Also, do your part to try to bike, walk, or carpool.
3. Visit The Native Land App to learn about the indigenous people from the land you occupy.
1. Get involved in gardening and/or food access justice. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the disparities in food distribution systems. Growing your own food can lower your grocery bill, and it cuts down emissions from food transportation. You can also volunteer at a community garden that supplies fresh produce to food pantries.
2. Learn how your church can become a hub of climate resilience at creationjustice.org/resilience
3. Find where waste from your community goes. Waste is disproportionately disposed of in communities of color. Sometimes waste and recycling are even shipped to be disposed of in other countries. Find ways to reduce your own waste through reducing consumption, composting, and refusing to acquire products that will end up in landfills.
1. Bookmark creationjustice.org/action to participate in timely monthly action opportunities.
2. Mark your calendar for Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2021 and participate in the day of action. This year is free of charge and online. The theme is “Imagine! God’s Earth & People Restored.” Creation Justice Ministries will be hosting six excellent workshops.
3. Do you know which watershed you live in? Learn about the bodies of water near you, the watershed you live in, and the pollutants your water faces. Water is a human right and gift from God, advocate for everyone to have equitable access to potable water.
And if you’re in the Buffalo, New York, area, here’s a list of organizations you might want to contact for more information and opportunities for involvement (there are several others).
Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo
Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper
Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy
Clean Air Coalition of Western New York
Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens Society
Buffalo Institute of Urban Ecology
Western New York Environmental
Task Force on Design and Analysis
Scajaquada Pathway Committee
Niagara Greenspace Consortium
Buffalo Niagara River Land Trust
Pollinator Conservation Association
Urban Tree Initiative