Wednesday, January 14, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (1/14/09)

Reinhold Niebuhr, the great American theologian, in his lectures on homiletics said, "If your sermons don't anger ten percent of your congregation at any given time, you've not been preaching the gospel. Just make sure it's the right ten percent, and that they're angry at you for the right reasons. Remember, your chief function in the pulpit is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted." In terms of the earth, it's time to afflict the comfortable.

In his Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, he wrote that the disillusionment from which idealists often suffer is only useful when it comes full circle from disillusionment with others to disillusionment with themselves. Sadly, many "true believers" are seldom disillusioned with themselves. It might be added that the politically-correct, the neo-Puritans of today, are also seldom disillusioned with themselves.

A possible consequence of disillusionment, other than cynicism, is looking at things in a new way, such as an awareness of where one is in the scheme of things, an awareness that the earth is a gift given by God in trust, not as an object of exploitation, and that we're the trustees of that gift.

One of the first acts of thanksgiving is cherishing the gift. The earth isn't a throwaway, disposable toy, as if we were "legacy children" whose only purpose is to consume what has been given us. The earth is all we have. There aren't any spare earths, as Terri Swearigen said, which we can inhabit if we ruin this one. Rather than exploiting the land as does much of modern industrial agriculture and corporate America, gardening begins by cherishing the land.

Cherishing the earth is sustainability which is, sadly, a lame word burdened with connotations of minimalism, just getting by. Renewing or enriching are better words because they imply increasing the value of the gift as in plowing the profits back into the business. An effective trustee increases the value of the trust, and gardening is one of the best places to increase the earth's value.

The prevailing attitude toward the earth by our culture of consumption has best been epitomized by mining and drilling, that is, the exploitation of the earth's finite resources rather than a renewal of those resources. It has been, in fact, a kind of functional atheism in which we vainly kiss off the presence of the divine, behaving as though we have taken possession of the earth to do with as we please. If the earth is a finite system of resources, it cannot sustain an indefinite exploitation without collapse.

Aldous Huxley, the early twentieth century novelist and critic and author of Brave New World, wrote "Modern man no longer regards Nature as in any sense divine and feels perfectly free to behave toward her as an overweening conqueror and tyrant."

It takes no wit to see the future of the earth if we keep on conquering it as an overweening tyrant. A good place to start is tailings from mines. I remember as a boy the mountains of rock and sand left from the gold rush miners on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada: beautifully fruitful land forever turned into a wasteland. Those images are child's play compared to the scrofulous lethal uranium contamination of modern tailings in Arizona.

In The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot wrote:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

Gardeners are the front line in reversing this trend towards oblivion because they work directly with the earth. First, they bring the beauty of flowers and grasses and then the taste of fresh vegetables, all of which flourish in a rich soil. Gardening begins enriching the soil by that unromantic but necessary activity called composting. It's the first act of thanksgiving, cherishing the earth, enriching it by plowing the profits of the land back into the land.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009

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