Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Wild Life
distributed 1/4/08 - ©2008

I live in a very urban setting -- as do most people in the world. Our home in Denver is surrounded by closely-spaced housing and a university campus. Just over a block away, Interstate 25 and the city's light rail system carve a high-traffic corridor through the city. It is a dense, structured, human-controlled setting.

Perhaps because I'm so immersed in a "built environment", it is a delightful discipline to remember on occasion that I'm also immersed in nature. Every now and then, it I find spiritual joy by opening my eyes -- or having my eyes opened -- to the multitudes of ways in which the other-than-human, the wild are intrinsic parts of my everyday world.

It is good for me to remember that I don't need to drive 40 miles to Colorado's mountains to find "nature". The natural world is right here in the city.

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Some of the untamed parts of the creation seem to be more visible in these winter days than in the summer. The red fox that lives in our neighborhood stands out against the snow when it trots across the lawn -- and it probably spends more time foraging in this cold and snowy weather, too. Occasionally, I look out the kitchen window and see one of those beautiful foxes, a predator seeking prey in the neighbor's bushes. It is a sight that stops me in my tracks, and makes me realize that natural systems are alive and well in urban Denver.

It is interesting that a fox stands out as "nature" when the squirrels that live in our backyard are just critters in my everyday mental maps. It takes a bit of concentration for me to think of them as "wildlife" as they chatter at our dog from just above her reach.

So, too, with the "ordinary" birds that flit through the trees and shrubs -- sparrows and finches and starlings. It sometimes requires a conscious effort to even notice that they're there, let alone to pause in a moment of wonder about the wild birds that co-exist as members of my local community. It takes a soaring hawk, or a hooting owl to catch my attention. (Hmm -- my sense of nature does seem to be triggered by top-level predators!)

Within our house, too, life flourishes. Spiders spin webs much faster than we remove them, and they seem to catch plenty of insects on their sticky web strands. Tiny fruit flies appear on occasion, coming in, I presume, with our groceries. In various seasons of the year, we're inundated with boxelder bugs and miller moths. Insect life -- another vast realm that is rarely dignified with the term "wildlife" -- abounds, indoors and out.

A few years ago, the church that provides office space to Eco-Justice Ministries was overrun with mice. Those prolifically fertile rodents found an attractive sanctuary from winter weather inside the building. They were not well received, though, when they dashed across the floor during a Sunday School class, nibbled through bags in the food bank, and left droppings almost everywhere. The practical challenge was to find ways of sealing that part of nature out of the church building. The theological challenge was to think of the mice as creatures within God's creation, and not as pests.

Nature shows up in our neighborhood among the plants, as well as the animals. Many different kinds of vegetation arrive in our lawn, uninvited, and remind me that they are far better suited to the soil and the climate than the varieties of grass that our culture deems perfect. Dandelions and other "weeds" thrive where grass struggles to survive.

When I take the time to notice, nature is everywhere around me.

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We think of ourselves as living in a human-constructed, human-dominated world. In our cities, we have imposed ourselves in countless ways: grading the landscape to suit our purposes; laying out tidy grids of streets; planting non-native trees and flowers and grasses; bringing in our domesticated dogs and cats, and trying to exclude many forms of wildlife; and creating complex systems of infrastructure to make our trash and sewage "go away".

With all of the control that we impose, it is not surprising that we think of our cities as "un-natural", as totally human spaces. Many city people think that they have to travel to some other sort of place to "experience nature." But nature is right here with us, all the time. Seeing a fox trot down a city street, or hearing an owl call, provides a surprising moment when the presence of nature can break into our consciousness. But the squirrels and mice, the sparrows and bugs and weeds -- those are all "nature", too.

In his book, The World without Us, Alan Weisman tried to imagine what the world would be like if all humans suddenly disappeared. (His theme was pursued in many reviews and follow-up articles, such as one last summer in Scientific American.) Weisman says that, without humans to maintain their veneer of control, our cities would soon collapse, highways would crumble, wildlife would thrive, and that the planet would get along pretty well without us -- although some parts of our legacy would be very durable.

In a flipping of that question, scientists have explored the potential loss of some other species -- the bees which play such a vital pollenating role, or plankton which forms the basis of the marine food chain, or the coral which provide an essential habitat for so much other life. If any of those were to disappear, there would be widespread turmoil.

It becomes clear that we need "nature", but nature does not need us.

Paul wrote to the church in Rome: "For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another." (Romans 12:3-5)

Today, let us not, as humans, think of ourselves more highly than we should. However much we have managed to transform the world by our actions and our technology -- and those impacts have been enormous -- we are still just one part of the natural world. We are members of a larger body of life, a complex and interdependent web of creation.

Nature is all around us, and in us. Indeed, when I take the time to reflect, I become aware that the entire distinction between the human and the natural is artificial. As ethicist Larry Rasmussen encourages, we can think, "not of humanity and nature, but of humans in and as nature. ... We could acknowledge that humans never rise above nature, never transcend it." He writes, "Earth community requires a biocentric or a geocentric knowledge, ethic, and faith."

Being attentive to the life, the wild life that is all around us, is a delightful way to nurture a biocentric, humble, and honest ethic. Being aware of life guides us into a faith that honors God, the source of all life.

Take a look around. What life do you see today?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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