A little more than 163 years ago, our Unitarian Universalist spiritual ancestor Henry David Thoreau spoke about wildness. “Our village life would stagnate,” he said, “if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness […] We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks… We need to witness our own limits transgressed…”
I would argue that in the past several weeks this need has been amply met. I would call the fourth-largest city in America being underwater a transgression of human limits. I would call what’s happening right now in Florida a transgression, as Irma breaks upon the American coastline and shows us what the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history can do (and here in Atlanta we’ll catch a bit of it tomorrow and Tuesday).
Our own human limits are like a red stop sign standing atop a slender metal pole—and the gale force winds just shred it apart.
This is what we are witnessing.
Thoreau our spiritual ancestor is trying to tell us something, from all of 163 years ago. That we stagnate as human beings when we get overly sentimental or saccharine about nature. That nature is not just walks in the woods and garden flowers. Nature is also hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires.
And when we respect this fact, to the point where we feel fear mixed-in with awe, it is like a “tonic” to us, meaning that it comes as healing medicine. And thereby, says Thoreau, we are “refreshed,” or brought back to a state that is truer to our humanity.
That’s what I want to talk about today. Being more fully human, to the degree we respect wildness and recognize it as a vital dimension of our earth home.
It’s the same sort of respect you sense in the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, the way he filmed scenes of nature in the recent movie The Revenant (which we saw a moment ago, accompanying our choir’s song.) The landscape is the real star of the show, and humans are but small parts of the larger natural vastness: icy mountains, moody stormscapes, rushing rivers, snowy trees, piercing sunsets. Not people first, but the earth first, and people a small part of the larger whole.
Respect. You hear it in the words of the former President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, in his 1995 Harvard commencement address: “We must divest ourselves of our egotistical anthropocentrism, our habit of seeing ourselves as masters of the universe who can do whatever [we want]. We must discover a new respect for what transcends us: for the universe, for the earth, for nature, for life, and for reality. Our respect for other people, for other nations, and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are part of it, that we share in it…”
Respect heals us. Respect returns us to our full humanity and truly makes of nature a home for us.
“I do not know if the air remembers September or if the night remembers the moon,” writes the Rev. Burton Carley in his wonderful “September Meditation.” To all the stanzas, perhaps we should add, “I do not know if the earth remembers shaking the seams of Mexico apart or if the clouds remember how the land below heaved and roared,” and similar others.
And then there is the beautiful Carl Sandburg, his poem where he says “There is a wolf in me … fangs pointed for tearing gashes…” There is a fox in me, there is a hog in me, there is a fish in me, and on and on. Maybe in all fairness we should add, “There is a hurricane in me, there is a wildfire in me, there is an earthquake in me…”
Respect is about telling the whole story, and facing it fully.
Respect is simply being clear. Climate change intensifies nature’s pre-existing wildness. Climate change is a force multiplier. There have always been storms and winds and surges. But climate change makes them increasingly bigger and damaging and expensive. As carbon dioxide from human activity continues warming up the planet, storms will deliver more rain, higher winds, and greater storm surges.
Respect this, truly, and it means that we take it seriously. Nature is not just walks in the woods and garden flowers. It has wildness to it, and if we keep provoking it, worse things are around the corner.
Yes, evolution has put tendencies in our minds that make it hard to grasp the danger. There is the “frog-in-the-kettle” tendency, where we ignore gradual changes even as we’re slowly being taken to an end point which is our doom. There is also the tendency to value the concrete over the abstract. Research has actually shown that the particular weather outside a person’s front door can play a huge role in whether they believe (or don’t believe) in climate change—even though the one is a very poor indicator of the other.
These tendencies are part of our evolutionary heritage, yes.
And we need to get over it.
Perhaps fear mixed-in with awe can do that. Perhaps this IS a time to gorge on pictures and videos of the aftermath of Harvey and Irma.
A form of Thoreau’s tonic that tastes terrible all the way down but in the end saves us. Scares us straight.
Scares us into our humanity, because we are most definitely NOT masters of the universe who can do whatever they want.
I completely agree with New York Times writer David Leonhardt, who, in a recent article, calls for a Manhattan Project for alternative energy or a national effort to reduce carbon emissions. But despite the terrifying potential damages that climate change will encourage, we aren’t stirred to action.
We gotta get over that.
We must do better.
Which means, at the very least, that we avoid getting sidetracked.
One way of getting sidetracked is to interpret nature’s wildness as a mere ploy. Just a few days ago talk radio host Rush Limbaugh said that problem is not so much climate change as it is the certain illusion of danger created by the liberal media. News stations, he says, “use graphics to make it look like the ocean’s having an exorcism, just getting rid of the devil here in the form of this hurricane, this bright red stuff.” But why? To scare people into believing in climate change and to line the pockets of businesses that sell emergency-related goods like batteries.
I hasten to add that this did not stop Rush Limbaugh from fleeing Florida like most everyone else.
No Houstonian or Floridian in their right mind could ever believe what Rush Limbaugh said, but then I worry about folks far away from the coasts, whose weather right outside their doors is just fine….
Let them see the pictures and the videos. Let them take in some of Thoreau’s tonic, to regain respect for nature’s wildness that is absolutely no ploy.
And nor is it a cover for the Apocalypse. This is yet another way that a lot of people today are getting sidetracked.
I say this in light of a particular Twitter tweet making the rounds right now: “The solar eclipse was on the 21st and Harvey showed up the 25th and started flooding on the 26th. Now look up Luke 21:25-26: ‘And there will be strange signs in the sun, moon, and stars, and here on earth the nations will be in turmoil, perplexed by the roaring seas and strange tides. People will be terrified at what they see coming upon the earth, for the powers in the heavens will be shaken.’” This tweet concludes with a short statement essentially suggesting that the Apocalypse as foretold in the Christian scriptures is unfolding around us. It’s not so much storms and wind and surges intensified by climate change as it is God working through storms and wind and surges to call unbelievers to repentance and, ultimately, to end the world.
Now, there’s a sense these days in which a person could be forgiven for interpreting things apocalyptically. The pileup of disasters, one after the other, has been relentless. Not just natural disasters, but the situations with Charlottesville and North Korea which are truly horrifying. And yes, there was that total eclipse of the sun. Did you see it? Did this scene of true natural wildness make shivers run up and down your spine, as they did mine?
The dots here could totally be connected together in such a way that the story center becomes that of a supernatural drama beyond human control or influence. And that’s the real problem. Evolution already makes it difficult for humans to wrap their minds around climate change, as I mentioned a moment ago, but now we have God adding to the difficulty?
I’m not an atheist with regard to all conceptions of God, but I am definitely a proud atheist with regard to this one. Atheism in this context is liberating. Atheism in this context is empowering. I’m not going to let God interfere with what I can do, which is to get my act together around recycling. Which is to eat less meat. Which is to do these and other things that represent my part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
I can’t help but quote philosopher Bertrand Russell at this point. He once said, “And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.”
Maybe God, if there is a God, is like the wildness of nature which is neither affected nor offended by human attitudes. God will be what God will be, like the stars, like the sun.
163 years ago, Henry David Thoreau published Walden and told the world what it meant for him to conduct his experiment in sustainable living. “I went to the woods,” he says, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear….”
And if he was alive today, I would ask him to also write,
I went to Houston, after Hurricane Harvey, because I wished to live deliberately
I went to the Oregon wildfires, to front only the essential facts of life
I went to Mexico, to see if I could learn what the earthquake had to teach
I went to Florida, to make sure I was not living what was not life, living is so dear.
Because this is how we learn what it means to be human. Not just from walks in the woods and garden flowers.
We need to witness our own limits transgressed.
We need to take the medicinal tonic, and be healed of our self-importance.
We need to respect the wildness, and go in fear of it, in awe of it, if we are to truly find in it a home.
Two Readings Presented Before the Sermon
By Burton D Carley
I do not know if the seasons remember their history or if the days and nights by which we count time remember their own passing.
I do not know if the oak tree remembers its planting or if the pine remembers its slow climb toward sun and stars.
I do not know if the squirrel remembers last fall’s gathering or if the bluejay remembers the meaning of snow.
I do not know if the air remembers September or if the night remembers the moon.
I do not know if the earth remembers the flowers from last spring or if the evergreen remembers that it shall stay so.
Perhaps that is the reason for our births — to be the memory for creation.
Perhaps salvation is something very different than anyone ever expected. Perhaps this will be the only question we will have to answer: “What can you tell me about September?”
Wilderness (adapted for presentation by two voices)
By Carl Sandburg
Anthony: There is a wolf in me . . . fangs pointed for tearing gashes . . . a red tongue for raw meat . . . and the hot lapping of blood—I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.
Taryn: There is a fox in me . . . a silver-gray fox . . . I sniff and guess . . . I pick things out of the wind and air . . . I nose in the dark night and take sleepers and eat them and hide the feathers . . . I circle and loop and double-cross.
Anthony: There is a hog in me . . . a snout and a belly . . . a machinery for eating and grunting . . . a machinery for sleeping satisfied in the sun—I got this too from the wilderness and the wilderness will not let it go.
Taryn: There is a fish in me . . . I know I came from salt-blue water-gates . . . I scurried with shoals of herring . . . I blew waterspouts with porpoises . . . before land was . . . before the water went down . . . before Noah . . . before the first chapter of Genesis.
Anthony: There is a baboon in me . . . clambering-clawed . . . dog-faced . . . yawping a galoot’s hunger . . . hairy under the armpits . . . here are the hawk-eyed hankering men . . . here are the blonde and blue-eyed women . . . here they hide curled asleep waiting . . . ready to snarl and kill . . . ready to sing and give milk . . . waiting—I keep the baboon because the wilderness says so.
Taryn: There is an eagle in me and a mockingbird . . . and the eagle flies among the Rocky Mountains of my dreams and fights among the Sierra crags of what I want . . . and the mockingbird warbles in the early forenoon before the dew is gone, warbles in the underbrush of my Chattanoogas of hope, gushes over the blue Ozark foothills of my wishes—And I got the eagle and the mockingbird from the wilderness.
Anthony: O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—
Taryn: and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover:
Anthony: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—
Taryn: For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no:
Anthony: I sing and kill and work:
Taryn: I am a pal of the world:
Both: I came from the wilderness.