Friday, November 8, 2013

How Inhabiting Eden Came To Be

Soon after college, I wanted to build an earth-sheltered house with skills I didn’t possess, on land I didn’t own, in a place I’d never lived. Having been surprised to learn that Campbell’s had not actually invented soup, I would research prices at the grocery, and write little essays on the economics, and the joys, of actual cooking, and on how transubstantiation works: with a bit of salt, butter, and practice, flour becomes crust; peaches become pie.

I think I was absorbing my landlords’ unspoken ethics. She was a serene virtuoso in cotton prints, her grand piano flowing with Tchaikovsky and Brahms. He wore a Lincoln beard and walked to the university to teach engineering. We woke to his whistling and hammering every Saturday, and in the afternoon we smelled his bread. He sent us out with their children to pick beans, and taught us to refurbish windows.

Two graduate degrees and four states later, having found my place teaching Bible in a seminary, enjoyed marriage, suffered divorce, and raised twins, I finally planted my first garden behind a Louisville bungalow. I had thought that growing food, unlike cooking it, was a miracle too complex for me. In practice, reading the seed package worked rather well. The lettuce took days to germinate, not years like my aspirations.

A brown-eyed man introduced himself to me in the school cafeteria on a December morning. I later heard that students, relatives, and friends had spent over a year masterminding our encounter. One friend had told me, “I have a cousin—he’s a Presbyterian minister; he has four children; he’s sad and lonely.” “Sounds divine,” I had said, and walked away oblivious.

But Don didn’t seem incurably sad. We found in each other a gardening partner, a reading companion, a friend for evening strolls in search of dinner and wine. Our children blended like family. He joked about pulling a double-wide into my back yard and running his extension cord over the spinach and through my study window. But in the end I sold the bungalow and moved across the Ohio River to his shady downtown corner near the houseboats.

November garden
Not long after, a neighbor across the street moved away and left his house to tenants, and his back yard to us. At times I wonder how we appear to passing commuters: middle-aged jaywalkers with rakes, baskets of squash, handcarts of seedlings. A full rain barrel strapped to the pick-up’s tailgate leaving a dripping trail across the intersection. But conformity was already lacking on our hodgepodge block of home businesses, mixed housing, and secondhand yard art. Chopping wood behind the house one day, my husband looked up to see the man next door butchering a deer.

Before An Inconvenient Truth appeared, we had heard of climate change, but it hadn’t sunk in. After we saw it, choices we were already making took on new urgency. Generations before, our house had been retrofitted for modernity; now we re-retrofitted it: energy audit; weather stripping; insulation till the walls nearly burst. A tankless water heater; energy-star everything. No solar, because of the trees. Ceiling fans; clotheslines; a wood stove with a catalytic combustor; CFLs; LEDs; power strips with off buttons for every nest of wires. Our energy use dropped by half.

A year after I preached at Don’s church for Earth Day—I thought to no avail—someone said, “We really should be recycling here.” I seized on her words; we called a meeting and founded a green team. We recycled bulletins, bottles, light bulbs, cell phones, monitors, corks. We sold fair trade coffee and reusable bags. We read books and led classes. We started seasons of creation in worship. We insulated, eradicated incandescents, retrieved the glass communion cups from an upstairs closet, and began washing dinnerware in the kitchen. We ran a home energy audit drive, raised funds for a bike rack, and talked up solar panels.

Then, when asked to write a Bible study on the topic of my choice, I chose ecology, and immersed myself in learning. Wherever I taught, if the subject was Psalms I taught creation. If it was prophets, I pointed out Isaiah’s botanical world. If it was compassion, I preached ecological justice. I began meeting other environmentalists, and became a Climate Reality presenter, an event organizer, and an awkward activist.

My daughter had married and moved to Pokhara, Nepal. One warm January when I was
visiting her, an oarsman was rowing us on Phewa Lake. I remarked on the flocks of birds streaming by in the sunset. “They’re not supposed to come yet,” he said. “Climate change.” Even the manual laborers in Nepal know this, where poverty is bottomless, where electricity is scant even for those who can pay the bill.

Despite our endless news sources, Americans seem the last to fathom the trouble we are in. I am sure the causes are multiple. Having learned to measure worth by price tags, we diminish nature’s value. We put pink sunrises on greeting-cards as if majesty and doggerel had something in common. We laugh at our dogs, and feel embarrassed to grieve their passing. We cut down trees rather than go around them. We pick fights with advocates of clean air and water, as if our own bodies didn’t depend on these. Wishing to avoid the challenge of climate change, we remember only the skeptics. Yet we do see the water rising, along with our anxiety.

I wrote Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis to offer congregations and individuals a tool for exploring the intersection between Scripture and the environmental issues we cannot bear to face alone. The book discusses the pain of change, the human role on earth—our connections and our disconnections with nature—consumerism, food systems, toxic waste, and climate change. I hope that, informed by Scripture’s portrayals of our place on earth, Christians can deepen our roots and contribute to the healthier future the living community needs.

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