This past Sunday, Christians observing the Season of Creation heard from one of the classic creation stories in Genesis (2:4-22). Here at All Saints’ Parish in Saugatuck, we heard Robert Alter’s translation of that passage, a “tale of the heavens and the earth when they were created.”
That passage, in other words, and just like the one in the first chapter of Genesis, is a legend, a myth, a story. That doesn’t mean it’s not true, but it is not a scientific account of how things came to be; it’s a spiritual account of who we are and where we belong in relation to each other, to the wider world of nature, and to God.
This is precisely and tragically what we have forgotten as modern Western people.
The Season of Creation this year begins where the Bible begins, with this powerful reminder from an ancient storyteller of who we are and where we belong.
Notice just a few of the features of this tale of belonging, beginning with a forest.
I’ve read this story from Genesis many times over the years, and for some reason I never before imagined the Garden of Eden as a forest.
Creator God makes the first human from the dirt and then causes the soil to bring forth every tree that is lovely to look at and is good for food. That’s where God places the human—in a forest.
And just like Saugatuck and Douglas, where I work and live, a river was running through that ancient forest. I started to pay much closer attention to rivers when I was living in California and how important they are on a drought-prone landscape.
Soil, water, plants, food—everything that first human needed for life, except for one thing: companions.
As a spiritual account of who we are and where we belong, this ancient story suggests quite directly that companionship is not optional but actually essential, it’s mission-critical for flourishing.
In this era when the Centers for Disease Control has identified loneliness as an epidemic in this society, with a whole host of health consequences, in this era when so many humans feel so isolated, even alienated from the wider world of God’s creation, let’s notice that the first companions of the first human were other animals.
These other animals were not merely resources or commodities, or just a bunch of livestock; these were companions. The first human even gave them names! I don’t mean taxonomic classifications into distinct species, I mean names, like my dear Aussie shepherds Judah and Tyler, and my beloved golden retriever Sydney, and the beagle I grew up with, Ginger.
Perhaps now more than ever, the world today needs a spiritual account of who we are and where we belong with all the other creatures of the same Creator God.
This first week of the Season of Creation draws our attention in that regard to the forest where the first humans began and, I would suggest, to where we must now return—a long overdue homecoming, as it were, to the many forests where we belong.
Back in the 1980s, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture began studying a popular cultural trend of spending time immersed in nature—and especially in forests; people were doing this as a way to address high levels of burnout in the technology industry.
The researchers coined a term for this practice—“forest bathing”—and the results of that study were remarkable. Among people spending even short periods of time in forests, they documented significant improvements in immune system function, notable reductions in blood pressure, accelerated recovery times from surgery, measurable gains in the ability to focus, even among children with ADHD, and also reams of anecdotal evidence about increased energy levels and better moods—and all of this thanks in large measure to the quality of the air generated by the trees, the insects, the fungi, and the mosses.
Having just celebrated Labor Day, giving thanks for a social movement of human beings that vastly improved the conditions for the working poor, among others, let us also give thanks for the shared labor of trees that makes the conditions for life itself on this planet possible.
Trees perform this amazing feat in many ways, not least for the air we breathe in that magical process called photosynthesis that converts carbon dioxide into oxygen.
Air, breath, breeze, wind—these are all equally suitable ways to translate the word we see rendered in the Bible as “Spirit.” John loved making that theological pun, as this season invited us to hear on Sunday from John’s account of the Gospel (3:1-16). “The wind blows where it wills,” Jesus says—that’s the Spirit, the very breath of God, the source of life everywhere on this planet.
It’s the same pun, by the way, made by the ancient storyteller in Genesis. That story begins with the Spirit of God moving over watery chaos like wind—it’s the very same word used to describe God’s own breath filling the nostrils of the first human who then resides in a forest.
As part of this spiritual account of who we are and where we belong, we might take note of what scientists have been learning about trees for several decades now—and it’s mind-blowing.
In his 2015 book The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben, a forester, summarizes beautifully what we have come to understand about trees as truly social beings.
A forest, for example, is not just a collection of individual trees; it’s a community, with older trees supporting younger ones by sharing nutrients. Trees can actually count, learn, and remember. They care for and tend sick members and they warn each other of danger by sending messages through fungal networks—I saw this happening in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains back in California: when one tree succumbed to the drought-driven bark beetle infestation, nearby trees started to produce more sap to protect themselves.
We stand today as a society in need of profound change, a dramatic reorientation of how we see ourselves living on this precious Earth and with her many creatures, including trees and forests. The change we need is so pronounced we should probably borrow the now-classic image from John’s account of the Gospel: we must be born again.
“But how can this be?” Nicodemus says to Jesus. I can’t crawl back into my mother’s womb and start all over. We can’t possibly retool our electrical grid, redesign our whole transportation system, re-evaluate our entire food supply, or reconsider how we live with other species—plant and animal. How can we possibly do all that?
How? By falling in love.
Evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould once noted that “we will not save what we do not love.”
For God so loved the world…
God saves the world not of anger but only and always out of love. Always and forever for love.
And so the stories we tell about who we are and where we belong must be stories filled with wonder and amazement and gratitude—stories told by people who have fallen in love with the world of God’s creation.
We must tell the kind of stories that sound like we have just been born all over again…