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  Wild Country and WildlifeWednesday, December 6th, 2023  
by David Douglas

The photograph is actually that of a stuffed museum specimen, for the Carolina parakeet became extinct more than 50 years ago. The species's demise was hastened by hunters who had learned this trick: shoot one bird and let its cries draw the rest of the flock. Instead of scattering, the others hovered over their wounded companion. Entire flocks were easy targets for a single man with a rifle.

My Park Service friend works in the area of cultural preservation. He keeps the picture before him as a reminder of how easy it is for one generation to destroy what it has inherited -- to drop the torch.

The ethical mandate underlying my friend's imagery is a familiar one: the earth "belongs as much to those who are to come after us as to us," British author John Ruskin pointed out. "We have no right . . . to deprive them of benefits it was in our power to bequeath."

Henry David Thoreau railed at his forebears for their negligence in the natural world:
". . . Thinking that I have here the entire poem, to my chagrin I learn that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places."
Scientists -- less elegiac but more explicit -- have chronicled the environmental depredation, charting the toll on ecosystems, the impact on genetic diversity and the consequences for human health and research. "The one process ongoing in the 1980s that will take millions of years to correct," Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson has warned, "is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us."

But the consequences go beyond ethics and ecology and demand a theological response as well. At stake is not simply the deterioration but the destruction of whole segments of God's creation. In two areas in particular -- the extinction of species and the dismemberment of wilderness -- the damage can be irreversible.

Biblical passages illustrate, with startling clarity in Job and the Psalms, that the earth's creatures owe their existence to God. They honor the Creator, reflect his glory, and subsist for his benefit, apart from any value they represent to humans. God, in turn, cares for his creation with a concern that is not merely collective, but -- as Noah's selection of the animals reveals -- extends to each distinct thread of the tapestry. "Beasts and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds" (in the words of the psalmist) are spiritual, as well as ecological, resources.

Such a perspective fails to consider that overhunting, pest-control measures, and habitat destruction have caused the rate of extinction to accelerate exponentially. Conservationist Norman Myers, author of The Sinking Ark: A New Look at the Problem of Disappearing Species (Pergamon, 1979), estimates that with the advent of technology between 1600 and 1900, an average of one species of bird or mammal (little is known about reptiles, amphibians, fishes, invertebrates and plants) disappeared every four years, compared to one every 1,000 years during the "great dying" of the dinosaurs. By the beginning of the 20th century, human-induced extinctions were quickening to one species every year. The final quarter of the century, writes Myers, may usher in a "biological debacle greater than all mass extinctions of the geological past put together."

Wilderness is being lost at a similar pace. During the 1930s, Robert Marshall, a founder of the Wilderness Society, observed that wild country was "disappearing like a snowbank melting away on a southfacing slope in the hot June sun." Half a century later in the U.S., only a few remnants of desert, mountain and forest have been preserved, and pressure to develop even these patches has begun to be exerted.

If only as refuges for endangered creatures, these islands of wilderness could be defended theologically. But a more compelling reason lies in their own value as faith-nurturing reservoirs. Throughout history -- for the ancient Hebrews and Old Testament prophets, for Desert Fathers and monastic orders -- the wilderness has humbled visitors and deflated pride. In the clear, spare lonely places, contemporary sojourners continue to sense their limits and dependence on God.

Wild country is not sacrosanct: not every acre need be protected. But when so little wilderness remains in a nation, the contemplative gifts it offers -- such as silence, solitude and a sense of awe -- become worth as much as the marketable commodities that can be extracted. We need these sanctuaries of stillness where we can withdraw briefly to get our spiritual bearings. The desert and mountain remain for us, as they were for Jesus, settings for silence and prayer.

Writing in The Christian Century nearly two decades ago, educator Richard Baer noted: "So far the church has not sufficiently grasped the nature of the present [ecological] crisis, has not understood how powerfully dehumanizing is man's wanton exploitation of his natural environment, has not appreciated the degree to which man-made ugliness and the fouling of natural beauty are corroding man's mind and spirit" ("Land Misuse: A Theological Concern," October 12, 1966, p. 1240).

But interest has rarely extended to wilderness and endangered species. "The church's concern has been conspicuous by its absence," admits an official with one Protestant denomination in New York. Adds the former president of a national environmental organization, who has looked in vain for support from religious groups in efforts to protect wilderness and wildlife: "The Unitarians occasionally let us meet in their buildings; that's been our primary contact with churches on this issue."

Denomination staffers suggest a variety of reasons for the neglect: a tendency to perceive environmental problems as primarily health issues; limited resources; a disinclination to act in an unfamiliar arena ("We understand someone who is hungry," says one official. "We don't understand, in St. Paul's words, ‘the earth groaning in travail."')

In addition, there may be an assumption that concern for creatures somehow diminishes concern for humans. "Why don't you do something that helps people," one wildlife biologist was asked at her church. Some public opinion polls link religious commitment with a willingness to exploit rather than preserve the earth's resources, and writers such as Lynn White and Ian McHarg have alluded to an anthropocentric strain running through the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But I think the church's slighting of wilderness and wildlife is due less to hostility than to indifference -- a disregard for the peculiar theological resources at stake and the speed with which they are being crippled. As stewards of creation, we have often dozed in the pews.

David Day, a Canadian author of a book on extinct species, recalls that what affected him most profoundly while doing his research was viewing the actual relics: the aurochs's horn, the pelt of the Bali tiger, the weathered rib cage of a Steller's sea cow. Suddenly, he writes, he was drawn into "the reality of their vanished existence.

The church also needs to seek ways to be drawn into this reality and jarred out of its complacency, for the segments of nature receiving the least attention may be suffering the most irreversible damage. Like my Park Service friend, we could profit by keeping our own photographs of vanished legacies before us, placed alongside the church budget report, as a reminder that stewardship has always meant more than fund-raising. There is no shortage of ecclesiastical channels to bring these neglected portions of creation into the life of the church: through sermons and liturgy, through educational forums and retreats, to recall that wild country and wildlife exist not only as strands in the biological web, but as gifts that illumine the sovereignty of God. Their loss leads to a spiritual, as well as ecological, impoverishment.

In his Letter to the Romans, Paul wrote: "Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made" (1:20). The church has often seen nature as a window to God. But with few exceptions it has been tamed nature -- the pastoral and bucolic that humans have fenced and framed. The wilder corners of creation, bearing no imprint of humankind, have been allowed to slip into disrepair.

But all parts of creation can provide (as C. S. Lewis once wrote of spontaneous pleasures) "‘patches of Godlight' in the woods of our experience" -- glimmerings of divine handiwork that help us to gather our spiritual bearings. Wilderness and the spectrum of species -- no less than other facets of nature -- point us in the direction of the Creator. Rather heedlessly, we have been extinguishing these "patches of Godlight" for those who are to come after us.

Copyright 1984 Christian Century. Reproduced by permission from the January 4-11, 1984 issue of the Christian Century. Subscriptions: $49/year from P.O. Box 378, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. 1-800-208-4097

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