By Steven L. Peck
As a BYU student in the early eighties, I earmarked part of my meager paycheck to help protect endangered whales. Since then, “Save the Whales” has become so hackneyed that even unswerving environmentalists smile at its kitschiness. But at the time, I really was concerned with saving the whales (and still am). The great blue whale—along with many other cetacean species—was on the verge of extinction, and urgent action was needed.
However, a movement called Food for Poland had just been launched by one of my heroes, Eugene England. It had been started to alleviate Reagan’s suspension of aid to the bedraggled satellite of the Soviet Empire, and the movement became the causa sine qua non for student activists. I was torn. I wanted to help, but what about the whales? On my stretched-too-far-already student budget, I could not afford both causes. The logic: “Aren’t starving people always more important than animals?” tore me in two. How could I in good conscience step away from my responsibility to succor my hungry brothers and sisters in what was an obvious and immediate need? I wrestled and twisted but could not decide which good to choose.
Finally, I decided to pray about it. I suppose I went into the prayer thinking that the Lord would tell me to support the people of Poland since it seemed somehow improper to put mere creatures above the spirit children of God. As I prayed, however, I became immersed in a profoundly affective spiritual experience. It was as if my mind’s-eye was being opened to how God viewed the whales—as if I suddenly inhabited a corner of his mind. I sensed that he loved them. More than that, I became aware that he knew each of them as individuals, as if he knew their names and cherished each of them deeply—not as possessions or pets or useful creatures or lesser beings of any kind. He seemed to convey to me that the whales were fellow travelers through existence. Fraternal creatures of dignity and worth. Weeping, I stood up and wrote a check to the Save the Whales Foundation.
The vision (and that is how I represent it to myself, recognizing its personal and incommunicable aspects and meaning) has dimmed in its impact and in my memory, but I have never forgotten the experience. While I recognize that it was not your revelation, I share it because of how profoundly it altered the way I look at nature and its creatures, even informing my decision to become an ecologist. I wish I could say that I have lived up to that vision, but I have fallen short in many ways. But recently, I have felt that I need to embrace that experience more fully. It deserves my attention and reverence.
We are in the midst of an ecological crisis. Throughout the world, ecosystems are facing monumental threats, maybe the most menacing since the Cretaceous extinctions that snuffed out the dinosaurs. The climate is changing under the influence of human outputs; ocean fisheries are disappearing; forests are being cleared for development at an alarming rate; coral reefs are dying in every ocean; entire ecosystems are in chaos. These harms are well documented and scientifically established. I know of no ecologist or environmental biologist who would disagree with the foregoing assessment. But this danger hasn’t seemed to have made much of an impact on many members of the Church, some of whom seem to bear some animosity toward environmentalism.
I became an ecologist because I love complexity and I love nature. When I look out at nature, I understand that much that is going on is not only invisible to us, but also deeply complex—manifold relationships playing themselves out among the living and nonliving things of our planet. These relationships form the structure and fabric within which we live. They touch us constantly, from the oxygen we breathe to the ecological cycles that sustain our lives in what seems like an almost alchemical process of combining sunlight, soil, air, and water. These cycles, and cycles within cycles, are constantly spinning around and within you. (Though you may not want to know this, you are quite an amazing ecosystem yourself, being a home for three to six pounds of very active bacteria.) Even so, much of this amazing complexity is taken for granted, ignored, and even despised.
That is why I want to write about reverence for nature. As members of the Church, we have not lived up to our best selves or our best doctrines. But instead of preaching hellfire and brimstone, I’m going to take a page from the positive psychology playbook and say that our current state of mental misalignment with nature is irrelevant. What’s important is that we work on getting better from wherever we stand. So let’s get started.
When I was a graduate student in ecology, people were often surprised to find that I was a “Mormon ecologist.” The Mormons had a reputation for being not only uninterested in environmental concerns, but hostile to them. In fact, when the Ecological Society of America was planning to hold its national meeting in Salt Lake City, an active protest emerged against the idea because of the Utah legislature’s abysmal environmental record. Among other hints that Utahns were not environmentally literate, the protestors focused on the apathy some of Utah’s residents have shown toward preserving our lands from thoughtless development.
In the mid-1990’s, Max Oelschaeger complained in his book Caring for Creation, “The only denomination that has formally stated its opposition to ecology as part of the church’s mission is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”1 At about the same time, Marshall Massey claimed that the Church was formally committed to environmental inaction. A number of LDS scholars have responded to these kinds of statements, and explicit claims of Mormon environmental inaction or ecological antagonism are no longer common in print. In my experience, however, the perception that Mormons are anti-environmentalist remains current in many environmental circles.
Sadly, I understand their perception. While I was growing up in Moab, one of the worst curses you could fling at someone was “Your mother is an environmentalist!” However, I had many friends in graduate school who were both Mormons and concerned environmentalists. I use the word “environmentalist” purposely because I find that many of my students who are emerging environmentalists try to distance themselves from the word because they feel it carries negative connotations. I want to unabashedly embrace the word and redeem it through new associations. I’m looking for an environmental awakening among my people, especially given the richness of our doctrines about the importance of the world we live on. And I think such an awakening is just waiting to happen.
O ne of my favorite scenes in The Lord of the Rings is when the hobbits Merry and Pippin stumble into Fanghorn Forest and meet an Ent called Treebeard, one of the shepherds of the trees. The forest is being destroyed by Saruman, an evil wizard. Treebeard explains that the Ents have been slow to act.
Only lately did I guess that Saruman was to blame, and that long ago he had been spying out all the ways, and discovering my secrets. He and his foul folk are making havoc now. Down on the borders they are felling trees—good trees. Some of the trees they just cut down and leave to rot—orc-mischief that; but most are hewn up and carried off to feed the fires of Orthanc. There is always a smoke rising from Isengard these days.
Curse him, root and branch! Many of those trees were my friends, creatures I had known from nut and acorn; many had voices of their own that are lost forever now. And there are wastes of stump and bramble where once there were singing groves. I have been idle. I have let things slip. It must stop!2
He then adds, speaking of the Ents’ slugishness: “If I could make them understand the need; if I could rouse them: we are not a hasty folk. What a pity there are so few of us.”
Treebeard calls an Entmoot—a grand council of the Ents—and the Ents do get roused. Suddenly the Ents are fully awake and ready to take action:
The old Ent now took the hobbits back and set them on his shoulders again, and so they rode proudly at the head of the singing company with beating hearts and heads held high. Though they had expected something to happen eventually, they were amazed at the change that had come over the Ents. It seemed now as sudden as the bursting of a flood that had long been held back by a dike.3
In the end, the Ents completely demolish Saruman’s terrible fortress—something no army in Middle Earth could have accomplished.
I hope that we Mormons need only the right sort of Entmoot of ground-root efforts, to awaken to the threats we face. I think we can become a truly great force for the care and nurture of our planet.
But what must happen to awaken us? I’ve been pondering of late some of the ways people from other faiths and traditions have expressed their care for Creation. For example, ecofeminist Starhawk, in her book Earth Path, offers the following blessing on—of all things—a compost pile.
We offer gratitude to the great cycles of birth, growth, death, decay, and regeneration. We are grateful to all the beings who have made the great transformation, leaving the remains of their bodies here. We are grateful to all the hungry mouths that consume the dead. Blessings on the termite, the beetle, the ant, the spider, the worm. Blessings on the fungi and the bacteria, those that need the air and those that avoid it. Blessings on all the life in this pile that will transform decay to fertility, death to life. May I always remember that the cycle of life is a miracle. May I continue to feel a sense of wonder and joy in the presence of death and life. May I remember that waste is food, and may my eyes be open to opportunities to close the circle and create abundance and life.4
What assumptions go into such a blessing? First, that God cares about such things as compost piles. It shows an awareness of our dependency on the little things on earth—an acknowledgement that these diverse things matter to our health and wellbeing. The blessing requires some education about the workings of nature. It shows a deep reverence for the ecological cycles that make life possible. It takes seriously the idea that our spiritual lives can merge with nature and its care.
Such attitudes as we find in this blessing on a compost pile would go far in helping us sense how important and fragile our life support systems are and how essential their care actually is. Could we thoughtlessly use and abuse our wonderful lands and natural resources if we sensed a deep and important sacredness within them? If we truly asked blessings or gave thanks for the cycles and processes of nature, could we easily exploit or abuse nature as we have so quickly and carelessly done up until now? Could we glibly argue that certain of our companion species are less valuable than a new mall or housing development?
At first, it may seem absurd to ask a blessing on a compost pile—maybe as absurd as making a sacred covenant with the creatures of the earth. However, in Genesis, after Noah disembarks from the ark, God says to him:
And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. (Genesis 9:9–10)
The Lord then establishes a covenant that he will never destroy the earth with water again and sets a rainbow to mark this covenant. Then the Lord adds:
And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters will no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Genesis 9:15)5
I don’t take literally the idea that at one point in history there was a world-wide flood and that an ark loaded with a sampling of at least one pair from each species sailed upon it, so why take literally the idea that God made a covenant with the beasts of the earth? For me, the story isn’t about physical geology and biodiversity, but a metaphor for the deep concern the Lord has for what are often called the “lesser things of Earth.”
Though there does seem to be a claim for humans as God’s favorites embedded in Mormon theology, I think it is crucial to note that the Lord makes his covenant with Noah, his children “for perpetual generations,” and every living creature. Us and them. This suggests to me that while we may be our Heavenly Father’s ultimate concern, we are not his only concern. Other creatures do matter to him—after all, he commanded Noah to make sure they made it onto the ark. The ark and the great deluge may be metaphorical, but the Lord’s care is genuine, deep, and important. His creation and its creatures matter. We have an obligation to reverence and recognize his care for them.
To reverence something requires not just an acquaintance, but an intimacy. Notice in the compost blessing that there are specific references to ecological processes. This knowledge comes from the past hundred years of ecological study of the processes and activities of nature and the discovery of the deep time that went into their unfolding. The Jewish writer Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in his book The Sabbath:
Creation, we are taught, is not an act that happened once upon a time, once and for ever. The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuous process. God called the world into being, and that call goes on. There is this present moment because God is present. Every instant is an act of creation. A moment is not a terminal but a flash, a signal of Beginning. Time is perpetual innovation, a synonym for continuous creation. Time is God’s gift to the world of space.6
I love the idea that creation is part of a long, patient becoming, the evidence for which we see in the fossils of this earth, in the DNA of every cell of our bodies, and in other creatures’ bodies. Evolution ennobles the creation and Creator because it suggests that God is a gardener, not a magician.
To picture the Creation as the wave of a wand devalues it. Perhaps this is a reason we Saints have sometimes not appreciated the immense work that went into creating the marvelous diversity amid which we live. The thought that millions of years have been required for the Creation goes far in helping us appreciate the uniqueness and preciousness of our earth. As we look at nature, we are looking into deep creation through an eye fashioned out of elements gleaned from the remains of burned-out stars. Not a nature fashioned by the quick wave of a hand, but one that has required about 13.7 billion years to cultivate.
As Latter-day Saints, we have stunning reasons for preserving our planet. It is, after all, our permanent home. If we take seriously the idea that the celestial kingdom will be on this earth, we will understand that it is not a lifeless sphere to be used and abused. That we believe the earth was made to facilitate our eternal progression in no way allows us to operate from a position of power and disrespect. Rather, it deepens our responsibility and heightens the necessity of reverencing the processes that sustain the life we have been given. Environmentalism seems not just a good idea, but a requirement.
1. Max Oelschlaeger, Caring for Creation: An Ecumenical Approach to the Environmental Crisis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), 204.
2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (New York: Mariner Books, 2005), 76.
3. Ibid., 91.
4. Starhawk, The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 168.
5. Italics mine.
6. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005), 100.