Earth Day

Earth Sunday 2020

Originally, for this Earth Day celebration, members of the Environmental Action and Advocacy Team (EAAT) were going to share a meaningful reading, poem, or thought about the Earth or Earth Day, and spend a few minutes speaking about it. But under the circumstances this is not possible this time around; hopefully before too long, there may be another, similar opportunity. Because there’s something special about EAAT and the actions it helps to facilitate in our church. The activities and programs of EAAT are one of the ways we connect with the physical world, in an immediate way—in a way that puts the philosophy and concerns of our church into measurable and accountable actions. One member of the team was going to explain all that the church has done, and is doing, in environmental action and advocacy. Fortunately, there are newsletter articles about that, and we will save that list for another time when we are all together.

Earth Day is one of our special days here at People’s Church. And we make sure to mark an Earth Sunday to remind ourselves, in a specific way, about our connections to our Mother Earth. This connection to our view of nature, and seeing the world as a living organism, goes back in our tradition 200 years. I am reading the book by UUA historian John Buehrens, Conflageration: How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender, and Social Justice. Yes, again with the Transcendentalists.

Those contrarians and iconoclasts are also one of the the roots of our world’s environmental movement. Listen to Henry David Thoreau, writing in 1864, advocating for what would eventually be called National Parks: “Why should not we, who have renounced the king’s authority, have our national preserves…in which the bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be “civilized off the face of the earth,” – our forests, not to hold the king’s game merely, but to hold and preserve the king himself also, the lord of creation, – not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own true re-creation?”

To see the natural world, “for inspiration and our own true re-creation.” That is the view we offer the people of the Earth, with our Earth Sunday celebration. Our Earth Sunday is a unique expression of our spirituality. Our Earth Sunday speaks to our direct experience of the marvelous workings of nature, the interconnected web, that science helps to explain, but never captures in total.

Dr. Stephen H. Furrer, a west coast UU minister, points out how this view of Thoreau and the Transcendentalists, and people like Rachel Carson who wrote Silent Spring, and even fellow UU Kurt Vonnegut, contribute to our modern sensibility. In his words: “sees the world more like an organism: a body the parts of which cannot be replaced (though some of them can be renewed through growth). Since the parts are internally related and alive, we are not only responsible for the world’s well being; we can also sympathize with those parts that are suffering or in pain. In simple non-theological, non-scientific language, the ecological worldview claims that as planetary housemates we must abide by three main rules: take only your share, clean up after yourselves, and keep the house in good repair for future occupants.”

In our expressing gratitude for the Earth, and reminding ourselves and others of our need to care for it, we see ourselves in light of our seventh principle, the interconnected web of all things. This “web,” both tangible and intangible, is for many of us what our spirituality is about, motivates our efforts, and provides us comfort.

The interconnect web in which our action and even our thoughts, have an effect on the world and others, and ourselves. As the political pressures mount and unusual circumstances throw things into disarray, I remember to do my “loving kindness” meditations. Remembering the web which I can affect, reminds me that my thoughts, my imagery, my hopes, are affecting others—even in my isolation. Or perhaps, especially because of my isolation.

That is the advantage of this Earth Sunday coming under these circumstances. It is largely in our spirituality, or what you will call it, that pus us in the web of life, and which will remind us of how it is we keep connected. And while we remember that, as we see the good effects of the slowing down and stopping, the cleaning of the environment, we become even more aware of how our individual actions and thoughts and efforts, do so directly affect all of the world and its inhabitants.

Individually and collectively, in body or mind, on these occasions, we often Very often look to the ritual and prayers of native peoples, which so succinctly strike a relatable chord in us. Those people and religions, (many of us included), who see divinity in the Earth and its workings, in part or in whole, and give us a form to express, in word and deed, this spirituality of the interconnected web. In a typical Earth Sunday service, with readings, hymns, and stories, we certainly would have drawn from many traditions that honor the natural world and the spiritual traditions which celebrate the interconnected web. Sometimes we use the older, pre-Christian, stories and prayers of the European heritages, which are welcome in this space we create.

Recently someone asked if “pagan” was the appropriate term to use in my reference to the story of Persephone last week. Pagan originally means “rural or rustic—somebody out in a village.” These were the people, outside the cities, who were the last to adopt, or as the case may be, to adapt to, Christianity. The country people, the pagans, held on to the older traditions directly related to their natural environment. They were in their time the conservatives who continued to practice what we might refer to today as the “nature religions.” Over time, pagan came to be associated with anyone who followed a religion other than Christianity. So I am honored if someone considers me pagan. Both because I would like to be considered a person appreciative of the natural world and see myself as an elemental part of a much larger whole—a practitioner of a nature religion. But also because It is not often that I’m considered more traditional and conservative than most. [pause for laughter]

Our celebration of Earth Sunday, like our celebration of the solstice, might be classified by some as pagan. In both we draw upon those heritages that celebrate nature, for the imagery and prayer we use to express ourselves on these occasions. Because as important as pragmatic as environmental concerns are for us, our Earth Day celebration goes even deeper, to a spiritual level. It is a recognition of the tangible and intangible web we are a part of, even to the level of being a part of a living organism—to our body and soul, if I may use that type of vocabulary, being a part of the Earth’s body and soul.

I think that at their heart, any religion or practice that draws our attention to the natural world, the environment, and reminds us of our interconnectivity, is of the deepest spirituality. In our everyday lives, we get caught up in convenience, and begin to take things for granted. But we come to this day and place to take us back to our roots. As the word “religion” translates from the Latin as “that which binds us together,” re-ligaments us. We see ourselves as intimately linked to our Mother Earth, to all the elements of the natural world, and to each other, in thought, word, and action.

As I have already mentioned, one person who so thoroughly expresses this understanding is Henry David Thoreau. As a member of EAAT, he was my choice for a quote this Sunday, following the original plan for the service. He is one I admire more and more as I age and read and study. One of my favorite elements of Thoreau is his, what we today would call, mindfulness. He calls us to live deliberately, and simply. The quote of his I share so readily sums up the spirituality we lovers of Mother Earth cultivate. Thoreau writes: “The earth I tread on is not a dead inert mass. It is a body, has a spirit; is organic and fluid to the influence of its spirit and to whatever particle of the spirit is in me.”

He shares the Earth’s spirit, the Earth’s spirit is influenced by him. When I read this in Thoreau, and consider what I think and feel when I am communing with nature, I think: yes! I feel that uncontainable and universal spirit. It is the earth’s spirit that gives me life, and even eternal life, because I am of it. When I consider this, it helps to keep me calm, and explains things, and helps me to understand—if I give it the time and place; if I am mindful of it.

Many mention to me how their connection to nature is what is getting them through this quarantine. And furthermore, many mention how their walks and hikes and rides and kayaking and sunsets, is what gets them through their troubles, and intensifies their joys. Mother Earth offers us not only nourishment for body and soul, but also consolation, and encouragement.

Thoreau goes on, “The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit ~ not a fossil earth, but a living earth; ….You may melt your metals and cast them into the most beautiful moulds you can; they will never excite me like the forms which this molten earth flows out into.”

And so we celebrate our Earth Sunday, safely, and at home. Many of us are fortunate that we have the balm of nature so immediate to us. In this quiet time, where we have more time, we might take some time, to consider and be mindful of our spiritual connection to our Mother Earth. As the world powers down in the pandemic, we are reminded of what we have overlooked, or lost, and are in danger of permanently losing. The views that inspire us as the smog and haze lifts, the animals with whom we share the planet and need present, are perhaps Mother Earth prodding us to reconsider our way of life.

Thoreau, ever unconventional, speaks to this: “If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.”

It comes down to what I choose to do, and how I choose to do it. Making lists of what others should do, or keeping track of how they are doing it wrong, does not help our environmental causes as much as our taking action. This is why I regret not having the EAAT people here today to share the options we have. We all choose our trade-offs. We all choose our individual paths.

From Thoreau’s Walden: “I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”

What paths will I choose to wear down in my thinking? How will I let my mind travel? How will I buck tradition and conformity? We will make our trade offs. On days like today, it is good that I consider what more I can do, or how I might do something differently. Doing what we can for Mother Earth, recognizing our role, our part, our connection and impression, takes mindfulness. It takes being aware of what we are doing, and how we are doing it. It takes reflection. And from this we get inspiration, and are re-created.

We celebrate our Earth Sunday to help us take time and remind ourselves. Thoreau: “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

About Dr. Lou Yock

Dr. Louis Yock, is the minister of People's Church Unitarian Universalists and in this role, is responsible for delivering a portion of Sunday services, pastoral care, conferring with all committees and providing spiritual leadership for the congregation.