by Anthony Siegrist
The last few months have brought storms and strange currents to the people and organizations to which I’m tethered. My spirit has fallen, risen, and fallen again. My legs have ached, not from training for the marathon I was hoping to run, but from sitting too long in my makeshift office, an old table in a corner of the basement. There, a roaring water heater and furnace drown out virtual meetings.
The thud of my kids’ feet on the floor above is rolling thunder. The dog steals their erasers or hats. They give chase. In the din and swirl, I read notes from quarantined congregants, contemplate layoffs and lead prayers. The ship has stayed afloat. Its ballast has been rocks and trees, sun and cloud.
Stability? Or flux…
In high school, our textbooks spoke of the natural world as balanced and stable. Forests were pulled toward an eternal maturity, a climax stage. Organisms ate each other in neat chains and pyramids. Energy transferred and built in steady, linear patterns. But that is not how it is.
Ecosystems brim with flux. Things change, whether human hand meddles or not. Storms and fires decimate forests. Species evolve and travel. The earth wobbles on its axis. It drifts farther or nearer the sun. In the arms of that moody relationship, nature is a slippery, slithering thing.
Philosophers now paint nature with the same ever-shifting tones as the biologists. Wilderness is not a thing but an idea, a political lens.* What we see in the natural world, they say, is ourselves, our hopes, our desires, our fears, our politics—nothing more and nothing solid.
Yet, one afternoon, I watched my son climb a white pine. We had walked down a country road. Trails and parks were closed. I saw him climb, framed by long brooms of needles, layer behind layer. Their dead relatives bore my weight underfoot with cushioned ease. The tree inhaled the world’s worry and exhaled delight, green against the blue sky, a boy among the branches, soft waste underfoot. Graphs did not matter in those moments, only solid wood—soil, air and sunlight hardened into a climber’s hold.
Another afternoon found us in a nearby forest, a seven acre triangle ringed by vinyl siding and fallow soccer fields. The boy and his brothers crossed a stream on a log. Then again—faster. And again—faster still. Sticks, mud, water striders, black squirrels, unfurling bracken, swollen buds. Who needs a park? Who needs a job? What is a school?
Days later the three bashed dead limbs against slumbering logs. Bark flew. Shards of rotten ash and spruce seeded the ground. Maybe they were beating back the news, hammering away at our helplessness. The earth took it in, welcomed the detritus, the extra sunlight. Nature unfazed.
I took their pictures, then, as they jumped a ditch. I tried to freeze in pixeled glass the moment they all hung in mid-air, fire and life among the clouds. They streaked past a light pole. Last year’s thistles snapped. They fell to the earth and rolled, laughing in the sharp grass. The plants did not keep their distance and suffered nothing for it.
Something to depend on
Whatever can and should be said about nature’s constant change or fashion fickleness, whatever must be said about a forest’s migration or life-stage indecision, whatever must be said about the idea of nature itself—say whatever must be said. I do not care in the least. It is solid enough. It is there enough. It is real enough. Nature has been my ballast.
Whatever happens in nations far away, in the city where I work—when I run the country roads, I see the trees, the migrating geese, the cows in their eternal, lovable stupidity. I see the green emerging like rebel forces crashing through last-year’s dying back. And there is something to depend on. Words drift away in the wind. Good soil eats whatever we fear. The sun rises on the evil and the good. The rain comes down on the just and the unjust. Nature can be our ballast.
Anthony Siegrist is a pastor and theologian who serves at Ottawa Mennonite Church in Ontario. He is currently studying environmental sustainability during a sabbatical. His column, North of the Border, features voices from Canada. Anthony’s most recent book, Speaking of God: An Essential Guide to Christian Thought, is available from Herald Press.
*William Cronon famously told us that even wilderness is a social construction. His perspective is nicely encapsulated in this NY Times article from 1995.