Gratitude Practices

I often begin my morning listing five things for which I’m grateful. Often they are small things—a cardinal outside the window, a call from a friend. I have much to be thankful for, and I make this practice part of my devotions. I think I’m going to start a thankfulness list, though, for the foods I am privileged to eat today, for many foods are treasures that are here today, but may be gone tomorrow.

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Orange Grove in the Inland Empire. Credit below.

My home in the Inland Empire sat 30 to 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Our street, like many in the burgeoning towns that eat into the California desert today, was commandeered from the lemon and orange orchards that once were ubiquitous in this part of California, and our developments were sculpted from them.

 

Rich earth had fed those trees, and we, the residents of the developments that caused their demise, inherited what remained of that good earth.

The oranges came to California in the early 1800s with the mission padres, who carried individual trees north from Baja into Upper California. The first sweet orange grove “was planted in the garden of the San Gabriel Mission by Father Francisco Miguel Sanchez in 1803,” according to a history compiled by the Inland Orange Conservancy, a non-profit group dedicated to protecting the few remaining groves in Southern California. They were largely confined to mission compounds until the 1850s—the time of the California gold rush. (For those interested, here’s the link to the Inland Orange Conservancy – Home | Facebook page.)

In the 1880s Eliza Tibbit, a famous horticulturist, agronomist, abolitionist (and more) used her connections to obtain a new seedless orange, which originated in Brazil. Her trees flourished and laid much of the foundation for the orange industry in California; by the 1940s, an impressive 75 million cases of navel oranges were being shipped from southern California orange groves throughout the United States, Europe, and the world!

These orange trees were later confiscated by developments like the one where I grew up, developments that were built to house half a million or so of the 16 million soldiers who, like my dad, my uncle Roy, and countless others, returned en masse from World War II.

My development had been surrounded by block-long groves to the west of my house, and more, further to the north and east. But I watched these groves progressively disappear throughout the march of my childhood.

The groves were doomed, cornered like stray orange pieces sewn here and there in a cement-colored quilt of growing feeder streets and suburban developments. As the groves disappeared, the rich earth they fed on went too, covered by stucco structures and asphalt pavement.

Most of the groves of my childhood experienced a demise. Today, though, whole foods that we depend upon are at risk of disappearing.

orange tree16142454_10208240366751717_4284977956070090556_nOranges and lemons, from California, to Texas, to Florida, to the U.S. Virgin Islands, are at risk today from a plant disease known commonly as Citrus Greening (short for Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus—a name I’ll never remember). Apparently it is one of the most serious plant diseases in the world. The United States Department of Agriculture offers a list of things people can do to help avoid spreading the disease.

Coffee and bananas are both in trouble. Forbes just published a story on a report that “60% of wild coffee species are under threat of extinction. This includes the wild species of Arabica, the most popular cultivated coffee species accounting for 60% of global production.” Coffee’s potential demise is directly attributed to the changing climate in coffee growing regions.

Bananas have been at risk for decades. In Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, Dan Koeppel reminded me that the bananas I ate as a child tasted better than the ones I find in my grocery store today (which may be why I loved them then but don’t like them now).

We grew up with a banana called the Gros Michel, which tragically became commercially extinct in the mid-1960s from Panama disease. Banana growers were forced to switch to the less tasty Cavendish, which stores sell now. But the Cavendish and many lesser known banana varieties are under threat by a new form of Panama disease that has traveled from Southeast Asia and is now ravishing Africa. Scientists are working overtime to find solutions to this new threat.

Our memories are short. But once a grove or species is lost, it is hard or impossible to replace it.

  • Recognizing that we were granted stewardship of this planet by God to protect it, and not to use it for selfish ends,
  • acknowledging the reality of climate change and getting on board with efforts to address it, and
  • beginning gratitude practices for the good fruits of the earth

may help us start to appreciate these treasures and stop taking the harvests of this amazing but fragile good earth for granted.

 

Orange grove photo credit: By Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14784771735/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/armstrongnurseri1909arms/armstrongnurseri1909arms#page/n8/mode/1up, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42134261

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God’s Immanence in a Rose: Reflections from New Year’s Day

Scotland 12 37217421_10212201409055299_7486753352756232192_nAt the Rose Parade, flowers reign. For those unversed in parade rules–every surface inch on every float—from huge twirling elephants to the image on the elephant’s IPad—must be covered in natural materials–dried stretched seaweeds, tea leaves, cranberry seeds, corn, beans, or rice. Herbs like cumin and cloves. Carnations, mums, daisies, orchids, bird of paradise flowers, and half a million or more roses. No artificial plant materials or coloring are allowed—nature’s colors are dramatic enough.

New Year’s Day, to me, always means the Rose Parade. Watching in 2019, its 130th anniversary, the parade of floats evoke the sublime!

I lived in Pasadena, the Parade’s home, for six crucial years of my life. I attended Pasadena City College for one year (before transferring to Occidental College nearby), worshipped at a Pasadena church, met and married my husband in Pasadena, graduated from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, and stood on Colorado Boulevard watching the Rose Parade as often as I could.

One year when I was a child, my dad packed my sister and I into our VW bus, drove to Pasadena, parked near the parade route, and staked out a viewing place while my sister and I struggled to sleep in the van. The overnight celebrations on the parade route are lively. We didn’t sleep much. By the time we found our spot and the parade began, I could barely keep my eyes open.

I’ve camped in the van, slept on the sidewalk to get a seat at the curb, stood behind deep rows of crowds to catch parade glimpses, and sat in the bleachers (once).

Many of my pivotal life memories occurred in this city that dedicates its parade to roses—a parade that reminds me how much poorer the world would be without flowers.

To me, God shows up in flowers.

God as transcendent, who exists above Creation, and God as immanent, who can be met through Creation, join harmoniously in the theology that guides my life. As St. Patrick put it:

I arise today, through God’s strength to pilot me,

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me….

I arise today, through the strength of heaven,

The light of the sun,

The radiance of the moon….

To the Christian academic and writer C. S. Lewis, beauty—like music or the scent of a rose—serve as a metaphor of our longing for Heaven. In his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis wrote:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing…. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

God present in the world He has made. Through it, God hinting at a world we have not yet seen. God present in roses—even at the Tournament of Roses.

One more reason to protect the flora and fauna of this world.

Even Giants Risk Extinction

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s Ents battled ferociously when Saruman and his orcs, acting like a vicious “planetary disease” sought to uproot and chop the ancient Fangorn Forest to extinction. Ripping free from their stupor the Ents fought heroically, heaving rocks and loosing floods, until they ended the destruction.

Ent giants, Middle Earth’s trees unchained. In Tolkein’s story, the Ents were the trees’ shepherds; they would fight deforestation to the end. 

Our earth’s trees are sessile, tethered by roots. In our world, if trees are to have shepherds to fight their destruction, those shepherds will have to be us.

A few years ago, the giants in Indiana were heavily breeding. Our silver maple let loose thousands of spinning seedlings, and I regretfully became the tree’s adversary as I plucked hundreds of new born maples from their successful implantations in my lawn. Ash trees lining our street were dense with seeds clusters. Sycamores in the woods bulged with pods.

I asked a tree expert, a state employee whose job involved growing trees used to repopulate forests deforested by industry, if something was up.






By USFWSmidwest https://www.flickr.com/
photos/49208525@N08/13985429209/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/
w/index.php?curid=61073572

He explained: Silver maples were seeding madly statewide. To protect their kind, when trees sense danger, some varieties bear offspring in far greater quantities than usual. That year, they were doing this throughout Indiana. They knew something. Two past summers, hot with drought, had killed trees throughout the state. A long cold winter gave warning.

Giants communicating with giants in voices unheard. Instinct urging. The trees listened, acted, wise with the centuries’ accumulated wisdom. Better go all out this year, they whispered. The future is precarious. They understood: even giants risk extinction.

The most majestic tree giants that I have seen are the huge redwoods of my native California. We visited them as a family when my sister and I were children, and I felt the awe such trees inspire. The California coast hosts the largest remaining virgin redwood forest in the world, with 2,500 year old trees. They are the tallest trees on earth. Massive at their base, redwoods are planted firmly on wide set legs, sufficient to hold each tree’s towering form.

We build buildings that emulate the shape of those tree trunks.

But even giant redwoods are disappearing. According to the 2018 State of the Redwoods Conservation Report, this region along the California coast once boasted 2.2 million acres of tall, old growth redwoods, a forest in existence since the age of the dinosaurs. Now, due to factors such as rapid logging since California’s gold rush in the 1840s, the old growth forest has shrunk to a meagre 113,000 acres.  

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=621584

Tragically, these “arboreal giants” are also being attacked by poachers. Much like the big animals of Africa—the elephant and rhinoceros—giant redwoods have been murdered for economic gain. Poachers with chain saws extract redwood burls—some nobs, burls with beautiful, swirling patterns—weigh hundreds of pounds. Even when the tree survives, the New York Times reports that “removing a burl cuts into a tree’s living cambium layer, which can weaken it and make it vulnerable to insects and disease.” [Follow this link to a storyboard showing the destruction.]

Tethered, the redwoods have no recourse but to stand proud and endure when they are attacked—no running for them. Brave and determined forest rangers (tree shepherds!) are closing roads and trying to stop the poachers—but too frequently, more trees are defaced. 

California’s recent fires have also put redwoods at risk, fires made more likely by human-induced climate change. California’s redwood forest has been designated a world heritage site. But like sites situated in war zones or stressed by uncontrolled human encroachment, even these giants risk extinction.

Across the globe trade wars, which can lead big consumers to burn more woodlands to cultivate additional crops, further imperil the Fangorn forests of this world.

Nature has a well-honed instinct for survival. I’ve seen trees at the brink of a riverside cliff, clinging by root threads to rocks and sand, living, growing, persistent. I’ve seen ancient trees like the ponderosa pine, because of its relative inaccessibility and, of improbable benefit, unattractiveness, doggedly surviving.

Living creatures are tenacious. Seeds proliferate, survive, and sprout. Trees hold on, gripping, digging their roots deeper, wider. Life clings, hopes.

But nature is vulnerable, as well. Fragile.

In our world, where humankind has so often imitated Saruman and his orcs, acting like “planetary diseases,” our ancient forests are under attack.

We cannot count on trees unchained. We are the trees’ shepherds.

It is up to us to fight for the survival of the giants of this world. We must rise from our own stupor and do battle, for even giants risk extinction.

[Part two: “How to Battle Like the Ents” will be published soon. For more on Man: A Planetary Disease, go the Ian L. McHarg’s 1971 B. Y. Morrison Memorial Lecture.]

Why Dad? From High in Our Mulberry Tree

When I was just big enough to climb trees, my dad built my sister and me a tree house: flat-bottomed, 4’/4’ square, with 1’ high sides. He built it in our sturdy fruitless mulberry tree, where the bark was rough, the leaves ample, and the environment suitable for a small girl who needed to escape her house, with its many tensions, and who would always need to explore the outside world.

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The fruitless mulberry. Wikimedia.

The tree house had a rope attached with a bucket, where my mom could place sandwiches and supplies. This made it perfect.

I often ventured into the upper regions, stepping near the trunk where the branches were strong. From my perch high in the mulberry, I had my first glimpses of a wider world.

Of course, I’d traveled in every direction I could see—from the Alpha Beta grocery store in the Northwest, to my elementary school in the Northeast; from Stater Brothers in the Southeast, past track homes like my own in the Southwest. But from high in the tree my mind wandered, and I wondered what lay further, what was beyond all that I could see.

From this tree I could stretch my eyes—I had a need to see distant places.

We humans need to stretch our eyes and see beyond our tiny worlds—physically and psychologically. We imagine something more, and we pursue it. We see an unknown object, and we examine it. We wonder how something works, and we attempt to repeat it. We see another way of doing something, and we consider its value for ourselves. We meet an unanswered question, and we ask “how?” and “why?”

This is the way we discover new views, ideas, perspectives, understanding, or facts.

I tell my first-year college students that one difference between high school and college is that in high school, you were frequently told who, what, when, and where, and the answers seemed settled. In college, you are expected to ask how and why, and to examine both the process and the results.

With a father like mine, asking how and why was inbred. Sometimes, such a querying spirit has felt troublesome (or it has appeared troubling to others). To me, being curious about the how and why has sent me on a path of never-ending exploration and growth.

When I was very young, my dad and I built a go cart together. I remember hammering and painting it, and I recall practicing with it on the pavement, but I do not remember ever using it in a go cart race—although that was our voiced intention.

“What makes it go, Dad? How will it stop?”

“You’ll make it go. You have to kick!” he explained. “We’ll put a brake on. I’m not going to let you race down the street without a damn way to stop.”

Or our homemade rock grinder. My dad built it from scratch—it looked like a cylindrical washing machine tube extracted from the machine, on legs.

“What is it dad; how does it work?” I asked, walking around it on all sides, my stumpy pigtails swinging.

“It’s a rock polisher! It spins, and uses rocks and sand to rub the rough edges off stones, like beach waves use sand to polish beach pebbles. I’m polishing obsidian nodules.” I looked at the machine dubiously. It spun slowly, rocks clanging, clunking.

How long will it take?” I queried.

“Days. You can’t be impatient.”

Why did you make a rock polisher dad? What are you going to do with the rocks?”

CO OBS Stone 3“I’m conducting tests. I want to know how long it takes to polish these raw stones.”

My dad kept records of his experiments. Periodically, he would remove a partially polished obsidian nodule, record the hours it had been in the polisher, and label it with tape. Today, I have some of these nodules, still marked. The longest recorded time says “72 hours.”

I learned to ask how and why because my dad was insatiably curious and interested in testing known and unknown processes for himself—and of course, I wanted to know what he was doing, how, and why.

When my dad learned that the soil in the Inland Empire was too cool to hatch tortoise eggs, he tried alternatives.

Why are you digging up the tortoise eggs, dad?!” I queried.

“They won’t hatch. We’re too far from the desert—it’s too cold here,” he explained. “So I’m putting them someplace warmer.”

He began by putting them in a box, covered by cloths, beneath the water heater. Later, he moved them to a home-made incubator with a temperature controlled light. His experiments worked—we hatched dozens of tortoises using these methods.

When some didn’t hatch, despite his efforts, he wanted to examine them. He placed unhatched eggs in a box and stored them—where else—in our refrigerator, for later study.

Give my mom credit for patience.

We all need to learn to go beyond what we already know or believe; to discover what we do not yet understand; to learn from God, nature, and others—those like ourselves and those quite different—to grow into truly empathetic human beings.

It takes humility to do that. Self-awareness, without pride. The space to stretch our eyes to new horizons and different ideas.

We may all want to begin by spending some time in a good tall tree.

It’s a brutal world. We don’t have to add to its brutality.

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When I was seven or eight I raised white rats. They often crawled under my shirt; I loved feeling their tickling toes as they scuttled across my shoulders, along the nape of my neck, and onto my head. They weren’t rats to me. They were like downy pet mice, overgrown.

 

Then one terrible night a mother in my white rat family went insane and killed all the babies. It was my fault, although it had been an accident. My two mother rats gave birth almost simultaneously to 13 offspring. One day, closing the cage door too quickly, I caught the neck of one mother in the door and she died. I felt terrible, for my pet’s death and for my culpability.

The next morning I hurried down the cement steps to our back patio, where the rat cage sat under the living room window, to check on my pets. What I saw has never left me. Half eaten baby rat bodies bloodied the cage floor, some sawn in two like gruesome casualties of a plane crash, chewed bits dangling from tiny body parts. Other babies, their noses protruding, shrunken but elongated from near suffocation, staggered hideously around the cage.

The surviving mother, driven mad, was running from side to side. Unable to cope alone, she was killing the brood. Did I scream? I don’t remember. I cried.

This was my first encounter with the horror that is part of nature, and with the knowledge that even animals can feel overwhelmed to the point of despair and insanity.

Nature is frequently brutal. At my home in Indiana I planted crocus to brighten early spring. Rabbits, ever prolific, gnawed my crocus to stubs before they ever bloomed. Then, a large hawk descended on the neighborhood and two mother foxes dug dark holes in a gulch behind our house, made burrows, and bore kits. Within a year, they killed every rabbit. That spring, my crocus survived. Bunnies are resilient, though. When the hawk and foxes went elsewhere looking for new food sources, the rabbits returned. Soon enough, so did the hawks.

Predators come, take, and leave when the takings are diminished. Like bunnies, the resilient may bounce back. It is a hard world though, and we sometimes wonder if we are among the resilient.

The younger of two sisters, I remember my anxiety as a child at the dinner table. When would I get my share? Would there be enough? Seeking my share first; seeking the bigger share. Anxiety driven dinner manners. The fear that we won’t get “enough” infects us all.

We learn to manipulate to get more. We rape the earth, despite its consequences. We become the predators.

Reinhold Niebuhr, a philosopher, theologian, and social activist who wrote from the 1930s-1960s, shed light on our capacity to be predators. A liberal who wanted to see greater justice in society, he also challenged the overly optimistic views of other liberals who argued that society was getting so much better it could be perfected.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr says that we oppress others most egregiously when we congregate, in our family, tribe, religion, nation, gender, society, profession, or international entity. “Serious sins are mostly communal sins,” he says, adding, “As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic, and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.”

The group becomes both rationale and means—locus of power—to ensure that we, at least, and those in our group, have enough, even if others have very little or unquestionably not enough, a “not enough” often caused because someone has taken more than they truly need.

This planet has horror enough without our contribution. It can be pitiless, independent of our actions. But tragically people, exploiting the world, are among its most ruthless occupants. Humankind, the great predators. We “plunder, rape, poison, and kill this living system,” as Ian L. McHarg argues in “Man, A Planetary Disease,” “threatening our own extinction.”

We have added immeasurably to the pain, suffering, and despair of the creatures with whom we share this world. We have decimated nesting places, put barriers across migration paths, drawn birds to their death with our indiscriminate use of urban lights, poisoned and polluted their dwelling places, and contributed to the extinction of countless species.

By removing environmental regulations that protect arctic waters, national parks, coastal lands, and air and water sources, we endanger our children’s world.my beacg16298579_10208367341446005_6683342185421786910_n We have done great harm, but we can reverse our course. We do not need to add more to the suffering of the world.

Life abounds with sorrow, but it also swells with goodness and beauty.

It is a broken, damaged world, yet the glory of God still glows within. We can chose whether we add to the brutality of the world or not.

We are not insane. Not yet.