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The God of Other Worlds

My children groan when I mention the documentary “Winged Migration,” which I’ve watched several times. Each time I see it, though, I’m reminded of a world that coexists with ours but is out of sight—often beyond our imagination. In this world high above myriad bird species fly thousands of miles from north to south and back, circling the globe, year after year. Like ephemeral beings, a few enter for a short while into our sight, then disappear. But the world they inhabit in this other sphere is as real as ours, filled with birthing, tending, gathering, singing, exerting, enduring, living, and dying.

sea CaptureAn air world. One of God’s other worlds, intersecting our own.

I discovered a similar world undersea, snorkeling in the warm waters off the Hawaiian Islands. Coral reefs drew sea species to feed. I was mesmerized by this world—where yellow sea snakes slithered; tang and butterfly fish glided by; green sea turtles emerged to investigate and descend again; and damselfish swarmed. I only fingered the fringe of this undersea world, a world of a million species, many yet unknown to human kind.

A great underwater world. One of God’s other worlds, intersecting our own.

Humans are big, and powerful, and violent. We destroy bird species for pleasure, like the passenger pigeon lost long ago. We pollute coral reefs, draw birds to destruction with our lights, chop down forest cover, and over fish the seas. Sometimes we do so unawares, forgetting how big we are. Sometimes we do so out of selfish ends.

The creatures in these worlds are mostly out of our sight. But we are everywhere in theirs. We drain their nesting grounds, dump our rubbish in their waters, and fish their kind to near extinction. They cannot comprehend what we are doing; they cannot stop us. They only know that it is harder to find a mate; their resting place is gone; their coral reef is dying.

Ian L. McHarg called humankind “A planetary disease … an epidemic, multiplying at a super-exponential rate, destroying the environment upon which he depends, and threatening his own extinction.” When we act like a disease, we imperil other worlds.

We imperil other worlds when we forget who we were meant to be. Like Tolkien’s Ents, we were meant as creation’s caretakers, not “takers” for our personal pleasure.

We imperil other worlds when we forget what the other creatures are. God is a God of other worlds. These worlds are His handiwork. They are His creation. They give Him pleasure.

We live on a beautiful planet, home to 7.6 billion humans. But it is also home to others—in the air, on the land, and in the sea—with billions of other species living lives of their own. We should ensure that these other worlds, ephemeral to us but vital, can continue.

We think we are the dominant species, but we are nothing without the other species with whom we share this planet. We live in a world of intersecting worlds. God’s worlds. Doom these other worlds, and we doom ourselves.

Cherish these other worlds, though, and joy upon joy! Now and then, we intermingle—ephemeral encounters with a world of winged migrations and swarming creatures of the sea.

 

A naive quest for a wooden treasure

Rough branches brushed our car. Birds cawed nearby. The jungle was impenetrable—we could see only a short distance in any direction. Had we been utterly naive? We were, after all, driving by ourselves deep into an unfamiliar jungle searching for a prison. Following the advice of locals, who had assured John and I that the prison was the only location on the big Island of Hawaii selling items carved of Kou wood, we had set off that morning, along a long road leading deep into the jungle.

Trees have inspired me all my life. As a small child, I found escape from family troubles in a simple, roofless tree house—a stumpy box, really–constructed by my father in the hefty fruitless mulberry canopying our back yard. Trees provide places for little girls to escape.

In cold climates, when tree leaves unfurl in spring, they transform our grey-brown world. In fall, when they reveal their true colors, they remind us of hidden truths unveiled.

Trees offer windbreaks, fruit, nesting sites, and covering for plants and animals. They give flat vistas verticality, produce oxygen, and even clean the soil. And inside their protective coverings, their rings and burls affirm the remarkable beauty hidden throughout creation.

“Just follow the road inland,” the locals had said. “Keep driving. It’s a ways, but if you keep going, you’ll get there.” So they’d said.

We had been “going” for nearly two hours, and it looked like we were getting nowhere. Edgy, we considered turning back. And then, we saw it–a high, cut-edge barbed wire fence came into view where the jungle parted. Now we just had to climb out of the safety of our car, call someone on the phone attached to the prison gate, and ask to be let in.

Before long, we found ourselves inside the prison in a room displaying an array of products carved by inmates out of native woods. We bought a Kou fish tray as a gift for my mother (which I have today), and then drove two hours back the way we came.

John and my appreciation of native Hawaiian woods began when we first traveled to Kauai on our honeymoon. For Californians, the islands were a common destination. Of course, like other visitors, we loved everything—snorkeling, sunsets, grilled ahi from our favorite restaurant, the Dolphin. Greenery. Green valleys, green trees, green jungle vegetation. And products local artisans made from native Hawaiian trees.

On our first trip, we stopped at a small woodworking shop and were greeted by a graying woodcarver of Hawaiian ancestry who showed us a few unfinished vases from a Kou tree. The old woodcarver told us the Kou was going extinct; the carvings were from one found downed naturally. And so we bought a vase.

It was years later that we set out on our quest to find this second Kou product in the jungle at the big island’s prison.

In those years, we did not understand the impact humans were having on native trees in Hawaii and elsewhere. We did see the beauty hidden in the trees’ bowels.

Fortunately, the Kou is still living in parts of the Islands. But other trees in our world are disappearing. According to a 2017 Newsweek article, “9,600 types of trees” across the planet are “threatened by extinction.” Such extinctions are particularly devastating in rich and fragile natural environments, like Hawaii.

Home to over 10,000 endemic species (native species, found nowhere else on earth), Hawaii’s forests helped conserve water, allowing this stunning assemblage to thrive. These forests are now among the world’s most endangered, though, due largely to the invasion of humans, pigs, cows, goats, rats, insects, and non-native plants introduced in the past few centuries.

Over the years I’ve learned to ask questions about the wood products I purchase, to ensure that I am not purchasing products from endangered species.

My environmental awareness is under development, and I trust I am growing wiser with the years.

Trees like the Kou and others native to Hawaii are worth all of our endeavors to save them. For the trees themselves; for our interconnected ecosystem; for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children not yet born—working to save whole forests and individual tree species from extinction is imperative. Trees—appreciating and saving them–are part of the reason I began this blog. And they are a reason I’ll keep trying to find my way to make a difference.