The contemporary mystic Andrew Harvey once wrote that ‘the things that ignore us save us in the end. Their presence awakens silence in us.’ I have been pondering this week whether this is what all wild places have in common, whether they be the Australian outback, other deserts, mountain places or wilderness forest. Regardless of the particularity of their wildness, wild places ignore us – in a healthy and health-giving way. In a wild place we cease, as human creations, to be at the centre of our own worldview and become aware of all that is beyond us. As the American Presbyterian theologian Belden C. Lane expresses it in his great work “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: exploring desert and mountain spirituality”: 'There is an unaccountable solace that fierce landscapes offer to the soul. They heal, as well as mirror, the brokenness we find within.' When we find ourselves bereft of human company and resources, then we find ourselves in a place to let go of the demands of ego, the trivialities of our everyday lives, and to receive something of the incalculable and transforming presence of God...
When I was young, parts of the country in which I grew up literally blew away. Living in Lincolnshire, one of England’s greatest agricultural counties, I could see this whenever I traveled. For I grew up as a child at the time of the greatest destruction of England’s hedgerows, many of them very ancient. Indeed, hedgerows are, as the Campaign to Protect Rural England has put it, ‘the most widespread semi-natural habitat in England’, and, more poetically, ‘the vital stitching point in the patchwork quilt of the English countryside’.1 They not only provide character, but essential life to all kinds of creatures, and help protect the soil itself without which there can be no sustainable farming yields. As a child however, I would see such features regularly ripped away, and a vast desert of landscape created, with vital topsoil whirling up in dust storms and carried away. Such soil frequently blinded us, reflecting the blinkered industrialised agricultural thinking which had produced it. It was an early lesson to me of how if we mistreat the land out of which we come and are fed, we also destroy ourselves. How then are we to live, without seeking the forgiveness of the land itself, and renewing creation together?...
Hearing this Sunday's Gospel reading of the parable of the unforgiving slave, and thinking today about land on this Land Sunday, the phrase that springs up for me is that of ‘an unforgiving landscape’. I wonder what those words conjure for you? What kinds of landscapes have you found to be unforgiving? A quick Google search yields pictures of high mountainous regions where little grows and it is hard to find footing as a human, and of deserts, with pictures of bleached bones, where cattle have been unable to find fodder. Hard, rocky ground and unrelenting sand seem to be our mental pictures. These are lands that do not yield to human need.
Yet I wonder if the wider problem is that, as modern humans, we ask too much of the land, and do not live with it, and learn from it, as our forbears did so much better. Modern farming methods leave little opportunity for the land to regenerate. We expect higher and higher yields, while giving back too little. At the same time. we have become increasingly detached from the land and lack a sound appreciation of all that it constantly gives to us. The writer Annie Dillard, for example, tells us that “In the top inch of forest soil, biologists found an average of 1,356 living creatures . . . including 865 mites, 265 springtails, 22 millipedes, 29 adult beetles and various numbers of 12 other forms . . . . Had an estimate also been made of the microscopic population, it might have ranged up to two billion bacteria and many millions of fungi, protozoa, and algae—in a mere teaspoonful of soil.” Isn’t that amazing? How would it be if we, seriously, stopped for a moment, to consider such things? What difference would it make? Could we find forgiveness with the land, and stop being unforgiving servants?
During the major Covid-19 lockdowns earlier this year, there was a real sense that the lands of the Earth, on which we all depend, were able to breathe more freely. Anecdotally, many of us shared in this as we saw aspects of wider nature return: more butterflies flying in our gardens for example, fuller and brighter birdsong. Yet recent reports suggest this was indeed but a breather, a brief moment of release for our wider Creation. Current calculations show, for instance, that the rate of human induced climate change will not slow in this otherwise extraordinary virus impacted year. The Covid-19 virus itself cannot bring a fresh direction – that is repentance – from humanity. All it can do is to challenge us to face up to realities, and, as with the short breather for our planet earlier this year, show us what the fruits might be for another way forward.
Speaking fruitfully, one of the most wonderful jobs I’ve ever had was that of Rural and Environment Adviser for the Diocese of Durham, part of a then network of church rural officers across England. It was a great joy, as it involved me traveling across the rugged yet beautiful lands of my birth, working with extraordinary farmers, conservationists, and people of faith, who truly connected with the ground which gave us life. We worked together for a better land, in an area exploited for many generations, not least through unjust mining developments. In that task, I and others were drawn back to core biblical understandings of the land, which are inextricably bound up together in relationship with God and God’s people. For, in the Hebrew scriptures especially, it makes no sense to speak of loving human relationship to God without loving relationship to land. God-people-land form one covenant, in which each part is crucial. As the book of Deuteronomy above all attests, if we betray any one element – whether God, other human beings, or the land itself – we betray the other elements too. We are then called to seeking forgiveness so that renewed healing with justice – biblical shalom – may ensue.
How do we nurture forgiveness from the land in this land? Surely this can only result from listening afresh to the land itself and to those closest to it: to the best of our environmental scientists and farming community, and, above all, to the First Nations peoples of Australia. For there is a radical difference, isn’t there, between being in true, deep, covenantal relationship with the land, and simply living on or with it. White western people typically view land as something which belongs to them/us. Indigenous peoples across the world affirm, like biblical wisdom, that is the other way around. We belong to the land, for, at best it is only loaned to us by God, the Spirit of all Creation. Only when we start understanding that fully, and act upon it, will we be on the right track. For forgiveness, and fresh possibilities of new life, always involve repentance, changing our orientation. This applies just as much in ecological issues, as it does to community, or personal life.
In my country of birth, there has been some progress in ecological repentance in restoring the land. The Hedgerows Regulations passed in 1997, for example, give greater protection to the soil, and those who depend upon it. Yet such achievements are limited and fragile. We need to go deeper. To truly repent and become faithful stewards of the land, we need a profounder sense of our intimate relationship to the land. To receive the forgiveness of the land and of God, we need to know ourselves as bound together in a covenant of loving creation. For this reason, Indigenous people typically call the land our Mother. In recent times, Christian theologians have also explored how we might understand our planet Earth itself as the Body of God. When we see our land that way, we begin to understand more fully the truths attributed to Chief Seattle, that ‘what we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves.’2
In the name of Jesus, who lived humbly on the Earth and taught us to love its life and beauty from which we are born. Amen.
by Josephine Inkpin, for Land Sunday in the Season of Creation, @MiltonAnglicans, Sunday 13 September 2020
1 in English hedgerows – don’t cut them out!, CPRE report 2010
2. full speech here
by Jon Inkpin, for Land Sunday, 14 September 2014
I wonder if you know Peter Sartsedt’s song ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely?’ Written and released in 1969, it is about a fictional girl called Marie-Claire who becomes a member of the ‘jet set’, the fashionable celebrities of the late 1960s. Her life is full of show and excitement. Underneath however there is another reality. For her story is told from the point of view of a childhood friend who, after recounting all the amazing places Marie-Claire goes to, asks: ‘but where do you go to my lovely, when you’re asleep in your bed? Tell me the thoughts that surround you.’ Then, in the last verse of the song, the secret is revealed. Marie-Claire comes from poverty, ‘from the backstreets of Naples’ and her current life is both a welcome release and a desperate escape from that reality, full of continued scars and regret. For what we are, as people, is shaped by the realities of the places in which we are formed and raised. Only when we come to terms with those realities, their promise and their pain, are we truly set free. This is at the heart of today’s readings as we reflect upon God in the Land. For where do you go to, where do I go to, where do we go to, when we are asleep in our beds? What has our experience of land, of particular places, done for, and to, us? How does land and place shape our lives today?...