A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 19, 2015
Psalm 8 CEB; Reading from Aldo Leopold
As Americans we may grow up with the idea of “rugged individualism,” perhaps a holdover from our ancestors and frontier days when pioneers struggled to survive in the wilderness and against the elements. It is an idea that may cause us to view ourselves as separate individuals, responsible for our own survival, progress, and success. An idea that may cause one to pit self against the rest of the world. We may still see such an idea in the business world, for example, a cut-throat world where practically anything goes in order to succeed, get ahead, or climb the corporate ladder.
But this idea of rugged individualism also can affect one’s relationship with the natural world, a world that might be seen as being harsh, hostile, unfeeling, and uncaring. And so, one could possibly feel like it is me against Nature; an attitude leading, perhaps, to antagonism and maybe apathy in the way Nature is viewed and treated. But is there another, better way to relate to the natural world?
One of the early naturalists to write about the need to view Nature sympathetically and who stressed the interconnectedness of all creation was John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. One of Muir’s most poignant and most famous quotes is, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”1 Muir also wrote, “nothing in Nature stands alone.”2
Later conservationist Aldo Leopold would further develop the idea of the interconnectedness of everything on the earth. It has only been within the past year that I have discovered and grown to appreciate Aldo Leopold. Leopold was born in the state of Iowa in 1887, but later lived, worked and wrote in Wisconsin and the Southwest. He took a job with the U.S. Forest Service and spent his life working in wilderness management, ecology, and conservation. His classic work, A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, is looked upon as one of the foundational works in the environmental movement. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold would write, “We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.”3
In an essay titled “The Arboretum and the University,” Leopold wrote, “Ecology tells us that no animal—not even man—can be regarded as independent of his environment. Plants, animals, men, and soil are a community of interdependent parts, an organism.”4 Leopold wrote of how when you find disease or decline in one part of Nature, the cause may likely be in another part. Each part of Creation, and how it is used or misused, is connected to and affects other parts of Creation. We are not separate from the natural world, after all. But humans and every part of the natural world are bound up in a web of interconnectedness and mutuality.
I do not recall reading anything in Leopold’s writings about the Amazon Rain Forests, but such might serve as a good illustration of the principles he stood for and wrote about. As you may already know, the Amazon Rain Forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate. The exotic trees are being cut down for use as lumber, the land is being cleared for farmland and for the grazing of cattle, and so on. Now, one might first think that the loss of trees and other flora way down in South America would have little impact on our lives here in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
But the truth is, what happens in the Amazon Rain Forests happens to the whole world. One reason this is so is because a high percentage of medical drugs that we depend upon—including cancer drugs—are only found in the plants that grow in the Amazon Rain Forests. But another reason what happens in the Rain Forests is important to all of us is the Rain Forests are what are called “carbon sinks.” They soak up much of the carbon gases given off by the rest of the world, and then give off much of the oxygen that every living thing on earth needs to survive. When the Rain Forests are gone, the carbon sinks are gone, as well as the source of much of the world’s oxygen supply. To paraphrase John Muir’s observation, “When we try to pick out anything [in the Amazon Rain Forests] by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
This understanding of interconnectedness and mutuality is an understanding far advanced of what the biblical writers could have ever imagined. It is interesting, I think, that the psalmist on the one hand looks upon humans as being somewhat small and insignificant in the universal scheme of things when he asks, “what are human beings that you think about them; what are human beings that you pay attention to them?” (Psalm 8:4 CEB) But then he turns and pictures humans as being almost divine, crowned with “glory and grandeur [honor],” and given dominion over the rest of Creation. This last thought gave rise to the traditional biblical view that humans are at the top of the created order pyramid and were given a divine mandate to rule over the rest of Creation. But such a view can and has led to misuse and abuses of the rest of Creation, which has been looked upon as something to be taken from and used to man’s benefit and pleasure without much sense of responsibility or accountability.
And so, waters have been overused and polluted, many beyond human consumption and use. Some animals have been hunted and killed to extinction. Forested lands that are necessary to prevent erosion and to absorb carbon from the atmosphere have been and continue to be decimated. Some fish have been caught to extinction or the verge of extinction. And all of it was based on the attitude that humans are free to do with the natural world at will and for our own selfish interests. Not only have humans been arrogant and, can I say “sinful,” in our relations with the rest of Creation. But through misuse and abuse, we have “shot ourselves in the foot,” as the saying goes, in the process, to our own detriment.
In a few weeks, I will be taking my sixth class in the naturalist certification program at Tremont of the Smokies. The first class I took almost two years ago was “Reptiles and Amphibians of the Smokies.” But the interesting thing is even though we went to the mountains, woods, fields, and ponds in search of the reptiles and amphibians we were studying, we didn’t find a single live snake or turtle the entire time we were there, and only a half dozen or so frogs. I thought back to my childhood, when I could go to any farm pond around and see turtle after turtle floating on the surface, and frogs abundant lining the banks. One of the things I learned that week is in just a few short years, many of our reptiles and amphibians will be extinct. Scientists estimate that over 160 species of reptiles and amphibians have already become extinct over the past few decades. There are already about 40 percent less in some species than there were a few decades ago.
One of our instructors of that “Reptiles and Amphibians” course was Dr. John Maerz, Professor at the University of Georgia, who teaches one of the largest classes on reptiles and amphibians in the world. Dr. Maerz is known around the world as an activist for putting a stop to the decimation of turtles, and was largely responsible for the passage of a law to prohibit the wholesale selling and shipment of our southern turtles by the thousands to China. Since turtles tend to live long lives, the Chinese believe that eating turtles will increase human longevity as well. Our southern turtles were being collected and put live into wooden crates by the thousands, possibly tens of thousands, and shipped to China, where many of them died before they ever got there.
Now, turtles may not be high on our agenda or list of concerns. But that is just one example of how human insensitivity has affected our southern ecological balance. When one part of the ecological environment is severely damaged or driven to extinction, it affects all the other parts. We find it “hitched to everything else in the universe.”
And so, the one thought I wanted to convey on this Earth Day Sunday is that we are not separate individuals when it comes to our relationship with other parts of Creation. Any adverse action we do to any part of Creation likely has an impact on other parts, perhaps the whole.
Returning to the psalmist, “What is man? “What are human beings?” We are intricately interconnected, part and parcel with the whole of Creation. But because of our advanced development and ability to reason and plan and influence Creation more than any other creature upon the Earth, we have a holy mandate and the greater responsibility to deal with Creation with extreme care and the utmost of respect. Amen.
1John Muir, “First Summer in Sierra,” Muir. Library of America, 1997.
2John Muir, ”Proposed Yosemite National Park,” Muir. Library of America, 1997.
3Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings. Library of America, 2013.
4Aldo Leopold, “The Arboretum and the University,” A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings. Library of America, 2013.