Trees, the largest specimens of life on land were practically nonexistent where I grew up in West Texas. The native mesquite is barely a shrub by any other standard and the elm trees planted by early settlers stood few and far between as my grandmother would say. They were bent a bit to the north by the prevailing summer winds from the south. The lack of trees where we lived prompted a question from my brother when we drove to central Texas to see my dad’s family. It became one of those legendary family stories that’s told again and again. Motivated by his understanding of God and creation, my brother asked, “Mommy, why did God plant trees here?” In reality, there were lots of trees by comparison to West Texas, but the scattered live oaks and 8 – 10-foot cedars were nothing like the forests of the northeast.
In third grade I began to study geography. Some of what I had heard in stories began to come to life. Pictures of Vermont seemed impossibly beautiful and the text described the family fun of leaf raking in the fall. About that same time Uncle Henry came to visit. My granddad’s brother, Uncle Henry was a teacher in a parochial school. He and I shared a love of music and on this particular visit he taught me a couple new hymns, one of them was How Great Thou Art.
I was overcome by an appreciation for creation, parts I had yet to witness; the hushed stillness of woodlands interrupted by babbling brooks and birdsong. I began to imagine possibilities of landscapes very different from the semi-arid desert landscape with which I was familiar. Now I must admit that my imagination was helped along by the 6-8” pinecones Uncle Henry brought with him from California.
New Hampshire was a different experience altogether. Forests there make up well over 80% of the land area. The images of the hymn came to life as I wandered the tree covered hills and northern reaches of the Applachian mountains. Roadways where canopies of maples and oaks extended across their width made for picture perfect images of autumn splendor. But in NH that old saying “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” was reversed “You can’t see the trees for the forest.” Still, it was and is a thing of beauty—a place for celebrating, in reverence and awe, the wonders of creation.
Then came Iowa and now Pennsylvania. What I have loved in these last two places I’ve called home is witnessing the beauty and history of individual specimens. I wait each year for the first yellow green leaves of the trees in spring and for the freshening of the world with their flowering. Later I am filled with wonder at their architecture visible in the stark outline of the leafless trees in winter. When I see those branches against the sky, I experience a sense of timelessness. I wonder about people through the years who have witnessed the tree’s growth from a tiny sapling and how many have found shade from the summer heat or eaten the fruits of autumn from its branches.
This is how the writers whose account is found in the second chapter of Genesis describe the forests: Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food……[i]
Genesis 2 is different from the first account of creation which is more formal, structured, and poetic recounting a planned and systematic course of days. The second creation story is just that, a story recounted through the generations by storytellers until it was combined with the work of priests account from the previous chapter and the rest of the Torah probably about the time of the Babylonian captivity about 600 years BCE.
In these days, millennia later, we do not imagine there is one right way of speaking about the divine. We know of cultures that existed long before our forebears and even the writers of our sacred texts and ancestors in faith came on the scene. We know other civilizations in other lands had their own ways of speaking of how they experienced the divine. Many of those traditions endure even today and we have come to respect their wisdom. Yet, gathered as followers of Christ we remember and value our own stories and traditions.
We hear Paul, the prominent apostle of early Christianity, as he spoke to the crowds in Athens:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. [ii]
In his words there is reverence for the stories of the Genesis and an appeal to the points of connection with the stories of another culture
Our centering words today by Enos A. Mills also speak of creation. Mills was a naturalist and conservationist of the early 20th century. He was an important advocate for preservation and creation of parks, and especially the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
The forests are the flags of Nature. They appeal to all and awaken inspiring universal feelings. Enter the forest and the boundaries of nations are forgotten. It may be that some time an immortal pine will be the flag of a united and peaceful world.[iii]
If the forests are the flags of nature we need to be attending to the ones that are at half mast, in danger. Western forests in the US are threatened by fires that are leading experts to rethink their ways of managing the forests. Foresters have begun asking the indigenous people of this country to teach the ways they, the Native Americans, managed the land for centuries before the coming of the white Europeans.
In another part of the world another flag is flying at half mast. The greatest source of oxygen for the planet, the rain forests are in danger. They are being sold and cut down to make way for grazing land for cattle and plantations for growing palm for oil, sugar cane, bananas, tea and coffee. But the land is often soon depleted, and more forests are cut down.
We need to plan for the future, recognizing the interconnectedness and interdependence of all species of living things. Like everything it starts locally. As we consider finding places for housing, infrastructure, and employment for the people, we need also to remember other species and their important role in ecosystems and the environment on a larger scale.
Genesis tells us: The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.[iv] Let us take that call to care seriously. Let’s follow the example of the many youth who are concerned about the viability of life on the planet in decades in the not too distant future. Every decision to build another development or road or parking lot should also consider preservation of forests and habitat for wildlife. It should take into account the integrity of farmland and waterways because the future depends on us fulfilling our call to care.
[i] Genesis 2:8-9a NIV
[ii] Acts 17:24-27 NIV
[iv] Genesis 2:15 NIV