Dreams of a Community Garden

Garden photos 001

In the middle of winter, when the cold creeps in everywhere and the snow whips outside my window, I begin dreaming about my next garden. This year I enrolled in a Master Gardner’s course and a recent class was devoted to the study of bugs. There’s a whole world underneath our feet that most of us know practically nothing about. Insects have inhabited our earth much longer than we have. There are also many more of them than of us.

Don’t dis bugs! We’re more closely related than we imagine. We share about 80% of our human genome with insects. Furthermore, life as we know it wouldn’t be possible without them. They pollinate the food we eat, attack other insects like aphids that destroy our gardens, and are a vital link in our food chain.

With that in mind, I find myself meditating on the prophet Isaiah’s image of God “who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers” (Isaiah 40:22). The juxtaposition of the heavens and insects feels disorienting. A vantage point from above the circle of the earth seems unattached from life as we know it.

Yet, the space program and those photos of earth from outer space forever changed our perception of our planet and our place on it. They have shaped the ecological movement because they help us understand how marvelous, yet fragile and self-contained the earth is. There’s no other place to go if we humans make it uninhabitable through a nuclear war or global warming.

Isaiah’s primary concern is human relations but we could extrapolate from that to include our relationships with bugs and all God’s creation. Isaiah was writing to a people whose land and cities had been devastated by war and who now lived as captives in a foreign land. Such devastation is aptly described in the words of William Butler Yeats, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Isaiah cuts such seemingly invincible forces of destruction down to size. Like grasshoppers, or the grass in the field, they’re here today and gone tomorrow. He reopens our minds and hearts to the incomparable majesty of God and restores our sense of location in a vast universe. I find that gardening helps me do that by connecting me with the web of life.

On the grand scheme of things, a community garden may not seem significant. However, from the perspective of supporting life on our planet, the generals and politicians in our world don’t count for much. They tend to create more harm than good. But the things the plants and insects do in our forests, fields, and gardens are a vital link in the whole web of life.

Talk to me if you want to help with our community garden. It could get interesting!

Watershed Stewardship

I recently wrote about our dreams of creating a nature interpretation trail in our two-acre woods by Daniels Run, a small stream that flows through our church property. Last week the chair of or church council and I met with two people from the City of Fairfax government and their Parks and Recreation Department. We walked through our woods to show them what we’re planning. Thy were enthusiastic and had helpful suggestions, including where to get free woodchips for the trail and contact information for a Boy Scout troop that might be interested in helping us.

I love this public-private collaboration in caring for our small part of the ecosystem in a major metropolitan area. Daniels Run is a lazy little stream that eventually finds its way into the Potomac River, a major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. The combined health of little streams like Daniels Run affects the health of our whole watershed. This in turn affects efforts to restore the ecologically threatened Chesapeake Bay. Helping restore Daniels Run into a happy little stream is one small part of that larger project.

I reflect on Ched Myers’s presentation, From “Creation Care” to “Watershed Discipleship”: An Anabaptist Approach to Ecological Theology and Practice, at the recent American Academy of Religion meeting in Baltimore. Ched told us that working collaboratively to restore and protect the ecology of the watershed in which we live is an important dimension of discipleship. Such ecological stewardship is multifaceted, including ecological, social, and spiritual dimensions?

We tend to be ignorant of our natural world. The nature trail through our woods can be a way for us and our neighbors to recognize and be mindful of the natural processes related to the trees, vegetation, insects, and animals that live in our woods. We humans are part of that web of life.

Environmentalist John Wennersten, in his provocative book Anacostia: The Death and Life of an American River, has given us a rare insight into the interplay between the ecological, social, and spiritual dimensions of the life of a river. Much of his book is about the Anacostia River watershed in the Washington DC area but it also fits the Potomac River watershed.

Wennersten writes, “This is a river story of colonial and federal power that involves a people still waiting on political and environmental redemption. . . Rivers provide a sense of place that shapes a city’s social and economic life” (xi). Part of our redemption necessarily includes getting in touch with the story of how tobacco plantations, slavery, racial politics, industry, war, and urban sprawl have degraded our social and natural environment.

Finally, my prayer is that the nature trail through our two-acre woods will provide a quiet space for spiritual reflection and rejuvenation. I think of these words by the farmer-poet Wendell Berry:

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Caring for Our Ecosystem

Our congregation is having some lively discussions about how to be good stewards of our church property in the city of Fairfax, Virginia. Part of the discussion is about how to make our building more welcoming and handicap accessible. We recently talked with an architect about ways to do that within the means of our budget. We seek to do it in a way that fits our vision and mission and also those of the other congregations that share our space.

The other part of our discussion is how to be good stewards of the two acre woods with mature trees and a meandering stream called Daniels Run that flows through it. We want to create a nature interpretation trail through our woods that can also serve as a place for spiritual meditation. A young naturalist recently designed a trail for us. The next step is finding several wheelbarrows and enough strong arms to help us lay down woods chips to create the trail.

To my surprise and delight I recently received fresh insight and energy for how we can continue to develop our church property. This past weekend I attended the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore and participated in a session called “From ‘Creation Care’ to ‘Watershed Discipleship’: an Anabaptist Approach to Ecological Theology and Practice.” Other participants got excited when I told them about our church property that includes a two acre woods. We have a unique opportunity to help preserve nature in an urban space.

A central theme of the session was that every locality is part of a specific watershed. The quality of life of the whole local ecosystem is tied to that watershed. This includes every species of plant and animal life including human life. Consequently, our care for creation is tied to how we use and preserve our watershed.

Daniels Run, the small stream that flows through our woods, is not completely healthy. It suffers from bank erosion in various places and it fills with dirty runoff water during heavy rains. Committing ourselves to learning more about our stream and helping to slowly nurse it back to health holds the promise that we will grow as a spiritually and socially conscious faith community.

At a recent church council meeting, someone noted that our church name, Northern Virginia Mennonite Church, is too broad to adequately describe who we are. Northern Virginia is a huge area. Perhaps by caring for our woods and the little stream that runs through it, we will gradually come to identify ourselves with our piece of God’s creation. We will think of ourselves as the church that meets by Daniels Run. We may further discover that our Anabaptist identity as people following Jesus’ way of peace will root and grow as a plant potted in this fertile soil.