Confession. It wasn't skill that captured this leaf mid-flight, paused on its journey from tree canopy to Earth. A gossamer thread interrupted its journey, placing it on pause, maybe just for the hour I happened to walk by. (1)
We are on pause. Thirty-two days and counting if you live in California, 26 for us Oregonians. Even if some people's lives feel more rushed and full, what with balancing children and jobs, this pause gives us a chance to see what the world looks like from this angle, just now.
What the world looks like is a whole lot cleaner, clearer, quieter, and full of animals coming out of hiding in National Parks. It looks like neighborliness and creativity on facebook, and meals and money changing hands without cashiers and paychecks.
(For the record, I am not denying that for humans it also looks like sickness and death and economic recession and loneliness. Stay with me if you can).
Some are eager to get back to normal. Hanging by a thread is fearsome business and tenuous. Some hope the pause is long enough for us to crave what we've been missing so that we apply our human ingenuity and political will to create some new normals.
Caveat. I am not suffering. I ask myself how dare I--a privileged person who shelters in a place with room to romp, things to do, food to eat, and money to spare--write about new normals? How dare I hope sheltering-in-place lasts long enough for us to collectively catch our breath, look around and see what is flourishing, given the very real human suffering, especially of the most vulnerable among us?
But I also ask myself, how dare I not? If I love humanity (the vulnerable I don't know, and neighbors I do), how can I not cast my vote with those who would have us use our capacity to change course radically (like we just did) to relieve human suffering caused by old normals? Can our economic assumptions be challenged? Can an economic system depending on over-consuming Earth's gifts and treating them as a commodity for our generation's convenience, pleasure, and wealth-building not cause foreseeable problems?
Pause. You have, of course, the option of stopping here if you prefer.
I have searched my soul on this one. I do not disdain humanity. I do not desire that other life flourishes to the detriment of humans. But I know my grandchildren's wellbeing depends on soil health, ocean health, forest health.
Yes, admittedly, I sense a thin boundary between my life and that of animals and plants. I have an affinity with, a sense of belonging to, a wonder in this community God placed together on Earth. We could not live without forests doing their gentle work, and would eat less variety without bees and birds pollenating and spreading seed and keeping life afloat. We could not live without the millions of fungi strands, bacterias, worms, and other tiny creatures breaking down death so that life can keep coming, wave after wave after wave. Our planet adapts and adjusts to change because God is in every bit of it, holding it all together while watching it unfold, God's love manifest in every tree, hen, and human. So yes, a thin boundary.
Collectively humans are amazing. We have an incredible capacity for innovation, self-awareness, sacrifice, being frugal when called on and celebrating with abandon, too. We make music, sit in silence, are affected by beauty and pain. We can change course-- quickly, when necessary--our thumbs and brains and hearts making it so.
Unlike the leaf, we can alter our trajectory. The science compels me--we cannot proceed with an economy based on growth via consumption of resources and expect our grandchildren to flourish. So, we're being reminded what it looks like to live more locally, to stay home more, to entertain ourselves differently. We have a chance to redefine our wants and needs and expectations in significant ways.
I do not have to choose between loving people and loving the rest of it. I can take the goats for a browsing walk in the woods, lay on the grass or hammock and watch the clouds, and love it all. God created an interdependent system that can handle getting out of whack. Sometimes drastically, sometimes over a long period of time, Earth rebalances. But things are always different in the next reiteration. Sometimes radically so.
What am I saying?
For starters, sure we need to cut down some trees, clear fields for food, build houses and make toilet paper. But maybe this pause allows us to consider what it would mean to be grateful for each tree we take, to take it like it's a gift, not like we deserve it, and not take more than we need.
In the novel The Overstory, Patricia earns a Ph.D. in forestry at Purdue. Studying and writing about trees' ways of communicating, living in community, and how they make life possible for every other living thing has been her life's work and passion. In one passage she writes:
"No one sees trees. We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade. We see ornaments or pretty fall foliage. Obstacles blocking the road or wrecking the ski slope. Dark, threatening places must be cleared... We see a cash crop. But trees--trees are invisible... How fine it would be if we could learn who they are, when they're at their best. This is not our world with trees in it. It's a world of trees, where humans have just arrived."2
I wonder what might happen if we saw humanity arriving late on the scene as part of God's plan--that we might shine with possibilities heretofore unseen--creatures consciously reflecting the image of God. The nanosecond of our generation brings choices that will impact the flourishing of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. If we really believed we could shine, what might we be willing to do with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity after the gossamer thread breaks?
1 If you read my blog you may think you recognize this photo. I took two of the leaf. In the first one the leaf seemed to turn toward the light as it fell. This one is full on PAUSE.
2 Richard Powers (2018). The Overstory. pg. 423-424.