(I wrote the following piece in the Spring of 2008, and happened upon it when I was reorganizing some folders on my computer. Some of the temporal language is now dated, but I left the piece as is to preserve its integrity.)
Theologian Sallie McFague identifies the earth as “the new poor.”* The planet, once bursting with bounty and hiding secrets in great swaths of unexplored terrain, now groans under the weight of post-industrial consumption and post-common sense insatiability. The earth has become poor (and a victim of exploitation, rape, and mutilation) in much the same way people become poor: the rich deny access to resources and opportunities. The sense of entitlement over the earth’s riches has grown over the last several hundred years (along with our gluttonous appetites). The Western Christian view of the earth—which, during the medieval period, was full of awe, respect, and fear—has morphed into one of utility, ambition, and domination. We have made the earth poor because we see it simply as an object, argues McFague.
There is another way. Rather than objectifying the earth, rather than possessing the earth as a thing to be used, abused, and discarded, McFague pleads with us to see the world as we see our loved ones—as subjects. Seeing the earth as another subject just as we ourselves are subjects gives us the opportunity to enter into mutual, sustainable relationships with the earth based on love and respect. McFague calls this model “the loving eye.”
Last autumn, I changed the route I take when I drive to church and discovered what she means by this loving eye. A left at the Belle Haven Golf Course sends me a Par Five’s distance down a residential street toward the George Washington Parkway, where I turn right and follow the Potomac River for about five minutes until I reach my parish. Sun-polished leaves of every green hue dance on the branches of trees, which arch toward one another above the parkway, making a dappled, living tunnel. On my left, the river peek-a-boos every now and again when the trees thin, and groves of white masts, rooted in anchored sailboats, mingle with the tree trunks. I sit up a little straighter in my seat. My eyes drift to the trees and the river beyond. And then, for the briefest of moments, I see my spot.
A small inlet in the river reaches to the road. The water tiptoes in and out of the little cove, treading softly around the three or four dead trunks that still stand in the shallows. On cloudless mornings, dawn gilds the somersaulting waves with new light, and the overhanging trees reflect swaying twins in the water. These deep green reflections merge with the morning light, mixing the color of sparkling possibility. All the energy of the dawn and the river and the swaying trees infuses me as I pass by, and I silently thank the Creator for such potent imagination. That is spring.
In winter, the water still treads lightly in and out of the cove, but, on certain January Sundays, ice reaches out from the bank, halting the tumbling waves. The dead trunks hide behind a low fog, which crawls along the surface of the water. When the cold sun penetrates the clouds, it shines through the winter scaffolding and silhouettes the bare trunks and branches. All the deliberateness of the ice and the fog and the sleeping branches deepens me as I pass by, and I silently thank the Creator for such quiet solemnity.
In autumn, the trees shed their uniformity. The water exults to mirror the new apparel in swirling reflections of amber and crimson. Dropping leaves spiral down, catching the morning light. They float on the water and cluster at the bases of the dead trunks. Dawn ignites the trees, making their leaves shimmer and blaze. The wind ruffles the surface of the water—no tiptoeing this time, only cartwheels. The light glances off each wave’s crest and each yellow leaf, doubling the morning’s fervent brightness. All the elation of the wind and the light and the flaming leaves elevates me as I pass by, and I silently thank the Creator for such riotous innovation.
I have never driven past my spot in the summer, but I imagine the inlet displaying a worn, comfortable version of the sparkling possibility of spring. Soon, I will no longer be driving that way on Sundays. At times, I have contemplated pulling my car over to snap a picture of the spot. But each time I travel down the living tunnel, I decide to keep driving by. Deep down, I discover that I have no desire to capture the image of that blessed spot. How can I hope to tell the story of such a place in a photograph? Capturing its image truly would be a confinement. I would preserve one instant of two-dimensional facsimile when the original has such light and movement and possibility. The depth of reflection would flatten. The waves would no longer tumble. The wind would disappear. If I took that picture, I would cease to remember that spot in my imagination. I would lose what I had sought to preserve. In a sense, I would take the life from a place that has infused my life with such energy, such ardent joy.
So I leave my camera at home. I prefer to keep the ever-changing image of that spot in my heart. It continues to kindle within me the spontaneous thanks of a creature for all the potent imagination, quiet solemnity, and riotous innovation with which the Creator has blessed creation.
The spot brings out McFague’s loving eye in me, and I find myself asking the water and wind and trees for forgiveness—for myself and for our entire post-common sense establishment. During the same lecture in which we discussed McFague’s work, my seminary theology professor reached back to the medieval era and borrowed the idea of Haecceitas from thinker Duns Scotus. He was not content to know a forest or a species of tree or flower. He wanted to know each particular white oak, each individual daffodil. And in so knowing, rejoice that God also knows those trees and flowers for God created them. And in so rejoicing, praise God for the craft, detail, and unsurpassed beauty seen in the particularity of creation. I pray for these Haecceitas eyes. I pray that soon we will all see the earth as a subject, a poor subject in need of enriching relationships. And I pray that the inlet remains in my heart, urging me to look with love on God’s creation.
* Sallie McFague, Super, Natural Christians