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Earth Day as a Sacred Rite

What if getting our relationship right with the Earth and all its creatures is not just some scenic backdrop to a circus sideshow or diorama in a natural history museum? What if it is as crucial to our lives as getting our relations right with our Creator, our family and our neighbors before we die?

What if all of Creation is the most palpable expression of our Creator’s generosity, sense of wonder, and commitment to diversity? What happens when we begin to include the fungi, the flowers, the fritillary butterflies and the flocks of wild geese as our comrades, our kin, and our Creator’s expressive face?

When I was a seventeen year old nearly fifty years ago, I worked as a volunteer at the headquarters for the initial Earth Day, doing articles, graphics and cartoons for its Environmental Action news magazine. I was one of a dozen youth and young adults who worked in a second floor office overlooking DuPont Circle; in facts, many nights, I simply slept atop the mailbags in the little room where the postmen came to pick up our newsletters.

Our crew was busy twelve to sixteen hours a day preparing for the participation of 20 million people around the world in the first-ever global recognition of the Earth’s sacredness and its vulnerability. Some of the staff were veterans of Civil Rights Summer in the South; others were conscientious objectors who did not want to “study the war no more.” We were out to do something affirmative, something inclusive—not a protest, but a celebration.

On Earth Day itself, I was sent to a small Catholic college near the Mississippi River to be the youngest presenter at a campus-wide convocation. When I arrived in the chapel a half hour early after hitchhiking there by myself, a young nun greeted me. After looking me over, she politely asked if I had ever given a speech anywhere before.

I swung my head side-to-side, unable to speak even the monosyllabic word “no.”  The nun reached out to take my hand, and whispered,

“Don’t get jittery, honey, just pretend you are offering a prayer, talking to God, giving thanks. As long as you don’t get into those thorny issues like overpopulation and abortion, I think you’ll be okay.”

I do not recall that I knew much of anything about abortion at that time, so it was easy for me to take her advice.

I have no idea what I said when my turn came that day to take the podium. I simply looked out the back windows of the chapel above the assembly, watching eagles fly. My eyes followed their movements among the towering trees that grew along the banks of a tributary of the Mississippi. They aggregated there where the water moved forward and blended into the Big Muddy itself.

Whatever words I spoke that morning were directed toward those eagles as much as they were to the humans assembled there that day; to the catfish in the river as much as to the Christian community; as a call of the wild as much as a call for the communion of all races, faiths and classes.

I cannot recall a single word that spilled out my mouth that morning. I am not even sure that my voice was “audibly” heard –let alone remembered– by anyone present at that gathering for the first Earth Day, but that did not matter much to me.

Why? Because I somehow felt as though I was present at the dawning of Creation, at the first sanctioned gathering of the, the four-legged creatures, the two-legged creatures, the winged ones and the rooted ones who all had come together to express their joy in being part of this sacred place– this tiny planet– as it careened through space and time.

It is so: whenever each of us feels such gratitude for all of Earth’s creatures, we have become fully present, fully alive ourselves. I breathed in their oxygen; I was inspired by them.

That may be what Saint Francis meant when he urged us to “go out and Preach the Good News, and only when necessary, use words.”

For me, that first Earth Day was not a Whitmanesque song to the earth as a Song to Myself, it was a quiet breathing in-and-out, in convocation with a congregation of bald eagles perched high in the branches of trees in a riparian gallery forest with limbs outstretched, reaching into the heavens.

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Gary Paul Nabhan aka Brother Coyote is a professed member of the Ecumenical Order of Franciscans, a graduate of the Living School, a conservation biologist, orchard-keeper and story-teller.

 

 

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