We Do: A Vision for Covenantal Relationship with Creation
Re-imagining, as newlyweds, our duty to keep and cultivate our vows.
This summer, I attended one of my nieces' softball games, and it brought back a flood of memories: the unrelenting summer sun, the smell of popcorn and grilled hot dogs, the coordinated cheers coming from the benches on both sides of the field. I played softball for nine years as a child and, like these girls, learned a wide variety of chants—not just, "Hey, batter, batter, swing!" but the more sophisticated "Our team is what? Red hot!" and "Be . . . aggressive! B . . . E . . . aggressive!"
What a contrast my softball world was to another of my childhood worlds: the farm. On a much different type of field, I learned a much different type of play. In the summer, we tooled around in a golf cart, made soup from gleaned vegetables, and built sod houses. In the fall, we hollowed out gourds and created mazes in nests of dried prairie grass. In the winter, we skated on the frozen pond. There were few rules and no umpires, with ample opportunities for collaborative improvisation.
It seems strangely prophetic to me now that while the softball leagues continue to thrive, with their mocking cheers about aggression and superiority, the farm has since been parcelled out for chain stores and an endless sea of traffic. In the place of the prairie stands a maze of beige condos. A bank has assumed the site of our sod house, and, where the farm stand used to sit beckoning customers from the nearby road, a manicured lot is just the preface to a grocery warehouse. As many games as my teams lost over the years, none of those losses prepared me for the sense of grief I feel now when I pass by the old place. Increasing numbers of stoplights only prolong the sense of helplessness.
While I lament the loss of such a formative landscape, longing for a recovery of the past does not provide a way forward in the context of a Christian vision for the good society. And yet, the past can yield critical insight about the images and desires that might inform such a vision, particularly when we're talking about something as immediately present to all of us as the environment. I'd like to go beyond just prescribing a list of environmentally friendly things we can do to magically achieve the good society. Taking a cue from the play-inspired reflections of my childhood, I want to play with a central image to see how it might shape or reshape our imaginations about the environment in the good society. That image is this: a linking of the covenantal fidelity experienced in marriage with the potential for practicing covenantal fidelity with our specific surroundings.
We might talk about images in conjunction with the environment, and be tempted to let our minds wander toward forests, mountains, and other wild places. But I'd invite you to imagine "the environment" as the place in which you're already engaged: your own household. Picture where you live, what you can see when you look out your windows, where you work, and where your church makes its home.
A very long engagement
In his 1977 agrarian classic The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry writes,
I am certain . . . that no satisfactory solution can come from considering marriage or agriculture alone. These are our basic connections to each other and to the earth, and they tend to relate analogically and to be reciprocally defining: our demands upon the earth are determined by our ways of living with one another; our regard for one another is brought to light in our ways of using the earth.
Berry goes on to declare that "to last, love must enflesh itself in the materiality of the world— produce food, shelter, warmth or shade, surround itself with careful acts, well-made things . . . Marriage and the care of the earth are each other's disciplines. Each makes possible the enactment of fidelity toward the other."
Berry's linking of marriage and earth-keeping is nothing new. In fact, he draws from a well of meaning that goes all the way down to the Judeo-Christian narrative of the earth's origins. The creation of human beings has hints of sexual consummation, as the dust of the earth comes into union with the breath of God to form an embodied soul. Walter Brueggeman writes, "Human connectedness to the land is suggested in biblical language by a play on words. 'Adam, that is, humankind, has a partner and mate, 'adamah (land). Humankind and land are thus linked in a covenantal relationship." In drawing out the implications of this allusive ritual, Brueggeman warns that "the operating land ethic in our society denies that relationship at enormous cost not only to land but to our common humanity." As the story goes, the denial of that relationship was not far behind the creation of human beings, and the Fall, literally an act of disobedient consumption, was a failure of covenant fidelity that has had vast consequences.
From Isaiah's language of hope (in 62:4-5) during the time of Israel's subjugation to Persia to John's wildly imaginative vision of final judgment and reconciliation (in Rev. 21:2), which includes the restoration of this earth and its peoples, marriage is not just a convenient metaphor, but a covenantal model that takes us all the way from the origins of the world to the eternity of God's Kingdom on earth—a Kingdom centred not on a restored Garden of Eden, but on a holy city with a garden at its center.
In the good society, various kinds of landscapes— rural, suburban, urban—have the potential to be expressions of covenantal fidelity, but one of the threads running through all of them is a conscious connectedness wherein care for creation and for social structures intermingle wherever we are. The vision is never just about living things, like trees and gophers. It's also about living systems, networks, neighborhoods, institutions, and the shalom of all of these structures in relationship with each other. Within this interconnectedness, we need models that can provide a consistent ethic, from individual or household interactions with creation to the development of social structures and technology. This ethic is characterized by listening, compassion, celebration, creativity, humility, and repentance—not unlike a healthy marriage relationship.
Covenantal desire acknowledges that the other—whether human or animal or system— is not just a static collection of resources to be used like Monopoly money, but a living organism that will respond to our choices. Covenants tie our health and wholeness to that of another and charge us with mutual responsibility for the nature of those effects, now and in the future. In the good society, our interdependence is not viewed as a compulsory burden or lamentable limitation, but a creational gift. In Living the Sabbath, Norman Wirzba writes,
We can never do only one thing, because the effects of our actions extend far beyond our current place and time. When we fail to be attentive—most often because we let economic ambition or cheap prices override the dictates of care—we will quickly render our lands and animals exhausted and sick. But as we exercise proper care and restraint, we will discover that we can live together in sustainable, even convivial relationships.
In the good society, the hearts of both individuals and institutions are shaped by habits of fidelity so that we sincerely care about the shalom of the other. This state of being stands in stark contrast to the fragmented consumer who is able to suppress emotions of care in order to appease an immediate desire, whether the context is an extramarital affair or a factoryfarmed steak taco.
Going to the chapel
So far, I've been circling around the question of what the environment in the good society, ordered by a relationship of covenantal fidelity, might actually look like, but it's time to stop talking about commitment and tie the knot. Bearing in mind the desire to play with an image, rather than prescribe a list of rules, let's take a look at how various qualities of marriage might bear themselves out in our environmental practices.
Public vows: "There are no private practices," writes James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom, and "thus our hearts are constantly being formed by others, and most often through the cultural institutions that we create." In the good society, our covenantal bond with creation will not just consist of discrete recycling bins and backyard gardens (though these also have a publicly connected component), but it will extend to public rituals, celebrations, culture-making, and institution-building. Within a household, our public vows might take the form of such practices as having a housewarming party with neighbors, planting a new tree in the front yard, or sending out address updates with a photo and an invitation to come visit. For businesses and institutions, public vows might be taken by pursuing LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) certification for sustainable building and landscape practices or belonging to associations working for the holistic sustainability of local land, people groups, and socioeconomic systems. By adapting such cultural rituals as symbols of our deepest loves, we publicly profess our intention to work cooperatively toward the shalom of the good society, and enter into a place of accountability.
Settling down: Vows require us to submit ourselves publicly to certain limitations. Earlier, I asked you to imagine the place where you live—your home, your neighbourhood, your place of work, your church. There may or may not be a partner or children in this picture, but we all have places to which we belong. "No matter how much one may love the world as a whole," Berry writes, "one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it." Settling down in a place we can imagine ourselves loving for a long time is a critical discipline within a covenantal framework. Such limitations, both in place and in marriage, have infinite lessons to teach us about patience and intimacy. As we grow in such a bond, we come to know a place's curves and contours, to recognize its character and anticipate its reactions, to grieve with its losses and to celebrate its healing and wholeness.
Keeping house: "Marriage is eternal, but it's also daily, as daily and unromantic as housekeeping," writes poet, essayist, and Benedictine oblate Kathleen Norris. In her small book, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women's Work, she vividly describes how housekeeping— laundry in particular—brings her back to an awareness of creation, rhythm, history, fidelity, and delight. After a long winter, she emerges from the basement's literal and figurative gloom to hang her and her husband's clothes only to be confronted by the promise and work of spring, as represented in her grandmother's columbines.
As the site of so many of our daily practices, the household binds us to land, people, creatures, and institutions, near or far. Faithful housekeeping in the good society seeks to honour these connections, suggesting such rituals as talking about where our food comes from before eating a meal or surrounding ourselves with objects whose design reflects consideration for disposal or re-use. Smith writes, "Recognizing that there are no neutral practices . . . should push us to realize that perhaps some of the [thin] habits and practices that we are regularly immersed in"—like hanging the laundry on the line—"are actually thick formative practices that over time embed in us desires for a particular version of the good life."
Fecundity and fruitfulness: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:28). A text that often gets applied only to childbearing has a much broader application in a covenantal context that encompasses both human relationships and our relationship to the earth. Fruitfulness is a result of fidelity to creation with or without children, married or not. Returning to the poetic wisdom Norris has gleaned from her encounters with monasticism, we find her on an early morning walk near her South Dakota home. As she appraises a struggling vegetable garden, she "recall[s] a saying of the desert monks: 'If a man settles in a certain place and does not bring forth the fruit of that place, the place itself casts him out.'" In addition to growing some of our own food, the fruitfulness that results from a covenantal relationship can take many forms, limited only by our imaginations. Restoring an old home, starting a community garden, building a coalition for safe bike routes, opening a restaurant— many types of cultural fruit make up the good society. And good seed from the fruit we bear has the potential to set in motion an endless abundance of fecundity, transforming everwidening circles from happenstance spaces to beloved places.
In sickness and in health: The good society is a healthy society, in which all parts are operating well in conjunction with each other and the whole. Part of the challenge is that, just like spouses change over time, our relationship to the environment changes according to the demands of technology and significant cultural shifts. The inevitability of change requires a dedication to foundational principles of relationship. If these principles are shaped by a sense of covenantal commitment, we won't be so quick to move out to safer, prettier places or avoid our complicity in environmental crises. As bonded communities in the good society, we need to cultivate a collective imagination for creative problem-solving that interacts with both private and public spheres. As politicians and voters, we have the potential to work and advocate for handicap accessibility, watershed protection, and renter's rights. As householders, we might collect rainwater runoff for our gardens or bike within a certain radius of home. The heart of such practices is not a list of rules that will satisfy a quantifiable level of responsibility, but the cultivation of a hopeful affection that can carry us through crisis to reconciliation.
Telling a good story
The Man Who Created Paradise by Gene Logsdon is a small book, peppered with black and white photos, representing one vision of the fruit borne by covenantal fidelity with a place, in both sickness and in health. Based on a true story about a farmer carving out farms from strip-mined spoil banks in Appalachia, Logsdon's fable is about a forty-year process of imagining, listening, culture making, defining gracious limitations, and resisting that which would destroy shalom for the sake of profit. The heroes of the story are agents of redemption taking what is broken and making it new. Wally Spero, with the help of his old bulldozer Alice, occupies himself with "painting farms" into the hillsides, and his public art sets off a domino effect. "I'm tellin' you, people aren't dumb or lazy," says Wally, "They just gotta see the possibilities—understand that they can do it. Then get outta their way."
Encouraged and inspired by a cloud of witnesses, including Logsdon and Spero, I set out here to play with a central image to see how it might reorient our hearts as we seek a vision for the good society. What would our everyday practices look like if they were shaped by a sense of covenantal fidelity with the earth that extends not just to people, but to land, plants, animals, systems and institutions? Berry writes,
It is possible to imagine a more generous enclosure—a household welcoming to neighbors and friends; a garden open to the weather, between the woods and the road. It is possible to imagine a marriage bond that would bind a woman and a man not only to each other, but . . . to all living things and to the fertility of the earth, and the sexual responsibility that joins them to the human past and the human future.
"It is possible to imagine," wrote Berry, thirtyfour years ago. As much then as now, we need prophetic poets, journalists, and artists who can both criticize and energize individuals and communities, putting forth an imaginative vision for the environment in the good society. Likewise, we need practitioners who are beginning to realize that vision, from the forgotten corners of Appalachia to the corner offices of Wall Street.
Do I believe that the good society is possible? To appropriate Mark Twain's conviction about infant baptism, "Believe in it? Hell, I've seen it!" In our own small way in Three Rivers, Michigan, my husband and I, along with a small community of people, are attempting to tell a story worthy of Wally Spero.
The seeds of joy and play that were planted in me as a child, but also the seeds of grief and longing, bear fruit in our covenantal relationship with each other and with the land to which we are called. We've moved beyond the honeymoon phase of our commitment to rural community and sometimes it takes all of the effort we can muster to offer a kind word instead of a biting critique. But every once in a while, this little city turns and looks at us just the right way—crowned with the thunderhead of a summer storm or all decked out in a crowd for the annual parade—and a sense of deep, abiding love warms our hearts again. In the good society as we imagine it, this love is not the fairy dust of nostalgia or the sharp scent of a golden opportunity, but an obedient response to the invitation issued at the creation of all things—to tend, to keep, to name, to cultivate. We'll do so in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer and, just maybe, 'till death do us part.