Reading -Thinking like a Mountain
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.…
Since then I have …watched the face of many newly wolf-less mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed… I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had give God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleached with the bones of the dead sage…
I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf's job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There [p. 131-132]
Sermon - Every Being?
For the past several years I have been taking a hard look at the anthropocentrism contained in that sentence, wondering if that sentence contains a line in the sand. Do we who stand in the Universalist tradition believe that God’s love embraces ONLY the human race? Do we believe that only human beings have inherent worth and dignity? What would happen if we changed the wording of that principle to “the inherent worth and dignity of all beings?”
This conversation is happening all over the Unitarian Universalist world. A group called the First Principle Project is challenging all UU congregations to do the hard theological work of deciding where that circle of universal worth and dignity can be drawn, and are asking congregations to consider voting on a motion like this one:
We, the (insert congregation name) hereby call on the General Assembly of the UUA to vote to omit "every person" and replace with "every being" in Article II Principles and Purposes, Section c-2.1 Principles, Line 12, UUA Bylaws.If just 15 congregations approve this motion, then the change can come before the General Assembly of UU congregations, so that we can expand the conversation to include the whole UU movement, and then vote our conscience. One of the group's leaders, Rev. Dr. LoraKim Joyner, reported this weekend that “They now have 15 congregations and need a few more to insure that all congratulations submit proper paperwork. Please do preach and take a vote. There will be UUA wide voting following GA 2016.”
We, as a congregation, have an opportunity to be part of this process at our next congregational meeting, to see if we will be one of the congregations asking to bring this question before the General assembly.
This is not something we should decide lightly, or quickly. These principles guide our actions, guide our ethics. As a minister, I think this is an important conversation, an important way for us to discern our own theology and ethics more deeply. I hope that having this conversation, that reflecting and speaking and listening is at least as important as the possible change to the by-laws that might follow.
Why does one word matter? What would it mean to change the phrase “all people” to “all beings.”? Why is this fine theological point even worth talking about? Ever since I was a little girl, something troubled me about the way humans hold themselves apart from the rest of the beings. I didn’t learn that there is a word for this until quite recently- anthropocentrism. We, the humans “antrhopos” (the Greek word for humans) put ourselves at the center of things. The first problem with anthropocentrism is its impact on the other species, and on the eco-systems of which we are part. If humans are the most important, if we are the heroes of this story, then all the other beings around us are just supporting characters, or even just props, or sets, for the story if either our salvation, if we want to tell the Judeo-Christian religious story, or our progress, if we want to tell a more modern story. Mountains, and rivers, trees, and other animals are just “resources” in our human story. That is the story Aldo Leopold was living in that day in our opening reading when he was part of the hunting party. In fact it was his job to hunt wolves and other predators in New Mexico, to help protect livestock. Humans were the heroes, and wolfs the villains, so in that story the death of a wolf was considered a victory for the humans.
Now what happens if we tell a slightly different story? One where a wolf could be the hero, or a tree could be the hero? Or what if we told a story with an ensemble cast, where the person, the tree, the wolf, the mountain and the deer all had a part to play? In that moment on the mountain when the story changed for Leopold it didn’t just change how he felt, it changed how he spent the rest of his life. It was because of Leopold that European-Americans began to develop something called “wildlife management” and to change the conversation about environmental ethics.
The thing about being the hero of the story, is people pay attention to you. If we tell the story so that humans are the heroes, and we are only paying attention to people, we miss some of the other plot-lines that are happening all around us. When Leopold expanded his attention to include the wolves, and the deer and the mountain herself, he noticed that the loss of the wolf from the mountain lead to an explosion in the deer population, which not only head to a denuding of all the plants on the mountain, plants whose roots hold the soil in place and prevent erosion, but eventually this explosion of deer lead to great starvation and suffering and death among the deer population itself. Part of our covenant to affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part is simply to pay attention, to be mindful. The more we watch the amazing story unfold of wolves, and deer, and trees and mountains, and yes humans too, the more the inherent worth of all those things becomes visible.
What difference does a word make? Robin Wall Kimmerer, a biologist who is learning the Potawatomi language to help preserve that part of her Native American heritage, noted that in Potawatomi grammar, all living beings are treated as people instead of as objects. She writes “Our toddlers speak of plants and animals as if they were people, extending to them self and intention and compassion – until we teach them not to. We quickly retrain them and make them forget. When we tell them that the tree is not a who, but an it, we make that maple and object; we put a barrier between us, absolving ourselves of moral responsibility and opening the door to exploitation. Saying it makes a living land into “natural resources.” If a maple is an it, we can take up the chain saw. If a maple is a her, we think twice.” [ Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 57]
In the spirit of full disclosure, let me admit to you that I am a tree-hugger from way back. I am the kind of person that helps spiders out of my shower, and rescues worms off the sidewalk after the rain. I get a lot of rolled eyes when people find discover this side of me. Philosophizes and scientists warn us about the dangers of “anthropomorphism” (Anthropos= human, morphe= "form") that is, thinking of other beings as if they are human. Examples of this are all over YouTube: cats playing pianos and asking “I can haz cheezburger?” As Kimmerer’s student Carla points out, anthropomorphism is:
“disrespectful to the animals. We shouldn’t project our perceptions onto them. They have their own ways--- they’re not just people in furry costumes.” We know, for example, that a dog’s sense of smell is about 1,000 to 10,000,000 times more sensitive than a human’s (depending on the breed). and dogs can hear about 4 times the distance of an average human, and can hear higher pitched sounds that humans cannot hear.[i] So humans will never really understand what it is like to be a dog. Kimmerer’s student Andy responds “but just because we don’t think of them as humans doesn’t mean they aren’t beings. Isn’t it even more disrespectful to assume that we’re the only species that counts as ‘persons’?”As the Theologian Rebecca Parker says:
“Love seeks to know the other as ‘other.’ Not as an extension of oneself, not as a reflection or as utilitarian presence to be there for one's use but as an other of sacred worth in the other's own rights.”When the UUCAS board started considering this issue we wondered "Does the AIDS virus have worth and dignity? or what about the anopheles mosquito? If every being has worth and dignity, is it OK to kill a tick that could be spreading Lyme disease? ” I think our wonderings simplify down into 2 questions. The first is philosophical- it is the same question that our first principle has always challenged us to ask - does God love even our enemies? Do people who harm us have inherent worth and dignity? This question persists whether we are talking about humans or other animals, or even bacteria. The second is a practical question- what is the ethical way to respond to a threat to a being who threatens our health or livelihood, and do the ethics change if the threat comes from a being with inherent worth or dignity?
Let’s go back to the wolves. At the time when Leopold came to that radical change of perspective, wolves had long been enemies of humans, something out of nightmare and fairy-tale. Suddenly Leopold realized that our enemy the wolf had a place in the wholeness of things and Leopold decided he would no longer participate in the systematic killing of wolves; that the life of a wolf is precious, and should not be taken lightly. For him the inherent worth and dignity of the wolf meant that we needed to stop the extermination of wolves from our mountains, even to protect our cattle. But Leopold was a hunter his whole life, and I’m sure would have defended his own life or his family if threatened.
So lets look at cattle- do they have inherent worth and dignity? Do they have worth aside from their value as a commodity? Beyond the profit they can bring to the ranchers and meat packers and grocery stories? Beyond the nourishment they bring to humans? Many people believe that promoting the inherent worth and dignity of all beings means becoming vegan, and so they change their lives to support that ethical principle. Other folks follow that line of argument to suggest that if we change our first principle to “all beings” we would all have to become vegan to live within our principles, and so they would vote against the change.
Because I am the kind of person that helps spiders out of my shower, and rescues worms from the sidewalk after the rain, it surprises many people that I eat meat, and that I support my friends and neighbors who hunt or fish sustainably for food. When I look around at the natural world, I see that every being eats and is eaten. I also know that most species of cows and chickens, for example, have been bread so far away from their wild form that we couldn’t just release them into the world and let them live free- these are species that have grown up alongside us in relationship with is. So the calling I feel in my own heart is not to renounce eating other beings, but to support the dignity of the lives of the animals who feed me- to support farmers who raise their chickens, for example, in a way that promotes dignity and is as free from suffering as any life can be. I am also try to stay aware of the issues of over-fishing of our oceans, and to avoid eating species whose eco-systems are threatened by human fishing practices. For me the “inherent worth and dignity of all beings” keeps me on the hot seat every time I look at a menu- it calls me to accountability as a consumer, and as a voter. It doesn’t feel good to fall short of my own ideals and aspirations, but I believe we set the ethical mark not by what is achievable, but by who our earth needs us to become.
So what about the Aids virus, the mosquito, the e-coli bacteria? Do they have inherent worth? To answer this question I think we need great humility. From our human point of view and limited scientific knowledge, it seems like if all 3 of these bad boys were wiped out the world would be a much better place. But humans have a history of causing permanent damage to eco-systems because we did not understand the impact of our actions. It wasn’t until the wolf was removed from the mountains that we began to notice his true worth. An organization called “Mission Wolf” who are working to restore wolves to their ecosystems noticed that
“Since wild wolves have returned to Yellowstone, the elk and deer are stronger, the aspens and willows are healthier and the grasses taller. For example, when wolves chase elk during the hunt, the elk are forced to run faster and farther. As the elk run, their hooves aerate the soil, allowing more grasses to grow. Since the elk cannot remain stationary for too long, aspens and willows in one area are not heavily grazed, and therefore can fully recover between migrations. As with the rest of the country, coyote populations were nearly out of control in Yellowstone before the wolves returned. Now, the coyotes have been out-competed and essentially reduced by 80 percent in areas occupied by wolves. The coyotes that do remain are more skittish and wary. With fewer coyotes hunting small rodents, raptors like the eagle and osprey have more prey and are making a comeback. The endangered grizzly bears successfully steal wolf kills more often than not, thus having more food to feed their cubs. … A wild wolf population actually makes for a stronger, healthier and more balanced ecosystem. From plant, to insect, to people... we all stand to benefit from wolves.”Scientists theorize that we could eliminate mosquitoes without any harm to our ecosystems, but affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every being, even one as seemingly useless as the mosquito, teaches the humility to admit that we don’t every fully understand this web of life, that connections and balances may exist we can’t even fathom.
I’m not saying I would stop swatting at the mosquitoes who come after me on a summer evening if we made this change to our principles, but it might make me more mindful. Instead of killing the mosquito mindlessly, because it is an object and has no worth, I would have to weigh the loss of life against my own discomfort. Even if I don’t change my actions- slapping the mosquito on my arm just as I would before, taking antibiotics for e-coli just as always, the change is one of perspective, and of respect. It is no longer an ethically neutral action to kill mosquitoes, to kill even the deadly aids virus, because nothing we do in this world is ethically neutral. Nothing we do is disconnected from the web of life.
Theology is not just something scholars do at university, each of us has a theology, we just don’t always take time to notice the system of beliefs and values that under girds everything we do, and how we make meaning of our lives. We as a congregation have a chance to help initiate this historic conversation- to ask all the UUs in the country to consider: how big is the circle that Universalism casts? Does it include not only all people, but the deer, the wolf, the tree and the mountain? How might your answer to that question inform our life together?
I believe that Universalism reflects a profound oneness. It draws a circle that leaves no being outside. And though this one-ness can be challenging, ethically and spiritually, our Universalist faith calls us to embrace that challenge.