April 22 was the annual Earth Day celebration and many valuable seminars, lectures, and exhibits were provided around the country to increase the awareness of the challenges facing our environment. However, there were also some of the more radical views expressed such as the call for “nature rights”. Examples highlighted were a river in New Zealand being granted the same legal rights as persons and a New York state court case to grant chimpanzees the same legal status as humans. It demonstrates the unfortunate contrast seen in much of the culture whereby such “nature rights” are supported by many yet little is heard about providing for the rights of the unborn human.
Serious Environmental Issues
Such views are regrettable because there are serious environmental issues that require our attention but attempts at providing a reasonable focus on those issues often get drowned out by the radical extremists and the climate change/global warming debate. Between the two extremes of gloom and doom to the denial that we don’t have any problems to work on, it is difficult to determine who to believe and what to believe let alone what to do. The recent march on Washington DC to highlight climate change issues that the current administration appears to disregard got some headlines, yet there seems to be little consensus, at least in the USA, as what to do next? Consequently, it can become easy to just tune out and not have a concern for the environment. The final result of all the “noise” is that there can often be little motivation to become well informed or to care about nature issues.
But, that is not an option for Catholics. From Pope St. John Paul’s II 1990 World Day Peace message on creation to Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si there has been considerable discussion regarding our faith-based obligations for stewardship. The term used by Pope Francis is that of an “integrated ecology”– serving both the needs of nature and the needs of humans. But as with any effort, there must be an interest and concern to act to have a stewardship ethic and lifestyle.
Unfortunately, the concept of environmental stewardship seems to be a “back burner” issue for many. For example, over a year ago I offered a lecture series on stewardship and Laudato Si for a very large parish. Only one person signed up!
Stewardship as a concept and as an action will not have any traction without there first being an interest in the natural world as God’s creation. This lack of an awareness or concern for environmental issues presents a challenge of how to assist one in developing that interest in nature that, in turn, can lead to developing a sense of stewardship. As a naturalist and nature interpreter I have been conducting outdoor education, seminars, and retreats on faith-based stewardship for many years and have found that there is basically a five stage process to developing a stewardship ethic and lifestyle:
- Developing a FAMILIARITY with creation through experiences with the natural world leads to …
- Developing an APPRECIATION and attraction for the natural world which can be accomplished by reflecting on experiences with creation that leads to …
- Developing and AWARENESS that there is more to know of nature, of environmental problems and of an ethic for how we should respond to those problems that lead to …
- Developing a CONCERN for the environment that leads to …
- Developing a STEWARDSHIP ethic and lifestyle to act to respond to environmental issues.
Familiarity and a Nature-Disconnection
It all starts with a familiarity with nature which sadly most Americans do not have. Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods addressed this issue and found that for both children and adults there has been a 50% drop in time spent outdoors in the last 25 years. This is especially the case for youth. Reasons that are cited to include:
- Increased urbanization with limited space to do outside activities
- Our lives have become too busy and over structured
- We are overstimulated by technology
- We are dependent upon technology for entertainment and pursuit of interests
- We have little free time for discovery activities in nature
- We are not encouraged to get outside
- We are less physically active
An example of our cultural disconnect from the natural world is a recent assessment of the types of summer camps being offered youth for a large metropolitan area this summer. Only 10.5% of camps would be considered outdoor education camps. An additional 22.9% of summer camps were at least offering physically oriented sport and dance activities; however, the majority of those camps were to be provided indoors. The remaining 2/3 of camps (66.6%) were by and large sedentary in nature with an art, music, acting or science/technology emphasis. This is not to say that such activities are not important for youth to participate in but it does show a de-emphasis on nature and outdoor physical activities.
The lack of experiencing nature contributes to a lack of attachment to nature. We have become an urbanized society disconnected from our rural roots. The final result, which I have experienced, is that many youths and some adults are actually anxious and fearful about being outdoors. With no attachment, there can be no caring. Louv coined a term describing this situation – “nature-deficit disorder”. It is defined as an alienation and disconnection from nature which can lead to not having a knowledge or appreciation for the environment. As a consequence, with that disconnection, it is difficult to embrace the stewardship ethic.
Becoming Familiar with Nature and a Faith Connection
To overcome nature-deficit disorder requires first to become familiar with nature by encountering the natural world. That is, to get outside and experience God’s creation. One way of viewing nature encounters is that such activities enable us to be what can be called “creation naturalists”. A naturalist is a person who studies nature by directly observing animals and plants. A creation naturalist not only observes the natural world but also reflects on nature as God’s unique handiwork. This was brought home to me many years ago while undergoing training to be a naturalist by observing a native Texas prairie. Texas prairies have a wide variety of plants and animal species all intertwined that provides an integrated web of nutrients to sustain life. As I was observing a majestic sunrise over the flat plain it hit me that seeing all this was proof that it couldn’t have all happened by random chance or by accident as the theory of evolution would argue. I was witnessing the design of God.
Getting back to “the woods”, to encounter nature can serve many purposes. It is an opportunity to relax, to get away from the “busyness” of modern day life and an opportunity to perceive the “activity “of God. Pope St. John Paul II alluded to this in his 1990 World Day of Peace message:
“The first stage of divine Revelation is the marvelous “book of nature”; which when read can lead to knowledge of God the Creator. Nature, therefore, becomes a Gospel that speaks to us of God.”
In this respect, the natural world can serve a sacramental function as a means to experience God’s grace.Throughout history, many prophets and religious monks used the experience of nature to contemplate God and to go into the “wilderness” to get renewed. We can do the same. Coming in contact with the environment whether at home in the backyard or a national park is the method by which we can start to be familiar with the natural world. In turn, that contact can encourage us to think of God.
A Walk in the Woods
John Muir was quoted as saying “everybody needs beauty as well as bread” and that beauty can be discovered in nature. So, we need to get back metaphorically to the “woods” even though it may be in a desert, a prairie, or an urban yard. There isn’t space here to outline all the ways to do that but it is similar to the old Nike ad of “Just do it”. However, there are some focused ways to explore nature as the handiwork of God. The first step for nature observations can be by taking “encountering” nature walks. Linus Mundy authored a little book in 1994 titled Prayer Walking offering tips for linking prayer and movement while experiencing the outdoors for what he called a “stroll with your soul”. In other words, one can use a walk in the woods to become not only familiar with nature but with God.
Taking such walks ideally could be in a national, state, city park or nature preserve which provide a more isolated experience. But, if that is not possible it can be in a neighborhood where the walk would be among the vacant lots, alleyways, and yards in the vicinity. A simple way to gain familiarity on a nature walk is to focus on the five senses. Using the senses sets the stage to interact with nature, to discover what is both commonplace and what is unique.
You can more fully experience the natural surroundings by using your sensory awareness of what is around you by asking the following questions while walking:
As you walk, look at what is around you both near and in the distance.
What kinds of colors and shapes did you see?
What kinds of plants and animals did you see?
Periodically stop, close your eyes and let yourself hear what is around you.
Did you hear water, the wind, animals, insects or birds?
What were the sounds of civilization?
As you walk, occasionally go up and touch different elements in the surroundings.
What was the texture and thickness of tree bark, leafs, needles or flowers?
What was the texture of the soil and rocks?
At the same time that you stop to touch things also smell what is around you.
Smell the air, soil, trees, flowers and grasses.
Were any special odors detected such as sweetness or decay?
Could the smell of rain be noticed?
The sense of smell is very much related to the sense of taste and often times you can also “taste” what you smell around you.
Look for opportunities to taste. Look for edible plants such as berries. You could suck on the stem of a honeysuckle bush to experience natures’ sweetness.
What was edible?
What was the taste – sweet, sour etc.?
Reflecting on a Walk in the Woods
The primary focus on an encountering nature walk is not on thoughts but on the senses. Nor is it about using the senses to analyze or evaluate what is in the surroundings. It is allowing oneself to soak up through the senses, the natural world. However, it is also an opportunity at the same time to reflect on creation as a gift from God, to ask ourselves how does nature speak of and reveal God. Finally, it can offer the opening for us to give thanksgiving for the beauty of creation and for life itself.
Becoming familiar with nature, by itself, will not make us stewards. However, it can provide a grounding for assessing the media noise regarding environmental problems that, as previously mentioned, can lead to the next phase for increasing an ecological appreciation. In turn, both in combination will provide the first few steps to meet our faith obligation for developing a stewardship ethic and lifestyle.