The Catholic love of nature

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By Katherine Reynolds Abbott

About two miles from my parish in New Jersey, there is a place where on these blazing hot summer days, you can enter a green lawn under an enclosure of towering oak trees and feel ten degrees cooler. The oaks surround an ancient spring-fed pond, which has been enlarged and adapted over the years into a pond/swimming pool hybrid. In the 1930s children dove off a floating dock in the middle of the pond, but now they use diving boards and tubular plastic slides along a straight cement wall at the deep end.

Despite the cement, the tree canopy and the pond’s rounded dark shape provide the impression that you are at a serene, natural body of water. In fact, native frogs have this impression too, since each August they find their way to the grassy, shaded edge of the water, much to the delight of frog-catching children. This green place is special, and a new historical marker put up in 2010 says as much. It was founded in 1929 by a group of Jewish summer homeowners from Brooklyn. The pool plus 150 acres were known as The Colony until 1969. The original owners enlarged the natural pond, stocked it with fish, and also allowed swimming. The pool transferred to municipal ownership in 1969 and has been managed and maintained by municipal employees ever since. Since it is a municipal pool, the landscaping is not on par with private swim clubs, but those majestic old oaks are inviting.

Since 1995, I have raised my children on the partially shaded beach side of the pool. Under the trees, parents park their strollers and let infants and toddlers sleep. Mothers, protected by a blanket, nurse infants. There are two play structures, one for toddlers and one for older kids, in the wooded recesses around the beach area. Both are welcome respites from the sun at the water’s edge. Lots of people know the pattern of the sun, and set up their chairs on the side of the beach where the shade grows as the day progresses. Others place their chairs at the edge of the shade closest to the water in the morning, and then follow the shade as it gradually retracts.

There is something else the shade offers. You feel an almost parental comfort from the stately trees. When you reach a relaxed equilibrium of playing, chatting or observing, you may notice the abiding presence of the trees. Amidst the gentle rustle of the leaves, you can become in tune with the hum, the perpetual motion of the earth’s energy within and without. The trees are breathing themselves, sending our lungs pure oxygen, and we, in a divinely complimentary way, return the favor by breathing out carbon dioxide. In addition, the trees are performing transpiration by releasing fine water droplets through their leaves, thereby cooling all organisms living beneath their canopy. As one of these organisms, you may sense that you are nourished and suspended in a larger whole.

This feeling of comfort from nature, this almost womb-like experience, is called biophilia, the love of nature. Biophilia, a term coined by biologist E.O Wilson, leads us to seek recreation in beautiful natural places, with water, scenic landscapes and clear skies. We want to re-charge, re-create ourselves in natural spaces where we momentarily feel free from personal obstacles and challenges.

Theologian Jesuit Fr. David Toolan calls this felt-sense of belonging to the infinite a “cosmic embrace.” St. Augustine referred to this same non-verbal knowledge of God when he wrote that Christians, of which the vast majority were illiterate, could read the “Book of Nature” equally as well as the sacred scriptures to find illumination about the order, beauty and love of God.

Our ancestors set to music this knowledge of God’s love made manifest in nature. Psalm 24 and 104 are particularly well known for expressing gratitude for the infinite beauty and nurturing energy we encounter in nature. The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds (Psalm 24:1:1) You water the mountains from your palace; By your labor the earth abounds. (Psalm 104:3:13) In addition, traditional hymns such as “For the Beauty of the Earth,” or even secular tunes such as “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and other forms of art such as landscape painting, photography and dance are inspired, on some level, by gratitude and joy for participation in divine vitality.

Our reverence for the presence of God in nature has led us to bring elements of nature -- water, wine, wheat and fire -- inside the church building. In addition, the Magisterium explicitly teaches that nature is an outward sign of God’s presence, a sacrament. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have said in numerous speeches and writings that nature is sacred. They also state that nature is God’s support system that must be shared, praised and protected.

Yet recent incidents at the pool/pond near my parish tell me that our tradition of praise of nature does not yet adequately lead to real life protection of nature’s life support system. Many of the oaks are missing this summer. The first seven trees were cut before the season started last summer, in 2010. I found out that the tree-felling was part of a misconceived plan to keep leaves and acorns out of the pool in the hopes of attracting new pool members. The benefits of trees to young families were completely left out of the equation.

I had noticed the loss of those seven oaks last year when I saw families huddled up in the remaining shade, further away from the water than usual. At that point I thought that I should start a praise program where the children at the pool write poetry about the remaining trees. I am a member of our town’s volunteer Environmental Commission and mused that we could also number the trees, have the children measure them (many are more than 40 inches in trunk diameter) and name them. But this idea just remained in my head.

Things got worse. At a cost of more than $50,000, a contractor cut down four large oaks at the back of the beach and dug a semi-circular, concrete storm drainage line around approximately a third of the pond. The storm drain trench severed roots of still-standing trees, and a local tree expert says two or three more trees will die within three years. While invasive storm sewer design and managerial desire to clean less leaves and acorns were the ultimate cause of the trees’ demise, the primary cause was lack of praise.

I, and other parents of young children, could have made it clear that they love the trees, explaining that the natural shade is what attracted them to the pool. The pool managers and supervisors who helped shape the specific plan are not on site or spend most of their time at the office at the opposite end of the pool from where the trees were cut. They don’t see the nursing mothers, sleeping infants or serene pool members in the shade. They only see acorns to rake, grass that might do better with a little more sun, and leaves to skim off the pool.

We need more praise for what the trees quietly do for people -- and all life -- through their functions of respiration, transpiration and shade. We need more praise for how rainwater naturally and gracefully cleans itself and replenishes our drinking water sources. We all need to become more Earth literate, and Catholicism has a primary role in keeping us thankful for how nature is supporting us for free. Hymns and prayers in church praise creation; our rituals praise creation.

All we need are more preachers and lay ministers willing to call attention to how our existing tradition asks us to thank God for the specifics of nature’s constancy — our daily bread, freely given.

Katherine Reynolds Abbott is a GreenFaith Fellow, class of 2010. GreenFaith is an interfaith environmental non-profit founded in 1992, and its website is Abbott was on the GreenFaith board of directors from 2003 to 2009. She was one of the principal organizers of two statewide New Jersey Catholic environmental conferences in 2003 and 2005. She graduated from Georgetown University. She serves on the Chatham Township, N.J. Environmental Commission, and has done so for the past 10 years

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