Ecology/Environment Feed

Hoka Hey


I stood there admiring the eagle feather that Black Elk gave to John Neihardt.  The feather had belonged to Black Elk's father.  Then I noticed that the display also included Black Elk's coup stick, which surprised and amazed me.


I was at the Neihardt Center in Bancroft, Nebraska.  John Neihardt had been Nebraska's poet laureate, the author Black Elk Speaks, the Cycle of the West, and more.  Ever since I'd read the first six years ago I had planned to eventually get to Bancroft and the center and so part of my sabbatical is catching up on some of those things I've long planned to do.

When I read Black Elk Speaks I was struck by the power and authenticity of Black Elk's vision and have incorporated it into my own writing and preaching.  While on the Pine Ridge Reservation a few years ago, I visited Black Elk's cabin.

The great Lakota holy man had spoken his vision to Neihardt who then wrote it down and shared it with the world.  The Neihardt center is Bancroft has preserved Neihardt's writing study, a garden he designed according to the Lakota image of the sacred hoop, and encourages the furtherance of Neihardt's and Black Elk's legacies.

I was the only visitor at the center while I was there.  Amy, the director, welcomed me with "Let me turn all the lights on for you."  Then she asked if I wanted coffee.  For the next hour or so we carried on a great conversation about Neihardt and Black Elk.  She said that there are quite a few ministers who come in or call, and some are writing about Black Elk.  I had told her about my "Theology of the Plains" project.  She said, "I think quite a few people would be interested in that."

I bought a number of book I had yet read and received a free tote bag.

In the morning I had driven US-75 north from Florence through rich farm country.  After Bancroft I headed northwest to Pender, then continued east to Walthill, on the Omaha reservation and then to Winnebago on the Winnebago reservation.  The development in the latter was striking.  I toured the sculpture garden which represents the various clans of the Ho-Chunk nation.



From Winnebago I headed south along the scenic route that is part of the Lewis & Clark Trail toward Macy, which is part of the Omaha reservation.  Three years ago our church had planted trees at the Omaha Care Senior Center as part of our denomination's Mission 4/1 Earth.  I was pleased to see that the trees are thriving.


I stopped in Decatur for lunch at a place church member Bob Vassell had recommended, but they had quit serving lunch fifteen minutes before.  I crossed the Missouri and headed south along Interstate-29, exiting at Missouri Valley in order to visit Desoto National Wildlife Refuge.

Okay, I should have gotten there a long time ago.  But often in our early years here it was flooded or recovering from flooding.  The visitor's center contains a remarkable display.  In the 1960's a sunken steamboat, the Bertrand, was excavated and what was discovered was that the mud had preserved the cargo from 1865.  Much of that, commercial goods and the possessions of travelers, is now on beautiful display.  According to the informational cards, some items are the only surviving ones in the world.


The refuge was beautiful on this mild, sunny day.  Birds were playing and singing.  I saw a deer while walking the trails.  I've been meaning to get there some spring during the waterfowl migrations and must resolve to do so in 2017.

Hoka Hey is Lakota for "Let's go!"

Praise Be

Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis : On Care for Our Common HomeEncyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis : On Care for Our Common Home by Pope Francis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read a few papal encyclicals through the years, but none were as inspiring to me as this one. Francis is an easy and engaging writer. Benedict to craft intricate theological statements. And John Paul paradoxically combined the writing talents of a poet and playwright with the sometimes obscure philosophical speculations of a phenomenologist. Francis' writing is both clearer and more engaging to a wider readership.

And what he writes is challenging and inspiring. In many ways, there is nothing new here. The Roman Catholic Church has long criticized Western capitalism for its greed, consumption, and exploitation and/or neglect of the poor. But what Francis has accomplished is a beautiful, cheerful, and hopeful connection of the deep problems of our current society--ecology, economy, and quality of life. He has sought common ground with other faith groups and nonbelievers while also articulating specifically how a catholic, Trinitarian theology promotes engagement with the poor and radical changes in our lifestyles in order to live as better stewards of the earth.

I intend to look back through the letter (I've been reading it here and there over the last month during free time at work) in order to organize my thoughts more. I very likely will preach on topics from the encyclical this autumn.

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Keystone and the State Department's Wrong Question

Jeffrey Sachs writes that the recent State Department report on the environmental impact of the Keystone XL pipeline didn't even ask the correct questions.  There is also a good video interview with Sachs, at the link.  An excerpt:

Herein lies the tragic, indeed fatal, flaw of the State Department review. The State Department Environmental Impact Statement doesn't even ask the right question: How do the unconventional Canadian oil sands fit or not fit within the overall carbon budget? Instead, the State Department simply assumes, without any irony or evident self-awareness, that the oil sands will be developed and used one way or another. For the State Department, the main issue therefore seems to be whether the oil will be shipped by pipeline or by rail. The State Department doesn't even raise the possibility that the pipeline should be stopped in order to keep a lid on the total amount of unconventional fossil fuels burned around the world.

The core assumption of the report is that the US Government has no role to play, either alone or in conjunction with Canada and other countries, to stay within an overall global carbon budget.

According to the State Department, in other words, the US Government is just a passive spectator to global climate change. 

Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

Sex, Economy, Freedom, and CommunitySex, Economy, Freedom, and Community by Wendell Berry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those Wendell Berry classics which I had not yet read. There are actually quite a few of those, which is funny given how important Berry has been to me. I guess I continue to return to those favourites savouring them and allow them to influence me anew.

Some of the specifics of this book are dated, but the general themes are not. In fact, many of the issues that alarm him are even more severe now than in the early 90's.

I probably underlined at least one sentence on every page.

Last week when the UCC was debating divestment from fossil fuels, I sat down in the convention center lobby to await Michael who was still in a committee meeting, and read Berry while I waited. He was talking about tobacco farming and why immediately ending tobacco farming was not a wise decision because it would harm a local economy of small farmers which would result in a loss of knowledge and care essential for maintaining the land.

The final essay, the title one, has much that we should reflect upon and ponder. His discussions of sex and marriage are powerful (though I found myself wondering what a dialogue between Berry and Foucault or Berry and Judith Butler would be like). Here is one example:

"If they had only themselves to consider, lovers would not need to marry, but they must think of others and of other things. They say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around them to hear and to wish them well, on their behalf and on its own. It gathers around them because it understands how necessary, how joyful, and how fearful this joining is. These lovers, pledging themselves to one another 'until death,' are giving themselves away, and they are joined by this as no law or contract could ever join them. Lovers, then, 'die' into their union with one another as a soul 'dies' into its union with God. And so here, at the very heart of community life, we find not something to sell as in the public market but this momentous giving. If the community cannot protect this giving, it can protect nothing -- and our time is proving that this is so."

I intend to blog more about topics from the book, but this should suffice for my review.

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Last week during General Synod, the United Church of Christ voted to begin a process of divesting from fossil fuels.  The Washington Post covers the story here.  

The original resolution called for immediate divestment, and I did not support it.  My reservations were

  • Many members of the United Church of Christ, including friends, family, and church members of mine, work for fossil fuel companies or receive royalties for oil and gas.  
  • A place like Oklahoma would be even poorer and more backward without the profits from fossil fuel companies, jeopardizing other of our social justice aims.
  • The best fossil fuel companies view themselves as energy companies and are the institutions with the resources and position to invest in sustainable and alternative energy.
  • I also thought we need to start a conversation, not make a final judgement.
The compromise resoultion, which passed, I could support.  It was worked out with United Church Funds and the Pension Board and called for aggressive action by UCC investors, including requiring us to bring resolutions to shareholder meetings.  It does begin a conversation, takes gradual steps, and allows for investments to remain in energy companies that are "best in class."  It was also a great example of democratic compromise (Congress, take note).

Are we collectively immature?

My friend Donald Wester, Junior sent me this link to an essay by Bill Plotkin arguing that the various problems we currently face as a culture result from our lack of maturity.  We have not developed in the proper way and therefore lack the ability to address the issues that face us.  An interesting thesis.  He writes, "Too many of us lack intimacy with the natural world and with our souls, and consequently we are doing untold damage to both."

What Happened?

Tornado forecasting was invented in Oklahoma, at Tinker Field.  This was a necessity, as tornados are part of our way of life and death.  And over the years, we got damn good at tornado prediction and coverage.  We have the best local television weather divisions in the country, who invest heavily in the latest equipment and newest technologies.  By the 1990's they could predict what minute a cell would reach a specific intersection.  All the divisions have helicopters who follow the storms, so you can watch live on television and know whether you are in the direct path or not.  We Oklahoma citizens become amateur meteorologists ourselves.  We know meteorological terms.  We can read radar images, even before they are interpreted by the weatherman.  We are drilled in disaster procedures from earliest childhood.  Oklahoma is so good at it, that I've always been afraid only when I'm someplace else and a storm comes, because I do not trust that the local news in other states knows what to do or possesses the technology required.

And, so, on May 3, 1999 when nature hit us the hardest it ever had, it tested all our systems and preparedness.  The storm that ripped through Moore, Mid-Del, and Stroud was the worst ever recorded, with winds over 300 miles an hour.  Scientists debated whether they should create the category of F6, which does not exist, in order to describe it.  The weather system that night spawned 72 tornados, the most ever spawned from one storm.  Almost every citizen of the state had to take shelter at some point in the night.  You wondered if  you should stay awake until it all passed.

And the next day, as devastated as everything was, we were proud that the death toll, for such a mighty storm, was surprisingly low.  "Gary England saved lives" you would hear, referring to the legendary channel 9 weatherman.  Our systems had worked as well as could be expected.

Which is why May 20, 2013 will be so devastating psychologically.  By every measure, this monster was not as strong as May 3.  Yet, the destruction in Moore seems worse and the death toll is so much higher.  We thought that in the 21st century we had done our best to conquer this catastrophe.  Nature reminds us that we have not.

My only guess is that the time of day is the major factor.  May 3 hit in the early evening, during the dinner hour, with storms raging well into the night.  So most people were home from work and school and off the roads.  This storm hit while people were still out and about and gathered in workplaces and schools.

We have a cavalier attitude towards tornados.  It shocks people from other places.  I'm not sure I can explain it, but I will try.  

Catastrophe is part of our story and identity.  We are aware from childhood that death and destruction come unexpectedly and hit randomly.  You survive, really, because you've been lucky enough not to be in the direct path of a mighty storm.  Rather than cower in fear or anxiety, the storm has elicited a defiant spirit -- courage in the face of death and resilience and generosity when--not if--destruction comes.

That is why we go outside and watch the storm if we are not directly in its path.

I was struck today by something I heard one of the children say on CBS This Morning.  Norah O'Donnell was asking him about his experience and he said, by introductory way of explanation, "This was my first tornado."  He said it matter-of-factly.  And there is great meaning in it.  Even this child had lived with the expectation of some day encountering the storm.  Lives still with the understanding that this is his first tornado.  

But I think something will be different this time, because our systems didn't work as they have, and this monster killed too many of us.  Maybe Oklahoma will finally pass building codes that acknowledge reality.  You cannot build in California without taking earthquakes into account or in Florida without preparing for hurricanes.  Oklahoma has never required tornado safe and resilient buildings.  Oddly, many of our oldest structures are the safest.  The oldest homes usually have cellars.  After May 3, it was shocking that we didn't pass new laws.  We cannot repeat that mistake after May 20.

This morning I heard an old woman on CBS say "The sound was like a turning of the world."