Emmitsburg Council of Churches


Ecological Perspective that 
Influenced Your Upbringing

Dear Friends,

I am sharing with you my environmental autobiography, not to draw attention to my story, but as a challenge to all of our development as a caring people and as a people of faith. As you follow my story, perhaps you would like to contemplate your own experience as a child of God and as a developing steward of this great garden planet we call home. More and more we must recognize that our actions have serious implications for other persons and creatures who share the air, water, soil, sentient and non-sentient beings. Whether or not you bring a faith ethic to your environmentalism, I think you will agree that our habitat is becoming increasingly fragile and it may be time to actively do things differently. The question I am addressing here is:  

"What type of ecological perspective influenced your upbringing, and what appeals to you now?"

For reasons that are beyond my understanding I had a fascination with digging holes in the backyard of the property where my parents were raising five of us kids in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. Ironically, I was strongly influenced by the fascinating industrial world that was growing up around me. Perhaps it was the bulldozers plowing a level path to widen the highway near our home that influenced my youthful interest in excavating the back yard, or maybe it was one of my favorite morning TV programs that featured the modern exploits of the earth through mining and timbering with bigger than life machinery. There had to be something that motivated my five-year-old determination to slide open the door of Dad's rusty metal shed and grab his favorite digging shovel and the trusty mattock. Whatever my inspiration was, this was the beginning of my ecological awareness.

Reflecting on those early years, I now recognize that it was not the industry of my digging that began my journey into ecological concerns, rather it was the acute interaction of all my five-year-old senses that made the deep and lasting impression during those troubled days of the late 1960's. There was the musty smell of green walnuts that fell from the tree where our family dog, "Towser", spent his dog-house days while my friends and I dug fox holes in the dirt nearby. If we were not digging, there was great delight in hurling those walnuts like grenades across the yard at unseen foes or at the occasional innocent bystander!

Nevertheless, the walnut juglan with its dark pigment stayed with us and the smell and the experience of those times would stain our consciences for a lifetime. Then there was the sensation of dryness and grit that came from the silty-clay we were digging in. It would be caked between muddy little fingers and well established behind our ears as we dug into the earth as though to plant ourselves there. There is a certain smell that is present in the various layers of the earth. The scents change as one digs through the aged layers where the soil turns from a light chocolate brown to caramel tan and then to a butterscotch orange color.

These layers became my foundation for caring, I always wanted to dig deeper and discover the next color or to find the hidden treasure that was surely down there somewhere -- after all, Greg, my neighborhood friend, said that if we dug deep enough we would come out in China! The peach tree Dad planted before I was born loomed in the back yard like a great green mound covered with yellow-orange pokadots. This tree produced the sweetest and juiciest peaches I ever experienced. There were also the yellow-jackets who would sting when I grabbed one of those molding fruits without first checking to see if there was another forager enjoying the underside of those nectorious fruits. I remember sitting together with the whole family eating homemade pizza the night a man first set foot on the moon.

So my ecological valuations have been shaped by a collection of early experiences, experiences and adventures that I would want every young child and adult to have. Going into adolescence I was becoming increasingly aware that the industry that captivated me as a young child was slowly grinding away at the possibilities for all children to grow up in the soil or under the trees as I had. My first awareness that there was a problem came when the PEPCO power company, our local utility, was applying for a zoning permit to build an enormous substation up on the hill from my family's home in Brookeville, Maryland. I would not have known much about opposing a power station if it were not for the Pickarts, a large Catholic family that was practically a second home to me. The older Pickart' girls were organizing an opposition to the plant. There was talk of the unknown affects of the high voltage and the current, which would radiate in and through whatever was within range of the power lines. It was a politically charged time!

We handmade and distributed bumper stickers to area residents and I remember attending a hearing where some "experts" would testify about the safety or the harmful possibilities that such a high-voltage transmission line would pose. As it turned out, the plant was built, however the power company agreed to establish several hundred acres as wildlife habitat around the substation. I was learning about the intrusiveness of progress as well as the benefits of a democratic process where concerned citizens could speak out for their own health and for the well being of nature around us.

The next period of revelation came during the Energy Crisis of 1977-78 -- the time when the price of gasoline doubled! During this time I recognized that I was on a different path from the majority of my classmates. While they were either focused on academics or athletics, I was planning to build a cabin in the woods! I was more interested in becoming independent of the so-called "progress" of the world. The cabin idea never got beyond some sketches on paper, but I did look up the law on "squatters rights" that was featured in an old edition of Mother Earth News.

I became more interested in my high school education when I was granted freedom for an independent study in the Earth Sciences class. During this time President Jimmy Carter had encouraged technology and research for an Alternative Energy Program for the nation. This was human progress that I could get excited about! I called the Department of Energy to order journal articles and reports about the possibilities of a sustainable energy future. In wood shop I researched modern wind machines and set out to carve a locust fence post into a propeller for a wind mill I hoped to build out of old car parts. And then there was the great pig manure experiments, which earned me the title of "Methane Man!" from my friends who were aware of my various pursuits. It was a time of excitement and hope that humanity could use technology and science to maintain a comfortable lifestyle without ruining the earth's forests or lands. There was even a hope that this technology would be shared with third-world countries and that their starving masses would be fed and comforted. Though I was not a Christian at this time, I held high ethical ideals and things looked hopeful.

Unfortunately, President Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan who promised "No more Big Government!" The Alternative Energy Program that had made an entire generation hopeful was dismantled. Instead of solving the world's energy needs with a clean, sustainable and equitable future -- America was going to build a space defense system that would cost billions without a certainty that it would ever work. My spirits plunged into a terrible darkness. The Dream was lost.

In 1979 after graduating from high school I embarked on a bicycle journey that, unbeknownst to be, would become a journey of faith. The original stated purpose of the trip was to "See America and meet the people and find out if things were really as bad as the newspapers and television said they were." After journeying some 4000 miles I found that people were mostly good and that there was a beautiful land out there that yet needed to be protected and cared for. I was also "found" somewhere along that journey by a loving God who I had spoken to on many occasions but had not previously known. It took a couple of years before I comprehended a Christian stewardship ethic, this had not been a part of my experience in growing up. But when I began to recognize that Christ had come as a Savior for all of the world, both now and into eternity, it was at this point that I began to regain a hope for the future. However, it would take even more time for me to fail in many of my own attempts at self survival as I sought to gain a stake of the world's wealth and resources.

One of the greatest failures came when, through the course of my work as a golf course manager, I inadvertently killed some wildlife in a pond that I was treating with an algicide. I had followed the directions supplied by the chemical company, but there was no mention of toxicity to the aquatic creatures in that pond. I was devastated by guilt and felt embarrassed at my folly. The career that was going to supply for my financial and material success had contained within it an element of poison. Not purely of the chemical form but a poison that slowly exerts its venom when we try to manipulate an environment in ways that it was not designed to flourish in.

Actually, the problem goes deeper when the root causes are investigated and found. Much of the cause of environmental degradation is based in human ignorance and arrogance in changing the environment purely to suit our own needs. When this happens without careful consideration nature has a way of showing us our ignorance. This is not to say that we cannot manipulate the land or its flora or fauna for our own ends, but that when we desire to build or shape or reshape the earth for our ends, we must use what earth's creatures and systems already reveal to us. The revelation of a flourishing creation and a healthy humanity, as idealized in the prophet Isaiah's vision, when the lion shall lie down with the lamb (Isaiah 65:24-25), may serve as a model for our striving. Discovering the flourishing of creation can be both a discipline of science and a mystical religious journey as was practiced by many of the Desert Fathers. This is where my environmental faith ethic is focused today.

Our challenge as a technological society and as the people of God, the Church, is to discover the ways in which we may harmoniously live with the natural world, meeting our human needs while simultaneously seeking to preserve creation with a constant correction for justice. Both our science and technology ought to be guided by our Biblical and historic theological contemplation of the witness of created things. Only by recognizing our need for humility as a latecomer to God's handiwork will we preserve ourselves and all of the wonderful systems that make life possible and worth living on this, our garden planet.

Peace to you, Jon

Read more writings of Pastor Jon