From Me to You: A Gift for the New Year
A study by the Pew Research Center indicates about three-quarters of adults in the U.S. are concerned about protecting the environment; however, only one-in-five act on this concern in their daily lives. These results are consistent with my observations working as an environmental engineer and in eco-justice ministry. As a people, we care about the environment in a general sense. At the same time, environmental crises don’t seem as urgent as the other daily issues we face.
I’ve wondered if our lack of action is because our lifestyle disconnects us from the environment. We don’t consciously feel it’s effects, nor do we see our effect on it. In some cases, we go from a heated/cooled building to a heated/cooled car, back and forth throughout the day, without ever recognizing the environment that makes our life possible.
“Environment,” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is “the complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors (such as climate, soil, and living things) that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival.” Some people call it “nature;” others call it “creation.” Whatever you call it, it’s the ecosystem that sustains your life. For the new year, I offer you a 7-day reflection on this ecosystem.
Day 1: Air
“…then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Genesis 2:7
Step outside and feel the winter air on your skin. Slowly inhale for a count of 4, and then exhale for a count of 4. Do it again, two more times. Feel the cold air traveling past your nose and mouth, down the back of your throat, and into your lungs. Celebrate receiving this life-giving air.
Air is about 21% oxygen, which animates our lives from the moment we gasp our first breath as a baby. All the oxygen in the air originated with cyanobacteria. They first lived in the ancient oceans, and their photosynthetic process was incorporated into algae and the green parts of plants. Photosynthesis produces the oxygen we breathe. Every breath we take depends on the planet having healthy plant communities.
Take another breath of air; four counts in, and four counts out. Say a prayer of thanks for the plants, algae, and cyanobacteria that make your life possible, and for people who are working to keep your air free of pollutants. What might you do to protect the air others breathe?
Day 2: Water
“Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes.” Ezekiel 47:9
Find some water in your yard or neighborhood and wonder at it like a child would. Splash in a puddle, pond, or creek, or splash running water from a faucet, and watch the water droplets. Notice the play of light through them. If it’s too cold to splash in water, warm an icicle with your hand and watch water drip from it. Play with an ice cube or make a snowball. Exhale into the winter air and see the water vapor. Celebrate the miracle of water in its many states.
Water sustains our lives. All life as we know it depends on water. Freshwater, the kind we use for drinking, cooking, bathing, and growing crops, is only about 3% of all the water on earth. We get freshwater from the precipitation portion of the water cycle, which is dependent on the planet’s climate. Our cities and agricultural regions are where they are because of the availability of freshwater, and they’re dependent on a stable climate continuing to provide this water.
Pour a glass of water and take a drink. Say a prayer of thanks for the water cycle and natural systems (rivers, lakes, aquifers) that provide the water you need, and for people who are working to keep your water free of pollutants. What might you do to protect the water others drink and to ensure all have access to water?
Day 3: Sun
“Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun.”
Step outside with a hand mirror during daylight hours and bask in the light of the sun. Look at your eyes in the hand mirror. Notice the way they squint in response to sunlight. Even if it’s a cloudy day, look at how small your pupils become, as your body receives and notices the sun’s energy. If the day’s bright enough, use the mirror to play with the sun’s reflection. Feel the warmth of the day, in contrast to the cooler night. Celebrate the gift of another day of life.
Clouds or not, the sun’s presence above the horizon defines a day for us. It’s the source of all the energy in the food that fuels our bodies. Through photosynthesis, plants convert sunlight into food energy for us and other animals. All the energy in oil, gas, and coal comes from sunlight captured by plants and animals ages ago. Differential heating of the planet’s surface by the sun creates wind, used for wind power generation. And of course, solar power generation relies on the sun’s energy.
Grab something to eat. Take a bite; slowly chew and swallow the food. As you do, consider the fact that the sun’s energy is becoming part of you. Say a prayer of thanks for the sustenance you receive from the sun’s energy, and a prayer for people who are working to find just and sustainable ways to use the sun’s energy. What might you do to reduce the environmental impacts of your energy use?
Day 4: Soil
“Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” Mark 4:8
Take a hand trowel or sturdy metal spoon outside and find some bare ground. Depending on where you live, you may need to brush aside snow. One place to check for bare ground in winter is under a dryer vent or other heat exhaust. If you live in a city, look for bare ground around tree wells or in vacant lots and areas between buildings.
Put your hands on the ground. Feel the firmness of the soil surface, bearing the load of all we place on it. Dig a few inches into the ground and use your hands to play with the loose soil. Notice its colors, textures, moistness, and maybe even scent! The soil might feel warmer a little below the ground surface. Celebrate the nourishment your body receives from food grown in good soil.
Healthy soil is a complex system of weathered rocks, minerals, microorganisms, organic matter, air, and water. Biological activity within soil releases nutrients for plant uptake and is the source of the nutrients in our food. Soil functions as a reservoir, holding carbon and water for plants to use in photosynthesis. It sequesters carbon and may be able to play a role in reducing carbon levels in the atmosphere. The regenerative agriculture movement seeks to improve soil health for the benefit of people eating food grown in the soil and for the good of the planet.
Use your shovel or spoon to bring a little bit of soil home with you. Place it in a small container in the kitchen, where you can regularly see it as a reminder of your dependence on soil. Say a prayer of thanks for the nourishment you receive from soil, and for people working to make soil healthier. What might you do to restore the health of soil where you live, or what might you do to support farmers who are practicing regenerative agriculture?
Day 5: Plants
“…let the field exult and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy…” Psalm 96:12
Walk around and look at the plants growing in your neighborhood. Marvel at the trees and bushes in your yard or a nearby park. In an urban setting, look for potted plants, but also look for survivor plants, the ones who persevere and grow in challenging places: through cracks in pavement, along a fence line, between buildings, and in other fissures within our constructed world. Wherever you are, focus on one plant and take a moment to study it. See its shape and form and the way it grows in relation to the sunlight. Notice the roots, anchoring the plant in the soil. Celebrate the joy plants express just by being alive and the beauty they bring to your life.
On previous days we reflected on the gifts of oxygen and energy (food) we receive from plants. Today, we recognize the inherent value of plants. They show us resiliency, as they bend with the wind and adapt to grow within the changing conditions of their world, and they remind us our lives are rooted in the earth. Recent research shows trees communicate, share resources, and even warn each other of dangers. Like us, they thrive best in community. Studies show we are mentally and emotionally healthier in community with plants.
Hold a branch of a living plant or place your hand on a tree trunk. Say a prayer of thanks for the life force that flows through both you and the plant, and for people who protect green space for others to enjoy. What might you do to bring more plant life to the place where you live?
Day 6: Creatures
“O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” Psalm 104:24
Look around your neighborhood for evidence of the creatures who share it with you. Some, like squirrels, are active during the day. Many others are active at night. You may only see their prints in mud or snow or where they dug in the ground or left something behind. You might find a dead bug or other creature, all of which is part of the circle of life. Look for birds flying in the sky, roosting on ledges or in trees, or foraging on the ground. Even in the most urban of settings, rock doves (a.k.a. pigeons) can be found. Celebrate the reminder of God’s creation that these creatures bring to the human-made space where you live.
Within our neighborhoods, it’s easy to forget they are built within and are dependent on the natural systems of this planet. The wild creatures who enter them re-connect us to the wild places of our planet and within ourselves. As birds take flight, they remind us our spirits transcend the bounds of place and are part of something greater than ourselves. The creatures in our neighborhood reveal it to be within in an ecosystem, even if it’s an urban ecosystem. The impacts of the current collapse of the insect population prove even the small creatures, the ones we might consider a nuisance, are essential for sustaining life in an ecosystem.
Take one more look at a creature you’ve been watching. Say a prayer of thanks for the role creatures play in your environment, and for people who protect the natural systems on which creatures depend. What might you do for the well-being of creatures in the ecosystem where you live?
Day 7: People
“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Genesis 1:31a
Even when the pandemic requires us to be socially distant, we can people watch! Look out your window, or sit in your yard or a park, and notice the diversity of people passing by. Reflect on who they may be, where they might be going, and what they might be doing. Consider how they might be both similar to and different from you. See them within and part of the environment where you live. Celebrate the community of people and the many gifts they bring to the place where you live.
Too often, environmental issues are discussed as a false choice between what’s good for people or good for the environment. It neglects the fact that we are part of the environment, not something set apart from it. Only when everything works together is it "very good."
Our well-being depends on the environment that sustains our lives. At the same time, we now live in a period some call the Anthropocene epoch, when our technology enables us to alter the planet on a global scale. In a new form of reciprocity, the well-being of the environment depends on us and our choices, as much as we depend on it.
Look around and let all you perceive permeate your being. See the people within the ecosystem and the natural features that compromise your environment. Say a prayer of thanks for a planet that supplies all you need, and for the people working toward a just, equitable, and sustainable use of the planet’s resources. As you enter this new year, what changes might you make in your daily life, to become one of these people?