The Place Where We Live
Updated: Apr 1, 2021
Land, and its importance to people, is an ancient story. In its simplest definition, land is the dry ground on which we stand. It’s the image we have from the creation stories in Hebrew scripture; when, in the beginning, God gathers the waters into one place and the dry land appears (Gen 1:9). But land is so much more than dry ground.
Land is the source of the food that sustains us and the goods that fill our houses. Land makes fortunes for people and may determine who does and doesn’t have a voice in governance. Wars are fought over it. The stories and histories of people arise from their land. The narrative of our own country is a story of land.
Billions of years ago, land emerged from earth’s oceans on tectonic plates that move in relation to each other. Geological evidence indicates land masses changed shape and location, came together, and drifted apart several times over the eons. The last supercontinent was Pangaea, over 200 million years ago. Its breakup started the process that formed the land where we now live.
Our continent started as a landmass called the North American craton. It’s still visible in the exposed rock of the Canadian Shield and underlies the central part of the U.S. Tectonic plate collisions, ice ages, volcanos and uplifts, wind and water erosion, and other forces acted on this landmass to create the geography we now call the United States. The same processes gave us fossil fuels, metals, aggregate for concrete, and all the other resources we mine from the earth for our material goods. It also made the soils we rely upon to grow our food.
Soils are a complex system with many layers, called horizons. Each horizon may be as shallow as a few inches or as deep as a few feet. They are made from a combination of decaying organic matter, weathering rock, and leaching caused by water. All together, they provide the nutrients and minerals needed for plants to grow, and the plants that grow determine the animals who live in the area.
In other words, soils are the foundation of ecosystems. Because they’re formed by climate and geography, land and its ecosystems are place-oriented. Their characteristics are unique to and dependent on the place that gave rise to them.
My home sits in south Fort Worth on relatively shallow clay soil overlying limestone. The soil, combined with the climate, gave rise to an ecosystem dominated by grasses. Regularly occurring fires limited the extent to which bushes and trees could grow. When Europeans first arrived, the land where I live was a mixed grass prairie. Prairie ecosystems are estimated to have covered over 170 million acres of the U.S., across 14 states.
European settlers converted prairie ecosystems to farm and ranch land. Overgrazing by domestic animals and mechanical plowing for non-native food crops resulted in soil erosion. In Texas, fire suppression enabled mesquite and other trees to colonize the eroded land. New ecosystems developed within the landscape. Now, in this century, a growing population of people is subdividing and urbanizing farm and ranch land. Once again, ecosystems are changing in response to our use of the land.
Today, less than 4% of prairie ecosystems remain in disconnected remnants. Free roaming buffalo herds are long gone, and populations of remaining prairie-dependent species have plummeted. In the last 50 years, the population of grassland birds declined by 53%, more than any other category of birds in the U.S. That number doesn’t even account for prior losses, when Europeans first settled the land.
The story of land is more than just soil, plants, and animals. Archaeological evidence tells us people first came to the North American continent from Asia over 14,000 years ago. For thousands of years, they lived within, adapted to, and influenced the North American land. They became what theologian and native American Randy Woodley calls, place-oriented people, who are “uniquely shaped by the land as the land becomes uniquely shaped by them.” They have covenantal and relational understanding of the land where they live. (Randy S. Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012, pp. 115-120.)
According to Native Land Digital, the prairie ecosystem where I live was supporting five tribes when Europeans arrived. The Spanish interacted with los Jumanos here in the 16th through 18th centuries; however, by the time US settlers arrived in the 19th century, they were no longer a distinct people in North Texas. It’s believed los Jumanos in this region succumbed to infectious diseases and detribalization under Spanish influence.
Those who remained in North Texas joined with their Caddo-speaking trading partners; the Wichita and the Tawakoni people. These two tribes, along with the Comanche, were the three resident groups where I now live. In 1855, the Wichita and Tawakoni people were moved by the U.S. government to a land reservation on the upper Brazos River in Texas. Four years later, settlers who wanted the land forced their relocation to what was then called Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Bands of Comanches fought the U.S. until the end of the Red River War, when in 1874, they, too, were moved to Indian Territory.
The Jumanos, Wichita, Tawakoni, and Comanche people are the ancestral
stewards of the land where I live. I acknowledge I would not be living here if the land had not been taken from them.
We need to lament the losses of ecosystems and people, and learn from our mistakes, but dwelling in lament will blind us to the beauty and possibilities that still exist. Watch a vacant lot for a year or two, or even just a break in the pavement. You’ll be amazed at the resilience and persistence of plants that grow when given a small opportunity. The same is true for animals.
Peregrine falcons almost went extinct due to our used of pesticides. We changed our practices, and now these falcons have recovered are off the endangered species list. They’ve moved into our cities and are nesting in places like New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta. Red-tailed hawks were early adaptors to urban areas, and their nests can be found in most cities.
Similarly, coyotes learned to avoid people and quietly colonized our cities. A recent study found them in 91 percent of the cities surveyed. Biologists have discovered a healthy coyote population in a city controls deer and Canada geese, both of which can become nuisance, health, and safety problems in urban settings.
Falcons, hawks, and coyotes are all apex predators. They only live were there’s a sufficiently intact ecosystem to feed them. Because of these ecosystems, there’s now an entire career field of urban biology. Urban ecosystems are not what the land was, but they are the start of what may be.
Acknowledging the land, ecosystems, and people who came before us is more than a confession and lament of what was done and lost. It points us to being place-oriented and reminds us of the responsibility that comes with the land.
In his famous sermon, “The Care of the Earth,” theologian Joseph Sittler asserts delight is the basis for right use of land. Delighting in the land is a reference to Psalm 104, a creation hymn, where God is said to see and rejoice in all of creation. Right use meets our needs and is just to others who depend on the land for their well-being. Similarly, Lutheran pastor and Bonhoeffer scholar Mark Brocker, in his book Coming Home to Earth, writes about God delighting in all creation. In Genesis 1, God beheld all that was created and called it very good.
We love what brings us delight, and we care for what we love. I shared the story of the land where I live, but all land has a story. I invite you to learn the story of the place where you live. Can you delight in its beauty, fall in love with it, and call it very good?
To learn more about delighting in and caring for the land where you live, register for one of the Living Connected: Land workshops offered this month.