Mary Colwell, “Faith and Nature: would Jesus weep for an eider duck?” in Visions and Vocations:
In my experience, the Holy Spirit can be compared to a mountain path in mist. The way ahead appears and then disappears, seemingly at random. Sometimes the track is obvious for miles into the distance, at others it is only possible to take one step forwards, and hurriedly, before the view is obliterated. If you have ever been caught out on a mountain in low cloud you will know how disconcerting a white-out can be, and how elating it is when all becomes clear again and the view spreads out before you in breathtaking beauty.
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My environmental journey is a mountain trek, but unlike a real mountain which has a summit to tick and a route back down again, this path seems to wind its way through ever-higher ranges that are ever-more mysterious – but every step of the way is worth it.
A few years ago, I left work one lunchtime and went to Clifton Cathedral in Bristol to spend some quiet time alone. Suddenly, it was as though the richly coloured, stained glass windows melted away and the view outside became crystal clear. I felt that I could see the whole world. Every leaf was shining and every blade of grass was a brilliant green. The flowers were blooming and gently swaying in a wind that was not just blowing but dancing. The music of the birds was clear and bright. I was overcome with a sense of love for this astonishing planet we live on, but at the same time a deep feeling of dread spread throughout my body. The same words kept reverberating in my head: “Is it too late? Is it too late to do something?” I was acutely aware of the destruction taking place throughout the earth, and that doing nothing to help was not an option, but I had no idea what that something was. The instruction was clear, though. For those few moments the mist had cleared and a path revealed itself that was impossible to ignore – but where was it leading? I did not know but so wanted to find out. All too soon the mist closed in again and the view was lost. The brightness of the vision faded to normality. But I knew the path was there.
I had long been aware that the Catholic Church has spiritual, social and political influence around the world, that it touches the hearts and motivations of people in almost all countries on earth, and teaches that God is the creator of the universe. I thought, naively, that engaging it in the plight of the world would be straightforward. What is there not to understand about the importance of the richness and variety of life that lives alongside us, where every species is, to quote Thomas Merton, “a thought of God”? Why is it hard to appreciate that the integrity of landscapes upon which we all depend – the soils, water catchments, oceans, rivers and forests – is paramount to our health and well-being? But it wasn’t, and still isn’t, easy to persuade the Catholic Church to take the conservation of nature seriously. I wonder why. Perhaps one story helps to explain it.
When making a Natural World television documentary, I went to the North Slope of Alaska, about as far north as it is possible to go in North America. I was filming a magnificent bird called a spectacled eider. These ducks live above the Arctic Circle and have very little to do with humans. We don’t eat their meat or eggs, or use their feathers. They live wild lives in remote places where we find it hard to survive. I filmed one of four nests on an island in the middle of an estuary and watched the ducklings waddle down to the edge of the water, led by their mother. They were little more than downy feathers with feet, tiny balls of fluff in a bitingly cold tundra landscape. They bobbed away on the waves of the Arctic Ocean and I still have no idea how such fragile creatures can withstand the polar extremes. It was a life changing moment.
A year later I called the man who had been my field guide and asked him how the birds were doing. He delivered a blow. All four nests on the island had been destroyed and the females shot as they incubated their eggs. Hunters had been through this isolated stretch of river and found good sport. I put the phone down and I wept and I raged – railing against the stupidity, the hard-heartedness, the coldness of humanity.
What would Jesus have done, I wonder, if he had found those nests with the bodies of the ducks, limp and lifeless on cooling eggs? Would he have wept too? Or perhaps this world is just for us and we have the mandate to use it as we see fit. After all, no one will die if spectacled eiders disappear. No one will lose their jobs or become ill. This is not a bird that adds to the bottom line of anyone’s financial spread sheet. It is just a wild duck – that is all – albeit an endangered one.
I asked the Jesus question to a number of Catholic clerics. No one thought Jesus would weep over a duck. Over the selfishness of the humans who killed them, yes, but not the loss of ducks themselves. One said, “Christ would not weep over that which is not human.” And therein, I think, lies the problem. Over the centuries Catholicism has become a human-centred faith which has largely lost its connection to the grit and the dirt of the world. It is no longer visceral and inspired by the power of a living, breathing, singing planet. It operates at the more intimate, inward level of the human heart – closed to the natural world. It finds its modus operandi in books and liturgy, not in the dangerously pagan, untameable world of animals and plants, mountains and oceans. Modern Catholicism doesn’t inhabit nature, it moves through streets and buildings.
This is a great pity because it used to look at the magnificence of the earth and hear it speak of God. It used to find a glimpse of the Almighty in the joy and pain, the fear and wonder of this planet of living forms. But something happened, and the organic nature of faith became contained.
That is why bringing Catholicism to sit at the environmental table does not work. It is more possible these days to discuss how to mitigate climate change, which will (and already is in some places) affecting poorer nations disproportionately, adding to the injustice of the rich versus the poor. But it is not possible to engage the Catholic imagination in conservation of species or landscapes – and this, despite Pope Francis’ extraordinary and far-reaching encyclical, Laudato Si’.
There is one paragraph in particular which took my breath away when I first read it:
It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right (LS 33).
This powerful piece of writing goes from the heart to the heart. It is unprecedented in its reaching out to other forms of life on earth and recognising their inherent value. It is a passage on a par with the writings of St Francis, who called other species his sisters and brothers in a radical re-visioning of our relationship to life on earth. Yet it goes further. It asks us to care, not because other life in useful to us, but because, “all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.” And then it has instructions for action:
Each area is responsible for the care of this family. This will require undertaking a careful inventory of the species which it hosts, with a view to developing programmes and strategies of protection with particular care for safeguarding species heading towards extinction (LS 42).
This is a clear mandate for the Church to take conservation seriously and to be involved directly, as part of faith. Yet, this section of Laudato Si’ is largely ignored and is rarely ever referenced.
Over the last ten years I have been involved in many events, talks and conferences on Christianity and nature. They have all been uplifting and heartening, but ultimately, I am not sure that they have achieved what Pope Francis has in mind. They have raised awareness, particularly about climate change, and that is good, of course. Perhaps that is all that can be done at present. For me, it was time to move on.
I am now working to save the endangered Eurasian curlew, a bird like the spectacled eider that has no direct influence on humanity other than bringing joy into the lives of those who listen to its exquisite song bubbling and tumbling over wetlands and moors. This work does not involve the Church. Experience has told me there is no point, not at present anyway. Perhaps Pope Francis is slowly making the Catholic soil more fertile for environmental messages, so that in time to come they will take root, but for now it is low on the religious agenda. I very much hope things will change.
So, I will keep doing what I feel is right and keep looking for the path ahead. I always take with me the words at the end of the Mass – go in peace to love and serve the Lord. That instruction is my guide along this mountain track, which still appears and disappears with infuriating randomness, but is undoubtedly there. And I suspect I share with other women in this book the sense that there is no option but to keep on going on, peacefully and determinedly walking our own paths, and bringing our own stories and insight, trusting that they will contribute to a more holistic and inclusive future.