Sunday, April 22, 2012

An Earth Day Lament for the Rhodora

I spend some time each day wandering around Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham—walking between Christ Church and Cranbrook School, bicycling or running through the neighborhoods.  One of the pleasures, of course, of living and working here is the beauty of the surroundings, especially the way plants display themselves in autumn and spring.
Since returning after a thirty-year absence, though, I’ve noticed that the blooming times of bushes, trees, and flowers seem dramatically to have altered.  When Kathy and I were married in April of 1978 (in Massachusetts) we had to force forsythia to bloom as a low-cost decoration to our wedding reception.  This year, the forsythia were finished before Easter.  By the month of May, known proverbially as “lilac time” in the old days, the lilacs will be all but a memory.  They’re in full bloom on most bushes right now. And even my office is not safe from these changes:  the flowering cherry I view from my window was finished blooming in Lent.
It turns out I’m not alone in noticing this trend. This past week, The New York Times ran an article, “Early Bloomers”, by two scientists who discussed Thoreau’s 1853 observations of the flowering of several native species in Concord, Massachusetts that are now blooming earlier or disappearing altogether because of the gradual warming of the planet.  In their words:

Warming weather in Concord is most likely the cause. Over the last 160 years, April temperatures at the nearby Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory have warmed by around five degrees, because of a combination of global warming and warming associated with the expansion of paved surfaces and buildings in metropolitan Boston. Plants on average flower two days earlier for each degree increase in Concord — thus, the town’s plants are generally flowering about 10 days earlier than when Thoreau made his observations. With temperatures predicted to rise by four to eight additional degrees this century, plants could flower 8 to 16 days earlier than they do now.
Of course, it’s not just Concord. Records from every continent and the oceans in between show changes in the timing of plant and animal behaviors, including flowering, mating, migrating and emerging from hibernation. Some species are changing faster, some slower, but the changes matter. Pollinators may arrive too early for their favorite flowers. Predators may arrive too late for their preferred prey. Species will have to adjust or perish. No doubt, there will be — and already are — winners and losers in this great shake-up. [Richard Primack and Abraham J. Miller-Rushing “Early Bloomers”, The New York Times, April 19, 2012; illustration by Becca Stadtlander, reproduced above.]

Concord, Massachusetts, was home to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two writers who have meant much to me over the course of my life.  When I saw the article’s illustration of the rhodora, a wild azalea native to New England, I recalled one of Emerson’s most memorable poems.  It’s short and worth rereading today:

The Rhodora

On being asked, whence is the flower.
In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals fallen in the pool
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being;
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there, brought you.

“Beauty is its own excuse for being.” Even in the mid 19th century, you probably wouldn’t have seen a rhodora unless you’d gone out of your way to find it.  And once you did, you would probably have asked yourself, “Why is all this extravagant beauty wasted on a wilderness where there is no one else around to perceive it?”  Emerson’s answer was that the “charm wasted on the earth and sky” is a sign of some spirit at work in the natural and human world.  We Christians would call that spirit, “God”.
There are all kinds of reasons to lament the way human beings are degrading the planet.  Many of those reasons are more serious than the disappearance of a wild native azalea.  But it is perhaps easier for us to focus on the rhodora’s gradual decline than it is to think about the sinking of island nations and the exponential increase we’re seeing in tornadoes every spring.
Global warming, and the climate change it causes, is no joke.  It is not a political issue.  It is scientific fact.  And because it is a real, demonstrable degradation of God’s world, it is necessarily a theological concern.  Christianity has come late to the understanding that ecology is as at the heart of its moral and spiritual mission. Now, in the 21st century, all Christian traditions agree that stewardship of creation is central to the work of God’s people and the church.
Earth Day may be a secular holiday, but it has theological implications. Caring for the earth means making it a place where the highbush blueberry, marsh marigold, birdfoot violet, sweet pepperbush, flowering dogwood, garlic mustard, canada lily, rose pogonia, and yes, the rhodora can thrive.  That self-same Power that made us made them, too.  As we continue to enjoy this beautiful spring, let us honor the creation and commit ourselves to advocating policies that will preserve and enhance God’s fragile, abundant, vulnerable world.
Gary Hall


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