The construct ecological spirituality and terms like that have by now become familiar to many, Christians and others, who are seeking to respond to our global ecojustice crisis from religious perspectives. i Perhaps the most widely celebrated theological voice in this respect is Pope Francis’, who in his encyclical Laudato Si’ has championed the importance of an ecological spirituality for all, for Christians especially, in this era of global emergency, as the beautiful prayer with which he concludes that encyclical powerfully shows. ii
But how is such an ecological spirituality to be claimed more generally by members of our churches today? In recent years I have become more and more convinced that narratives of personal experience, fragmentary as they typically are, have a role to play in helping church members today to develop ecological spiritualities of their own, alongside of more discursive theological studies and confessional statements such as Laudato Si’. It is with that conviction in mind that I offer here a narrative of some fragments of an ecological spirituality in the form of musings on a recent journey of my own.
On a half-rainy day in January, 2020, exploring back roads near the coast in the Hilo area of the Big Island of Hawaii, my wife of more than fifty years, Laurel, and I came upon an almost invisible seaside park, accessible only by a steep drop of stairs. iii At the water’s edge, overlooking the waves crashing on the black volcanic rocks, was a single picnic table. Sitting there in the occasional sunshine, while holding our books and reading now and again, we kept lifting up our eyes to contemplate the magnificent waves of the Pacific splashing against the cliffs on either side of us.
That we both had books with us was no happenstance. We carry them with us the way many other travelers carry smartphones. We take our books with us on outings, like that coastal adventure. We sometimes take them out to dinner. We regularly take them on the subway with us, on the way to concerts. Except for exceptions, we usually take them to bed with us at night. Recent generations may not understand. But, more often than not, we find those books and our conversations about them, day or night, charged with insightful, sometimes moving discoveries. Laurel reads mostly detective novels and I mainly read, mirabile dictu, theology books.
On occasion, I’ll read novels, such as the one I had in hand at that little coastal park, Richard Powers’ The Overstory. iv That long and complex, but illuminating and deeply troubling book claimed all my reading energies during our ten-day Big Island vacation. I was fascinated, but by no means surprised, by Powers’ passion for trees, in particular. I quickly decided that I had found a spiritual soulmate. Just a couple of months before Laurel and I had departed for Hawaii, as a matter of fact, I had received word that my short essay, “Treehood: A Memoir,” had been accepted for publication. v It’s the story of a lifelong love affair with trees.
Powers’ novel also brought back memories of my own environmental activism during the last fifty years – not nearly so radical, for sure, as the protests of a number of his well-etched characters. On the other hand, if you consider theology as radical, in the sense that it is a discourse that seeks to unearth the Divine roots (radix) of critical cosmic and historic meanings, I’ve been a radical since the late nineteen sixties, committed at every step along the way to encourage our churches to get ecologically re-rooted.vi I suppose that working on other public causes over the years, like, most recently, joining a campaign to pressure my own college to divest from fossil fuels or digging deep to donate to ecojustice candidates might count for something, too, however modest. Likewise for lifestyle commitments, like eating low off the food chain or habitually reusing stuff.
Truth be known, though, as we began our drive around the Big Island, in odd moments I kept thinking much more about environmental guilt than environmental activism or green lifestyle practices. Was it a contradiction for the two of us, for example, to have contributed to the global climate crisis so blatantly by choosing to fly to Hawaii and back? Now I know that, when I entertain such questions, I can also invoke Luther, with some justification: sin boldly, trust the Lord, and rejoice (pecca fortiter sed fortius fide et gaude in Christo). But at some point along the way in Hawaii I just decided not to worry about the guilt, just to live with the contradictions, and then to keep throwing myself into our trip. Was that the wisdom or the folly of old age – or both?
So it happened that early on in our journey I found myself intensely preoccupied not by tourist guilt, but by what I came to think of, indeed, as the great overstory and by what that story meant for me and for Laurel and for our children and our grandchildren and indeed for all the creatures of the Earth, now and in generations to come. The trees! The trees! Especially their absence. As our trip unfolded – except for the eastern shore of the Big Island, where everything was to come to a conclusion for me – trees were often in evidence to us mainly because they were not to be seen.
That was due in large measure, it appeared to me, not to historic human use or abuse – although we met signs of that, too – but because of horrendous volcanic eruptions over the years that had buried vast swaths of green regions throughout much of the island with black lava. Add to that the consistently sparse rainfall in many areas of the Big Island, and no wonder that the place appeared to us at times to be much more black or brown than green.
But I am getting ahead of myself. While the great overstory constantly hovered in my mind, I found myself much more consciously engaged those days with trivialities, as the world counts such things. With the city of Hilo itself, for example. A former sugarcane outpost, Hilo seemed to me to still be very much a working class town. Much of its coastline was replete with warehouses and loading docks and corner stores, notwithstanding obvious efforts that had been made to spruce it up with parks and to add upscale hotels.
At Hilo, fittingly, Laurel and I stayed for a day at a small, cheap hotel. Nearby, at a restaurant that appeared to be frequented mainly by locals, we enjoyed unusually spiced drinks before dinner – the one flavored with hibiscus, the other with jalapeno. The restaurant itself was perched on posts, in anticipation of the next tsunami. But never mind that kind of calamity, probably those posts wouldn’t help much, I concluded, when the next lava flow from an erupting Mauna Loa began relentlessly to flow. Had I therefore in that restaurant stumbled on to an historic insight? Was that perhaps the story of this region of Hawaii, if not all the islands, I wondered, a delectably flavored human world that was constantly vulnerable to historic disasters? And was that somehow my world, too?
The following day we left Hilo and drove for several hours along the arid northwest coast of the Big Island, many outcroppings of which were gargantuan, some of which was an enormous sloping flatland blanketed with what were, for us, alien lava fields. Those regions appeared to us to be akin to the surface of the moon, but thoroughly black and much more jagged. They were almost totally devoid of trees, often devoid even of grasses, even though they were thousands of years old.
At Kalua-Kona on the western coast, which was greener, thanks to more frequent rainfall, we stayed at a small house, which we had all to ourselves, maybe ten yards from the thundering waves at high tide. One day we watched as a wiry young man emerged from the scarcely visible house adjacent to ours, hidden by trees. He easily balanced himself on protruding lava rocks some yards out into the turbulent waters. He carried what turned out to be a sizeable white net, which he repeatedly cast over the waves. We wondered what he was fishing for. Notwithstanding his graceful movements, he didn’t seem to catch anything. Was that a parable for our times? No, I didn’t want to read too much into that simple story. Sometimes fishing is – just fishing.
Another day, as we were reading on the back porch, overlooking the waves, we heard the sound of what seemed to be an extraordinary wave crashing on the dark lava shoreline wall below us. On second glance, we discovered the source of that strange noise. It was a massive humpback whale, maybe a quarter-mile offshore, surfacing and then crashing back into the waters. On cue, a remarkably smaller whale calf surfaced and crashed into the waters with much less resounding thunder. That wonderful duet then repeated itself three more times. I felt at that moment that something of the Divine mystery of creation had just been disclosed to me, reminiscent of Job’s much more comprehensive experiences at the edge of his wilderness.
At Kalu-Kona, we also preoccupied ourselves with snorkeling, which had been the chief raison d’etre for each of our four Hawaiian trips. The snorkeling has been Laurel’s passion mainly, but I – once upon a time a competitive swimmer – have eagerly paddled along with her in every instance and in every direction. The word snorkeling, I know, sounds odd, almost as odd as the sight of us, two senior citizens, must have appeared when we entered the waters at a public park, donned with gloves and masks with air pipes, carrying flippers, she holding my hand, me balance-challenged, carefully proceeding baby-step by baby-step, until we finally were able to lower ourselves slowly into the thigh-deep waves, put on our flippers, and then swim out to deeper regions.
It was of course all worth it, however comical it might have appeared at the outset. In those deeper waters, we slowly maneuvered effortlessly, it felt, uplifted in body and spirit by the temperate, clear water and thrilled by the sight of so many multicolored fish, we watching while they seemed casually to feed and then energetically to dart around the striking coral reefs maybe twelve feet below. It was as if we had been given a privileged glimpse of the fifth day of creation.
That was a powerful moment for me, quite unlike the “oceanic feeling” described by Sigmund Freud and by some mystics, the idea that such experiences drive you to lose yourself in the Divine, like a drop of water falling into a vast sea. On the contrary, I found myself in a fresh way at that moment, floating on the surface and contemplating those fish below: as one small creature among unimaginable numbers of other kinds, from the nearly infinite to the infinitesimal, each one beloved by God in its own way, myself included.
While at Kalua-Kona, too, we joined a contingent of other tourists for a day on a sizeable little ship, which took us all to a secluded bay several miles to the south, a national seaside protected area, where we snorkeled and contemplated the gorgeous fish there for a couple of timeless hours. After that, on board, all the passengers and the crew enjoyed a deliciously grilled repast together. Did that mundane voyage and that simple lunch offer a kind of spiritual communion with the God who is in, with, and under and above, beyond, and beneath both the worlds of human and cosmic history? For me, it did.
On another day at Kalua-Kona, we motored up winding roads to the top of a mountain precipice in order to find a funky cafe, where we had lunch at a window overlooking the whole coastline far below, bathed at that time in the sun and punctuated by the shadows of a few ominous rain clouds. What human hands had shaped those sloping mountainside fields, I wondered, and, more recently, what had it truly cost to develop the land closer to the ocean into sprawling residences for the rich and the powerful? And what other species might have lived on those slopes in times gone by? Was it possible, indeed, to hear the groaning of the whole creation in that developed setting?
After our stay at Kalua-Kona, we drove around the northern coast. We kept motoring higher and higher, with an ancient extinct volcano on one side and the vast shoreline extending from horizon to horizon below us. This was a region of immense grasslands, presumably cleared of trees – and of native peoples – at some time by colonizing human hands, for the sake of sugar cane production perhaps or to create flowing fields where cattle could graze. The vista at that point was overwhelming, some three-thousand feet high, as I recall.
We then descended along a narrowing and still more winding road two thousand feet or more to what appeared to be a small tourist town, Hawi, where we enjoyed an idiosyncratic Hawaiian lunch and, with all the other tourists, dutifully applauded two middle-aged native women who were doing what was billed as traditional dances. What might I have learned from that experience had I given it any serious spiritual attention?
Returning to Hilo, we took refuge in an elegant three-floor, shoreline mini-hotel, perched on posts, again, in view of the next tsunami. The best snorkeling we experienced on our trip was at a nearby sandy beach, thankfully not, like many of the others, full of sharp, lava rocks. The sun came out just in time for our first plunge into those nearly transparent waters. The fish there were extraordinary, some of them with colors which we had not seen before. It was their world and we felt privileged to have had glimpses of it.
The following day, huddled together, carrying our umbrella under a steady rain, we explored the dark shoreline in front of our inn, tiptoeing on the sometimes slippery volcanic stone flats at the edge of the ocean. At one point, we caught sight of a large sea-turtle, which soon disappeared from sight under the ledge of the rocky shoreline on which we were standing. Such turtles, Laurel later learned, can stay under water for as much as half an hour. On a previous Hawaian trip, to Kauai, while snorkeling, we had glided over several such turtles, none of which seemed to pay any attention to us. It was as if they had assumed that those regions were theirs, not ours.
From that seaside base in Hilo, the next day we drove 35 miles to Volcano National Park and explored its many contours and precipitous sites. Somehow the fog that often shrouded us that day seemed appropriate. Every dark volcanic basin seemed to be charged with mystery. At the end of the day, as we sat in an upscale restaurant at the upper reaches of the volcano, we looked out the large windows, which were to have shown us beautiful scenic vistas, and we saw heavy grey clouds everywhere.
At that moment we might well have pondered the ambiguities and the contradictions of human existence on planet Earth. By what right had we been expecting to be presented with a scenic view? Instead, we talked about the books we had been reading and we gossiped about our children and our grandchildren, along the way relishing more delicious local cuisine, of a kind we had never tasted before. During the meal, we had a fascinating conversation with our server, whose day job was caring for a half-dozen cattle. He complained about not being able to grow the vegetables he was eager to harvest, because many of them rotted in the heavy rain in that region. It was also a challenge, he said, to keep the cattle dry now and again, which he said he needed to do, for their own sakes. For sure, he was much more in tune with the meanings of that region than tourists like us.
Finally, while Laurel had her snorkeling moments to keep rejuvenating her spirits, the existential highpoint of the trip for me was our long, contemplative visit to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden not too far from Hilo, where we had begun our journey. That day we had the park almost entirely to ourselves. It was full of an unimaginable number of small, large, and gargantuan plants, from variegated orchids and spider lilies to monkeypod and African tulip and banyan trees, topped off by immense palms. The park was bounded at its lower levels by the sea itself and the rolling and the churning of the incoming waves.
A thoroughly modern human creation (1984) – containing plants and vines and trees from middle-earth regions in many settings around the globe and doubtless also hundreds of indigenous animals that we never heard or saw, except for the songs of a few birds – this dramatically sloping almost forty-acre seaside garden, featuring as it did several cascading streams, was more than a park for me. Again: The trees! The trees! As I walked along the circuitous, well-designed paths, a few of them amazingly steep, and I looked up at the canopy high above, I called to mind some of the themes of Overstory. For, in this place – not without the investment of much human capital – the overstory ruled everything else.
But all the more so, inveterate student of Scriptures that I am, I thought of that place as the Garden of Eden. Laurel and I were Adam and Eve all over again, I imagined, fragile and dependent creatures who were almost totally hidden amidst those astoundingly huge leafy plants and colossal trees. Laurel picked up the theme of human minisculity in her own characteristic fashion, calling to mind for us the dozen or more of sizeable broad-leafed tropical plants that I have collected and I care for in our own living-room back in Massachusetts. She imagined herself at that moment in that fecund Hawaiian botanical garden, she said, as some kind of inch-high humanoid walking through an overwhelmingly green effervescence of gigantic houseplants.
For me, that exquisitely alive seaside temple of towering trees and intricately variegated flowers and mysterious vines and spaciously leafed undergrowth and crashing streams and constantly incoming ocean waves on the Big Island also brought forth feelings of sadness. What was the future of this Garden of Eden? Our trip happened to coincide with the weeks in 2020 when half of Australia, it seemed, was going up in flames.