Readings: Acts 17: 16-28; John 3:1-8
From our first reading today we hear about Paul being in Athens. He notices all the idols the people are worshipping. I wonder what idols Paul would recognise walking through our shopping centres and suburbs today? On Areopagus Hill, Paul meets with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. He compliments them on their altar to the `Unknown God`, telling them that it represents the Creator God of the Old Testament (Isaiah 42:5 and Exodus 20:11) who `made the world and everything in it, . . . who does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands . . . since he himself gives to all of humankind life and breath and everything`. Being familiar with their philosophy, he quotes from the poet Aratus: `In him we live and move and have our being, for indeed we are his offspring. ` (17:29). In addition, Paul adds the unlimited generosity called the Grace of God, revealed in the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the ancients this generosity had long been experienced in the native Forests which literally gave them life and for us it gives the resources for the comforts of modern civilisation.
We see the same spirit of the ancients stirring people into action when Forests are threatened. Most recently in the defence of the Beeliar wetlands, led by Aboriginal people. For as the Forests breathe out we breathe in the oxygen which is essential for our life. As we breathe out the Forests breathes in our Carbon Dioxide storing it in the soil and wood, thereby over millions of years lowering the CO2 in the air to create the stable climate and high oxygen content that enabled our species Homo Sapiens to evolve. As Paul goes onto say` . . . so we might feel our way toward him and find him` - so that we might discover this reality.
Native Forests have evolved to live in complex and diverse communities hosting over 80% of all animal and plant species on this planet. They provide us with all the necessities of life including over 100 modern medicines. Over millions of years these Forests built up the soils our agriculture depends on, holding the soil and rain water on hillsides preventing floods and landslides into the valleys below. For the ancients, Forests were their sacred places. That is until we discovered how to make money out of them. Then in our greed we destroy them. Over 80% have been destroyed and reforestation is a modern imperative to restore life to earth.
My own life has been shaped by trees. I grew up on a fruit farm in Kent, England amidst trees - apple, pear and plum trees. But England`s native Forests were long gone and not until I came to Australia as a Farm Economist did I encounter the magnificent Jarrah and Karri Forests of the south West. As I travelled inland as a Farm Economist to work at Broomehill, I discovered the Forests had gone. A few remnant trees were left as shade for the sheep and others such as the Nuytsia Floribunda lived on, their dazzling bright orange flowers lifting the dullness of the dry summer pastures at Christmas.
I had learnt of the consequence of deforestation in semi-arid areas at University. Now I encountered the real thing. Rising salt sterilising the soil, destroying the freshwater lakes, streams, animals and plants. Formation of deep gullies as soil formed over millions of years being washed and blown away. Agricultural production depending increasingly on high inputs of artificial fertilizers whose industrial production adds to the CO2 emissions causing global warming.
Within two years I had abandoned Economics as a career and eventually became an Earth Systems Scientist. The process of desertification continues in south western Australia, but now with declining rainfall, for without Forests, two of the essentials for rain - moisture in the air and convective updraft - are seriously diminished. One can stand at the rabbit proof fence near Lake Grace and see clouds forming over the native woodlands but over the agricultural fields clear sky.
Later I began observing Forests from space, using satellite images transmitted to earth. I discovered the woodlands of the Tropical Savannas of Northern Australia being destroyed by late dry season wildfires sweeping across the continent, created by the decline in traditional Aboriginal firestick farming that reduced the intensity of these fires. This discovery has led to the re-introduction of early season burning from which Aboriginal people, including some from Mowanjum, receive credits from the Emissions Reduction Fund for the reduction in Greenhouse Gas emissions.
In the 1990s the Indonesian Rainforests of Sumatra and Kalimantan I discovered, were being destroyed by clearing and fire to satisfy our own demand for paper, cosmetics, confectionery and bio-diesel. Some of our visiting Papuan Students complained that their traditional village life was vanishing as their forests were being destroyed by large international corporations. These rainforests along with the oceans produce much of the Oxygen we breathe while capturing much of the Carbon Dioxide we emit. But now overburdened by our accelerating CO2 emissions, global warming is powering cyclones such Harvey in Texas, extensive flooding in the Indian sub-continent and Sierra Leone in West Africa.
As the Earth cries out, the poor suffer.
How then are we to address this crisis? Today we heard Jesus telling Nicodemus, a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews, that to inherit the Kingdom of God `He must be born again or more correctly translated `He must be born from above`. The story tells us to turn around, change our ways and respond to the present challenges of our world.
We are seeing such `Born from Above` movements. One of the most remarkable is The Green Belt Movement (GBM) in Kenya, founded in 1977 by Wangari Maathai in response to the needs of rural Kenyan women who found that their streams were drying up, their food supply was declining, and they had to walk further and further to get firewood for fuel and fencing. The GBM enabled the women to work together to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater, provide food and firewood, and receive a small monetary token for their work. So far they have planted over 30 million trees.
In 2004, Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Green Belt Movement continues to stand as a testament to the power of grassroots organizing, proof that one person`s simple idea - that a community coming together to plant trees, can make a difference.
As humans, we have evolved in nature. It`s where we feel most comfortable. It has been scientifically proven that when we spend time in nature, our brain behaves differently. It affects how we feel and think, which has a direct impact on our immunity and healing powers. Countries like South Korea and Japan have designated healing forests. Forests where people go to relax, recover and revive.
Forests or what remains of them have much to teach us. Borrowing from the words of the Hellenistic poet Aratus:`In the Forests we live and move and have our being, for indeed we are the Forests` offspring.`
R. Faber, 1993, The Apostle and the Poet: Paul and Aratus. Clarion 42 (13).
Thomas Berry, 1999, The Great Work: Our way into the future. Kindle
Lloyd Geering, 2014, Reimagining God: The faith journey of a modern heretic. Kindle
Tim Lenton, 2016, Earth System Science: A very short introduction. Kindle
Peter S. Sawtell, Eco-justice notes. Pray for the Rain 1/4/13; Forest, Trees and Peace 10/15/04; Empowering Lessons from Kenya 9/30/11 from: http://www.eco-justice.org/