The winter of 2010 will be remem- bered for its prolonged coldness and deep snow cover which has provided extra challenges for humans and other creatures. Thus, at our home in a small “forest island” surrounded by agricultural landscape in southwestern Ohio, we observe a large variety of nonmigratory songbirds and other winter-active creatures who find food and shelter in our forest edges– e.g. cardinals, black-capped chickadees, downy woodpeckers, and fox squirrels.
Because of the availability of natural sources of food, I have traditionally restricted bird feeding to periods of extended snow cover and cold. Instead of a regular “food handout” at a feeder, I have chosen to develop a landscape with numerous and varied sources of winter food for wildlife. At our forest-edge location, we have many perennial herbs, a prairie plot of grasses and forbs, unharvested crop plants, and trees and shrubs that have seed-bearing fruits as sources of food for seed-eating birds and other wildlife. Squirrels have access to acorns as well as hickory nuts, walnuts, and hazelnuts. The live tree trunks of shagbark hickory, ash and oak, as well as fallen logs afford bark crevasses and coverings from which woodpeckers and other insectivores can extract morsels of food.
However, on this February day, two experiences persuaded me to provide extra feed for the birds. First, near sundown as I hiked across the crisp, deep snow of a nearby cornfield, I could feel the cold fingers of the winter air reaching inside my coat to pull heat from my body. This feeling of intense cold sensitized me to the challenge of the songbirds. So, as I hiked toward our warm house, I sensed (or imagined) a bit more urgency in the sounds of late-afternoon chirps and the fluttering of songbirds as if to make appeal to me for a “food handout.” The experience of penetrating coldness combined with the sight of delicate winter birds convinced me to provide some food for them on this day.
Just the thought of how feathered and furry, warm-blooded creatures survive the cold of winter is an invitation to wonderment. Indeed, how could I survive in isolation from the interlocking economic and industrial grids that provide heat, water, food, transportation, etc. But the Creator, being rich in wisdom and mercy has made provision for both man and the other creatures in His great “Economy.” (The capital “E” was aptly used by Wendell Berry in his Home Economics essay entitled “Two Economies”(North Point Press, 1987)). This Economy demonstrates true “creation care” as only our Creator can. The psalmist pours praise to God for His Economy when he writes:
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
And Your dominion endures throughout all generations.
The LORD sustains all who fall
And raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to You,
And You give them their food in due time.
The LORD is righteous in all His ways
And kind in all His deeds.
The LORD is near to all who call upon Him,
To all who call upon Him in truth. – Psalm 145: 13-15; 17-18
Here we learn that God’s provision is everlasting, governed by the Righteous One Whose dominion sustains both mankind and other creatures. This Economy is much more complex than the “economy” that generates packaged bird seed and BTU’s of heat for our homes. The Creator’s provision extends to all creatures in a seamless manner:
You open Your hand
And satisfy the desire of every living thing. – Psalm 145:16
In the sciences of ecology and physiology, we are learning the intricate mechanisms of how plants and animals are equipped with molecular “clocks” that interact with the rotation of the Earth to tell the time of day and thus control daily cycles of activity and rest. These clocks also interact with changing daylength to set in motion hormonal changes that orchestrate such processes as migration and hibernation. Thus, both the inspired revelation of Scripture and the “book of creation” speak of our Creator’s provision for all creatures.
What does God teach us through His Economy of provision to every living thing in such wondrous ways? First, the Scripture teaches us that God owns creation while we are the stewards (Genesis 1:28; 2:15). As stewards, we must learn the workings of God’s Economy and humbly work within its laws and processes. In Deuteronomy 7:13 we have God’s promise to Israel that if they will reverence and obey God’s law, He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground… Throughout Scripture, God promises that He will keep those who keep His laws, including the laws governing the Sabbath for man and for the land.
In Leviticus 25: 2-7, God emphasizes that the Sabbath is not only for the benefit of mankind but also for livestock and for the wild creatures. Here, we see God’s invitation to humankind to be obedient stewards of the land. By obeying the Sabbath laws, they can serve in harmony with God’s open hands to every living thing (Psalm 145:16). God’s command which stated that your harvest's aftergrowth you shall not reap, and your grapes of untrimmed vines you shall not gather (v. 5) reveals a profound understanding of sustainable use of the land. This instruction was to conserve the soil, crops, and wildlife, a principle that we are just beginning to grasp.
In summary, any compassionate effort on my part to care for the creatures at our forest edge must respect the laws of God’s Economy as taught in Scripture and revealed in creation through proper study of the science of ecology. Our example of bird-feeding serves as a metaphor for our participation in the larger Economy of God. Simply filling a birdfeeder while ignoring the need to restore and protect wildlife habitats for shelter and nesting is not “creation care” either biblically or scientifically. On the other hand, planting patches of seed-bearing plants for wildlife in winter, or allowing some crop plants to stand unharvested will provide food, habitat, and shelter for many bird species as well as allow natural predation upon the songbirds without making the birds “sitting ducks” at a birdfeeder.
As Christian stewards we are called to be a caring people both toward God’s creation and toward our neighbor. In every case, “biblical care” must respect the larger Economy in which the subjects are involved. If we simply extend “handouts” to the poor and needy, or to songbirds without considering the larger context of their need, we could be doing more harm than good. Both birds and humans can become dependent and degraded when the focus of care is misplaced. Our attempts to restore both the brokenness of the creation and the brokenness of human families and communities must be guided by a humility and knowledge that recognizes the complexities of each within an Economy that runs by a larger hand than ours– the very Hand of God. May our hands offer real “care” both to our neighbor and to other creatures by approaches that are biblical and in harmony with His sustaining hands for His glory.
Websites on Care for Our Neighbors and Care of Creation:
Care of Creation – Pursuing a God-Centered Response to the Environmental Crisis
Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO)
Establishing a Wildlife Food Plot – from The Ohio State University
Floresta – Ministry of Healing of Land and People
Flourish – Reviving Lives and Landscapes
Urban Light Ministries – Serving God by Serving Children, Families, the Hurting and Hungry in Jesus' Name
Closed Door Ministries -- Assisting a Few, to Disciple Many, to Reach Millions