Sunday, November 23, 2014

Fundamentals of Conservation, Part 3 "Serving with Our Neighbor"

Thanksgiving is a special holiday to me because it has been generally less commercialized than nearby Halloween and Christmas.   Thanksgiving invites us to remember the only true Object of genuine thankfulness— God Who is the ultimate Provider of all things.  Indeed, thankfulness without an object to receive our thanks is narrow and incomplete.

In our recent blog entries on “Fundamentals of Conservation,” we have emphasized that conservation, or “con-service” means to serve with.  Thus, both “thanks-giving” and “con-service” suggest the need for an object.  Conservation has two objects of “service”—with God, and with creation.  Furthermore, both “con-service” and “thanks-giving” imply that a certain quality of character be expressed toward the object in question; namely, a submissive spirit and a thankful spirit.  But how do these character qualities come about?

Biblically speaking, conservation is a practice of individuals who have acknowledged that rebellion and sin, not submission and service, are “in their DNA” inherited from Adam and Eve (Genesis 3).  As a result, they recognize their utter inability to exercise true dominion (submissive stewardship; Genesis 1: 16-28; 2: 15) without first humbly confessing and seeking God’s forgiveness through the atoning blood of Christ.  The true conservationist is submissive and thankful that God has redeemed him and enlisted him to serve on a planet that groans under the wages of sin (Romans 8: 19-23).

For the spiritually reborn child of God, biblical conservation grows out of an intimate relationship of serving with God.  Serving in this partnership with the Creator, we can learn the origin, true value, and significance of creation (Part 1, Article #1 April).  The quality of our stewardship is further enhanced as we learn more about the workings of creation (See Part 1, Article #2 May) and what is pleasing to our Creator (2 Corinthians 5: 9 and See Part 1, Article #3 June) as we serve Him by serving with creation.  Serving with creation in turn requires that we become students of both the historical influences on the land (See Part 2, Article #1 September) and the current processes at work in the landscape (See Part 2, Article #2 October).

This month’s “Fundamentals of Conservation”, Part 3, emphasizes that biblical conservation (or stewardship) of creation is practiced not only by serving with God and serving with Creation, but in serving with our neighbor.  This notion is based on the fact that God in the three Persons of the Trinity is a relational God.  It is this relational God Who created humans to exist in relationship with Him and with one another as His image bearers.  It follows that conservation blossoms in its fullest sense as we realize its relational nature as expressed when the conservationist serves with all three agents in right relationship—with God, creation, and neighbor.

I will now illustrate how conservation rests upon all three agents noted above, like the three legs of a stool in proper proportion.   I am thankful that God sought me out and redeemed me as His own son, then gave me a great love for His creation, and has blessed me with many good “neighbors” with whom to work.  Allow me to share first a few of the “neighbors” who have been partners, teachers, and mentors.

My dearest prairie partner in early 1980's
with Prairie Dock ("cut-leafed variety)
First, God has blessed me with my wife Alvadell (“Abby”), my nearest and dearest “neighbor” who has been “one with me” since 1969.  She has been beside me as wife, mother of our children, and companion in church, community, forest, and field.  Some of our most cherished communion with each other and with God has been as we’ve enjoyed the beauty and wonder of His creation.

In 1979, God led us as a family to Cedarville College where we grew spiritually in the light and warmth of pastors, friends, and colleagues for over three decades while I taught in the Science-Math Department.  Abby and I had discovered Cedarville ten years earlier while students at Malone College.  At Malone, it was Professor Charles C. King who had ignited my interest in botany and ecology.  Later Dr. King, as director of the Ohio Biological Survey, was responsible for identifying some of the remnant forest and prairie communities, including the railroad prairie remnants mentioned in this blog series.

Jack McDowell (center) and Charles C. King (right)
During my years at Cedarville, I became closely acquainted with two other prairie enthusiasts.  One was Jack McDowell who was so instrumental in conservation efforts through Columbus metroparks.  Jack explained to me how he and Charlie King had become fast friends after they had “chanced to meet” in, of all places, a prairie remnant community in central Ohio.  The other prairie enthusiast is Lynn Holtzman, a wildlife biologist with the Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources.  Lynn’s commitment to land stewardship based on his pursuit of God and a scholarly understanding of biblical environmental ethics was instrumental in the development of my own conservation ethic.
Lynn Holtzman (Photo taken at Milford Ctr. Prairie, Union Co.)
In fact, Lynn’s master’s thesis was entitled “Nature as Neighbor: Aldo Leopold’s Extension of Ethics to the Land.”  God has allowed Lynn and I to be “good neighbors” in several land stewardship projects in SW Ohio.  Of course conservation efforts require the neighborly cooperation of local land managers as the following paragraphs should illustrate.

When the last freight train passed through Cedarville in the mid-1980’s, remnant prairie communities along the railway from Xenia to Columbus, Ohio became of greater interest, particularly because of the plan to convert the rails to bicycle trails.  Rather suddenly, the abandoned railways--long, narrow swaths of land with lots of “surface area” adjoining land owned by many “neighbors” per mile were about to undergo a change in land use. 

Native Royal Catchfly, Silene regia, in the narrow railway
corridor (now Prairie Grass Trail) surrounded by agriculture
Having gained some botanical knowledge of the flora along the abandoned railway, several park districts enlisted me in 2001 and 2002 to inventory and map the native plant species along the abandoned railway in Greene, Clark, and Madison counties.  In an effort to create interest in prairie plants of the abandoned railway among local residents, I created a webpage featuring color photos of remnant prairie flora.

As the bikeway was being completed, my students and I developed and conducted an opinion survey of landowners adjacent to the bikeway.  We had three goals the first of which was to determine how “bikeway neighbors” viewed the new bikeway.
Royal Catchfly and Culver's Root
growing in the narrow railway corridor surrounded by cropland

Second, we wanted to use the survey as an opportunity to locate individuals who would provide historical information about the prairie remnant communities.  Finally, we hoped that face-to-face encounters with landowners might spawn cooperative efforts leading to the development of buffer zones adjacent to the otherwise long, narrow configuration of the remnant prairie communities surrounded by agricultural cropland.

As a result of our “boots on the ground” presence, the students and I were able to meet several interested “bikeway neighbors” and we soon learned the necessity of neighborliness in our land conservation effort.  We were also welcomed by the Friends of Madison County Parks and Trails (FMCPT) capably led by Wayne Roberts.  As a result of our landowner survey and cooperation with Julia Cumming, Madison Soil and Water Conservation District, we were able to secure cooperation with Jim Mitchell, whom we had met through our opinion survey and who was interested in devoting some land adjacent to the bikeway to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).  

Transplants of native prairie plants into Mitchell field along
bikeway (upper R). Jim Mitchell & son (L), J. Zehring and I
The Mitchell land was sown in prairie grasses.  Jim allowed us to add prairie forbs to the field and used his skid-steer loader with forestry attachment to cut and remove trees and shrubs encroaching on the prairie adjacent to the bikeway.  We hope that the partnership with Jim Mitchell can be a prototype for more partnerships between the park district/bikeway program and “bikeway neighbors.”

The FMCPT has been very effective in promoting the “Prairie Grass Trail” bikeway in cooperation with the Soil Conservation District and other organizations.  We are using a strategic management plan in an attempt to conserve prairie remnant plant species using a combination of approaches including mechanical removal, controlled burning, and herbicidal applications to simulate the environmental conditions that preserved these historic prairie remnants.

Jerry Miller, FMCPT volunteer with Royal Catchfly and
Prairie Coneflower (dry seed heads) in the Mitchell field
Yes, conservation is “con-service”—serving with Creator, creation, and neighbors.  The relationship goes both ways; as we serve God and His creation, God keeps us by providing both spiritual and physical “bread.”  Likewise, land under proper care will yield its fruitfulness back to us in the form of food, fiber, medicinal compounds, aesthetic enjoyment, etc.  Thus, conservation is made complete when neighbors work together for the cause of serving both God and creation.  Don’t forget the three supporting legs of a stool.   These truths were illustrated this past summer during the Prairie Appreciation Bike Ride sponsored by the Friends of Madison Co. Parks and Trails.  Some of the riders on this July Saturday had been volunteer “bikeway neighbors” who had, during the late winter months, toiled together to cut and burn encroaching shrubs and trees to allow space and light for the prairie plants to grow.  Many had not seen the worksites since winter, and they responded with glee at their first sight of colorful native prairie wildflowers flourishing in places that had been overgrown with woody species.  This satisfaction and joy was the blessed result of their willingness to serve creation and share with neighbors in valuing the purposes of our conservation plan.

Prairie Appreciation Bike Riders
learn more about remnant prairie history and conservation.
The same commitment to land stewardship, or conservation, is expressed through the older and more comprehensive Town of Dunn Land Use Plan under the leadership of Calvin DeWitt.  (In Part 1, Article #1 of this series I had referenced Dr. Calvin DeWitt as the author of the book Earthwise (3rd. ed., 2011, Faith Alive Christian Resources) in which he develops the notion of con-servation.)  DeWitt reflects on the Town of Dunn conservation effort in his recent book, Song of a Scientist: The Harmony of a God-Soaked Creation (2012, Square Inch. Grand Rapids, MI).  I conclude with an excerpt from this book which illustrates the ingredients and outcomes of conservation—a relational process in which willing people in community serve with Creator, creation, and neighbor:

The members of our community made the decision to get to know our place well and to act on that knowledge for the benefit of the land and its life.  Many were motivated simply by love of the land and their community, others by their Norwegian Lutheran upbringing or their Irish Catholic heritage.  Together, by all of our mutual efforts, a land ethic was instilled in the heart of our community, and we have dedicated our lives to its defense.  Our land ethic is published on our town website.  But it is published best in our community: in the lives of citizens and in the remarkable landscape of our town, which proclaims the stewardship we practice in this place.  With our land ethic we join the glorious chorus of those around the world who proclaim God’s sustaining provisions in creation.

No comments: