Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Ecological Thanksgiving
distributed 11/19/10 - ©2010

Thanksgiving came a month early for me this year. A brief visit to an old friend provided an opportunity for me to name my gratitude for lessons and experiences that have shaped my life, my vocation and my faith.

In October, I made a business trip to northern California to work with a deeply committed church in Berkeley that wants to infuse eco-justice values into all aspects of a major building project. Eco-Justice Ministries has a policy that demands the highest possible value for my use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions on long trips, so several other meetings and presentations were bundled with the church events.

Before my busy business schedule started, I was able to squeeze in three hours of purely personal time to celebrate 40 years of influence from a wise friend and mentor. A delightful lunch visit with Dr. Richard Beidleman let me express my thanks to the man who changed my life by teaching me so deeply and profoundly about ecology.

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I started my studies at Colorado College in the fall of 1970, about 5 months after the first Earth Day. That semester, I took an introductory course in environmental biology.

On the first day of the class, as we sat around lab tables in the basement of the science building, Professor Dick Beidleman gave us a warning that what we were doing was dangerous stuff. "Ecology" as a relatively new academic topic was causing fights among the faculty of the biology department.

There were many professors who insisted that the role of a good biologist is to describe an organism or a species in detail, and in isolation from "extraneous" influences. They were outraged about this new approach of ecology that gave primary importance to the relationships between species, and that considered the role of habitat and ecosystems. This was an attack on how they had learned how to do science, and how they had built their careers.

Dick warned us that we were entering a political battleground, and affirmed that our studies of those relationships would be rigorous. In the coming weeks, we learned concepts and principles that define the core of ecological science, and we reinforced those ideas with extensive fieldwork. I was hooked by this fascinating topic, and it became the centerpiece of my college major, with Dick as one of my advisors.

In 1970, Colorado College was just starting the remarkable educational approach of "the block plan", where students take one course at a time in 3 week "blocks". It is an intense and demanding approach -- art students hardly have time for the paint to dry on their projects! -- and it provided an incredible opportunity for us doing field biology. We could scatter into the mountains and plains around Colorado Springs to visit and study a wide range of settings without any concern about missing other courses.

Through my four years of field courses, Dr. Dick took us to biologically rich streambed habitats in the midst of high plains grasslands We went to mountain wetlands with wintering bald eagles, and saw 54 of them in one day -- which was a large fraction of the total US population of those endangered birds. We spied on grade school kids playing at recess to learn about the social behavior of songbirds.

Over and over again, through direct field experiences, we were steeped in the wonder and diversity of nature, and of the complex relationships that shape the world. Despite what some of the other faculty still said, we learned in our guts that authentic biology -- indeed, any realistic description of the world -- has to see the complex web of relationships that shape and nurture all life. Nothing exists in isolation; everything is shaped by context and relationships.

In my senior year, I was part of the course that Dick still describes as far and away the best class that he ever taught. It was a field course on "the Piñon-Juniper Woodlands." Piñon Pine and various species of juniper are found together in a diverse and distinctive ecosystem that is found across the western US. For three weeks, 12 students went on the road with Dr. Dick and another professor, exploring the intricacies of the "PJ woodland" in some of its many settings.

We spent time in places like Mesa Verde and Canyonlands National Parks, and at Ghost Ranch. We stopped in state parks and highway rest areas. On mountainsides and deserts, we studied the community of life that depends on the combined presence of those two tree species: piñons and junipers.

Over and over again, we counted trees, and did core samples to learn how old they were. (A 10 foot tall piñon can be hundreds of years old.) We did census studies to see what other plants were present. We made lists of the birds, mammals, reptiles and insects that live and migrate in those settings. We studied historic weather records for temperature and rainfall, and looked at evidence of micro-climates related to soils and topography. We gave close consideration to human ecology and the interplay of people with the PJ woodlands -- an essential part of Mesa Verde's ancient cliff dwellings, and a controversial factor in grazing management on Forest Service lands.

The PJ Woodland course was enormous fun, and it solidified everything that I had learned about ecological relationships through my previous years of study. It was the best course that Dr. Dick taught, and one of the best that I have ever taken. As I was able to tell him over lunch last month, his lessons from 40 years ago are so deeply embedded in my view of the world that I am incapable of seeing the world as just a collection of things.

On the first day of class in 1970, he told us that environmental biology was dangerous stuff. It still is. In 2010 -- 40 years later -- the central reality of ecological relationships is still offensive to those who would see the world as resources. It is still controversial to affirm that humans are interwoven and embedded in that web of life.

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One of the four theological affirmations that shape the programming of Eco-Justice Ministries says, "We live in a world of complex and interdependent relationships."

For me, that biological and sociological truth expresses an even deeper theological, ontological reality. This world, the whole universe, is inherently relational. Any truthful expression of theology, not just a theology of nature, must take into account the interconnection and interdependence of all things.

The vision of eco-justice -- "the well-being of all humankind on a thriving Earth" -- reflects the ecological reality that I learned in biology classes 40 years ago. Last month, I had the joyous opportunity to express my thanks to the man who planted that awareness in my mind, heart and soul. Our delightful lunch was a Thanksgiving meal for me.

For next week's Thanksgiving holiday in the US, may we all give thanks for this wonderful world of relationships, and for those who have opened our eyes to the blessings and responsibilities of living within God's exquisite creation.

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As is our tradition, the staff of Eco-Justice Ministries will be taking a few days off over the Thanksgiving holiday. The next Eco-Justice Notes will be sent on November 26.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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