Still The Same Hawk, Video

Micah 4: 1 4

January 13, 2013

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

An old friend of Harry Ketoukas’ – the last surviving rent controlled person in his building – wrote me a very disturbing letter. I had written an article in the Villager about fracking and about the pipeline that has moved into the neighborhood. She wrote to say that she no longer cared. She said she wasn’t embarrassed that she didn’t care any more but that, like the rent the landlord was proposing, she couldn’t afford it. Caring was outside her budget. We met for coffee and I realized, with her, that she did care but not in the way she used to think she had to care. For her, caring about fracking meant doing something about it. She had to stop the pipeline and since she couldn’t do that, she did nothing. I admired her personal honesty. Clearly, the landlord’s constant harassment had not dulled her mind.

I can’t help but think about her as we read this scripture from Micah. “On that day,” it proclaims, “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree.” I love that image, don’t you? It has a simultaneous individual joy and social freedom. You will be free to live in your own apartment and everybody will have an apartment. Your apartment will not come at their cost, nor theirs at yours. The sword of me will become the ploughshare of us. Now, of course the text didn’t say that, did it? It did say that you would have something and everybody else would have something. But it said vine and fig tree, not apartment.

Note the agricultural set-up of scripture. Its metaphors are almost always from the time of the shepherds, not Silicon Valley. I do believe the scripture promises our friend an apartment and not a fig tree. But getting there can take a little unpacking. The second matter, related to the first and to her fig tree apartment, is how we make sense of nature and cities, without a scripture that helps us. Again, there is some unpacking needed.

Each of these matters, that of the self and the so-called other, and that of the presumed dichotomy of nature and the city, suffers from a dangerous confusion. They result in my friend thinking that she doesn’t care because she can’t fix fracking. Instead, she could be in relationship to fracking, which is the first step to fixing it. This sermon is for her.

We can care about fracking and about our own personal safety, both. In fact, we can’t care about them separately because when we do, true care will not emerge. When true care does not emerge, pipelines get built. A very few benefit while way too many do not. The land itself becomes a victim. When we turn selfish, we go out of proper relationship to others. When we only attend the other, as an other, we go out of proper relationship to ourselves. And when we go out of proper relationships to ourselves, we go out of relationships with vines and fig trees and apartments, and even energy itself.

First, the nature/city confusion. When it comes to this conversation, the elephant is not just in the room. It envelops the room. One of you said to me this week she didn’t want to come back from break because “she was loving nature so much and hated to return to the city.” I have to admit I was surprised. You don’t leave the city when you go to the country, nor do you leave the country when you come to the city. I know that is the dualism that deeply plagues us – but it is false at its heart and it is endangering both city and country, your apartment and your fig tree.

You have two addresses, one on your block and the other in your region. Never forget that I grew up near the Ashokan reservoir, where everybody said, proudly, you know that good water goes all the way to New York City and all those people there drink it. We were proud of our connection and our usefulness. Real proud. Surely you also know that New York City has a very small carbon footprint and that therefore it helps so-called nature in multiple ways. Surely you know that New York City is a great land shed where the very continent shifts from going north to South and begins to go East to West, making bird watching here an utterly remarkable experience. Also Monarch butterflies on Coney Island abound.

I love reading Philip Lopate on Brooklyn. He has been arguing for years that nature needs New York as much as New York needs nature and lately he has been talking a lot about his confusion around development. Why should there not be a high rise in Brooklyn? Why not? Yes, I know we are losing light to NYU and New School development, not only across the street, but on Fifth Avenue and 14th Street where I used to pick up a bus on a sunny winter morning. Now the sun is gone. I also think the new structure on Astor Place is going to take a lot of light off third avenue. And I know that NYU has the greenest generator plant in the whole city and that during the storm, they had energy.

When we spend a lot of time romanticizing nature and drinking from the cup of the myth of lost nature, we refuse our relationship with our own vine and fig tree. We live abstractly. We live without truth. We forget the Minnetta Brook. We objectify both city and nature and forgt their names and how they are both right here, right now. Neither is perfect but neither needs fixing so much as recognition.

Urban Density and complication are good. This city is getting greener, not less green. The myth of decline – oh the city destroys nature – is just not true. If anything, as climate change scares the socks off us, we will find many reasons to appreciate bike paths and subways. Don’t forget that Stuyvesant Cove used to be a cement plant. Or that Hell’s gate where the east river begins to meets the ocean is the geographical center of our shifting land mass. It is powerful. It is wild. It is not far away. All the wild places are not in the wild. I know about the Gowanus Canal which is a “super site” and how many people say “Only Germs can live there.” I am deeply impressed with the New York Harbor, and its annual floater’s week, where the dead arise at certain tides. I also have a lot of respect for rats and the ones with wings too. The myth of separation between city and nature keeps us in great danger. You know how the mythology works: what occurs above the water in the Harbor is good. Below is scary. This is yet another danger to our dualism. Or that somehow an urban landscape is an upset in the natural order of natural life. What about Population growth? Who was going to do what about that, if not cities? Do we really think people shouldn’t migrate? Especially to a great and exciting place? Do we really think everybody needs two acres and a mule? Things are actually changing in many good ways, not just in the fact that more and more people know their address is in a region, an interconnected region, not a city only or a country only.

I wonder if some of you remember what happened to the shark in the Gowanus Canal several decades ago. It was shot. That’s what happened. That shot is very interesting compared to the candlelight vigil reception to Pale Male and Lola, late of Fifth Avenue, and his partner. Hawks are distinctly not cuddly but still we are changing towards a positive about nature in New York. I wish more people in so-called nature would turn positive towards cities. I do think that New York’s remarkably small footprint will get attention.

We also have better horseshoe crabs than Long Island. Take that Suffolk County.

In order to think locally and think globally, we need to think regionally. There are alternatives to the self-flagellating story of decline – NYU is terrible and destroying us, etc. – and the rosy notions of progressive or technical solutions abundant to the serious problems we face in population and with people. The best is to have two addresses, your apartment and your region, your apartment and your fig tree. There we relate, even if we can’t’ fix.

New York is minimally a region 5300 square mils of land and water, an area including all or part of nine New York and twelve New Jersey Counties. Consider Jamaica Bay, most of which is in the actual area of New York City. The bay supports the region’s largest colony of diamondback terrapins, and at the bottom of the bay there is such a rich layer of mussels and other shellfish that it reminded one reporter of thick shag carpeting. Or think of Arthur Kill (kill means stream.) Or Hacksensack Highlands or the Meadowlands. You can get to the meadowlands. You can go to the meadowlands for lunch or Roosevelt Island for dinner. Because of our unique nature as an archipelago, every spring and fall our region is outstanding for bird watching. The Ramble in Central Park has thirty species of warblers. We have a friend who swears he can find a mushroom in Central Park any day of any year. The same hawk lives in an apartment building as lives on a cliff in the palisades.

Secondly, when the dumb split of nature and city is resolved, the even dumber split between my self-interest and your self-interest melts away. You who have a secure place to live, your own fig tree, your own apartment, can imagine connecting to me, and I, if secured, can connect to you. We go into relationship with each other and with the city and with the land – and that change changes everything else.

If you want a good read, consider Metropolis, Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon. In this book Cronon talks about nature as one of the most complicated and contradictory words in the entire English language. Sometimes we mean by nature “the non human world.” Cronon shows that the boundary between human and not human is actually false. If you will forgive me, let me mention Hegel and Marx. For them, “First nature,” means original and prehuman nature and “second nature” means the artificial nature that people erect atop first nature. First nature is fig tree. Second nature is apartment. But what is most real is their connection, their relationship as father and son or mother and daughter. What is real is the complex, evolutionary intermingling of these two. From here we don’t need to distort the contrast between the city and the country, romanticizing the one and vilifying the other. City and country are not isolated spaces. Life in the city is not unnatural, just different. On the one hand we demonize human action on nature and the other side lift ourselves above it. Cronon says of Chicago, “So attractive was the city that it seemed at times to radiate an energy that could only be described as superhuman.” Mere humans might try to manipulate or control it but never to create it.” Hereby we disembody cities and idolatrize them. Cities became places where we didn’t have to fear the constraints of natural limits or human communities.” We get away from our in laws here, which is Aarti Shahani’s version of immigration history. Note also what we do to God, placing God in a frozen early time, where all people had to eat was figs. But that subject is for another day.

For now, note that relationship to regionality is the bridge between us and between city and nature and between us and city and nature. This point is crucial to that pipeline and to Harry’s friend. To learn to care is to put yourself in, not take yourself out, or let yourself be taken out of the places where you live. It is to accept the promise of the fig tree, noting that everyone will have one. It is also to know that you can never get away from your parents or your in-laws. You can’t fix them either. But you can’t mentally disappear them because to do so puts you outside your heritage.

In this false dichotomy, Nature becomes the place where we are not. We become the place that is unnatural. We lose our capacity to care under these circumstances. In cities we learn to care for the distinct, the different, the non-normative person. Why? Because we can. We do so naturally.

Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac: “An ethic to supplement and guide the economic relation to land presupposes the existence of some land as a biotic mechanism. We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.......The oldest task in human history: to live on the land without spoiling it.”

Annie Dillard says we can only see what we can name. We clearly objectify both nature and cities, rather than treat them as subjects. What could change? We could name our place in nature and in city, in apartments and under vines. We could relate to our places as though they belonged to us and we to them, which we do. They do not belong to the banks or to the pipelines or to FEMA or hurricane Sandy’s. They do not belong to men who rape women because they are so terrified of relationship with them. They do not belong to men who murder school children because no one helped them understand what it means to be in a relationship to something you can’t fix. They do not belong to men who burn down buildings on Spring Street because they didn’t know how to be angry without destroying.

We live still with the Same Hawk, still the same vine, still the same fig tree. Biblical people do no have a myth of decline. Nor do we have a progressive myth. We have an understanding of hardship, which then gets resolved. We think cross-born, resurrection realized. And then back to cross and then back to resurrection. Think Regionally about the environment. Think of yourself as having two addresses. Think about the Ashokan reservoir. Living and cooperating regionally makes it possible to act locally and think globally.

Permit me to be specific. Name now dead, Jyoti Singh Pandey. Try not to forget her name, even though you and I know that she is one of many, lost to the savage separations that exist in her hearts and minds. Think about Congress, currently less popular than a colonoscopy. Think about whether we can ever get to the long term with people like them working on their renewal every two years. Think about what it would mean to be a region when New York and New Jersey are both in it. Think about that pipeline already here in Greenwich Village, ready to steal energy from one ground and export it to another one.

Is energy in motion a good thing? Yes, we can’t live without it. But what is the name of energy? How do we get to understand it and not demonize it? How do we refrain from romanticizing nature or ancients? Michael Conley said he was ok with this series on nature but wanted us to know that the hymnody is just plain bad. Ah, another problem, which we can’t really solve but which, we can stay in relationship to.

My new friend who commented on my fracking article in the Villager said that she just feels like things are too destroyed, too far gone, too impossible, too complex. I don’t think she has studied hives enough or spider webs. But that is another matter.

Christianity has become in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story, “This Blessed House”, as some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new occupants. I hope you hear me saying something very different here. We have been beaten by dumb ideas. One is permanent decline, which is a stupid idea, which is just killing off a lot of our liberal friends. The other is permanent progress, which is also a stupid idea, which is also killing off a lot of our liberal friends. We have an alternative: stay in relationship to pain and to promise, and all will be well. We don’t need to fix people or things. We do need to stay in relationship. From there cross risks crown, suffering yields healing, life becomes death.

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