A book I keep returning to again and again is Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders, a professor emeritus of English at Indiana University (my alma mater!). The book is a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics. In one chapter, entitled “House and Home,” Sanders states that every house is really a nest in disguise.
How do birds build their nests? They gather all sorts of things from nature: sticks, grasses, leaves, seeds. They make cement from mud or even spider webs to hold their nest together. Sometimes they fashion their nest inside a hole in a tree. You might be thinking, but our houses are made of some things not really drawn from nature. But is that true? Sanders argues that our houses are “still entirely derived from the land.” He says, “Unlike the birds, of course, we get our sticks from the lumberyard, we get our mud ready-made into bricks, we buy fibers that have been woven into blankets, curtains, carpets, mats.” The nails we use are refined from ore, the glass is made from sand, and even “the unavoidable plastic has been distilled from the oil of ancient swamps.”
But most of us don’t build our own houses, so we forget that our homes (like our bodies) are made of the earth. The first humans who settled in our country were much more aware of their oneness with the earth. They fashioned their huts and canoes from bark. They made their tepees from tanned animal hides. They kept themselves warm at fires of buffalo chips and brush. Even our early pioneers built their dwellings from logs stacked on top of each other. They constructed fireplaces and chimneys from stones they mined from their fields. Says Sanders, “Our technology has changed, but not our ultimate source. Even the newest ticky-tacky box in the suburbs, even the glitziest high-tech mansion, even an aluminum trailer is only a nest in disguise.”
But nature doesn’t stop with the construction of our houses. Nature “runs right through our yards and walls and bones.” Moss grows on our roof, mildew in our showers, mold in the refrigerator. Tiny maples sprout in our gutters, mice invade our kitchen pantry, spiders make their living in our attic, and water often seeps into our basement. Our dwellings demand constant maintenance or else they will die, that is, they will be reclaimed by nature. Says, Sanders, “Our shelter is on loan; it needs perpetual care.”
As Pope Francis keeps reminding us, our entire planet needs our care. If we want to grow in our reverence for earth, then we must be re-awakened to our intimate connection to the natural world. One way to do that is to appreciate our house and the things we use every day. Here’s a little exercise you might want to try. Go through your dwelling place (or even one room of it) and notice all the parts of it that are “on loan” from creation. Some things will be obvious: wooden doors and floors, glass windows, granite counter tops, metal appliances, bricks or stone, carpets, wooden furniture. Doing this will help you to be more aware of how you are being sheltered by “Mother Earth” every day. Then include the many other things you see or use regularly: dishes, utensils, tools, wall hangings, linens, etc.
For example, as I sit in my office and type this, I notice all the plastic that is surrounding me: my computer, pens, desk phone, a picture frame, highlighters. Then I see the marble window sill… books and paper everywhere… the wooden pencils with their graphite centers (graphite is a naturally-occurring crystalline form of carbon—I looked it up)… storage boxes… my clay mug… I also realize I don’t know what some stuff is made of—for example, all the electrical cords, the chair I’m sitting on, the clothes I’m wearing, my shoes, the mirror, the lamp shades.
Today, let us thank God for our “dwelling place”—not only our individual homes, but also our beautiful planet. We can use these words:
Beloved God, thank you for my house, my dwelling place. I am so lucky to have a place to call home… Help me to reverence my abode and never take it for granted… Give me eyes to see how this house connects me to our earthly home. On this day, make me mindful of those who have no home—those sleeping on our streets… those being evicted… those reeling from natural disasters… those fleeing war and persecution. May the appreciation I have for my own home cause me to ache for them and to help seek remedies for their dire situation. The psalmist says, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” In a way, I am already dwelling in such a house: this beautiful blue planet whirling in space among the other planets and stars. Thank you, my beloved Creator God, for such a gift, such a dwelling place. And remind me everyday that my ultimate shelter and dwelling place is you. Amen.
PS #1: A big thank you to all the people who came to my talk on hope for the First Friday Forum of Lorain County. What a responsive group you were. Thanks especially to Larry and Jack for inviting me. Thanks to Sister Sean for her special gift. It was wonderful meeting so many “old” friends again too!
PS #2: A Happy Labor Day to all of you!!!
I’m offering two short videos today. The first one shows a hummingbird building her nest all by herself. The second one shows a human being building a house all by himself.
Hummingbird video (2 1/2 mins.):
Video of one man, Shawn James, building a log cabin off the grid somewhere in the Ontario, Canadian forest. Notice he uses ordinary saws, hammers, chisels, and drills. He starts in June 2017 and finishes several months later. (5 mins.)
I think I gave you enough things to reflect on today. I hope you will share some of your thoughts, observations, and reactions below!