I just tasted one for the first time. It brought to mind the phrase from Psalm 34:8 – “O taste and see that the LORD is good…”
Linda Wiens, pictured here, is in the middle of this story. A former staff member and current volunteer for the non-profit organization for which I work, Linda organized the planting of a small demonstration orchard near our office a number of years ago. Among the American quinces, apples, pears, persimmons, cherries, plums, and other fruit trees she had planted, there were two pawpaw trees.
Linda Wiens, a long-time member of a local Mennonite congregation, shows the fruit of a pawpaw tree that she had planted with many other kinds of fruit trees in a small orchard.
This fall, one of the pawpaws bore fruit for the first time.
As way of background, here’s the first paragraph of the first chapter of Andrew Moore’s excellent book – Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit:
Throughout the years it’s gone by a lot of names – frost banana, Indiana banana, fetid-bush, bandango, custard apple, prairie banana, poor man’s banana – but most of the time it’s just been called pawpaw. At first glance, both the fruit and the tree seem out of place in North America. A cluster of young pawpaws hanging from its branch resembles a miniature hand of bananas. And those clusters are tucked behind the tree’s lush foliage, shaded by leaves often a foot in length, larger and broader than those of avocado and mango. Wild pawpaws often appear kidney-shaped, two to six inches long, and one to three inches wide; they typically weigh from just a few ounces to half a pound. But under cultivation – and yes, there are pawpaw breeders and growers – fruits that weigh more than a pound and half are not uncommon.
This native American fruit can be found in 26 states. The heart of its range runs from the far eastern side of Kansas all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The line formed by the northern borders of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas roughly forms the range’s east-west backbone. Check out the map (you’ll need to scroll down a bit) in this good online growing guide.
Speaking of geography, if someone tells you they’re from a town called Paw Paw, you’ll need to ask them which one. Six states – Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, and West Virginia – have a town called Paw Paw. And there would be seven if you counted Paw Paw Island in Louisiana.
George Washington planted pawpaws at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson sent pawpaw seeds to Europe. It was even a big part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s diet in the last week of their trip back to Saint Louis.
But wait, you say, what does it taste like? How do you eat it?
You can slice pawpaws up in cross-sections (after peeling off the skin) or cut them in half length-wise and spoon out the flesh of the fruit.
You will likely never find a fresh pawpaw in your local grocery store. It has a very short shelf life, and it will not ripen if picked prematurely. To paraphrase the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, there is a time to eat pawpaws and there is a time to wait for the next pawpaw season.
I found the taste something like a mix of banana, mango, and custard. The consistency reminded me of a well-ripened avocado.
And I liked it! Despite having to work around the large black seeds, I liked the flavor.
(In the spirit of full disclosure, I cut up more cross-sections for our Friday staff meeting in early October. Some of my colleagues appreciated the novel taste. Others did not.)
There are many culinary options for this American fruit. We know that the Iroquois, for example, dried pawpaws and then used them in sauces and also cooked them into corn cakes. This worked well nutritionally. Corn is very low in niacin while pawpaw is rich in it. Native Americans found the tree and its fruit so useful that they spread the tree west of the Mississippi and north into the area around Ontario.
At the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival in Athens County, Ohio, you can taste a wide variety of foods in which people are using pawpaws.
Salsas. Curries. Puddings. Mousse. Crepes. Ice Cream. All with pawpaws.
How does the pawpaw fit into your understanding of God’s world?
Are theology, prayer, and worship in a church building the only ways to know and connect with God? Or is God also with us and pleased with us when we immerse ourselves in this complex world and understand, appreciate, savor, and mend it?
I’d vote for the latter. And I’d say pawpaws are a good place to start.
I urge Christians and churches to plant native species of trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers in their landscapes. If you’re in the home range of pawpaws and have the right conditions, why not plant a few of them? I planted two last year on the east side of our house where it’s not too windy and the soil rarely dries out completely. (By the way, you need to plant two or more pawpaws relatively close to each other for the trees to have a chance to bear fruit). According to this article from Indianapolis, at least one church and a synagogue have planted pawpaws. If you’ve heard of others, please let me know!
If you are a Christian and you’re attentive to God’s earth, it’s likely that you’ve sometimes felt on the fringe of your church. In fact, you can feel downright alone. This is one of the reasons I thought it important to write this piece based on my visit to the Au Sable Institute last month. I thought it important, too, to describe the organization and its people in some detail. I hope you’ll persevere through the odyssey of reading this long piece. For decades an organization of committed Christian scientists has been equipping other Christians for ecological research and for science-based stewardship.
They were as surprised as I was.
On Friday, August 4th I made the long drive from northeastern Illinois to Mancelona in northern Michigan to take part in the Au Sable Institute’s Reunion. “Reunion,” of course, suggests an event for people who have had some sort of previous and direct relationship with the institution. Almost every attendee I met courteously asked when I had attended as a student or had taught as a professor. They were astonished to hear that this was my first visit.
In the case of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, my only previous interaction had been several donations my wife and I had made in the past after a friend had encouraged me to check out the organization. The Institute’s mission – to inspire and educate people to serve, protect, and restore God’s earth – resonated with us.
I decided to visit because I wanted to learn more about Au Sable, and I wanted to be with other Christians who care deeply for the fate of Creation.
Of course, I must be honest that there was a little voice in me wondering if I was going to be in a very awkward situation. I nervously joked with other attendees that I was relieved to hear that there were no secret initiation rites.
Fred Van Dyke, executive director of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, speaks during a tour.
From Fred and from the activities of the weekend, I learned that the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies pursues its mission by offering environmental science programs for students and adults of all ages. In addition to its main campus in northern Michigan, the Institute has locations in India, the Pacific Northwest, and Costa Rica that carry out similar activities.
The heart of Au Sable’s education mission has long been university-level courses in environmental studies and environmental science that are primarily taught in the field. These courses are accepted for credit by 60 Christian colleges. College students take the classes on Au Sable’s campuses.
The Institute, I’m happy to say, has also been expanding into field-based research around practical topics related to conservation, ecology, and restoration. One example – researchers at Au Sable have been testing different planting practices for restoring abandoned oil pads back to forest in northern Michigan.
If my memory serves from a conversation I had there, there are approximately 50,000 of these sites where forest was cleared for oil pumping. Oddly, forests have not reclaimed these sites many years after the machines and other vestiges of human activity had been removed.
“The Blogger” Feels At Home
The first event that Friday evening was a dinner in the rec center. I didn’t know anyone. With flashbacks to my freshman year of high school running through my head, I set my things down at an empty table.
When I returned with my food, I found I had a number of table companions, including Dr. Calvin DeWitt, the long-time director of Au Sable. From that point on and through the rest of the weekend, I found myself in fellowship with other Christians who talked passionately about beavers and the cloud forests of Guatemala, who prayed humbly, and who were ready to sing the doxology at the drop of the hat. And, I’m happy to say, the food was very healthy. Careful attention was paid to recycling and composting of waste.
Common meals during the reunion were held in the Rec Center. The sliding doors opened wide so we could take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the North Woods just outside. When the campus was being designed, there had been a proposal by a planner to create a typical campus by clearing much of the woods around the buildings. Thankfully, that idea was rejected. The campus is nested in the forest.
What a delight to fully feel at home and in one spirit with other believers!
There was consistently warm hospitality throughout my time there. I wasn’t known by anyone, and yet people came up to me on a regular basis to introduce themselves and learn more about me. I suspect this is what early Christians experienced as they traveled throughout the Roman Empire and visited local churches.
When Cal DeWitt used some of his introductory remarks that first Friday evening to ask for newcomers to introduce themselves, he made a point to ask me to share the name of my blog for everyone to hear. I later learned that from that moment other attendees began to refer to me as “the blogger.” This was done with a mixture of curiosity, intrigue, and perhaps a bit of anxiety.
A considerable amount of the reunion was spent honoring Calvin DeWitt and for good reason.
Under the lealdership of Dr. Howard Snyder, the Au Sable Institute began as a science camp and field station. It was Cal, as the founding Executive Director from 1979 to 2004, who led Au Sable’s transition to its current identity and wide impact. He did so while serving as Professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His curriculum vitae runs over 30 pages, dense with listings of papers and presentations.
He was one of the early articulate voices advocating for Christians to be good stewards of Creation. Through his books and lectures over the past decades, he led the way in articulating the theological underpinnings of why Christians should care and act for God’s earth.
A respected scientist with advanced degrees in biology and zoology, DeWitt spent over 25 years as director of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, where he worked to help college students learn the principles of Christian environmental stewardship alongside hard science. He’s been one of the prime movers behind almost every significant collaboration between evangelicals, scientists, and politicians, including the much-discussed Evangelical Climate Initiative, a statement from high-profile evangelicals calling for concerted action to battle global warming.
Interestingly enough, he was appointed to his professorship at the University of Wisconsin in 1972 without being placed in a department. His mission was to integrate learning across disciplines.
That focus on integration is one of his most distinctive qualities. He is a dynamic person who delights in bringing together various fields of academic study, especially the sciences, even as he delights in the understanding of the Bible and theology. He loves the pursuit of knowledge and sharing that knowledge with students through teaching.
His breadth of knowledge and the extent of his leadership impact on Au Sable were clear during a tour he led of portions of the campus.
When the tour started at Earth Hall, Cal highlighted the many thoughtful features of its environmentally-minded design that he and the architect worked out together. He rattled off scientific names for most of the living things we saw when the tour then made its way into the woods and along the pond. He stopped to described the construction techniques of a log cabin built for lumberjacks. At a lecture hours earlier, he had lucidly explained the root meanings of Greek words in the New Testament.
He is full of enthusiasm, erudite knowledge, contagious energy, playfulness, and skilled storytelling. What a difference God has made through him.
Cal and Ruth Dewitt were kind enough to share this photo of themselves with me for this post. The background, by the way, is not northern Michigan but northern China. You can see portions of the Great Wall in the background.
It would not do to mention Cal without mentioning his wife Ruth. They share a close bond. She spoke proudly to me at the first dinner of the details of the Agricultural Conservancy Zoning that are part of the Land Use Plan of the Town of Dunn. Cal played a leading role in developing this plan which has kept their home town in Wisconsin from being overwhelmed by unplanned development.
When the weekend’s activities closed and Cal and Ruth were walking together towards their car, I noticed they were holding hands.
From Nearly Changing Majors to Restoring Lake Sturgeon
Au Sable changed the life of Marty Holtgren.
Marty was studying biology at Bethel College in 1991 when Dave Mahan, the director of the Au Sable Institute at that time, came to introduce students there to Au Sable’s educational offerings. This intrigued Marty. Many of his fellow biology majors were headed towards nursing careers, but he wasn’t sure biology was for him. What’s more, Bethel’s small size meant that it had few specialty courses in biology or ecology.
In the winter of 1991, Marty attended a summer term at Au Sable. While there, Marty took a limnology course as well as a fisheries course taught by Fred “Fritz” Erickson. This experience led Marty to stay in biology.
“The passion that Fred brought towards fish and other aquatic creatures,” says Marty, “made it hard not to get incredibly fired up. It was contagious. That contagiousness is something that I’ve really tried to emulate throughout my life and career.”
After graduating from Bethel in 1992, Marty worked at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for about five or six years. During that time, Marty returned to Au Sable to attend a three-week intensive stream ecology classe. Desiring greater challenges and the opportunity to grow professionally, Marty decided to enter graduate school at Michigan Tech University. There he earned a master’s degree while studying lake sturgeon.
Marty Holtgren, on the right, helps hold a lake sturgeon along the Big Manistee River. For ten years, Marty helped the Little River Band of the Ottawa Tribe, restore the population of this fish species in the river.
This was the springboard for him to then begin working for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee along the eastern Lake Michigan coast. Marty served as their fisheries biologist. In that role, Marty assisted the Little River Band in carrying out a restoration project for lake sturgeon in the Big Manistee River.
“It’s a fish that looks like a dinosaur,” says Marty, “and lives to be 50 years old and can get to be a hundred pounds. They were almost extirpated at the turn of the century. They were also a key cultural species for the Native Americans across the Great Lakes.”
The Little River Band had one of the few populations of lake sturgeon left.
But they didn’t know how many.
“Because it’s not a sport fish, the sturgeon has gone unnoticed and hasn’t been researched much,” says Marty. “So when I started there, I was charged with helping to understand this population and to also labor to restore it.”
The Little River Band and Marty worked for ten years on the restoration efforts. If you were to reduce the restoration to a simple recipe it would be this:
Step One: Capture the young lake sturgeon fry that had just hatched and were heading out to Lake Michigan. They’ll be about an inch long and vulnerable to being consumed by other fish.
Step Two: Raise them through the summer in a portable stream-side facility that you’ve designed, rather than moving them to a hatchery somewhere else in the state. (The Little River Band wanted to keep them in their own watershed where they belonged.)
Step Three: Release them back into the river when the fish are now larger and better able to fend for themselves.
What was even more notable is that the release was turned into an annual community event. The tribal community and their non-tribal neighbors would gather together along the river in solidarity for the fish and the restoration. Then many of the attendees were able to release the lake sturgeon into the river by hand.
“It was a very significant and spiritual moment for me,” says Marty. “You had come full circle with this little fish that you had held in your hand in May. Now you’re releasing that fish four months later and it’s eight or nine inches long.”
“It also healed that community. There was a lot of mistrust in tribal and non-tribal people. You saw healing in those communities. It was a beautiful moment.”
This experience prompted Marty to return to Michigan Tech for a PhD that integrated fisheries management with the social sciences. This integrated approach was valuable because fisheries issues are community issues.
Marty became a tribal liaison for the state of Michigan around natural resource issues. Three months ago, he launching his own ecological restoration consulting firm – Encompass Socio-Ecological Consulting, LLC.
“The main projects I’m working on now are reconnecting people to their watersheds,” Marty says. “On two of the projects I help with large scale dam removals, making sure the public needs are incorporated into those designs.”
“After leaving the Au Sable Institute,” Marty says, “I really had a passion for environmental work and that human connection with environmental work, too. I looked at Creation more holistically and saw that as we’re good stewards we’re also helping the human condition. Au Sable really changed my trajectory.”
The Au Sable Instiute in the Anthropocene
How could I not feel complete delight spending time in the quiet, beautiful woods of northern Michigan with faithful, friendly, thoughtful, stewardship-minded Christians?
Leave it to a blogger with some Norwegian lineage raised in a Missouri Synod Lutheran home whose father frequently reminded his sons not to praise the day until the evening.
In that book, Elizabeth Kolbert highlights the breadth and astonishing, accelerating pace of species extinction in our world today. She tells the story of how Nobel Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen was the first to christen our current geological epoch as the Anthropocene. That designation communicates that we are in a new period of life on earth. It is a period defined by massive, geological-scale, human-caused changes. These changes have been largely tragic for the living systems and living beings of God’s earth.
With those kinds of thoughts running through my mind, I couldn’t help but notice that throughout the time I spent at Au Sable I hardly heard a note of outrage or collective sorrow about all that is happening around us. All I remember hearing was the phrase “poor earth” in a prayer.
When I shared this reaction with Fred, he had a thoughtful response I want to share with you:
…I thought you were a little hard on the Institute for a perceived lack of expression of outrage over what humans have done to the Earth and what Christians have done. Some of our symposium speakers did express some of these ideas on Thursday at the symposium, and I have expressed this at times in my own writings. However, at the institutional level, we at Au Sable have found little good to come of outrage over a problem once the damage is done. Hence, our response is more intentionally solution oriented, particularly in our research.
One can express outrage over oil-related deforestation, but that won’t bring back any trees. Instead, we are now determining (and at some levels, already have determined) the best treatments on these oil pads and the best species to plant to restore them to becoming again a living part of the forest community. Similarly, we feel deep sorrow that a beautiful fish, the Arctic grayling, was extirpated from Michigan waters by habitat degradation inspired by greed in Michigan’s logging era. Our response now is to work with Michigan Technological Institute (Michigan Tech) in creating a habitat suitability model that will help identify the best sites for grayling reintroduction.
Likewise we have been saddened by the near extirpation of the Kirtland’s warbler through the loss of young jack pine stands, but encouraged by its recovery which will likely soon lead to its delisting. Our contribution here, which is future oriented, is to determine the warbler’s success in red pine habitat (which it also uses) and, if reproductive outputs are similar (initial data show that they are), create plans attractive to the forest products industry to manage red pine (a more economically valuable tree than jack pine) for warblers, filling a void of support that will occur when the delisted Kirtland’s warbler loses federal protection and federal funding for its habitat management, and making the activity of logging, which once contributed to the warbler’s decline, now an agent of its recovery and restoration.
…I do believe it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, and better to solve a problem than complain about the harm and hurt the problem caused.
There is no question in my mind that the Au Sable Institute is indeed a uniquely valuable candle.
As I’ve pondered Fred’s words, however, it occurs to me that the culture of science tends to be largely left-brained. It is a culture of rationality, analysis, and calm logic. Those qualities are certainly powerful.
Yet, the words of Aldo Leopold also ring true to me: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds.”
Leopold was a man of science and a man of action. But in these words you also hear that he was a man, a man of feelings.
Reading the Bible one is struck by the emotional intensity of the people called by God across many centuries. Jesus himself embarked on a path destined to offer a saving way to humanity and ultimate redemption of all Creation. On that path, Jesus taught the “science” of God’s kingdom but also expressed a variety of emotions as he lived out his mission. In fact, his emotions, many of which were not the happy and calm ones, were part and parcel of his compelling nature.
In the Anthropocene, I believe being fully effective in addressing the wounds humanity has inflicted on God’s earth will require an integrated response that is both left-brained and right-brained.
Without question, we must have the left-brained understanding of how the world works and how to restore it. But right-brained responses are needed as well. We must be creative, emotionally open, and ready to engage in culture and art. The tragedy we face is in large part a product of polluted, closed, and misguided hearts. The unfolding tragedy is also taking its toll on people’s hearts. We must be able to understand, restore, inspire, and connect with people as living souls. We need science knowledge and heart knowledge.
Along these lines I was happy to hear from Fred that the Au Sable Institute is developing programs to train students in leadership. I am hopeful that these programs will begin to help Christians attending the Institute to inspire and lead within human communities, human organizations, and human systems.
Preparing to Leave
When the official activities came to a close on Saturday evening, I parked in the Au Sable Institute’s ball field near a few other attendees who had set up their tents. I slept less than well in my van. On Sunday morning, after a light breakfast the Institute provided, tents began to be broken down, and the campers prepared to go their separate ways.
Voices rose and people gathered when one of the campers, an alumnus of the Institute, spotted a large spider. It was crawling on the fabric of her tent that was lying on the ground and about to be packed away.
This striking orbweaver spider appeared on the tent of one the other attendees on Sunday morning.
We gathered round, children and adults, to take a closer look. There was common curiosity and fascination. When we were done, the orbweaver spider was allowed to go safely along on its way. Once in the dew-flecked grass, it was almost impossible to see.
Fellow attendees check out the orbweaver.
A simple yet profound Sabbath moment at the Au Sable Institute. An example of the culture I’d love to see be the norm in Christian communities.
I want to suggest that you add something a little different to your bucket list.
Before you die, be sure to attend a farm field day put on by a sustainable farmer.
Field days are usually geared for other farmers, but don’t let that scare you away. Field days are a chance to be immersed in the craft of farming with good, friendly people. You’ll see farming and the land in a new way.
This Tuesday, I made a one-day, eight-hour round trip to attend a field day at Trevor Toland’s River Oak Ranch in Macomb, Illinois that had been organized by The Pasture Project.
Despite the driving and the fact that I got home at 1:30 a.m., it was well worth it.
After some initial comments and presentations, more than 70 of us were carried around on hay wagons to different areas of Trevor Toland’s farm. He has been converting much of his 380+ acre farm on rolling land to a rotational grazing system for a number of years. At each stop, Trevor explained how he has been managing each section and how the grazing of cattle has been part of that management system.
Rotational grazing is the grazing of large numbers of cattle for short periods of time on small sub-sections of a farm. The cattle are then rotated onto the next small sub-section.
Each grazed subsection then has at least 30 days (and often more) to recover. This mimics what buffalo and other wild ruminants have been doing for millennia. It gives cows what they naturally desire to eat – grass and flowering plants (especially legumes) – and the chance to move around outdoors. Thanks to always being covered with a variety of plants that feed the microbes underground, the soil becomes full of life. That life is made even more rich by the occasional but intense pulses of dung, urine, and even saliva coming from the cattle herd. In addition, the action of their hooves stomps plant matter into direct contact with the soil where insects and microbes can work on it.
Continually adapting exactly how and where the cattle are grazed is a key element to this approach to farming.
Dr. Allen Williams (kneeling and imitating the partial consumption of a grass by a cow) explained how grasses and other pasture plants can persist and thrive when cows are allowed to eat only 50% before being moved to another field. Grasses and other plants that persist with healthy root systems can then feed the soil microbes in the ground while also shading the ground. Healthy microbial life is the key to healthy soils that feed plants and hold water.
Trevor, seen standing in front of the small tractor, is the best of what it means to be Midwestern. He’s direct, thoughtful, humble, and honest about his challenges. I later learned that he played basketball for the University of Iowa and was a principal before becoming a farmer.
The bonus feature of the event and the main reason I drove the many miles was that Dr. Allen Williams was the featured speaker. Before we actually got out into the fields, he presented an overview of rotational grazing using high densities of cattle. While out in the fields, he added insightful commentary at a number of our stops and answered questions..
A self-described “recovering academic,” Allen farms in Mississippi and is a tireless evangelist for rotational grazing across the country. A good introduction to him and rotational grazing is the Soil Carbon Cowboy video.
What’s especially interesting is that Allen is a Christian.
His faith in our Creator God is what motivates him to do what he does.
He speaks with passion, knowledge, and conviction. He helps his audience understand the complexities of how soil and animals interact. He carries himself with both decency and strength.
Dr. Allen Williams explained that it is helpful to maintain wooded sections of a farm. Cattle can be brought to the woods to cool down during hot weather. He noted, too, that you can tell when a pasture has microbes thriving in the ground by the degree to which insects and spiders are thriving above the ground.
As Christians, we should be proud of Allen and other Christians who are advancing Creation-friendly farming method with integrity and energy.
We should also support the kind of life-affirming, God-affirming farming he practices and helps thousands of other farmers implement.
You and your church can do that by buying meat that comes from animals raised the way Trevor Toland does at River Oak Ranch.
If you’re interested in attending a field day on a farm where sustainibility is a key principle, please email me at email@example.com. I can share some good resources, depending on where you live. I wrote a post earlier about the commitment a whole faith church would make to having the food for its common meals come from sustainable, well-stewarded farms. I also wrote about the care with which whole faith churches need to communicate about farming ethics. Farmers are our neighbors.
There once was a king and a queen who ruled a small kingdom in a beautiful country.
They took great pleasure in their castle and in the art they had made which filled the castle’s rooms. They delighted in the gardens they had planted and the large trees around which they had built the castle. The ravens they had rescued from a nearby mountain when the ravens were young were now tame and flew about the castle and its grounds.
River Scene with Castle (by Gilbert Munger)
The king took special pride in his master servants. He had chosen them from many walks of life, and he trained them carefully to manage the activities of the castle and the kingdom. He patiently educated them, taught them, and encouraged their creativity.
“I cherish all that I have, my dear servants, but you are my greatest joy,” he told them.
One day he gathered his servants together. He told them that he and the queen needed to leave them for some time. While he was gone, they were to be in charge of his castle.
“I trust you to rule as you have seen us rule,” he told them.
Several years later, when the servants had begun to doubt whether the king and queen would ever return, they were awakened on a bright cold blue morning by trumpets and soldiers they recognized to be of the king and queen’s personal guard.
“You are to appear immediately at the front gate,” the soldiers said.
The servants hurried to an assembly of nobles and guards surrounding the king and queen who sat on thrones the servants had not seem before. The servants noticed the king and queen did not seem to have aged and in some ways looked even more vigourous and wise than ever. The servants also noticed that the muscles of the king’s jaw were tight and his expression stern. Tears ran down the cheeks of the queen.
“What have you done while we were gone?” the king demanded.
“We have built new mansions for ourselves,” they said, “and created new tools that make our lives easier and new toys that give us pleasure.”
“And what about our castle?”
The servants looked around and saw what they had done. To make their own mansions and machines, they had neglected the castle. In fact, they had dismantled much of it and used the salvaged materials for their own mansions. What remained of it was turning to rubble. The trees of the grounds had been felled for lumber. The gardens uprooted. The servants had sold off the art they could get good prices for and used other pieces of art for sport. At least one piece, they had noticed, had gone missing early on.
The servants were silent in shame and fear.
Except for one.
He met the lord’s gaze directly as he spoke.
“We knew you would come again, great king, and make everything new. So we used the power you gave us for our pleasure. We are, you said, what you are most proud of. You can fix all this, can you not?”
The king did not acknowledge this statement but asked the assertive servant, “And where are our ravens? I do not hear their cries. They did not come to us when we called for them.”
“They were very messy, very noisy, and had minds of their own,” the servant said. “Nor were they good to eat. Keeping them alive and happy was too much for us. We used our time and the resources we had for more important things. Instead, we have made mechanical pets that are much more orderly and much more useful. Would you like to see –“
The king roared in pain and fury. He ordered for his soldiers to take the servants to the borders of the kingdom and to never let the servants return.
The servants, with the exception of the proud and assertive one, were shocked and dismayed. They pleaded with the king to be allowed to stay. They promised to do better. They promised to fix everything.
The king said, “The castle was ours and yet you destroyed it for your own satisfaction. The art was ours, and it is no more. We treasured the beauty of the garden and the food that was harvested from it. The ravens were birds we took great pleasure in, and they will not give us company again. It is clear that your hearts have not not been shaped by what I taught you and showed you. You will never be happy with me nor will I be happy with you. What is best for you and the queen and I is for you to be gone forever.”
The assertive servant stepped forward with his head held high and did not bow. He looked his king in the eye
“My king,” he started, and it seemed to some that he put particular emphasis on the first of those two words. “You gave us your kingdom and told us we were your greatest pride and joy. You chose us and gave us power. You created. We have created. You cannot do this to us. If what we did was wrong, it was your fault.”
The king’s eyes narrowed. He stood, and the fearful power in him seemed to fill the air.
“Your words and your actions have shown who you really are,” said the king. “You knew in your heart the pleasure we took in everything in the castle. It was ours. You were our servants. Yet you diminished and destroyed it. Did you not see that we took pleasure in seeing the castle, the people, and the kingdom prosper? Did you not see how we ruled?”
“And you are the worst of all,” the king said to the assertive servant. “With intelligence enslaved by your twisted heart, you have twisted my words and my intentions. A child would know in an instant that what you have done is wrong.”
The king commanded that the assertive servant be led off in chains to the prison.
At that moment a large black bird suddenly flew toward the thrones and came to perch on the queen’s shoulder.
“Night!” the queen exclaimed in surprise and delight.
“Where did our raven come from?” demanded the king.
A guard pointed to a poor man standing on the outer circle of the assembly next to a battered cart.
“Come forward,” the king commanded.
The poor man came into the king’s presence and knelt deeply before him. He brought the large cart with him.
“Where did you get my raven?”
“Your highness, I heard what your servants were doing so I snuck into the castle to try to save your ravens. I was only able to save this one. He was nearly dead. I am sorry I could not save more. But I did save one other thing.”
He pulled away old blankets and hides that covered something large in his cart. It was their favorite piece of art. It was a painting they had made that depicted their kingdom and all of its life and its beautiful country.
The king and queen arose quickly from their thrones and went to examine the painting and talked excitedly again of the days when they had painted it together and of their favorite parts of their kingdom. They laughed and tears again ran down the queen’s cheeks.
“How were you able to save this?” asked the king.
“My friends and I snuck in again one night, and when I heard of your art being sold. I knew that this was your favorite. After that I was unable to save more. Please forgive me, my lord. Your…your castle had been so beautiful.”
It was the poor man’s turn to shed tears.
To the great surprise of the assembly, the king and queen embraced the poor man.
When the king and queen could finally speak, the queen asked, “How can we thank you? What can we give you? You have done so much for us.”
“Let me have a simple room with simple meals. Let me help rebuild your castle and the country of your kingdom. I do not know very much. I am no longer as strong as I once was. But I love your goodness and what you have done for us. Nothing would gladden my heart more than to see your castle restored.”
“That is all?” the queen asked.
The poor man hesitated and then spoke, “Your highness, if my friends could sometimes join me for good food and tasty ale, my heart might have a bit more gladness.”
The king, the queen, and the assembly laughed.
“Your wish is granted.”
The king, the queen, and the poor man spent many good years together restoring the castle and its grounds. New art was made. Young trees were planted to take the place of those that had been felled. In time, the restored garden again produced fruit, herbs, and vegetables. The poor man and his friends and family lived in one of the mansions built by the servants.
Of the king and the queen and the poor man It was hard to tell who was happier. It was hard to tell, too, what gave all of them the most pleasure – renewing the castle and the country or being together while doing so.
Five or six years ago, I planted two New Jersey Tea shrubs in two separate areas of our yard devoted to indigenous prairie, savanna, and woodland plants. By adding New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) I hoped to add even more diversity to the plantings we already had.
New Jersey Tea isn’t one of the more well recognized native plants of the Midwest today. Early settlers knew it, however, and knew that its leaves could be used for making tea. This tea was particulary popular during the Revolutionary War as an alternative to those teas being imported into the colonies.
The challenge in using this relatively low-growing shrub in the home landscape is that rabbits love to eat it. “Love” is an understatement. One of the two disappeared within a year of being planted and was never seen again, presumably lost to the horde of hares in our neighborhood.
After a year in which it had bloomed, the remaining New Jersey Tea appeared to have met the same fate as the first as I couldn’t find it the following spring. When it reappeared last year in the midst of the other native flowers and grasses, I protected it with wire mesh fencing. But when I couldn’t find it this spring in a cursory look, I came to the conclusion that, despite my efforts, it had not survived. The temptation to devise elaborate and deadly schemes for dealing once and for all with the rabbits of the area was very strong.
But lo and behold, this past weekend as I did some weeding in the area I noticed unusual flowers and decided to look closer. Sure enough – the New Jersey Tea was blooming modestly as you can see in the photo below. (Lest you think I was completely daft in not being able to see such an obvious plant before, I should mention that I took this photo very close up. The leaves and blooms are actually fairly small and unobtrusive.)
The resilient New Jersey Tea shrub in our garden just after a rain.
Have you considered replacing portions of the lawn of your yard or your church’s land with indigenous plants? There are many options in how you do so, from creating carefully designed beds to more natural sections of habitat.
It’s worth the effort. Doing so honors our Creator God. It is a life-affirming action that says something authentically and counterculturally Christian about your values and your church’s values.
Having native plants around your home and church also offer the chance to observe the varied and complex relationships between different elements of Creation. New Jersey Tea, for example, is not just a delectable source of sustenance for rabbits. It fixes life-giving nitrogen in the soil, and its small, white, fragrant flowers are of value to butterflies and a variety of other small pollinators. And where you have small creatures you tend to have the occasional larger creature that feeds on them. In this case, the “larger” creature is the hummingbird.
Yes, those tiny and graceful ornithological wonders we typically see sipping on the nectar of flowers and the sweetened water of feeders are also completely ready to scarf up protein packages in the form of tiny bees, wasps, flies, and beetles.
I’m looking forward to the day when my family and I will see a hummingbird doing just that. If only the hummingbirds could do something about the rabbits…
To see better photos of more mature New Jersey Tea shrubs and to learn more about this beautiful plant, especially the many pollinators that draw sustenance from it, check this useful website out.
Nathan believes that a whole Christian faith includes not only a concern for God’s earth but also an imperative for us, individually and collectively, to daily show this living world mercy and compassion. A lifelong Christian, his faith has been a source of strength and challenge. During the last 14 years, he has worked for non-profit conservation groups that restore rivers, wetlands, prairies, woodlands, and the relationship people have with nature. Nathan lives in Grayslake, Illinois, with his wife and three children in the Prairie Crossing conservation community. To learn more about Nathan, click here.