Inside the old munitions factory, brightly lit galleries surround a multi-story atrium, their floor-to-ceiling interior windows revealing blown-glass sculptures, velvet-lined cases of silver jewelry, and tall watercolor canvases. From one end of the long building to another, on floor after floor, artists create, showcase, and sell their treasures.
My friend and I drift from one space to another, pausing at a distance to take in larger works, leaning in close to observe intricate details on finer pieces. My admiration and awe (and an occasional bit of apprehension) are hard to hide. At first, I’m self-conscious about my reactions given the presence of the artist so near inside these tiny studios. But as I grow more comfortable and see other patrons interacting with the creators, I allow myself to pause to comment, engaging in conversation with the artist about his or her process. It is a gift to take in these works while hearing about their origins and learning of the time and skill required to create them. In each instance, I’m filled with reverence. As a result, I move about the galleries with greater care and respect.
Artists’ studios aren’t the only places where creative treasures can be found. Our planet teems with God’s handiworks—from plants and trees, to streams, lakes, mountains, and animals. And yet it’s not often I experience a desire to show reverence and care toward Creation like that inspired by the galleries I explored.
Called as Stewards
The question is: why am I, like many other Christians, dulled toward the preciousness of the Earth? And more importantly how can I, or rather, we as Christ-followers be spurred to a greater commitment to steward God’s Creation?
This understanding that caring for what God has made is part of our role as humans is not a new one. The contemporary movement called “environmental activism” may have originated in the late 19th century as the impacts of the Industrial Revolution on wildlife populations and air quality awoke a greater awareness of how human actions can degrade natural elements. But as believers, we know it goes back to the dawn of the first human being.
After creating mankind in his image and giving them the position to “rule” over the plants and animals, the Lord God, we’re told, placed Adam, the first man, in the Garden of Eden to work it and care for it (Genesis 2:15). Care encapsulated the heart of Adam’s role.
For millennia since then, humans lived off the earth. They farmed, hunted, fished, and raised livestock, or purchased their sustenance from those who did (in imminently recognizable form). All but the very wealthy, or those in urban centers generally lived their days in close contact with the natural world. This close connection to the source of food, textiles, and other raw materials would have made people more aware of the results of their actions toward nature. Their lives would have been much more apparently intertwined with that of the rest of creation. Continuing God’s call to steward the Earth and all it contains would have been easily understood as serving the best interests of humans and the rest of creation alike.
Now consider the composition of modern daily life. Animal products are processed to the point of only being perceived as “food.” Lumber looks no more like the tree it comes from than a car does the compounds, chemicals, and metals used in its fabrication. If that doesn’t draw a picture of human disconnection from nature how about this: Where do most humans spend the majority of their time? Inside, cocooned away from natural elements. According to the EPA, Americans spend more than 90% of their time indoors, between buildings and enclosed vehicles. And when we are spending time outside, not all of us are privileged to live in nature-rich environments, suffering instead amidst urban landscapes of steel and concrete, pollution and waste.
Generating the Desire to Care
Given such a separation from the natural world, it’s no wonder we have difficulty understanding the need to care, let alone generating an actual desire to care. But it matters. Greatly.
“If we continue to take the path of detachment and divorce from nature, at a time of growing biodiversity loss and catastrophic global warming, the consequences of our eco-illiteracy will grow even more hazardous. Alongside the lack of relationship comes a lack of knowledge and fundamental ignorance about the ecosystems that keep the planet thriving,” says Lucy Jones in her book Losing Eden (p. 51).
To become better at our care for the Earth, we must connect with creation more. Go outside? Yes, for sure. But if you’re like me, you know that doesn’t complete the picture.
It’s like the child I watched trail his parents through the galleries of the art center. He stood there, surrounded by beautiful pieces. But his eyes focused on the toy in his hand and the wide open space in the corridor. He didn’t want to be hushed. And he didn’t want to walk slowly and carefully. He wanted to run. He wanted to leave the art behind.
We mean well when we step out our doors, headphones in, tennis shoes on as we hit the sidewalk for a stroll in the neighborhood. Or when we chat with a friend on a park bench while the kids play on swings nearby. We’re in nature, but not connected to it. Not in tune with the birdsong around us or the flowers in bloom beside the bench.
Instead, to build a connection strong enough to move us to act, we must give focused attention.
When God first placed Adam in the Garden, He gave him the gift of a unique task. “Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19, New International Version).
One by one, Adam would have taken a close look at each creature of God’s making. Observing its movements and sounds, its coloring and texture, Adam chose a name to suit each one. Not a generic label—bird, mammal, fish. But a name that denoted each particular kind: starling, hippo, bluegill. Assigning each name required closeness and familiarity. Connection.
To better understand how this focused attention works, consider trees. Off the top of your head, name as many different types of trees as you can. How many did you list? Four? Ten? A dozen? According to researchers at universities and forestry departments around the globe, Earth contains about 73,000 species of trees. North America contains the least diverse count at 1,873 varieties. If you react like many people today, when you see a woody plant with a trunk you think “tree,” not maple, honey locust, or banyan.
Generic terms are impersonal, and they take us a step away from what they label, rather than bringing us closer. Lacking an intentional recognition of the nature around us in its diversity and specificity, our connection to it is lost. We feel less need to care, and we take care less often. From there comes selfishness, overconsumption, abuse, and degradation.
Naming helps us initiate a connection. God began there with Adam, so we too can learn names as a way of reconnecting with God’s good creation. Consider trees again. Near your home you hopefully have trees. What kind? How does one differ from another? Notice each one’s height, shape, bark color. Consider the shape and hue of the leaves and the breadth of the canopy. Learn to see each tree in its specifics. The tall oak with its low, broad branches and scattering of acorns beneath. The silver birch with its papery white bark and long skinny trunk. The willow with its silky draping branches.
Consider what makes each one beautiful and what you like about it. Curious about why one white-flowering tree is broad and squat, while another one flowers upward toward a slender point? Take time to learn the biology of each one to understand what causes their differing statures.
As long as you see “trees” in the generic sense when you venture outdoors, there is little connection. But when you learn the tree at the corner of your street is called a “pin oak” a connection is formed. And when you spend time outdoors among trees that you’ve learned to name, your connections grow. You suddenly recall the swing that hung from the sturdy branch of an elm beside your childhood home, picnics beneath the eastern redbuds of a neighborhood park, and the scent of magnolias on a spring afternoon.
If trees don’t spark your interest, find another part of creation to give your focused attention. Try bird watching, gardening, or geology. You may be surprised to discover the more you learn the particulars of a part of God’s creation, the more your care for all of it grows.
As renowned forest expert Dr. Qing Li says, “When we love nature, we are likely to look after it. The more we connect with the natural world, the more likely we are to preserve it for the future” (Li, Dr. Qin. Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness. Viking, 2018. p. 279).
Artists, like our Creator, name their works. In the munitions-plant-turned-art-center, whenever a piece particularly caught my eye, I’d search for the nameplate to learn what the artist had called it. A collage of vertical strips of oil paper in silvers and blues and purples is “Double Waterfall.” A print of vivid pinks, golden star-spoked wheels, and splotches of grayish-black bears the name “Sumac” from the leaves and bark used in its production. Each name tells me more about the creator’s intentions and visions for the piece. And knowing the name makes me appreciate each one more.
It’s a simple task, to learn a name. But imagine the impact it can make.
Nicely written Laura! I very much appreciate the notion of caring for something require that we first care at all. One of the things I wrestle with is our need to get outside into the created world and what the Bible seems to say about our forever future in the new Jerusalem, a CITY. My guess is that though it is a city, it will also be a place of natural wonder. I very much hope so. Keep at your writing and prayerful thoughts on creation and nature 🤓