New On The Scene
It’s not unusual for any of us human beings to fail to notice changes in a familiar scene simply because we don’t expect to see them there. There’s been times when I do notice something new but dismiss it as something I’d fail to catch before (oh, the mistrust of an ageing memory!). Another sort of individual wouldn’t register a change because it “shouldn’t” be there. We can be very funny creatures when it comes to new input. That said, some visitors to the Abbey have been asking since February about the new fencing extending on either side of the road just before they drive up that last incline leading to the Gift Shop and Abbey. What’s going on? And since last Friday, what in the blazes are all those little posts sticking up there?
Actually, what you would see is the completion of a project long in the works–if behind the scene. And it’s a project mentioned in much earlier posts, part of our implementation of the Sustainability Study published in 2010 by six grad students from the School of Natural Resources and the Environment of the University of Michigan. Getting this far has involved quite a cast of characters and the generosity and expertise of many people. It would make quite a telenovela in its own right, but one with as many comic as melodramatic overtones!
Ronnie Hope, who leases a large part of the Abbey’s pasture land, had generously readjusted his contract with us to move his cattle off the flood plane bordering the river, to allow Mark and Kate Zurschmeide to farm that land. Mark and Kate are experienced farmers operating Great Country Farms in Bluemont, right across the Shenandoah River. Their naturally grown vegetables have attracted more subscribers in recent years and they were looking for more land to farm just as we were looking to protect the river bank. The River already has a good “riparian buffer” of native trees but the cattle were wrecking havoc with the natural shoreline, endangering the habitat of various animals and fowl. Furthermore, their pollution of the river was disturbing the healthy balance of the fish and microorganisms. The cattle have been off the River for about two years now, allowing the banks to heal while the Zurschmeide’s natural method of farming allows the soil to heal, no chemicals being poured into the land.
The Long Reach of a River
The next step was to protect the two streams on our property that feed into the River. Like any waterway, the health of the Shenandoah effects more than the river bank where we live. This gracious, lazy river flows north to join forces with the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry and from there continues on to the Chesapeake Bay. I’ve said before that people living on extensive farmland have a greater environmental responsibility than an apartment dweller; well, someone–in this case, a monastic community–living along a river has an even greater responsibility than a land-locked property. We may not be able to control what happens upstream from us, but we must do all we can to lessen a bad impact on those downstream from us.
In all justice to Ronnie Hope, if we are to make our streams inaccessible to the cattle, we have to provide him and his cattle with new water sources. Luckily, the Federal government has set aside money for initiatives to protect our streams. Installing drinking troughs for cattle to get them out of living water would be recompensed by the government. And that was what the digging has been about. Any of our visitors from Clarke County would recognize the truck of Broy and Son who did the hydraulic work for us. In fact Warren Broy had dug and serviced some of our wells, gravity fed reservoirs and pipelines throughout the Abbey property. He seemed absolutely unflappable before the challenges uncooperative weather, impeding rock systems, setting in pipelines beneath steam beds of juggling changing regulations and standards. By this spring he had added five new watering troughs to the property and a cattle crossing across one of the streams.
Restoring a Habitat
The next step, after providing alternative water sources for the cattle, is to fence in the streams, the fence line some thirty five feet on either side of the stream. Another well known craftsman, Ben Harrison from Boyce, then stepped in to contain some eleven acres of land with three-strand fencing, one strand electrified. This is not the first project that Warren and Ben have worked on. Holy Cross Abbey pays the initial expenses but the entire project is contracted with a Federal/State program known as CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program). Although we signed on a few years ago through NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) in Strasburg, Congress was not voting on the National Budget which meant the Farm Bill was not voted on and signed. By the time that log jam had loosened, we had to negotiate a new contract. Of course, NRCS was very eager to see such a large project on such a crucially located property through to completion and did all they could to encourage, support and help us. Brent Barriteau and, later, Matt Kowolski from the NRCS were very helpful to us. Despite the tedium of the project and the paperwork, one of the delights has been working with knowledgeable people passionate about improving the environment. To oversimplify the process, once we pay for the completed work and it has been approved as up to standard, we then submit the paid bills to NRCS and we are reimbursed over 80% of the cost. In addition, the contract “rents” the protected eleven acres to the federal government for fifteen years so that, in the long run, we recoup about 111% of the original cost.
The final step in the process, however, is making the most of the protected land. That involves planting the area with native hard wood, nut and fruit trees to restore the eco-system around the streams, both in the water and on land. You may not realize that currently developed real estate is often planted with invasive species of trees or shrubs or at least species that are insect resistant–an obvious aesthetic choice. However, such species means losing necessary insects that either perform important roles for plant propagation or as food for birds or other small animals. Native species, however, support the important native insects that are the foundation of a good ecological balance. Aside from the fact that native species grow best in the local climate, they are also shelter smaller animals from flying predators and are a food source for scavenging wild life. In addition, what the trees drop into the streams–seeds and pollen–can be important nourishment for aquatic life returning to the unpolluted streams. This network of life forms, supporting one another, is what is known as the biodiversity that nature intended. This last step explains all those funny sticks within the fences. What you see are deer (and other animal) resistant tubes protecting the “whips” of young trees, surrounded by a protective matting and staked upright. In connection with the Virginia Department of Forestry in Woodstock, Conservation Services from Waynesboro under the supervision of Rodney Nice did all that planting in a couple of days.
Subdue and Dominate the Earth?
The Judeo-Christian tradition has sometimes been held responsible for the ecological mess we are in. I’d beg to differ. Certainly some people have too freely interpreted the passage from Genesis that the human race was created to “subdue and dominate” the earth. The Hebrew is tricky and the verbs are rather extreme. But exegetes also point out that the unusual idiom really implies the mandate to maintain the harmonious balance in creation. The “subduing” means to oppose the destructive forces in the world around us (perhaps first of all, in ourselves), not to exploit its resources; the “dominate” means to act as God’s conscious and responsible representatives and regulate creatively the resources of God’s creation. And how many Bible readers even pay attention to the following verses: the first man and woman were vegetarians, depending solely on seed bearing plants for their food–a very renewable resource. The overall picture depicts a harmonious relationship between humanity and our natural environment.
This is certainly a nuance missed by the translators of the King James Bible and, in reaction to it, the Douay-Rheims version. But those translations are products of the renaissance, a culture that put the human beings at the center of a universe, conceived as much smaller and less interconnected than ours. We became self-absorbed exploiters of the world around us, heedless of our impact on the environment, defining ourselves as over and against nature. Whereas in the sloppy middle ages, local styles of liturgy would introduce a live ass into the nave of the church to celebrate Palm Sunday or the procession of the Magi at the Epiphany, the post Reformation churches became both more decorous and more alienated from nature. Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden was more of a nostalgic recollection than a reality he knew. In fact in his day, it took seventy full grown trees to build a normal house and deforestation was a problem from his era forward. Such an era would not dig below the surface of the literal sense of “subdue and dominate”; it was self-legitimizing and there was no call to consider the contextual subtleties of the Hebrew. I find it interesting that Jewish commentators, who were the low men on every European totem pole, not only had a different sense of the idiom from native familiarity with their own language, but also from an alternative social perspective as the underdog in no position to exploit.
In the authentic Christian tradition, creation is sacred, not only because it comes from God’s hand but, created through God’s living Word, the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity is implicitly communicated through creation. As early as the third century, Justin Martyr was referring to the seminal presence of Christ in creation. In more recent time a monk of Mount Athos, Fr. Amphilochios of Patmos (+1970) said, “whoever does not love the trees, does not love Christ.”
This is the perspective of Holy Cross Abbey’s commitment to sustainable practices. Yes, we give voice to voiceless creation and hope to benefit our neighbors and we do this as part of our commitment to the Gospel and veneration of the Son of God.