Sex, Salvation and Species

Wendell Berry pointed out the relationship between our understanding of sex and our willingness to exploit nature. A distorted view of one leads to a distorted view of the other. Eugene Peterson in his book Christ Plays in 10,000 Places makes a similar point about our conception of human beings as abstracted from creation. He tells a story about how he chastised a little girl who had picked flowers in a National Park causing her to cry. His protection of the pristine wilderness around him neglected to count the little girl among God’s creation. The two are part of the whole and we neglect either part at our own peril.

Barbara Kingsolver’s fifth novel, Prodigal Summer, weaves together, not only stories of human beings and their relationships, but also their relationship to nature. The setting is both the pristine wilderness of forest preserve and the farms still clinging to life all around it. While I couldn’t claim a favorite among the three pairs of people in rural Appalachia that the novel follows, the elderly neighbors of Garnett Walker and Nannie Rawley are an entertaining and instructive pair to listen in on. Garnett is a crotchety, retired science and 4-H teacher who is losing his eyesight in more ways than one. His quest is to restore the American Chestnut tree destroyed by a non-native blight and the ensuing intervention of human beings. He believes in industrial agriculture and its way of looking at nature. In contrast, his neighbor, Nannie Rawley, has the only certified organic apple orchard around.

Their story follows the clash of these two worldviews and eventually the finding of some common ground and humanity. The best parts are the arguments they have through a series of letters and face to face encounters. Garnett Walker proposes a question to his nemesis Nannie Rawley in a letter,

“Are we humans to think of ourselves merely as one species among many[…]? Do you believe a human holds no more special authority in this world than, say, a Japanese beetle or a salamander? If so, then why is it our duty to set free the salamanders, any more than it is the salamander’s place to swim up to the state prison in Marion and liberate the criminals incarcerated there?” (186)

I think Garnett’s question is a good one, if a bit misguided. It seems that often we study nature as if we were not part of it. If we are but one among all the creatures then why should we waste our time saving other creatures. You don’t see them trying to fix our problems. If all we do is reduce ourselves to one among all the creatures, then we run the risk of losing what makes us unique and what gives us the potential for great good even in the face of our own great evil. Nannie Rawley later on replies,

“Since you asked, yes, I do believe humankind holds a special place in the world. It’s the same place held by a mockingbird, in his opinion, and a salamander in whatever he has that resembles a mind of his own. Every creature alive believes this: The center of everything is me. Every life has its own kind of worship, I think, but do you think a salamander is worshiping some God that looks like a big two-legged man? Go on! To him, a man’s a shadowy nuisance (if anything) compared to the sacred business of finding food and a mate and making progeny to rule the mud for all times. To themselves and one another, those muddy little salamander lives mean everything.” (215)

To some Nannie Rawley’s understanding of our “special place in the world” reduces humanity to creatures, but I see it as a needed corrective to the insistence that we were so special that we somehow stopped being creatures dependent and part of creation. It also reveals how egocentric and species-centric our understanding of God and creation really is. In God’s creation there is no sacred and secular. The designation of holy things and sacred rituals and places serves only to remind us of the sacredness that permeates all of creation, the salamander’s “sacred business of finding food and a mate and making progeny”. If anything or anyone is “set apart” it is for the purpose of bringing all things back into alignment with God’s original intentions and purpose for creation, not to extract or separate us from creation or other human beings.

This passage sums up, I think, the thesis of Kingsolver’s novel, that we are a part of the creation yet uniquely able to manipulate and responsible for the very creation on which we depend.

“Yes, sir, eating others and reproducing their own, that’s true. Eating and reproducing, that’s most of what God’s creation is all about… It’s not mud, Mr. Walker. It’s glory, to be part of a bigger something. The glory of an evolving world…You say only an intelligent, beautiful creator could create beauty and intelligence? I’ll tell you what. See that basket of June Transparents there? You know what I put on my trees to make those delicious apples? Poop, mister. Horse poop and cow poop.”

“Are you likening the Creator to manure?”

“I’m saying your logic is weak.”(277-278)

It seems that Nannie is moving beyond the kind of debates over creation and evolution to which Garnett is accustomed. We are more about eating and reproducing than we care to believe. We are more creatures, more physical, than our gnostic spirituality (yes, even in the church), wants to admit. Yet we are unique participants in the ongoing work of creation with God. We can take horse and cow (even our own!) poop and turn it into something beautiful.

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