A sermon for Earth Day
Rebecca Pugh, clergy
Luke 24: 36: “Peace be with you.” … 42: he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”. They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke have written a 2014 book called The Living Landscape, and in it, Tallamy tells the story of his 10 acre homestead in Southeast Pennsylvania. When he and his wife Cindy bought it, it had once been a hayfield, but hadn’t been mowed for three years. It was full of stuff that had grown up over those three years.
I always have thought, since they taught it to me in Sunday School 50 years ago, that it is better to leave things growing. But Cindy and Doug discovered something different. They saw two different kinds of trees growing side by side: ones that were from other parts of the world, but that had seeded into his hayfield and were growing vigorously there, and ones that were native to the region where he lived, that were in some cases being choked out by the ones that were non-native. Because Doug is an entomologist, with a particular expertise in lepidoctera (that is, butterflies, skippers, and moths), he could recognize the particular caterpillars on the different trees, and see how they were doing. The local trees, and his favorite are the oaks, were full of caterpillars. The foreign trees and bushes had almost no caterpillars growing on them. Then he looked to see where the birds were. The local trees and bushes were full of warblers, thrushes, finches. The invasive trees had hardly any birds.
Doug and Cindy realized something that had not yet been studied. They realized that local plants support local insects, which then support local birds, amphibians, reptiles. And foreign trees do not support the same caterpillar buffet for birds, and so the birds will keep looking for local trees rather than search in vain for food in invasive trees. 96% of birds rear their young on caterpillars. And so if your yard is full of trees that don’t have any caterpillars in them, the birds can’t feed their babies. And the babies don’t eat.
So the Tallamys got a pocket full of acorns, and planted oak trees. The oak tree supports 542 types of caterpillars, and it also sequesters carbon better than almost any other tree. They planted three kinds of dogwood. They planted birch trees. And viburnums. And black cherries. And beeches, and chestnuts, and elms. They were able to save the seeds for a lot of these from neighboring land, and were surprised how fast they grew. It took a lot of supervising, because invasive species kept self-seeding on the Tallamy’s property from the neighbors’, but by paying attention, they could keep it at bay.
With the local plants flourishing, first the butterflies moved back. The Tallamys watched them coming: the monarchs in the lead. And because Tallamy is an entomologist, he knows that the monarch is 95 percent extinct. To see them coming back to his yard (with the help of some self-scattered milkweeds) gladdened his heart. But then, shortly thereafter, the birds came back. And when the Tallamys woke to hear them singing, they set up chairs outside.
One day they noticed a Blue Grosbeak singing in the ironwood tree. Doug Tallamy said he thought for a moment that it was an Indigo Bunting, but it had a different song, and a red stripe on its wing. Soon, a chocolate brown female Blue Grosbeak stopped by, and started to construct a nest in the alternate-leaf dogwood tree nearby. The thing about the Blue Grosbeaks is that they like to build their nest out of a snakeskin. Usually they hunt for one not too far from where they will build their nest, so they don’t have to carry it very far. And the Tallamys held their breath and watched.
Not too long later, they saw the male Blue Grosbeak carrying a four-foot snakeskin from a black rat snake. The snake had shed near a groundhog hole in the meadow pretty close to where the birds were singing. Soon, the two Blue Grosbeaks had woven the snakeskin together with grass blades and sticks, and laid three eggs in it.
The eggs hatched, the parent birds fed them from among the 1000 varieties of caterpillars that were prominent in the local trees that the Tallamys had planted seeds for. The babies hatched and the Blue Grosbeak family of 5 enjoyed the whole summer in the Tallamy yard, until they left for Mexico in the early autumn. Tallamy says that the male Blue Grosbeak sang every morning at seven sharp.
In Luke 24, we read about how Jesus shows up hungry, after the resurrection, and asks the church if they have anything to eat. We get to ponder our connections to the hunger of God, and the chance to be a part of the nourishment of the planet.
Jesus came back from the grave, and one of the first things he asked for is food. And not only that, but that he asked for a meal with them. He ate this food in their presence. It reminded them of all the meals they had shared, with all kinds of strangers and strange folks, from when the church was first born.
Not only that, but when we pray “Give us this day our Daily Bread,” there are several nuances of this that we have missed, when we focus on the King James translation from the Greek into the English, which is the one we tend to say because we have memorized it. In the Aramaic version of this, which would have been the language Jesus would have spoken to the church in, it says more like, “Thank you for all you do give us, and hear us today gratefully receiving both the bread and the wisdom you offer us.” Beginning with gratitude, rather than just “Give it to us,” and continuing with sustenance and also wisdom, we have this broad version of nurture that we don’t get a sense of when we stick with the Greek and the King James English. I love that, and how it offers insight for the well-being of all creatures.
Today, on earth day, we get to hear the living God asking from the land for something to eat, and we get to think how we can be a part of the YES that the disciples also were a part of.
This holy opportunity to feed God incarnate is a broad concept that calls to us on Earth Day, and calls to us in the Easter season. that Doug and Cindy Tallamy took the feeding of nature to heart. They went through their land, and looked at where it was barren, and then began to take out the barren plants, and to put in ones, instead, that were full of food.
They might have just put up a birdfeeder, but here’s the thing. Parent birds like the seeds in the bird feeder, in some cases. But baby birds like caterpillars. Baby birds put up a huge fight if they can’t eat what they want, and then they go on a hunger strike. You all know as well as I do what it’s like to try to feed a baby who doesn’t like what you are offering it. The Tallamys realized that all the bird feeders in the world weren’t as useful as planting a few acorns, because the babies couldn’t eat the seeds, they wanted the caterpillars who live in local trees.
Tallamys fed the earth, and the earth grew trees, which fed the birds, which is a beautiful way of feeding God. And then the earth broke out in song.
So I would like to sing you the song of the Blue Grosbeak.
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