If an Ancient Cathedral Had Burned: Farewell to Grandmother Oak

by Ched Myers

Old trees are our parents, and our parents’ parents, perchance.

— Henry David Thoreau, Journal, Oct 1855

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, three weeks into the Thomas Fire here in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, the losses from California’s largest wildfire on record (scorching more than 280,000 acres) became searingly real, personal, and almost unbearable.

Ventura County, CA after the 2017 fires, photo by Tim Nafziger, used by permission.

The weather was warm and blessedly clear of smoke, the fire now 85% contained and only still burning far in the backcountry. So after the Farmer’s Market, Elaine and I took a ride on our little scooter. We figured we’d recovered enough psychologically from the immediate trauma of the conflagration to be able to take a look around the perimeter of the Ojai Valley. What we saw was sobering: from East End to Matilija to White Ledge Peak (upon which we gaze every day from our home) to Red Mountain, there was little but ashen scars in every direction. Entire mountainsides had been burned down to dirt and stone.

We saved the last leg of our impromptu tour for that part of our watershed most beloved to us: the hills behind Lake Casitas. Here in 2005 we first encountered uncompromised chaparral and undisturbed old growth oak savannahs—exceedingly rare in overdeveloped southern California. Here we hopped fences and hiked off grid, sat under trees, and came to know plant communities. Here we received the deepest confirmation of our decision to move to this place.

And on one of our very first wanders, by a seasonal creek tucked out of sight, we met the venerable old tree we came to know, in the spirit of Thoreau, as “Grandma Oak.”

Ventura County, CA during the 2017 fires, photo by Tim Nafziger, used by permission.

By all accounts—and we asked around—Grandma was the largest and oldest live oak in the watershed. One tree expert who knew of her guessed up to 500 years. Her trunk had the largest girth I’d ever seen on an oak, which long ago swallowed up a barbed wire and metal pole fence that had been nailed to it.  Participants in our 2010 Bartimaeus Institute, commemorating the life and martyrdom of Sr. Dorothy Stang and other forest defenders, paid a visit, and it took six of us joining hands to circle her. Or rather, half of her: the other half had fallen into the seasonal creek during a flood, likely before Europeans ever set foot here.

Under the canopy of this extraordinary tree we prayed, studied, talked, and listened.  We honored Grandma Oak as our most revered elder in this place, hugged her at every opportunity. And if you visited us for any length of time, we likely took you to pay respects to her. Herman Hesse gives voice to our reasons in Trees: Reflections and Poems (1984):

Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree…
In the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured…
Trees are sanctuaries.  Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.  They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.


Ventura County, CA after the 2017 fires, photo by Tim Nafziger, used by permission.

As we came over the rise on the other side of Coyote Creek, we were stunned to realize that the fire had burned from White Ledge almost all the way down to Casitas Pass Road. I felt my stomach wrench; this landscape, so dear to us, was ash grey.

But it hadn’t leaped Santa Ana Road, I thought; surely Grandma’s OK. We pulled up to the Forest Service gate, and saw that the old ranch on the other side had been completely torched. Dread crawling up my throat, we slipped through it and picked our way through downed branches, the path no longer decipherable. Cathedral Oak came into view, still standing, though seriously singed. Our eyes then turned toward our elder, utterly unprepared for the sight.

She lay in ruins, her main branches splayed on the ground in three directions, still smoldering more than two weeks later. I burst into tears. We stood silent for a long time. Bereft. Heartbroken. Orphaned.

Ventura County, CA after the 2017 fires, photo by Tim Nafziger, used by permission.

This tree—older than colonization, sentinel of the Old Ways, our axis mundi—was not able to survive the Thomas Fire, a beast spawned by climate catastrophe spawned by anthropogenic hubris and carbon addiction. Kyrie eleison.

I spread my arms out, hugging the phantom trunk now gone. Elaine began singing “They Are Falling All around Us.” I could not stop weeping. Christe eleison.

I felt rage rise in me. The trophy home on the hill had been ringed by fire, yet was saved. But no firefighter received instructions to defend our beloved tree. If an ancient cathedral had burned, there would be headlines and public hand-wringing and official lamentation. But in the silence of smoking branches, our grief—as the first ones to discover and mourn Grandma Oak’s demise—was hidden, solitary, anonymous. Kyrie eleison.

I tore off a small branch to take home, where I laid it next to our crèche. I was speechless the rest of the afternoon, overcome with inconsolable emptiness.


Ventura County, CA after the 2017 fires, photo by Tim Nafziger, used by permission.

Christmas morning I asked photographer Tim Nafziger to accompany me back to the site to document Grandma’s demise. I nailed a hand-written sign to one of the fallen branches, appealing to whoever might come to “clean up” the remains to please not chainsaw her up into firewood. This was an historic and revered tree, I wrote, and deserved to lie where she fell and let nature take its course. I then left a phone message for a local Chumash elder about how one might properly mourn this loss.

I understand that wildfires are part of the natural ecology of this bioregion. I’ve seen the cycle, and know life will return. But the unprecedented conditions of aridity and drought (explained here) that caused this monster fire were caused by the unrelenting greed of our carbon-based economy. In an interview on day four of the fire, after calling this the fastest burning fire he’d ever witnessed, a top California official called it “the new normal.” Apparently that is now politicalspeak, code for climate-related weather events. But it is not normal. And the media still won’t name climate catastrophe plainly, or worse, speak of it as if it were something being done to us, rather than by us.


Visiting Grandma Oak after the fires, photo by Tim Nafziger, used by permission.

Discovering the loss of Grandma Oak was a very, very difficult way to conclude Advent. And it has provoked a personal spiritual crisis. When I awoke, in the early 1990s, to the power and meaning of quercus agrifolia, “el roble sagrado al centro del mundo” became the foundational trope for the bioregional turn in my theology and faith (see a summary here). And since 2005, Grandma Oak had become for me the mystical totem of our journey of “re-place-ment” that brought us to this watershed—indeed our very raison d’etre in this valley. So what now?

This loss will assuredly intensify my conviction that biblical faith demands forest defense (on this see here), and my commitment to struggle against the carbon economy. But at the moment, I can only embrace the bitter lament of the prophet Zechariah about his sacred trees falling victim to empire:

“…fire devours your cedars!  Wail, O cypress, for the cedar is fallen; the glorious ones are spoiled.  Wail, you oaks of Bashan, for the strong forest is come down.”  (Zech. 11:1-2)


Originally posted on ChedMyers.org

Pesticides and Shalom: Advocating for Sustainable School Grounds Management as an Act of Watershed Discipleship

by Jennifer Powell
Guest Contributor

Creating good childhood memories with my children is important to me: team sports, family camping trips, backyard barbeques, lovable pets, and birthday parties. More importantly, I hope to give my children a sense of connection to their community and the land and to bolster their capacity to face the challenges of the world they will inherit from my generation. These challenges can feel hopelessly overwhelming. Our current ecological and social realities make it easy for anyone with awareness to fall into despair. Therefore, I want to give my children a sense of hope against the dire backdrop of capitalist consumption-driven climate change. Real hope springs through engaging with reality as it stands, yet responding as a loving community toward changing the things that we can. Recently, I was presented with an opportunity for the children and families in our watershed to plant the seeds of that kind of hope and help them grow as I became aware of pesticide use on school grounds, and advocacy in my community against that management style. In what follows, I’ll share my story of becoming aware of this problem, connect it to themes in the biblical tradition, articulate some of the cultural problems we currently face in the United States, discuss some of the problems with pesticide use, and end by describing some of what my community is doing to move in a healthier direction.

I. Awareness

Few places in local communities touch more lives than school grounds: the acres of land that provide the earth foundation for our learning centers. Beyond the classroom buildings, these acres house the fields upon which our communities play team sports, exercise, train dogs, fly kites and frisbees, and the playgrounds where our children jump and swing. They are the sites where childhood memories and foundational ethics are formed and the future is shaped.

Photo by Annie O’Dean, used by permission.

I spent a lot of time on a school ground for the first time since becoming a parent in 2014, coaching soccer for my son’s team. We practiced on the fields of an alternative school with a focus on sustainability. The school has a large organic garden with tall sunflowers, vegetables, insects, and birds. My spirit felt glad each time I saw that garden and it was a joy to watch the kids, waiting for their siblings to finish practice, playing hide and seek there and asking their parents about the flowers and vegetables they saw.

Contrasting with the beauty of that garden, on various hillsides and fence borders around the grounds were wide swaths of bare, compacted earth, colored yellow and covered with dead weeds. I cringed as I saw children playing in those dead places, sitting in those soils, little hands crawling around in the dirt and then moving up into noses and mouths. I remember yelling at my own children to “stay out of the yellow!” because I could see those places had recently been sprayed with herbicide. It disturbed me to see herbicide used so liberally in places where our children gather and play.

I. Pesticide Use on School Grounds in Lane County
Students are walking next to and through the areas that have been sprayed. Required Notice of Herbicide Application signs are not visible. Had they been posted? Notice that some of the shrubs (woody brush) are dead and dying. Photo by Annie O’Dean, used by permission.

A year or two later I met a local woman, Annie O’Dean, who was spearheading a community-based effort to stop the spraying of our school grounds with pesticides. She was collecting signatures to present to the school board in my watershed in Lane County, Oregon, to ask them to stop spraying pesticides on our school grounds.

As a preschool teacher, Annie had noticed the yellowing of grasses around the playground fence line in the spring when everything is green, and had called the school district to ask them to stop spraying pesticides in the areas where the kids played. She began recording the spraying with photographs from her own school grounds as well as other schools in the area. She noticed trees and shrubs dying in the sprayed areas, and soil became unable to sustain life beyond unwanted weeds. As Annie spoke with parents and others about what she was seeing, she found another woman in the community who had also been taking photographs to record the evidence for her concerns. That woman happened to be leading a community political action to ban the aerial spraying of pesticides in our watershed. Yet another concerned woman said to Annie, “You know, I think there’s a law.”

Annie began to search for the policies governing the spraying of pesticides on school grounds and found her way to Beyond Toxics, a nonprofit in Oregon that “works for all Oregonians to empower individuals and communities to find solutions that protect human and environmental health.” Beyond Toxics helped with legal research and discovered that herbicides are not to be used on school grounds simply for aesthetic reasons, and should be considered only as a last resort even in non-aesthetic cases.

In addition, Annie found that in 2009, South Lane School District (SLSD) had adopted the Sustainable Oregon Schools Initiative, or SOSI. Recognizing the importance of developing a strong ethic of sustainability in its practices, the district outlined guidelines for sustainability, suggesting an interdependent effort comprised of community stakeholders from the school district, parents, local government, and nonprofit organizations. Annie simply began by asking SLDS to participate with its own adopted ethic. This effort is exciting because, should the district follow through with this ethic for sustainability, a large intersection of the watershed community could be involved in an intergenerational effort toward health and restoration over many acres of land and educate scores of people in their school-age years and beyond.

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II. Consumerist Hyper-reality vs. Biblical Shalom

Appropriate practical education could serve to facilitate the paradigm shift humanity so sorely needs at this time in our history. The challenges we face due to consumer driven, human-made climate change are no secret, yet we continue to seek to solve these problems from within the exact paradigm that has caused the problems. The nature of this problematic paradigm and cause of our seeming powerlessness to effectively address the challenges before us is, to a large degree, capitalist alienation.
Vincent J. Miller writes in Consuming Religion (2013):

“In advanced capitalism, aesthetic production and much of everyday culture are integrated into economic production.”

He goes on to make the case that we are living in a late capitalist “hyper-reality” based upon the supposition that our identities are essentially a pastiche of the goods and services we consume. Absolutely everything in our capitalist society is viewed through the lens of its material value, including nature. Most alarming is the fact that the abstraction of commodity from the conditions of production are a necessity of the capitalist economy. This is because awareness of production conditions and their consequences might give us pause as commodity consumers.

This hyper-realistic way of living causes alienation from true community and the land. People do not know where their food and products come from. They do not know the specific needs and unique qualities of the land around them or the rhythms and diversity inherent in their own communities. In short, the good and appropriate inherent desire within each of us for relationship with God and God’s ordering, or shalom, becomes misplaced, seeking to be answered through consumption, but never to be satiated. It is only through reimagining the utilization of our institutions toward a different, incarnational paradigm (shalom) that we will break free of the hyper-real divisions that threaten our planet and all future generations.

The truth is, human beings are in an inescapable relationship with the land. Land management could even be called the task for which humanity exists (Genesis 2:15).

The rain and the cycles, the plants that spring forth because of the rain, the earth itself, the breath of life and humankind all join together in the tilling of the ground, in the garden. Therefore, the wisdom of the Hebrew scripture invites us to root ourselves in the world through agrarian partnership with God.

In The Art of the Commonplace, Wendell Berry (2010) writes:

“It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil.”

Put simply, the state of the land is a reflection of the state of human spiritual and physical health.

Walter Brueggemann (Living Toward a Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom, 1984) puts it this way:

Shalom is the substance of the biblical vision of one community embracing all creation. It refers to all those resources and factors which make communal harmony joyous and effective.”

The harmony and efficacy Brueggemann refers to includes all of created life, yet, because our society operates out of the late capitalist hyper-real consumerist alienation, our current land management practices represent division and destruction rather than unity with the land. Conversely, embracing and healing the land would go far to heal our societal spiritual and physical suffering.

“Living out shalom means taking into account all of creation in reciprocal relationships and learning from creation as object lessons for understanding God’s shalom provision. In shalom, one fills Heaven’s purse by redistributing wealth on earth to all who are in need,”

according to Randy Woodley (Shalom and the Community of Creation, 2012). This sharing of wealth includes sharing with the land and all of creation.

Currently, exploitation is what we choose. The United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment from 2005 states that current practices in agriculture and land management may be “the largest threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function of any single human activity.” Second only to energy consumption, approximately one fifth of greenhouse gas emissions are generated by our agriculture, forestry and other land use practices.

It is clear that the current capitalist, consumer-driven approach to land use and management is no longer a viable approach and that radical reform is necessary, so why does it feel as if things aren’t changing? Matthew Humphrey (in Myers, ed., Watershed Discipleship, 2016) states:

“Challenging broken identities and false narratives….requires that we confront the idolatries which have alienated us from God, one another, and creation; that we repent; and that we follow the way of Jesus, which reorients our action and identity in the world.”

All of this can feel overwhelming, leading us toward despair. How can we even begin to do this work? It reminds me of the age-old question “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer, of course, is, “One bite at a time.” This requires us to figure out a bite-sized piece we can work on, and the courage and willingness to set to work, changing the things we can within our own communities and watersheds. We can change the paradigm one meal, purchase, garden, and field at a time. The piece I am currently working on has to do with pesticide use on school grounds, and therefore, I needed to learn a bit more about pesticides.

III. The Problem of Pesticides

Pesticides are the number one tool people reach for in land management today. This can be traced back to the post-war era, when the face of agriculture changed radically. Seeking to expand food production and security in war-torn European landscapes, the tanks of war were converted to tractors to clear and work the land. Factories produced synthetic nitrogen for use as fertilizer, dramatically increasing agricultural production and circumventing the need for forage crops, previously planted for grazing animals to eat as they fertilized fields for the next season. Chemicals such as 2,4-D, which had been explored as potential weapons to devastate the food supply of the enemy, evolved into agricultural pesticides (Orion, Beyond the War on Invasive Species, 2015).

In addition to nitrogen, glyphosate began to be used, and is now the most widely and heavily used pesticide in the history of chemical agriculture. Its use has increased since 1996, when genetically modified monoculture crops, designed to be glyphosate resistant, were commercially introduced. Over 720,000 metric tons of glyphosate were produced in 2012.

Sustainability team helping with school grounds management that doesn’t require pesticides. Photo by Jennifer Powell, used by permission.

Glyphosate is used across a wide spectrum of land management sites, which include forestry, urban, industrial, schools, roadsides, public spaces, and home applications, in addition to agriculture. Since its commercial release in the mid-1970s, Round-up, the retail brand name for the glyphosate-based herbicide manufactured by Monsanto, has been readily available to the consumer at stores carrying conventional gardening supplies. Pesticides like glyphosate splashed onto the scene and were perceived as safe, easy to use, and effective. To a large degree, that is the way they are still perceived today. The corporate producers of these chemicals spend billions of dollars each year on advertising to ensure that perception. Yet, glyphosate has recently been labeled a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

In the Lane County watershed, one of the most concerning uses of pesticides is the aerial spraying of forests. Most commonly, a mixture of glyphosate, atrazine and 2,4-D (an ingredient in the chemical weapon Agent Orange) is sprayed via helicopter, crop duster or drone over nearly 600,000 acres of industrial forested land, over one fifth of the land in Lane County and the Coast Fork Willamette Watershed. This is done in order to manage forest clearcuts, which are accepted as normal in my watershed. Excess chemical compounds from the sprays run off into waterways and can cause dangerous imbalances, impacting water quality and safety downstream.

Further, clearcutting and industrial spraying require only a few people to run machinery, reducing the number of available jobs in forest management. Corporate entities who own the forests profit from this management tactic, but communities living near the forests receive little economic benefit and bear the brunt of the toxicity and damages.

I spoke to Tao Orion, an expert in the fields of organic farming, agroecology, permaculture design, and ethnobotany, about the consequences of this type of forest management, and her answers went beyond these immediate problems. Many of the clear cuts in Lane County are now on their second or third rotation. She pointed out that Germany has been using these types of forest management practices slightly longer than we have in the Northwest, and the soils in their forests are collapsing after the third or fourth rotation of clearcut, spray, and regrowth, meaning the soils become incapable of growing anything. Corporate landowners now spray synthetic nitrogen to get things to grow in the dead soil. This will work for a rotation or two, but beyond that, nobody knows what will happen.

Another unforeseen problem is the effect of herbicidal management on animal life. Wasting disease is currently observed in deer and elk. The broadcast spraying of glyphosate, which is a mineral chelator, binds up soil minerals and makes them unavailable to plants, which, in turn, blocks enzymes necessary for the synthesis of vital proteins in these animals. Deficiencies in copper and selenium cause deer and elk problems with fur, antler, and hoof growth.

In other wildlife news, buffer zones on either side of streams have been narrowed for spraying convenience, wreaking havoc on riparian ecosystems. Tao Orion has witnessed streams that used to be year-round drying up, and fish that used to travel up their ancestral streams to spawn no longer have access.

IV. Bringing it Home: Advocacy against Pesticides in Lane County

For all these reasons and more, I feel a sense of prophetic urgency to help make a shift in the way my culture relates to the rest of the world. One way to begin is to teach children a different paradigm (Samuelsson & Kaga in State of the World, 2010). An interdisciplinary approach involving children, parents and community members in learning sustainable practices through concrete, real life experiences is one way to begin creating the shift away from the industrialized post-war capitalist style of land management and toward the true peace and prosperity of shalom.

Sustainability team helping with school grounds management that doesn’t require pesticides. Photo by Jennifer Powell, used by permission.

While it doesn’t solve all the problems related to pesticide and herbicide use and aerial spraying mentioned above, using different tools to find alternative solutions at least on our school grounds is a solid step in the direction of a healthier and more sustainable paradigm. Better land management and interdependent integration with the land means better physical and spiritual health for our children, our communities, and our watershed. Currently, our children’s lives are saturated with commercialism and corporate marketing campaigns that create the disconnected hyper-reality that separates us from the land, God, and each other, and continues to perpetuate ecological destruction. Children are experiencing a paradigm which, aside from the ecological consequences, leads to a whole host of social, public, and spiritual health problems. Advertising and marketing to children has been associated with “eating disorders, sexualization, youth violence, family stress, and underage alcohol and tobacco use” (Linn in State of the World, 2010). Spending time outdoors and involving them in managing school acres in a sustainable way can help them learn a whole systems approach that can lead us all toward greater individual and spiritual health and wellbeing.

When I spoke with Annie O’Dean about her work against pesticide use on school grounds, she asked an eloquent rhetorical question:

“What’s so dangerous about a dandelion?”

Indeed, what might it look like to live in a world where dandelions grow and feed the bees who pollinate fruit trees and vegetable gardens? What if children tended the plants and built trellises and paths in school, and learned how to care for themselves and creation? Regardless of the claims of the hyper-real, the soil and the water and the ecosystems are necessary for human life, and paying attention to them and caring for them is part of what our tradition tells us it means to be human. The communities we live in and the people who live with us and share the land with us are what most of us really value, if we stop and think about it.

Jennifer Powell and sustainability team helping with school grounds management that doesn’t require pesticides. Photo used by permission.

In recent months, I’ve been part of the volunteer sustainability team working with South Lane School District alongside parent club and student representatives. Together, we are building plans to reduce and eliminate herbicide use for each school site and creating a system for district wide communication. It is a monumental task that could never come to pass without the participation of everyone. This is a striking representation of a community working toward shalom. I am grateful for the opportunity to begin to lay the foundation for a more sustainable paradigm for my children and my watershed. I hope the work we do on Annie’s sustainable no-spray team instills in my children a sense of hope, that there is something they can do that is effective and spiritually edifying, even in a world that is full of disconnection and difficult challenges.


Adapted from a paper written for Theology and Ethic of the Land, Portland Seminary

Jennifer Powell’s bio: Just like you, I care about what is happening in our world. I believe we are all invited to participate in the unfolding of a grand story being written by God. God’s story is an epic story, full of plot twists and turns and miracles beyond what our imagination can conjure. The best thing about God’s story is that it ends well. It is a story bound in hope for all of creation. It is a story of redemptive transformation into love, mercy, justice, and peace for all things. It is a story we can believe in. I believe that, together with God and Creation, humanity can usher in a healthy, vibrant, beautiful world! To find out more, visit me at JenniferPowellCares.com. This is my blog site that will be up and running soon!

Small Gestures

On Sunday morning, as part of our celebration of the MLK Day weekend, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the destruction of the site of the Asistencia Santa Gertrudis a few miles from our home, where a small Chumash village survived between 1830 and 1865, giving the name “Casitas” to the area. After a hurried archaeological excavation of the site, the state ran a freeway over it in January 1968, something that could never happen today because of laws around disposition of native artifacts. So our little Farm Church circle said some prayers, told the story, and planted some new plants, as the memorial site was burned over in the fire. A small gesture of mindfulness in our watershed.
–Ched Myers

Re-posted from Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries (photo by Chris Wight)

For more detail on our ‘re-membering’ of the Asistencia Santa Gertrudis, see Ched’s blog post from January 10th

Schade’s “Preaching the Body of God”

With all of 2018 ahead of us, it is refreshing to reconnect with more holistic understandings of how to understand our place in the world. Leah D. Schade does just this in her article in The Other Journal, “Preaching the Body of God.” She draws from the work of Sallie McFague to explore environmental justice from an ecofeminist theologian’s perspective, and invites preachers to not shy away from this work in their public witness. As she notes:

Engaging McFague will challenge preachers to question the underlying foundations of our language, especially within the overarching paradigm of patriarchy.

Schade offers helpful tools for thinking through how to preach on environmental topics in light of other justice issues, and in a way that people will understand and connect with. This article is a great read, reinforcing the aid that multiple lenses can bring to our work for environmental issues. You can also check out Schade’s other writing about preaching with eco-themes at her Patheos blog, EcoPreacher.

Photo © Tim Nafziger

Salal + Cedar Prayer and Action Against Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Expansion Project

“A priest, a rabbi, a Hindu and a Unitarian walk onto a pipeline route…”

Photos © Murray Bush

It may sound like the beginning of a joke, but this set-up describes a weekly blockade of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Expansion Project near Vancouver, British Columbia, Coast Salish Territory. Salal + Cedar, a watershed discipleship community in the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster (Anglican Church of Canada), helped lead a blockade of the Kinder Morgan access road each Thursday in December, organizing an opportunity for an interfaith group to come together around the common goal of stopping construction of the expanded pipeline, and acknowledging a shared connection to the water, land, and creatures of their watershed and world.

Photos © Murray Bush

The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Expansion Project would “parallel the 1,150-km route of the existing Trans Mountain Pipeline, which was built in 1953 and is the only West Coast link for Western Canadian oil,” increasing the capacity from 300,000 barrels of oil per day to 890,000 (Kinder Morgan website). However, as Rev. Laurel Dykstra of Salal + Cedar puts it, “The proposed expansion project differs significantly in route [from the existing pipeline]. It crosses a whole ton of waterways and un-ceded Indigenous territory, where people have not been fully consulted, or have explicitly denied their consent.” The level of public outcry against this project has been significant, with letter-writing campaigns and well-attended protests and marches, but approval for the project has been pushed through anyway. As construction proceeds, it is time to move forward into a different kind of action. Of this moment, Dykstra says:

“To be at the outset of that different kind of action, to see where different voices will put their bodies, is an interesting and exciting time.”

Photos © Murray Bush

Salal + Cedar had been thinking and praying about a way to consistently and meaningfully disrupt the construction of this new pipeline through nonviolent direct action, so when Rabbi David Mivasair called Rev. Dykstra and asked if her community would be able to help host a series of protests, Salal + Cedar was ready to act. The first week, “Essentially what we did was we closed down the front gate to Westridge Marine Terminal for two to three hours. That’s the destination for the pipeline product, which will be bitumen, before it goes onto tankers. What we’re doing is slowing down or stopping, for the amount of time that we can, all of the work that’s going on in that facility,” said Dykstra. The small group of protestors stood in the road, backing up all the traffic to the facility, including utility vehicles and transport buses. Dykstra noted that workers sitting in their vehicles and waiting for the protest to be cleared are not losing pay during this time.

Photos © Murray Bush

When police officers arrived on the scene to clear the protestors after their first December action, the interfaith group asked for a few minutes to confer about what to do. Did they want to continue the blockade and get arrested, leave the site, or come up with a creative way to delay? They decided to ask for a bit more time to offer closing prayers. Rabbi David quipped, “Do you know how long the Jewish prayer book is?” and Bina Salimath said, “I am Hindu. We’re going to pray to a lot of gods so it’s going to take quite a long time before we’ll be able to leave the intersection!” Though the group did not pray through the entirety of their traditions’ prayer repositories on that day, they indicated the strength and longevity of their commitment through invoking their traditions’ blessings, laments, and petitions.

Photos © Murray Bush

The slowdowns caused by these and other actions are having an impact on the profitability of the project, according to Dykstra:

“There’s a whole lot of talk from the head office at Kinder Morgan about the great cost that public protest is causing them. Essentially, what we’re doing is making it not profitable. The more it costs, the longer it takes, the less likely it is for the pipeline to go through.”

Photos © Murray Bush

Salal + Cedar prepared for this series of actions through attending protest events led by other groups, hosting and then leading nonviolent direct action trainings in their region, and consistently connecting their Christian faith with their watershed through worship experiences. Salal + Cedar meets for worship outside, acknowledging that the “liturgy of the Word” includes both scripture and creation. Each Holy Week Salal + Cedar partners with Earthkeepers, another local Christian Environmental group, to experience the stations of the cross on Burnaby Mountain, attending to the suffering of creation in light of the crucifixion and resurrection story. They participate in protests such as kayaktivism to get in the way of oil tankers and to prevent the construction of new tanker berths, and they spend time learning to know and love the network of species that call the Lower Fraser Watershed home. They learn practical skills such as building rain barrels, they work together to support local food production and distribution, and they help others engage faith-based environmental care through visiting and sharing with local congregations, offering a children’s curriculum, hosting a youth camp focused on environmental justice, and offering workshops in anti-oppression and nonviolent direct action. (Workshops include hosting a training by 350.org, partnering with Fossil Free Faith of Vancouver, and running trainings based on Training for Change.)

Photos © Murray Bush

For the Kinder Morgan actions, Salal + Cedar has committed to doing something one morning a week. This month, they hosted weekly prayer and action events, and in the future, they hope to be ready to mobilize infrastructure to help support long-term encampments, such as providing breakfast once a week.

This is part of a larger rolling wave of actions that is being coordinated in a semi-organized fashion by “big green” organizations like 350.org and Greenpeace in collaboration with local environmental groups and faith communities. In addition to Salal + Cedar’s weekly road blockades, the water side of the project has been slowed through kayaktivism by a group called the Sea Wolves. They paddle in and out of the safety area around construction occurring in the water. This forces workers to stop until kayaks move out of the safety zone, resuming momentarily, only to stop again as the kayaks move back into the safety area. The presence of the kayaks also slows down tankers and tugs navigating the waterway.

Dykstra sees Salal + Cedar’s actions to protest the Trans Mountain Expansion Project as part of their commitment to watershed discipleship. After their community has “have taken all of the civil and sanctioned responses that are possible,” moving into nonviolent direct action is a way of living out love to their watershed neighbors, both human and other species:

Photos © Murray Bush

“Since Burnaby Mountain is where we do our annual stations of the cross, our sacramental life is also very tied to place. Our love of neighbor in our watershed and our capacity to be present with our bodies and to put ourselves in the way of harm is a very real opportunity here. We’ve been growing this capacity and looking to this possibility, because the threats here are quite personal. There are families that are part of Salal + Cedar who live in homes that are threatened by the fact that there really is no adequate fire and emergency response to a pipeline spill. The resident orca pods that live in the waters off of the land here are dwindling in number because of the depletion of wild salmon stock. And the audio harm that the pile driving will do to those communities is inestimable and immeasurable.”

In an effort “to know and love our neighbors in that place, and to raise up the names of the various species that are endangered by this project,” Salal + Cedar plans a species survey count, traversing the land around the Kinder Morgan facility. “All across these private property lines, salmon streams, eagles, ravens, bushtits, and all kinds of living creatures are moving back and forth across these artificial lines,” notes Dykstra. She also calls attention to the Coast Salish people, whose land is yet again being destroyed and diminished by this project, though their ancestry can be traced back thousands of years in that region, “one of the highest genetically provable long-term residences in one place in the world.”

Photos © Murray Bush

The community of Salal + Cedar hopes that their example will inspire others to engage in similar action. They see their commitment to watershed health and equity as a way of reaffirming their baptismal vows, which include a promise to sustain and safeguard the integrity of creation, and they encourage others to faithfully enact watershed discipleship in the regions we call home. Laurel Dykstra welcomes inquiries from other faith communities and leaders who would like to learn more about how to begin moving in this direction.

Without this commitment to get in the way of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Expansion Project and similar projects in our own watersheds, Dykstra states eloquently:

“What we stand to lose is species, is ecosystems, is homes. To be present to that suffering of creation, to act as part of creation caring for itself, is part of our watershed vocation.”


Advent, Plastic, and Spiritual Disciplines

My kids anticipate Christmas like no other season. They spend the month or two ahead of time thinking about and discussing what they want for Christmas, making lists, and poring over the Lego catalogue that appears in the mailbox. They understand the waiting and anticipation part of this season, but perhaps not for the most spiritual of reasons!

This has me wondering about the best ways to engage in this season of Advent, and the season of gathering and of giving that accompanies the way that we United States Christians currently go about celebrating the birth of Jesus. Is there a space between jumping into the frenzy of the holidays full throttle, and being a humbug or a Grinch (prior to their transformations)?

On the one hand, I feel rather Grinch-y. I feel like critiquing the ways our culture celebrates this holiday. It’s about the mystery of God wrapped in flesh, God entering a particular watershed in a particular time and place, and the impacts of that incarnation reverberating across time. And to commemorate it, we…shop? It’s at this time of year that I feel the most intense pressure to participate in consumerism in a way that I try to avoid the rest of the year. Although we try to limit the number of presents our kids get, and even buy some used so we reduce the need for new products to be made all the time, each year I’m dismayed by the amount of plastic packaging and other waste we produce. How is this a celebration of the God of creation?

On the other hand, I think of this in terms of seasonality. My kids know that Christmas and their birthdays are the two times of year when they will actually get new (to them) things. They anticipate this, and sometimes they start a Christmas list during the summer, anticipating the season. While I might wish they were anticipating something other than consuming more “stuff,” at least they don’t expect to be able to consume in that way all the time. In this way, hopefully it makes the holidays more meaningful, because there is a limit.

I notice that most things become much more meaningful if I set a limit, or if I live within a seasonal limit. For example, I have gotten to the point where I pretty much never buy a tomato at the store, because they really have no taste compared to a tomato grown in my garden. So, a couple weeks ago I ate the last of the tomatoes ripening in my windowsill, and I know I won’t have many more (fresh–I’ll have some canned ones) until next summer. Last July, I waited with anticipation for the first tomatoes to ripen, and it was such a moment of savor when I tasted my first tomato of the season. It was a daily summer ritual in July, August, and September to go outside and gather eggs, tomatoes, and basil for my breakfast, and to savor those flavors in their season.

This is a little like the spiritual discipline of fasting. When we fast for a meal or a day, or several days if we’re adventurous, we appreciate the next food we eat in a different way. We know what it is to go without, and we recognize our body’s need for nourishment in a way we don’t when we are just going through the motions of maintaining our normal routines.

In this way, setting or living within limits helps us appreciate and live life with gratitude, anticipation, and wonder, and in my life I find these are lacking in myself when I give myself everything I want at the moment that I feel the slightest urge for it. Setting limits requires us to pay attention to our wants, needs, and desires, and it also requires a willingness to experience both the lack and the fulfillment, in its time.

I’m noticing that both living within limits and celebrating seasonal bounty are part of what makes being human feel meaningful.

When I think about the consumerism that is associated with the Christmas season, and my own complicity in that, it’s easy to feel guilty, and certainly there is plenty of reason for that guilt: the plastic required to package or create the gifts I give and which will sit in a landfill virtually forever, the fossil fuels burnt to bring products to me, the toxic chemicals used and discarded (who knows where) in the manufacturing process, the disparities in privilege of those who can and those who cannot afford to offer holiday gifts to their children, the injustice surrounding distribution of land and the overwhelming lingering impacts of colonial expansion on these lands in which we blithely enjoy the holidays, and the many other dimensions of injustice and environmental impact that our collective lifestyles cause. It’s easy, at least for me, to connect all of this in my mind to the very act of celebration, and to begin to feel guilty even for enjoying small pleasures and anything that goes beyond necessity.

This season, I’m working to not feel guilty for celebration, and for the seasonal rhythm of gift-giving and family gathering. I can work to engage the gift-giving in ways that do not destroy the Earth, and I can focus on reveling in the beauty and delight of the small, seasonal pleasures in life. It is these moments that truly offer meaning and joy to the spiritual work of watershed discipleship. I can enjoy my children’s excitement for the season where they experience love through giving and receiving gifts, and I can allow this season to seep into me. As I was editing this piece, I overheard my older child say to my younger, “Christmas isn’t about the presents!” So, I am working to trust that we’re raising our kids with a sense of joy, wonder, and anticipation, as well as the ability to look beyond the “stuff,” to see and experience meaning apart from consumerist practices.

As the season of Advent draws to a close, I’m practicing the waiting, the withholding, the growing anticipation, the pain of labor required to reach the desired end, and the heart-rending beauty of new creation, hope, and abundant life. May you also draw nearer this season to the One who draws near to us.

Eco-contemplation and Action: Bahnson on the Ecology of Prayer

The latest issue of Orion Magazine, a special 35th anniversary edition, contains several articles that may be of interest to those practicing watershed discipleship, such as “Women and Standing Rock: where does the body end and sacred nature begin?” by Layli Long Soldier (this page contains a number of articles, poems, and photos on a similar theme), and “One Good Turn” by Kathleen Dean Moore, the story of five activists getting in the way of the Keystone XL Pipeline. There’s also a great piece called “The Soldier and the Soil” about an Iraq war veteran who is dealing with his post-traumatic stress through organic farming. This issue of Orion alone could keep you in excellent reading material for the entire holiday season!

Wake Forest School of Divinity professor Fred Bahnson

I point our readers particularly to “The Ecology of Prayer” by Fred Bahnson. It’s a beautifully written essay that moves through the wonder of a tide pool to the startling emptiness of a faith-based climate action rally, he draws us into the poignancy of the emotional and spiritual states many of us find ourselves in when we contemplate creation, and our impact on it. Using the metaphor of moving on to Easter Sunday too quickly without fully experiencing the deep and awful power of Good Friday, Bahnson wrestles with how to best deal with the startlingly intense human reactions to the natural world in all its beauty and loss. How do we grieve well? How do we acknowledge our guilt, and how can we participate in creation’s lament, knowing our complicity? How can we still love and find beauty, even in those places that will be underwater in a generation or two? Invoking Pope Francis, Thomas Merton, and Elizabeth Johnson, Bahnson invites us to behold, to pay attention, and to offer spiritual care that looks more like hospice than salvation. As he puts it:

What Christianity most has to offer the world now is not moral guidance or activism or yet another social program; it is a mystical connection to the Source of life. Cultivating that divine-human love affair seems to me the only hope left. Not as some kind of opiate-of-the-people escape from our problems, but as a nonlinear path that leads us deeper into them. Christianity has no exclusive claim on this relationship. It does have a two-thousand-year-old history full of reliable matchmakers—the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Isaac of Syria, Teresa of Avila, Howard Thurman, Simone Weil, Oscar Romero, Thomas Merton . . . the list is long. We can choose our guides. The inner journey into love is taken not for the self, but on behalf of all life. The purpose of the early desert hermits, Merton wrote, was to “withdraw into the healing silence of the wilderness . . . not in order to preach to others but to heal in themselves the wounds of the entire world.”

To do this, suggests Bahnson, requires that we withdraw: not in a way that simply gives up and washes its hands of the world, waiting for an other-worldly next existence, but to withdraw in order to let ourselves be transformed into “a stronger, more durable self.” We do this withdrawal as an act of self-care, an act of resistance to the siren call of our culture that says we are never enough, and an act that leads to sustained engagement with the issues of our day that are most important. This combination between contemplative withdrawal and sustained action are integrally linked in the Christian tradition, and Bahnson states it well:

The choice is not between withdrawal or political engagement; anachoresis [withdrawal] and prayer are themselves political acts. They change the beholder. In contemplation and silence, we cease our frenzied activity that makes us deny death. We place our hopes not on our own efficacy, but on God who acts through us.

In this season where we await with joyful anticipation the miracle of God incarnate, we hold at the same time the mystery, lament, and awe of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Bahnson’s reminder to withdraw through deeply experiencing all these emotions is apt: rather than withdrawing into the frenzied oblivion of the holiday bustle, he invites us to pay attention, behold, and truly feel, to be incarnate (en-fleshed) ourselves, aware of the wonder and the mystery of God infusing all creation, and building up spiritual sustenance for the hard work of care.

Watershed discipleship and the Thomas Fire

As the Thomas Fire and other fires in and around Ventura County, CA continue to threaten homes and wildlife, Tim Nafziger wrote an article for The Mennonite, detailing his experience evacuating the area for several days, “Relationships made tangible in Thomas Fire.” He writes about the switch in perspective required when one is more used to being part of the group that is helping, and describes help received from strangers and friends alike:

In our work over the years with Christian Peacemaker Teams, we have worked with people who have been displaced from their homes, those trying to return home and those resisting pressure to displace in conflict areas. This was our first time experiencing the uncertainty and anxiety ourselves. Signing in with the Red Cross brought that home.

As the impacts of climate change move closer and closer to home for those of us living in the United States, this experience may become common. Learning the lesson of interdependence—breaking down the dichotomy of helper/helped—can be painful and humbling for those of us who are used to being part of a group with power, and it can also be beautiful and grace-filled.

Read the full article

Learn more about the conditions that caused these fires

Read about the environmental justice issue of farmworkers required to work without smoke masks

Digging In: Heels, Histories, Hearts | February 19-23, 2018

Join us February 19-23, 2018 in Oak View, CA for the Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute, with a focus this year on “Digging In: Heels, Histories, Hearts.” Register for the institute by December 15, 2017 for early bird rates ($360 includes registration, accommodation, materials, and meals Monday night-Friday morning).

This institute offers an opportunity to gather with others from across the country to learn and share about strategies and leadings for living as disciples of Jesus here, now, in our particular watersheds and as a global community. Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries has hosted these institutes since 2007, encouraging Christians to go deeper in their faith through both inward and outward practice, following their motto: “Discipleship at the Intersection of Seminary and Sanctuary, Streets and Soil, Soma and Psyche.”

As we face the second year of the Trump regime, we are challenged to “dig our heels in” by deepening and broadening our resistance and resilience. To do this we must “delve into our histories,” exploring the roots of our individual and collective stories in order to animate repentance and restorative justice. And to sustain this work we need to “excavate our hearts,” recovering from our addictions and renewing our spirits for long term healing.

The current wildfires raging in California’s Ventura County bring home the importance of continued and expanded action to face the climate crisis and our local watershed realities. The Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute offers a supportive community for thinking through how to integrate social justice and the environment with Christian faith, with a recognition that social justice issues take place within a watershed context, and vice versa. Coming together to learn and build community helps sustain us for our part in the long arc of history that bends toward justice.

The institute will include:

  • Morning keynote sessions with Bible study combined with social analysis
  • Three-hour classes or workshops on Tuesday and Thursday, led by resource people (see below)
  • One-hour workshops on Wednesday, led by resource people (see below)
  • Tuesday and Thursday night guest speakers
  • Time for worship and fellowship

Confirmed resource people include:


Rev. Dr. Art Cribbs, executive director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity



Revs. Sue Park-Hur and Hyun Hur, founders and directors of ReconciliAsian



Grecia Lopez-Reyes, senior community organizer at LAANE (Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy)


Josh Lopez-Reyes, MA, Transformational Leadership, Azusa Pacific University



Rev. Canon Robert Two Bulls, Missioner for the Department of Indian Work and Multicultural Ministries



Rose Berger, senior associate editor, Sojourners Magazine



Sarah Amalia Holst, bioregional illustrator and theologian


Tim Nafziger, former Christian Peacemaker Teams team member and founding partner at Congruity Works


Elaine Enns, co-founder, Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries




Ched Myers, co-founder, Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries


Learn more about this year’s Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute here, and view videos about previous years below.

Reflections on “Blessing the Waters of Life” conference

A beautiful, relatively smoke-free week in early fall greeted Presbyterians and others from across the country as they gathered at Menucha Retreat & Conference Center on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge the last week of September. After an unauthorized firecracker sparked the Eagle Creek fire in early September about 20 miles east of the retreat center, and a fire season with an unusually high number of days filled with smoke hanging over the gorge and Willamette Valley, I didn’t take the view for granted. The multifaceted issues relating to the fires brought home the need for the Presbyterians for Earth Care conference being held there, with the focus, “Blessing the Waters of Life: Justice & Healing for Our Watersheds.” Oregon Public Broadcasting reported on issues such as air quality, evacuation of local communities, the local economy, transportation disruptions, conservation and forest management best practices conversations, disruptions to education, threat of landslides after the fire and rain, difficulties for fish and fisher-people, threats to the drinking water source for Portland, and concern over tribal fishing areas and the health of the fish population tribes rely on as an important food and cultural resource. This one fire is an apt metaphor for the way that humanity is interacting with creation in harmful and avoidable ways, with multiple dimensions of consequences, and it is again feeling pertinent and relevant as so many are under forced evacuation around Los Angeles, CA right now due to the Thomas Fire and other fires in Ventura County.

Tribal fishing platforms at Cascade Locks

How do we work toward justice and healing in our watersheds that are so vulnerable and so resilient, so full of life and hope, and so marked by human carelessness?

The Presbyterians and others who gathered that week in September came with these and other questions, with a desire to care for creation, and with a hunger to learn more about how to deepen their environmental practice. Each participant was instructed to learn the name of their watershed before attending, as well as the people group that called their region home before Europeans arrived. The conference included a pre-conference environmental justice immersion entitled, “SPIRIT OF THE SALMON – Water, Culture, and Justice in the Columbia Watershed” (Sept. 25-26, 2017), and the main portion of the conference occurred Sept. 26-29. I only got to attend for a couple days and did not get to go to the environmental justice immersion, but it included education by the local indigenous population, the Columbia River Tribes, field trips to the former site of Celilo Falls and current Bonneville Dam, as well as the site of an oil train spill, and a salmon feast with the tribes. Participants learned about the Doctrine of Discovery, and the interlocking recognition by the tribes of salmon as both cultural icon and harbinger of the impacts of pollution and climate change.

Bonneville Dam

To read more about the pre-conference, see this article by one of the attendees: Presbyterians for Earth Care meet with Native Americans in the northwest.

I joined the main part of the conference partway through, arriving just in time to experience the “Blanket Exercise” along with the group. This is an experiential way to learn about the history of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in North America, where blankets on the floor represent the land on which the Indigenous people reside, and individuals represent the number of Indigenous people.

The Blanket Exercise

Blankets and numbers of people are reduced as the history unfolds. If you have never participated in this exercise, I encourage you to check it out — it is powerful, and it is useful for kids and adults alike.

Following that experience, a woman from the Columbia River Tribes shared about her sense of being hurt by the group the night before, when the group had cut off a tribal elder’s sharing (both pictured at right). This woman shared her feeling of pain, and she offered us forgiveness through sharing a sacred song, wafting forgiveness onto us with her fan, and sharing a corn seed with each of us as a reminder to cultivate new life. Though I had not been present for this particular offense, I was deeply moved by this offer of forgiveness right after the 500+ year history of my people’s mistreatment of her people was narrated. This one experience was a minor thing compared to the broken promises, violence, and destruction of culture in this long history, but it adds insult to injury. I was grateful for this woman’s courage to speak up when she felt hurt, and humbled by her willingness to offer forgiveness…again.

I appreciated PEC’s intention to meet with, learn from, and build relationships with the Indigenous people of the region. This takes courage, because first of all, we may fail — and, indeed, it sounds as if they did fail. It can be awkward creating these kinds of cross-cultural gatherings, each community with its expectations and norms, and with minimal understanding (at least on the part of those of us who are European Americans) about what to expect. And yet, we need to start somewhere, as we work to forge new bonds of reconciliation with people and other parts of creation. We need to be willing to make mistakes and apologize, to recognize what we do not know, and to be willing to see God at work in the cultures and practices of other groups.

Andrew Kang Bartlett, Presbyterian Hunger Program workshop

I was also impressed with the depth and range of environmental care that those at the conference are already engaged in. I got to share about watershed discipleship, and many were excited about the framework as a name to fit what they were already practicing, and to deepen their practice with awareness of and love for one’s particular watershed. One person told me they “only” have about 200 Earth Care Congregations, an ongoing certification program for local churches. I attended a workshop about the Presbyterian Hunger Program, which works to alleviate hunger not only through providing food, but also through interrupting the systemic causes of hunger. They are currently leading advocacy against TIAA-CREF’s land grabs in Latin America, among other projects. I also participated in a regional group, sharing with those from the Northwest about our environmental work and/or aspirations. It was encouraging to hear about everyone’s work, as well as to build a stronger network with those in the region who are doing similar work. While I am not Presbyterian, I was welcomed, and I found it inspiring to know of the good work this denomination is engaged in. I also enjoyed a local hike in the Columbia Gorge, making new friends and appreciating the beauty of creation.

Hiking in the Columbia River Gorge

Previously, PEC has been focused on “greening” buildings, environmental advocacy, and incorporating creation care into education and worship. This conference brought the opportunity to engage more deeply with understanding of one’s own watershed, and faced into the very real need for reconciliation with Indigenous populations. It focused unflinchingly on the Doctrine of Discovery, beginning and ending with a focus in this area. Not only the conference focused on the Doctrine of Discovery, but the entire Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) focused on the Doctrine of Discovery in September, one month in a year-long series called Facing Racism.

While Presbyterians are not perfect at caring for creation, I am grateful for their example, hard work, and attempts to begin the hard, uncomfortable work of decolonizing Christian theology and practice. If we as Christians are to repent — to turn around — and learn to live another way, first we have to recognize the damage that we’re doing, lament it, confess it, and journey with others on a road marked by shalom. To be disciples in our watersheds, first we must recognize we live in a watershed, learn to know and love it, learn what its weaknesses are, and partner with others toward a more holistic health for people and region. I enjoyed learning from and with Presbyterians as they traveled on this journey, and I encourage you to check out the work they are doing as a model for your own congregation and denomination, particularly their suggestions for Earth Care Congregations.

For more information about the conference and the Doctrine of Discovery, see the following video and other links:

  • Respectful Request to Pope Francis to Rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, 1493: