Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Injustice All Around Us—But Where is God?

The Nativity scene on our neighbor’s lawn was decimated.  Mary, Joseph, angels, and stable animals were strewn about, and an adult figure of Jesus was partly covered with the collapsed stable roof.   Just the day before, we had watched as a grandfather, father, and son assembled the Nativity and added lights for nighttime viewing as a testimony of their faith in the virgin birth.  But now, it seemed that their labor had been in vain.

Who would do such a thing?  What’s more, how could God allow this to happen? 

On the same day of the “nasty Nativity,” the news from northern Iraq added more gruesome details of how the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had continued in its pillaging of villages, brutalizing and killing residents, and carrying off women and children.  All the while, the opposing factions remained committed to defending their homes and villages, many willing to die for their faith in Christ while using limited weaponry to fight off the ISIS pillagers.

What kind of people would do such a thing?  What’s more, how would God allow this to happen? 

As I pondered these questions, I wondered if there is any place on Earth where one can truly find sanctuary, a place of refuge where a person can be safe and accepted among friends and family.  Is there any place where one can be encouraged in things that are “true, honorable, right, and pure?”  Then, I remembered an unfortunate situation that occurred in a place that should have been a safe sanctuary.  According to the story, a husband and wife had just been saved and had rededicated their lives toward loving and obeying God in obedience to a newfound power of the Spirit within their hearts.  Wanting to share the joy of their walk with Jesus, they invited a lady friend to come to church with them.  This lady had had a hard life because of some bad decisions she had made—some would say she had a “shady reputation.” 

When our newly revived couple introduced her to their pastor hoping she would be drawn closer to God through his encouragement, he greeted her politely, but later called them aside and said, “We don’t want her kind in our church.”  How devastated they were!  Wanting to be the hands and feet of a welcoming Savior, they were instead crushed in their faith. 

What kind of pastor (shepherd) would do such a thing?   How could God allow this to happen?

As I’m writing, a grey squirrel frolics in the branches of the oak tree outside my study.  The cute little fuzz ball reminds me of another puzzling event that I witnessed recently.  While raking leaves in our front yard, I observed our neighbor’s cat walking stealthily across the front of our house and disappear around the corner.  In a few minutes, I heard a raucous outburst of protest from squirrels in the backyard.  I looked toward our house and saw the cat returning with her prey—you guessed it, a squirrel hanging limply from her jaws.  Meanwhile, what seemed like angry protests in squirrel language continued to sound from the backyard.  Then, all was silent, except for a pathetic, solemn utterance from one squirrel that repeated every 10 seconds for another 5 minutes.  I paused and listened to what seemed to be an expression of mourning, perhaps by a mate for her lost companion.

Gray Squirrel "mourning" the death of  her mate?
What kind of world gives us frolicking squirrels punctuated so quickly by mournful death?   And, what kind of a Creator would allow life to be snuffed out so quickly without warning?
Perhaps a disheveled Nativity scene in the eyes of the boy and his family is a small thing.  After all, it can be restored.  But such events have a way of lodging in the memory of a child and could plant a seed of doubt or confusion.  Is this how the world, or God, responds to the good intentions of a family?

On the other side of the world, Syrian and Iraqi Christians must wonder whether their commitment to Jesus Christ is worth losing their homes, their children’s lives, or their own lives to the murderous actions of terrorists.  Where is God Who promised never to leave us or forsake us?

All around us are Christians who extend a hand to help a neighbor only to be misunderstood.  Or who invite a friend to their church only to experience disappointing behavior from supposed “people of God.”  Where is God’s power in His church where people ought to hear His invitation to come unto Me all of you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest… (Matthew 11: 28)?

Even God’s creatures seem to convey the message, “Something is wrong.  Something is not quite right.”  Where is the promise of a loving, caring Creator Who asked His disciples, Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father (Matthew 10: 29). How can  God be attentive to the minutia of His creation without being deeply touched by the mournful sound of a squirrel at the death of its mate?

Christmas is a season of contrasts.  It has been that way since the night of Christ’s birth—a light piercing the darkness; a King born in a lowly stable; a Child of God being hunted down by a powerful and murderous king.  These contrasts seem to us to represent a chasm between “what is” and “what ought to be.” But Jesus was well aware of this chasm, and He declared, in the world, you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (John 16: 33).  And so we wait, and we wonder how many more storms, personal trials, and deaths will occur before Christ returns to establish His kingdom in justice and righteousness on Earth. 

For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.  And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.   – Romans 8: 22-23

Reader Comments Welcomed:   How do you reconcile calamities in creation or in the daily news or in a person’s life, with the notion of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and personal God?   If you are a Christian and are awaiting Christ’s return, how do you balance your wait with work so that each expresses the faith and power of God’s Spirit within you?   How might the season of Advent be a good time to bring biblical faith to bear on these questions?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving in a Watching World

It’s Thanksgiving Day and I have much for which to be thankful to the ultimate Giver …of every good and perfect gift that comes down from above… (James 1: 17).  This past year, God has taught me more about Himself--and, about myself.  How rich His grace and mercy are toward me; and, how prone I am to wander from His ways.  God continues to work in our marriage again this year, using trials and His Word to refine us individually and help us surrender to His love, the ultimate source of our love for each other.  We have seen God work in the lives of our family and within their homes.  Finally, we have grieved with several dear friends and family members, and we are asking God to comfort them from the sting of loss. 

In both the blessings and trials this year, I have become more aware of the spiritual warfare evidenced in my own life and in world events.  Multiple scandals, mismanagement of tax dollars, and deception by leadership in Washington are daily news.  I pray that our president and all of our leaders will submit to biblical authority and that moral clarity and ethics would guide them.  But, I also ask God’s Spirit to reprove and correct me through His Word when the kingdom within my own mind becomes inflamed with pride and rebellion.  

I ask why our elected officials cannot restore authority and integrity to the function of our nation’s borders.  But I must remember to guard the borders of my own life as the Spirit bids me not to …love the things of this world [system of thought]…for all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. (1 John 2: 16).  While I pray for justice, calmness, and respect for the rule of law among rioters and looters in Ferguson and other cities, I must ask God to keep me in perfect peace and my mind fixed on Him (Isaiah 26: 3).  When I am frustrated by a lack of moral clarity in our leadership and the actions that undermine the foundation of marriage, diminish the value of human life, disregard family values, and derail our educational system, I must ask what I can do personally to uphold these institutions and values.

I am concerned about the advance of power hungry tyrants and terrorists who grow increasingly bold where America has withdrawn from providing strong leadership.  And, I am even more concerned that many Americans view our nation as the aggressor rather than an agency that has defended freedom at great cost against numerous attempts by tyrants to dominate whole continents.  Rather than join the angry voices on either side of a deeply divided America today, may I reexamine why I think and believe as I do in the light of God’s truth.  For history records that the Puritans valued so much the freedom to follow God’s truth and to worship Him freely that they placed their lives in His care as they set out to cross the ocean and established communities governed by God’s principles.

John Winthrop, Puritan Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote his sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” aboard the Arbella, in 1620.  According to an introduction to the sermon by John Beardsley, charter member of the Winthrop Society, Winthrop’s intent was to prepare the people for planting a new society in a perilous environment, but his practical wisdom is timeless.  Beardsley adds, In an age not long past, when the Puritan founders were still respected by the educational establishment, this was required reading in many courses of American history and literature

Consider how the following excerpt from Winthrop’s sermon would challenge his Puritan community to unity of purpose and love for one another:

For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities for the supply of others' necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as His own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness, and truth then formerly we have been acquainted with.

Winthrop’s vision for the Puritan community under his governorship reflects his practical wisdom which is timeless in its warning to “Post-Christian America:”

For we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for Gods sake; we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into Curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whether we are going…

Prayer:  Father God, on this Thanksgiving, revive within me a thankful heart for all You have done.  Help me to remember that I was once an alien to whom You granted citizenship within the “new nation” that you are building.  A nation whose citizens trust in the death and resurrection of Your Son, Jesus; a nation that You want to be like a ‘shining city on a hill.’  Through Your indwelling Spirit, help me to read and heed Your Word with willing joy.  Then, may Your love move me to live daily in such a way as not to dim the welcoming light of Your Truth that is desperately needed by all men and women.  Particularly, help me not to offend others unnecessarily when we disagree on issues of our day—issues that, while deserving a voice of moral clarity, must also be seen as tremors from the emergence of the Eternal Kingdom for which You are even now preparing the present world.   Yes, Thy kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven.  Amen.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Fundamentals of Conservation, Part 3 "Serving with Our Neighbor"

Thanksgiving is a special holiday to me because it has been generally less commercialized than nearby Halloween and Christmas.   Thanksgiving invites us to remember the only true Object of genuine thankfulness— God Who is the ultimate Provider of all things.  Indeed, thankfulness without an object to receive our thanks is narrow and incomplete.

In our recent blog entries on “Fundamentals of Conservation,” we have emphasized that conservation, or “con-service” means to serve with.  Thus, both “thanks-giving” and “con-service” suggest the need for an object.  Conservation has two objects of “service”—with God, and with creation.  Furthermore, both “con-service” and “thanks-giving” imply that a certain quality of character be expressed toward the object in question; namely, a submissive spirit and a thankful spirit.  But how do these character qualities come about?

Biblically speaking, conservation is a practice of individuals who have acknowledged that rebellion and sin, not submission and service, are “in their DNA” inherited from Adam and Eve (Genesis 3).  As a result, they recognize their utter inability to exercise true dominion (submissive stewardship; Genesis 1: 16-28; 2: 15) without first humbly confessing and seeking God’s forgiveness through the atoning blood of Christ.  The true conservationist is submissive and thankful that God has redeemed him and enlisted him to serve on a planet that groans under the wages of sin (Romans 8: 19-23).

For the spiritually reborn child of God, biblical conservation grows out of an intimate relationship of serving with God.  Serving in this partnership with the Creator, we can learn the origin, true value, and significance of creation (Part 1, Article #1 April).  The quality of our stewardship is further enhanced as we learn more about the workings of creation (See Part 1, Article #2 May) and what is pleasing to our Creator (2 Corinthians 5: 9 and See Part 1, Article #3 June) as we serve Him by serving with creation.  Serving with creation in turn requires that we become students of both the historical influences on the land (See Part 2, Article #1 September) and the current processes at work in the landscape (See Part 2, Article #2 October).

This month’s “Fundamentals of Conservation”, Part 3, emphasizes that biblical conservation (or stewardship) of creation is practiced not only by serving with God and serving with Creation, but in serving with our neighbor.  This notion is based on the fact that God in the three Persons of the Trinity is a relational God.  It is this relational God Who created humans to exist in relationship with Him and with one another as His image bearers.  It follows that conservation blossoms in its fullest sense as we realize its relational nature as expressed when the conservationist serves with all three agents in right relationship—with God, creation, and neighbor.

I will now illustrate how conservation rests upon all three agents noted above, like the three legs of a stool in proper proportion.   I am thankful that God sought me out and redeemed me as His own son, then gave me a great love for His creation, and has blessed me with many good “neighbors” with whom to work.  Allow me to share first a few of the “neighbors” who have been partners, teachers, and mentors.

My dearest prairie partner in early 1980's
with Prairie Dock ("cut-leafed variety)
First, God has blessed me with my wife Alvadell (“Abby”), my nearest and dearest “neighbor” who has been “one with me” since 1969.  She has been beside me as wife, mother of our children, and companion in church, community, forest, and field.  Some of our most cherished communion with each other and with God has been as we’ve enjoyed the beauty and wonder of His creation.

In 1979, God led us as a family to Cedarville College where we grew spiritually in the light and warmth of pastors, friends, and colleagues for over three decades while I taught in the Science-Math Department.  Abby and I had discovered Cedarville ten years earlier while students at Malone College.  At Malone, it was Professor Charles C. King who had ignited my interest in botany and ecology.  Later Dr. King, as director of the Ohio Biological Survey, was responsible for identifying some of the remnant forest and prairie communities, including the railroad prairie remnants mentioned in this blog series.

Jack McDowell (center) and Charles C. King (right)
During my years at Cedarville, I became closely acquainted with two other prairie enthusiasts.  One was Jack McDowell who was so instrumental in conservation efforts through Columbus metroparks.  Jack explained to me how he and Charlie King had become fast friends after they had “chanced to meet” in, of all places, a prairie remnant community in central Ohio.  The other prairie enthusiast is Lynn Holtzman, a wildlife biologist with the Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources.  Lynn’s commitment to land stewardship based on his pursuit of God and a scholarly understanding of biblical environmental ethics was instrumental in the development of my own conservation ethic.
Lynn Holtzman (Photo taken at Milford Ctr. Prairie, Union Co.)
In fact, Lynn’s master’s thesis was entitled “Nature as Neighbor: Aldo Leopold’s Extension of Ethics to the Land.”  God has allowed Lynn and I to be “good neighbors” in several land stewardship projects in SW Ohio.  Of course conservation efforts require the neighborly cooperation of local land managers as the following paragraphs should illustrate.

When the last freight train passed through Cedarville in the mid-1980’s, remnant prairie communities along the railway from Xenia to Columbus, Ohio became of greater interest, particularly because of the plan to convert the rails to bicycle trails.  Rather suddenly, the abandoned railways--long, narrow swaths of land with lots of “surface area” adjoining land owned by many “neighbors” per mile were about to undergo a change in land use. 

Native Royal Catchfly, Silene regia, in the narrow railway
corridor (now Prairie Grass Trail) surrounded by agriculture
Having gained some botanical knowledge of the flora along the abandoned railway, several park districts enlisted me in 2001 and 2002 to inventory and map the native plant species along the abandoned railway in Greene, Clark, and Madison counties.  In an effort to create interest in prairie plants of the abandoned railway among local residents, I created a webpage featuring color photos of remnant prairie flora.

As the bikeway was being completed, my students and I developed and conducted an opinion survey of landowners adjacent to the bikeway.  We had three goals the first of which was to determine how “bikeway neighbors” viewed the new bikeway.
Royal Catchfly and Culver's Root
growing in the narrow railway corridor surrounded by cropland

Second, we wanted to use the survey as an opportunity to locate individuals who would provide historical information about the prairie remnant communities.  Finally, we hoped that face-to-face encounters with landowners might spawn cooperative efforts leading to the development of buffer zones adjacent to the otherwise long, narrow configuration of the remnant prairie communities surrounded by agricultural cropland.

As a result of our “boots on the ground” presence, the students and I were able to meet several interested “bikeway neighbors” and we soon learned the necessity of neighborliness in our land conservation effort.  We were also welcomed by the Friends of Madison County Parks and Trails (FMCPT) capably led by Wayne Roberts.  As a result of our landowner survey and cooperation with Julia Cumming, Madison Soil and Water Conservation District, we were able to secure cooperation with Jim Mitchell, whom we had met through our opinion survey and who was interested in devoting some land adjacent to the bikeway to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).  

Transplants of native prairie plants into Mitchell field along
bikeway (upper R). Jim Mitchell & son (L), J. Zehring and I
The Mitchell land was sown in prairie grasses.  Jim allowed us to add prairie forbs to the field and used his skid-steer loader with forestry attachment to cut and remove trees and shrubs encroaching on the prairie adjacent to the bikeway.  We hope that the partnership with Jim Mitchell can be a prototype for more partnerships between the park district/bikeway program and “bikeway neighbors.”

The FMCPT has been very effective in promoting the “Prairie Grass Trail” bikeway in cooperation with the Soil Conservation District and other organizations.  We are using a strategic management plan in an attempt to conserve prairie remnant plant species using a combination of approaches including mechanical removal, controlled burning, and herbicidal applications to simulate the environmental conditions that preserved these historic prairie remnants.

Jerry Miller, FMCPT volunteer with Royal Catchfly and
Prairie Coneflower (dry seed heads) in the Mitchell field
Yes, conservation is “con-service”—serving with Creator, creation, and neighbors.  The relationship goes both ways; as we serve God and His creation, God keeps us by providing both spiritual and physical “bread.”  Likewise, land under proper care will yield its fruitfulness back to us in the form of food, fiber, medicinal compounds, aesthetic enjoyment, etc.  Thus, conservation is made complete when neighbors work together for the cause of serving both God and creation.  Don’t forget the three supporting legs of a stool.   These truths were illustrated this past summer during the Prairie Appreciation Bike Ride sponsored by the Friends of Madison Co. Parks and Trails.  Some of the riders on this July Saturday had been volunteer “bikeway neighbors” who had, during the late winter months, toiled together to cut and burn encroaching shrubs and trees to allow space and light for the prairie plants to grow.  Many had not seen the worksites since winter, and they responded with glee at their first sight of colorful native prairie wildflowers flourishing in places that had been overgrown with woody species.  This satisfaction and joy was the blessed result of their willingness to serve creation and share with neighbors in valuing the purposes of our conservation plan.

Prairie Appreciation Bike Riders
learn more about remnant prairie history and conservation.
The same commitment to land stewardship, or conservation, is expressed through the older and more comprehensive Town of Dunn Land Use Plan under the leadership of Calvin DeWitt.  (In Part 1, Article #1 of this series I had referenced Dr. Calvin DeWitt as the author of the book Earthwise (3rd. ed., 2011, Faith Alive Christian Resources) in which he develops the notion of con-servation.)  DeWitt reflects on the Town of Dunn conservation effort in his recent book, Song of a Scientist: The Harmony of a God-Soaked Creation (2012, Square Inch. Grand Rapids, MI).  I conclude with an excerpt from this book which illustrates the ingredients and outcomes of conservation—a relational process in which willing people in community serve with Creator, creation, and neighbor:

The members of our community made the decision to get to know our place well and to act on that knowledge for the benefit of the land and its life.  Many were motivated simply by love of the land and their community, others by their Norwegian Lutheran upbringing or their Irish Catholic heritage.  Together, by all of our mutual efforts, a land ethic was instilled in the heart of our community, and we have dedicated our lives to its defense.  Our land ethic is published on our town website.  But it is published best in our community: in the lives of citizens and in the remarkable landscape of our town, which proclaims the stewardship we practice in this place.  With our land ethic we join the glorious chorus of those around the world who proclaim God’s sustaining provisions in creation.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Fundamentals of Conservation, Part 2 Serving with Creation – Article #2: Knowing the Land

Regardless of the acreage, land conservation or stewardship assumes new meaning when a person is reconciled to God from the curse of the fall through faith in Christ.  Then, as a redeemed child of God, he or she finds true identity as a steward, serving at the behest of the Creator and Owner of creation (Part I, Article #1 April).  As growth in grace establishes an intimate walk with the Creator, the steward acquires a disposition of reverence toward God not unlike that of a child full of awe and wonder at creation.  He or she is motivated to learn more about the workings of creation, and is more receptive to the notion of conservation (from con-service = “serving with”) (See Part I, Article #2 May).  The quality of stewardship is further enhanced as one learns what is pleasing to his or her Creator (2 Corinthians 5: 9) and thus fulfills the role as God’s representatives (vice-regents) on Earth (See Part I, Article #3 June).   In summary, reconciliation and an intimate relationship with God leads to right values which in turn stirs a joyful passion that motivates a conservationist to “serve creation” by serving with God.  

In Part 2, entitled “Serving With Creation,” I emphasized that intimacy with God gives us a disposition that submits to both God’s natural revelation (in creation) and to His special revelation (in Scripture) so that we can learn from creation and conserve it for God’s glory.  I call this “serving with creation.”  

Part 2 begins (See Article #1 September) with an emphasis on knowing the history of the place we wish to conserve.  Just as acquaintance with a person must include a knowledge of his or her origin, family history, and future plans, so conservation of a particular place on planet Earth must consider the geologic and climatic history of the place in question, the present dynamics at work within it, and the most probable future trajectory for this particular place.  Allow me to apply this principle in a more practical way in the following paragraphs where I will share from my personal experience.  In Part II, Article #3, I plan to describe my recent land stewardship efforts.

With Jesse and my parents, Bert and Esther Silvius
Background: Dad's grafted apple trees & grandpa's bee hives
Having grown up on a farm, I learned how to care for livestock, operate farm implements, and grow crops.  My Grandpa, Jesse Silvius, and my father, Bert Silvius, were both men who recognized the importance of caring for the land.  Working alongside my grandpa as he ordered tree seedlings of Black Locust and Catalpa, and then planted them on strip mine spoil was a practical lesson in the importance of land restoration (or reclamation as we called it).   My grandpa along with my father and my two uncles were instrumental in implementing a contour farming approach to promote soil and water conservation on our hilly SE Ohio farm.   As I grew to appreciate the importance of these techniques, I also began to understand the importance of developing a sense of place and to use that concept to pursue the right management strategy to fit each place.

When I moved from the farm, married, began classroom teaching, and started raising a family, my farming interests shifted into gardening.  Maintaining a large garden became a useful a useful means to instill a work ethic into their lives.  It was a blessing for our family to share the satisfaction of fresh vegetables for our table in the summer, a store of food for the winter months, and the opportunity to share of our bounty with others.

Since the 1990, my love of gardening has taken a turn to what some call the “wild side of gardening.”  Now that our children have their own homes, instead of mulching and cultivating garden plots, I’ve found joy and satisfaction in exploring and managing “wild places”—also called “natural areas.”  During my tenure as professor of biology at Cedarville University, I was privileged to introduce my botany and ecology students to remnant prairie communities that survived along the railway leading from Columbus through Cedarville to Cincinnati.  I had first become aware of these prairie remnants in the late 1960's when Dr. Charles C. King, my Malone College biology professor at the time, spoke of them.  [More about "Charlie King" in a future article.]

Remnant prairie communities are just that—“remnants” of an extensive mosaic of prairie grassland communities surrounded by a matrix of forest communities throughout what is now central and SW Ohio (See Part II, Article #1 September).  As Ohio forests were cleared for agriculture and urban development in the 18th and 19th centuries, wet and dry prairie communities were converted into cropland.  By the 20th century, the last refuges of prairie in Ohio were cemeteries and railways which had escaped the plow and bulldozer.

As we have noted, the settlement of the landscape of W-SW Ohio within the past two centuries has greatly altered it in all but isolated areas, mostly along railways, now bikeways.  Agricultural cropping would have eliminated its uniqueness as had been accomplished in the thousands of acres of surrounding farmland.  While the railroad right-of-way was still busy carrying trains, these prairie wildflowers were seldom even seen by humans unless they were visible from a railroad crossing or visible to those who hiked or farmed along the tracks.

"Sabbath Rest" between active railway era & Prairie Grass Trail
With the departure of the railroad era in the 1980’s, several decades of “Sabbath rest” began along the abandoned rails and the crushed limestone that supported the road bed.  During the railroad era, sparks and hot ash would frequently ignite dry, dead wildflower stems and oil-containing grasses causing a flaming furry that would often kill shrubs and trees by boiling their sap and killing cells.  Fire damage and the occasional clearing of woody plants by railroaders served to maintain an open treeless community where prairie wildflowers and grasses could thrive.  The shallow soil and stony railroad grade added to the environmental rigor that tended to exclude all but the hardiest plant species—those which had invaded what is now Ohio from the Great Plains during a hypothetical dry period after the Ice Age.

That such a narrow slice of landscape could have provided such a suitable refuge for prairie plant species that are used to populating the expanse of the Great Plains is a humbling fact to land stewards who now wonder how to manage these prairie remnants.  That’s right.  We now know that, in the absence of an active railway, conditions that had suppressed woody plants but had enhanced the prairie wildflowers were no longer operating.  Unless someone takes the responsibility to sustain these remnant communities they will gradually lose their unique species.  This notion brings us to our second lesson from the slender slice of the Ohio landscape.

If it is true that the beauty and botanical uniqueness of the Prairie Grass Path came about without the deliberate planning of land stewards, then sustaining its current existence will require that we humbly learn the “secrets” of a once active railroad right-of-way. “Secrets” of a railroad that was just “being a railroad” while it was being managed by railroaders “just being railroaders” and not promoters of prairie plants. Herein lies what I believe is a core principle for the management of remnant communities; namely, one must understand the environmental and biotic factors that shape a biotic community, and then go to the drawing board to decide how best to promote these conditions.  In Article #3 of Part II, “Serving with Creation,” I will more explain more specifically some of the progress we are making in remnant prairie management along the Prairie Grass Trail.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Fundamentals of Conservation, Part 2 "Serving with" Creation – Article #1: History is Important

As we walk the path of life, we each discern meaning, purpose, and priorities from an understanding of our origin, family history, and eternal destination.  Within this broader framework, those of us who want to practice conservation within our particular place on planet Earth should consider the geologic and climatic history of the place in question, the present dynamics at work within it, and the most probable trajectory for the place in the the future. 

In three previous Oikonomia articles on “Fundamentals of Conservation” in April, May, and June, respectively, under Part 1 “
Serving With
Our Creator,”  I emphasized the principle that intimacy with God gives a conservationist the basis for rightly valuing God’s creation.  Right values in turn stir a joyful passion that motivates a conservationist to “serve creation” by serving with God.   Now, in Part 2, entitled “Serving With Creation” I want to emphasize that intimacy with God gives us a disposition that submits to God’s natural revelation (as perceived in creation) and to His special revelation (as perceived in Scripture) so that we can learn from creation and conserve it for God’s glory.  I call this "serving with" creation.   It begins with an emphasis on learning the history of the place we wish to conserve.

The man in tattered clothes trudged tiredly over the crushed limestone that stretched out before him along the railway as far as he could see.  While making his way from Xenia eastward to Columbus that afternoon, he had napped in the shade of an old depot bearing the name “Cedarville.”  Now at dusk, the homeless man wearily followed the rails onward past the South Charleston station.  For miles, the railway had run alongside U.S. Highway 42.  Now, in the quiet darkness, he trudged with laboring steps as the railway bordered fields of corn, soybeans, and an occasional pasture.   As weariness began to overtake our wanderer, he aimed his steps from the sharp limestone to a nearby Bur Oak tree.  After pressing a worn, cloth bag containing his only possessions against the base of the oak to pillow his head, he reclined wearily and fell into a deep sleep.

The morning awakened the man with a gentle, periodic whirring sound.  He opened his eyes to see two Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds hovering near a cluster of beautiful red flowers. Unbeknown to our homeless friend, Royal Catchfly is only one of several unique wildflower species once common in large treeless areas of western and southwest Ohio.   As the sun rose higher in the sky, he made his way toward London, OH, at the time a bustling center of livestock auctions.  Along the way, he observed other colorful wildflowers with now-familiar names such as Ohio Spiderwort, Culver’s Root, Prairie Coneflower, and Prairie Dock; and grasses now known as Big Bluestem, Switchgrass, and Indian Grass.

The "Prairie Peninsula" resulting from the Post-Glacial
dry period which caused eastward migration of prairie.
That our homeless wanderer should happen to walk through these historic prairie communities was about as unplanned as the amazing events that produced them in the first place.  Instead of being the result of a deliberate, horticultural or landscaping plan, the historic prairie areas in the Midwest owe their existence to unplanned climatic and economic factors.  These factors are traced back to a post-glacial dry period during which the Great Plains prairie had extended eastward into the Midwest.  As the prairie marched eastward, it occupied landscapes too dry or too wet for forest communities.  Meanwhile, the deciduous forest retreated even further eastward into the Allegheny Plateau.

As centuries passed, the dry post-glacial climate gradually changed to one that provided adequate rainfall to support the westward return of forests to the Midwest.  However, the forest was unable to completely colonize some of the unsuitable sites.  Many of these sites retained the Great Plains plant community and were sometimes interspersed with woody species like Bur Oak, Hazelnut, and Sumac in drier sites; and, with sedges and rushes in wetter sites.  Early settlers of SW Ohio referred to these grassy, treeless areas with names like the Madison Plains, Darby Plains, and Selma Plains.

With the colonization and westward movement of American settlement, the second unplanned cause of the historic prairie remnants commenced.  The 19th century saw the construction of railroads across the Midwest, and the grassy areas were handily traversed without the extra labor of felling trees.  However, grassy areas of the “wet prairie” type often presented the construction crews with the challenge of providing extra “fill dirt” and proper drainage.    Farmers were able to cut the thick, prairie sod using the moldboard plow newly invented by John Deere.  As a result, they converted most of the remnant prairies of the Midwest into crop fields.  Sadly, the diverse prairie flora was eliminated from all but the unplowed areas, mainly railroad right-of-ways and cemeteries.
Aside from our homeless, railway wanderer, adventurous boys, and the railroad workers, few people over many years would have observed the unique, historic, prairie wildflowers and grasses along this lonely stretch of railway.  Yet surprisingly, it was the railroad workers who unintentionally participated in sustaining the historic prairie remnants along the railways of western and SW Ohio.  During hot summer days, passing railroad workers or passengers would commonly toss cigarettes and cigars into the dry rail-side vegetation.  Often the dry vegetation and organic litter would burst into flames resulting in extensive wildfires along the railroad.  Periodic fires over the years favored the prairie herbs and grasses at the expense of most woody plants, except for species like Bur Oak with its thick, fire-resistant bark.

Approximate locations of historic prairie (colored) each
surrounded almost entirely by forest.
Today, remnant prairie wildflowers add glorious color to the Prairie Grass Trail bikeway that now occupies the old Columbus-Cincinnati railway along which our homeless man once trudged.  The Rails to Trails Program provides hundreds of miles of bike trails, many of which bring bicyclists and hikers into contact with the rich flora of prairie remnants once viewed by only a few people.  However, we should note that the attractive prairie wildflowers along the trail will not survive without deliberate attempts to manage these plant communities.  How can these prairie wildflowers be preserved?  The answer rests on two important considerations.

The first consideration can be understood if you enjoy the thrill of visiting and revisiting a favorite “natural area?” Although we love them, we must realize that these areas are not “natural.”  And, we ought not to view them as a prehistoric Garden of Eden existing in a static condition for eons of time until humans arrived and caused the landscape around them to be “unnatural.”  To illustrate, remember that the historic prairie remnants of west-SW Ohio owe their existence to “climate change”—changes in climate across North America that occurred long before humans had arrived in significant numbers.  Therefore, we must use the term “natural” guardedly and with an understanding that every landscape and its resident biotic community is in the midst of a dynamic relationship in the midst of a changing climate, soil, and surrounding land use.

Aldo Leopold challenged us to reappraise “things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free?” But again we must realize that the terms “natural, wild, and free” imply a definable, static, pre-historic state, untainted until humans arrived.  To further illustrate, fire has likely been a “natural part” of prairie and savanna communities long before significant human intervention.  After all lightning, volcanic activity, and spontaneous combustion can start fires.  Consequently, the historic prairie remnants are an unintended consequence of “natural” forces in nature but they do not exist in a static, “natural” state. 

Prairie remnant community in Madison Co., Ohio with a
Royal Catchfly population. Note Bur Oak (rear center).
Prairie Grass Trail is visible on left.
Our first consideration leads us to the second point which is related to managing historic plant communities.  If “natural areas” are neither natural nor static, but rather moving targets then in fact, they are not something we can preserve.  Instead of preservation, our effort as land stewards must be aimed at conservation. That is, to con-serve, or “serve with” this particular place in God’s creation in light of an understanding of the dynamic relationships at work in creation.  Instead of land stewards devising plans to preserve plant communities based upon some preconceived notion of what is (or was) natural, we must “go there and learn” the dynamics that have operated and are now operating within these communities.  The understanding gained from this approach can help us predict the trajectory of change being driven by changes in climate, soil, and related landscape dynamics.

We must not fault our homeless friend who wandered along the railway observing prairie wildflowers and grasses with no idea of their history or current requirements for survival.  However, those of us who hope to manage the historic remnant prairie communities must avoid being found at fault ourselves for not realizing that they have been forged by a history of dynamic changes and are even now in the midst of dynamic change.  Remnant management that respects these factors will be the subject of my second article of Part 2, “Serving With Creation.”