We just turned over from spring to summer. Everything is growing. It is a time to test my resolve to respect God’s dominion and consider my own.
I go out, armed with my tank full of 2,4-D strapped to my ATV, my sprayer wand in hand. It’s not hard to fancy myself seated high in an incredible, cosmic killing machine, like one of those “walkers” that the Empire used against Luke Skywalker and his Rebel Alliance. I scan for thistles, ragweed or burdock and I shoot to kill.
And it is a war out there! Every year–no, every week and every day–those damned thistles take over more territory. They produce seeds by the millions that can fly in with the wind. Their burs, and the burs of the burdock, can tangle themselves in the wool of the sheep. They are ugly and nasty and downright evil. And they spread like a plague. So much so that I can go out to whack down a few of them that are too near to producing seed heads, and when I cut a few down others magically appear. More and more and more.
And then there are the house sparrows and starlings, those nasty little specimens of invasive species, who have taken over every horizontal space in the barn, clogging up shelves and sliding doors, splashing everything with their poop, and driving out the lovely, bug eating barn swallows. This is their time too. Nesting everywhere and decidedly not practicing birth control.
To top it all off, yesterday we completed the hoof trimming of my ewe flock, and low and behold, one ewe was bleeding from a foot infection, and many of the others had spots where the hoof wall was separating from the foot.
Bacteria! Foot scald and/or foot rot bacteria that loves the wet, fast growing grass.
But yesterday was also the time of bliss and majesty. I exercised the Border Collies quietly on my mountain/comfort bike. It was a perfect cool temperature, with a gentle breeze wafting the grasses, soybeans, young corn plants, trees and flowers all about. Before we even started out I was delighted by a show of newly fledged barn swallows from nests in our garage, flying very near me and finally perching on a slack bit of cable hanging from the overhead door while their parents did their vigilant swooping and managed to scoop up a fine breakfast of gnats at the same time.
Biking along the tree line I tuned my ears to the sounds of robins, blue jays, and one with a flute-like song that is almost as beautiful as my favorite wood-thrush song. It’s always an added excitement to not be able to name a bird–gives us something to think about. But this one could be a cowbird–the birds abandoned as eggs by their mothers–planted in the nests of other species.
Along the grassy west border of our property were wrens and meadowlarks, flitting from post to post as we passed by. Red-winged blackbirds and killdeer were there too, though not as many as before the hay was first cut some weeks past.
And when I do ride with the dogs I make a habit of attending to the grandeur…the majesty…the overwhelming, infinitely complex beauty of it all. I brush aside the modern tendency to peer and dissect and scientificize it all, overlaying what I have learned from books and controversies over climate change and carbon-foot-printing, and fooling myself into thinking that I comprehend. I work at not working at it and letting myself be part of it all. I work at being rightly in awe at God’s handiwork.
All of that was in the morning. The beauty and the peace. Then came the foot-trimming and the realization that with the lush grasses come the invasive bacteria. Then the foray of the deadly walker with me at the helm, wielding my 2,4-D ray gun. Me against Nature, trying to push back against that part of Life that I could not cope with, trying to carve out a bit of a profit margin. After all, our accountant warned us that the feds would begin to question our operational losses. Was this farm ever going to be a serious enterprise? I had so much poison in my tank and why not just keep spraying even those weeds that were not a menace?
Isn’t this a constant tension–an ongoing moral tension? Life itself is a battle–a necessary carving out of space in order for us to have identity and to feed ourselves and survive. And theologically we are given a huge green light as Jews and Christians, when Genesis and Psalm 8 both say we are given dominion over the earth and its contents. It is all ours to work with.
But how far do we push? If we are wise we are checked by that declaration that all ultimate dominion belongs to God alone. Our rule is subservient to God’s. We are tenants. We are stewards. There is never a time when it is not God’s to rule (Psalm 22.28 and Revelation 1.6).
In Leviticus we can see a biblical moment in the history of our human grappling with the dominion issue. How far can we go with our power trip? The rule is that we should not exercise dominion harshly. Slavery is harsh, so if our fellow Israelites should come on bad times and have to sell themselves to us, we should treat them not as slaves, but as indentured servants and afford them human rights. We should signal our recognition of God’s ultimate dominion by freeing these people during the year of Jubilee. But the text goes on: Let’s not take this too far. If we obtain slaves from non-Israelites, or if the slaves are non Israelites themselves, slavery is magically okay (Lev. 25.39-46). The biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan sees this as a self serving giant loophole that was written into biblical casuistry to allow us to soften the radical righteousness of God and go with the flow of the abusive, dominant culture around us. Scores of decades later our Puritan forefathers, trying to carve out a righteous empire, utilized similar casuistry saying they would not be slave holders, except if other impure people just happened to sell those slaves to them, or the slaves were simply savages taken in justly fought battle. Another whopper of a loophole. Another useful weapon to help us carve out a dominion in the North American wilderness.
In many ways we are all out there, tempted to use every weapon we can get our hands on to drive back anything that threatens our exploitation of the environment. We get sucked into an ever escalating war. It is too easy to forget the fact that we rule our little piece of turf, and together, as a species, we can strut about the whole earth unopposed, but we go too far when we forget that we must do it all under the ultimate dominion of the God of justice. This is God’s garden we are tending.