In Relationship to the Land

Sermon by Rev. Sue Browning


What is your relationship with the land?

If I asked you about a relationship with a family member or friend, you could share how you are connected – the nature of the connection.

For me, a relationship with a sister who I talk to often, share about anything, and can recall family events long past and recent. A much younger brother, in California and a different relationship. People to people stuff.

What is your relationship to the land? How are you connected to the land? What do you depend on the land for? How does the land – the water, the sky –  depend on you?

In human relationships we ask, ‘How am I tied to you?’ Who is my neighbor?’ Is the stranger my  neighbor? What am I called to do?

As a people of faith we see people relationships and are called to compassion and kindness. Beyond being nice, we are called into accountability to one another and the actions needed to move toward beloved community. Overwhelming, and yet we try. It’s the work of a faith community to help us live into our best connections with one another. High aspirations.

Add relationship to the land on top of all that people stuff?  Why talk about the land, and the water, and the air we breathe here at church? Why take time here in sacred space to consider man’s relationship to the land?

Don’t we have the ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ message pretty clearly in our heads.  We’ve tried to ‘right size’ our cars to our needs, or at least I plan to once the old minivan dies. The enormity of climate change feels big just to understand, no less what it might take to turn the trajectory. Might we just leave the environment to science and policy makers, and stay focused on human connection to one another?

Tempting to look away, yet as people of faith we are called into conversation and action when risks are high. While no one in this room may not live quite long enough to experience full the full effects of climate change, without a doubt those who are in the playroom, and their children and grandchildren will.

What is our relationship to the land? This is not a new question for faith communities. (Most basic questions are not!)  The Bible takes on the relationship of man to other creatures in Genesis (1:26) “Let us make humankind[a] in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

We called as stewards. We know the Bible reminds us that relationships in creation are not just the human to human ones.

‘What is our relationship to the land?’ is in part a question about wilderness.

wilderness and american mindRoderick Nash in his book Wilderness and the American Mind considers the history of our ties to land going back to the advent of agriculture. Overtime land was seen as coming in two flavors. Good and fertile lands best for meeting human need of consumption were created from wilderness and then were to be protected from the wild. Wilderness lands were to be conquered.

For much of European history, which is just a slice of world history, the goal of taming a wilderness and conquering a frontier were dominant. Progress was about beating the land into submission. The Christian church declared in 1493 that it was God’s will for frontiers to conquered. This Doctrine of Discovery was used to ensure European claims in the Americas were valid. European nations (the Europeans declared)  had an absolute right to the New World lands. This ‘go forward and conquer’ view was validated by the US Supreme Court in the early 1800s. For American Indians the Supreme Court had determined they had at best a tenuous right of occupancy.

The ages of discovery and invention set a tone. Man was to dominate the land, taming Nature in the name of progress. Man would own land, rather than belong to land. A working assumption behind these actions: The wilderness was more or less infinite – so no worries. A relationship to the land where man taketh, and taketh, at least for people, or at least for a subset of people who were deemed worthy to own land.

Aldo Leopold, an ecologist and activist in the early 20th century, challenged this perspective. Leopold grew up along the Mississippi River, primarily in Iowa, in the late 1800s. His parents were both sportsmen and close observers of the land – naturalists of sorts. After Aldo Leopold completed a degree in forestry at Yale in1909 Leopold became a Forest Assistant for the US Forest Service working in New Mexico and Arizona.

As he worked on wilderness preservation policies, he asked over and over, What is our relationship to the land?

He intuitively wanted to protect the wilderness. He valued untamed land for aesthetics and sport. He championed using trips to the wilderness for man to get some perspective on civilization and to find joy and happiness. This was not unlike our Unitarian ancestor Henry David Thoreau, who spent a few years on Walden Pond for this perspective, finding joy and happiness in this unplugging of sorts.

Leopold was a scientist as well as philosopher, and in time concluded some new assumptions were needed. American’s view of everlasting wilderness was doomed. He challenged views of man at the pinnacle of evolution, separate from the rest of Creation. He taught interdependency of man with the land and other creatures. He called for more of humility in our relationship with the land – not because it’s cool and pretty to camp (though it is), or from a romantic and sentimental perspective, but because this understanding deep interdependence was about survival.

Like Thoreau, Leopold was not anti-civilization. He was looking for harmony and balance, out of need not nicety.

What is your relationship with the land? This is  not a question of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ but about seeing connection. Our call to interdependency is in our  7th UU principle ‘Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are apart’

It is a principle of relationship. We are called to kindness and compassion, and as in all relationships we are called to be in accountable relationship with this land – this environment that holds us.

Leopold named ecology as the “ interdependence of all living things which shared an environment” well in advance of our 7th UU principle. He saw that this ecological understanding implied a new approach to the wilderness based on ethics – a perspective that “would make man aware that their environment was a community to which they belonged, not a commodity that they possessed.”

His hope was for an ‘ecological conscience’.

A shift almost 100 years ago. A plea for a change.

I know I recycle. Most here do. We buy right-sized cars – cars that have improved some over time. In our heads my guess is we’re pretty much lined up with Thoreau, Leopold, that we are part of the whole, not the boss.

We want this ‘ecological conscience’ to make space for heat and air conditioning, potable water, and food development less susceptible to blighted crops, hot showers and hair and clothes dryers. We want weed green lawns, and air travel.

Leopold and Thoreau got that. Civilization in tension with wilderness – a need for balance. Thoreau when at Walden Pond, regularly went to town. And his perspective on the romance of the wilderness were tamed after a few treks to Mt. Kahtadin in Maine – at times evoking fear and loneliness. Our challenge is not to forsake civilization.

I wonder of Aldo Leopold, who lived until 1948 could imagine today’s realities: 8 Billion people living on the limited land that is inhabitable, with science telling confirming, yes, man and does impact the earth in big ways. Relationships are like that. At times relationships are in trouble, and something has to give. Something has to change to restore a balance, yet the conditions seem overwhelming.

In our story for the Thoughts for All Ages we talked of Wangari Maathai, and her seed of an idea – to have women plant trees that changed the environment – the physical environment and the life of women in Kenya. Her work began with awareness, and an understanding of the relationship of these rural areas to the land. Broken relationship. Watersheds drying up, the desert expanding. Her awareness led to connections others had not made. Awareness of trees – replenished soil, wood for fuel, fruit from trees. Today – 50 million new trees, and the work started with the planning of one tree.

While our context is different. there is I do have hope that similar breakthroughs may be possible.

As it was for Maathai, awareness of our relationships to the land is a start.

I know the coffee I depend on, was grown somewhere, and was shipped to a little Rise Up coffee stand in St. Michaels. 100% of what I eat and drink, including meat and dairy products, I did not produce. I come to work by car – a sort of efficient mid-size one – using fossil fuel from the earth. My relationship to the land also is affected by what I discard. Food not used, paper discarded, books made of paper that line my shelves.

How I choose to use the land affects you. What I choose to use from the land, and discard back to the land impacts folks affects you, and many further away.

What is your relationship to the land? In our awareness, we can better ground the relationship in respect and humility. It is from there that we open, hearts first, to possibility. To first trees planted.

In ecologist Joanna Macy’s book Active Hope she notes, “As in other relationships, part of the work of connection is to change ourselves. It’s [active hope] is a hope we ‘do’ rather than can have in a passive way.” Our action moving in some direction that helps matters. A first tree planted.

What is our relationship to the land? What do we depend on? When we feel the connection  – head, heart and soul –  all touched, we can ground our hope and actions begun picturing the world we want for ourselves, and for the the kids in the playroom, and their children and grandchildren.


Words from our earlier reading, Communion Circle by Mark Belletini,


There is only one earth we all share,
we, the living, with all else that lives
and does not live.
everything,  for good or ill,
is part of the shared whole:
sky, earth, song, words and now, this moment.


May it Be So

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