Making Peace with Mother Earth

She has sheltered us all our lives. She is the source of our sustenance. She is steadfast and unwavering though we war upon her surface. When our government rained thousands of bombs on Baghdad one dark night, the sun rose on that ravaged city right on schedule the next morning. To the artist, the Earth is endless inspiration. To the child, quoting Rogers and Hammerstein, she is "a hundred million miracles happening every day." She is our Mother from whom we came and to whom we will return.

She is reason for grieving. For centuries, we have been at war with this beautiful planet. Colonizers arrived on this continent, killed off the inhabitants, and "tamed" the land. In Florida, not one living representative of the indigenous population remains. Thousands of Apalachee, Calusa, Timucua, and other native peoples were killed, enslaved, or died from diseases brought by settlers. All that remains of these peoples are their names—the Apalachicola and Caloosahatchee Rivers, Ocala and other place names, and a few of their relics from sacred shell mounds that somehow eluded grave robbers and road builders. The settlers exploited the land ruthlessly. They plundered millions of acres of longleaf pine, which once blanketed the southeastern United States. The tall straight timbers were used for ship masts for the British navy. The colonists drained land for farming, re-channeled rivers, and imported exotic plants that overran native vegetation.

Over the years, there were a few—some of them Quakers—who tried to warn us. Eighteenth-century naturalist William Bartram, a Pennsylvania Friend, described the Earth as "a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the Sovereign Creator." But in Travels he foresaw a time when the beautiful places he visited could be overrun with people. In Man and Nature, 19th-century conservationist George Perkins Marsh brought ecological issues to a global level by comparing the denuding of forests in Vermont to the despoiling of landscapes in Italy, where he served as the U.S. envoy. Quaker ancestors inspired Margery Stoneham Douglas to save the "river of grass"—the Everglades— that settlers wanted to drain and transform into profitable farmland.

After shooting a wolf and seeing the "green fire" in its eyes, Aldo Leopold became a strong advocate for the planet and created a new land ethic. In the 1950s, Rachel Carson, alarmed by the rampant use of pesticides, raised the specter of a silent spring. In the 1970s, Edward Abbey raged against the desecration of Southwest desert lands where he worked. And Al Gore moved the issue of global warming into the public consciousness.

When the Peace Testimony was conceived, the Earth was taken for granted. It was an endless resource to be used at will. Early Friends appreciated the beauty of the Earth, but conservation was not part of Judeo-Christian tradition. Genesis gave humans dominion over the Earth—we were to be overseers, not stewards. We have abused this privilege and abdicated our responsibility. Plants, animals, and whole ecosystems have disappeared due to our ignorance, indifference, and greed.

Where concern for the environment falls in terms of Friends testimonies is unclear. Is it within the Testimony on Simplicity, as it is currently listed in Friends General Conference’s QuakerBooks catalog? Is it part of our Testimony on Community, as Southeastern Yearly Meeting treats it? Can we expand the Peace Testimony to include the Earth? It must be the starting point of our peace work, because without our Earthly home we would be nowhere.

Let us change our way of thinking. Can we dispense with hierarchy and see ourselves as a species among species, as Thomas Berry urged us to do? Can we accept all creeping, crawling things as a part of the Peaceable Kingdom? Our irrational fear of snakes still compels us to destroy them. Thomas Slaughter, the Quaker historian, writes in his book on John and William Bartram that killing a "rattler" was a rite of passage for 18th-century men. (Not, however, for William, who thought they were "wonderful creatures.")

Can we stop the tidal wave of destruction of plants and animals? The press of humanity is driving whole ecosystems to extinction. Species are disappearing before we even discover them. As the population grows, abuse is compounded generation after generation, so that what were once isolated incidents of environmental degradation by pioneers have become the norm in suburbia. With much less land and many more people, there is little opportunity for the Earth to restore itself. We are impoverished by a diminished planet.

Can we refrain from wiping living things off the Earth with the idea that we will replace like with like? A tree is not really replaceable. Chopping down mature trees and replanting saplings uses up precious resources before young trees can offer what mature trees did in terms of energy conservation, air cleansing, and aesthetics.

Can we change our approach to the Earth from one of business—trees are good for property values—to one of ethics—trees are good because they are? Even the Archbold Research Station in central Florida—guardian of some of the rarest plants on the planet— feels compelled to explain its work in terms of what these plants can do for us, such as their medicinal value.

Can we think of the Earth as the Source, rather than an endless resource? Moving toward conservation and sustainability is more than recycling and hybrid cars. In Sarasota County, Florida, where I live, residents pour 60 percent of their water into landscapes. In poor nations, children may not attend school because they spend the day carrying water for their families. My daughter’s Congolese grandmother walked five miles for water each day.

We are making progress slowly. Like most people, I come from a place of ignorance. In the 1960s I changed the oil in my car and dumped the used oil into the sewer. I used a pest control service. I gave up that and my "lawn habit" for a self-sustaining groundcover that requires no water, no fertilizer, no pesticides, and no mowing.

Around the country, meetings and individuals are taking steps—some literally—to inspire people to heal the Earth. Ruah Swennerfelt and Louis Cox, of Burlington (Vt.) Meeting and Quaker Earthcare Witness, walked 1,500 miles from Vancouver to San Diego bringing their John Woolman and "Joan Woolwoman" presentation to 50 meetings. Sarasota Friend Ed Martin ran on a "green" platform for mayor of Venice, Florida, and won! Jack Taylor, a Friend who lives in my area, gave his county the land he lives on as a conservation easement.

Sarasota Meeting recently bought a composter, and we bring compostables each First Day to add to it. Our meeting transformed its annual Quaker Market rummage sale into a Peace for Earth celebration. UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women), Southwest Coalition for Peace and Justice, Veg Sarasota, and an organic farm set up booths, and Jan Roberts, originator of the Earth Charter, gave a lecture.

Annapolis Friends’ "Greening and Growing" Committee will give input if the meeting builds an addition to its meetinghouse. Friends Community School in Maryland’s straw bale construction highlights the importance of "green construction" for the school community. In an environmental renovation, Friends Center in Philadelphia converted from Quaker "gray" to Quaker "green." Increasingly meetings see the environment as a pressing issue. Canadian Yearly Meeting endorsed the Earth Charter, Pacific Yearly Meeting approved a climate action minute, and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s epistle calls Friends to act on climate change. In its "Peace with Earth" minute New York Yearly Meeting wrote:

Now we are led to widen our witness again to work for peace between humans and our sacred Earth community. Our culture has considered the Earth our property to be exploited, and we have all, knowingly and unknowingly, been complicit in this violent appropriation of world resources. We must now search for the seeds of this war in our possessions and in our lives and work to nurture a new, mutual relationship with the Earth in all of our actions. The spirit is calling us to hold in reverence this miracle that God has given us. If we are connected to our source, our lives are richer and deeper.

Often in my reading I meet people with a great love for the Earth. In Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa, John Elder invites us to "step back into the house of life with the heart of a child." Edward O. Wilson, a magnificent voice for the planet, calls himself a "lover of little things." (Ants are his specialty.) Alarmed by the magnitude of our planetary disaster, he begs us to "listen carefully to the heart then act with rational intention and all the tools we can gather and bring to bear."

Where is God not? For me the belief that there is that of God in everyone has evolved to there is that of God in everything, even in the dirt beneath my feet. Elizabeth Barrett Browning says it best: "Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees takes off his shoes." At the end of the day, it will be our love for the Earth that will make the difference. Let us begin by taking off our shoes.

Fran Palmeri

Fran Palmeri is a dual member of Annapolis (Md.) and Sarasota (Fla.) meetings. She interprets the natural places of Florida in essays and photographs for regional publications.