The Land of the Free
As a child I was obsessed with landscape. I started my subscription to National Geographic in the 3rd or 4th grade, continuing until I had several entirely yellow-gold shelves on my bookcase. My family didn’t travel much, and northeast Wisconsin’s landscape was relatively flat–mostly devoted to farming. So it was hard to believe that the sheer diversity of landscapes that covered our Earth were really real, and not just the artistic inventions of someone dis-spirited by flatland living.
As I came to realize that these landscapes really were real, I developed a yearning to see all of them. But as long as I was a dependent without a passport, I mostly had to settle for National Geographic and my imagination. In spite of my stationary childhood condition, my Wisconsin heritage nourished my interest in landscape, I think. The longtime home of pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold, Wisconsinites seemed to knew quite deeply and intrinsically that land mattered. We all knew where our food came from.
Some of my classmates’ parents were farmers. And one of my best friends, Beth, often came to school smelling faintly of manure from early mornings spent in the cow barn. Beth was teased for the lingering odor, but I liked the smell. It was alive, earthy, sweet. As a child, even before the proliferation of sourdough bread, kombucha, artisanal pickles, and other fermented foods, I knew that a little bit of funk was a good thing. Alive equals funky. Funky equals alive.
Millenials—my generation—you may know, love to romanticize all things related to farming. Many people my age, including me, have even done stints working on farms. Usually small-scale, organic farms, like the ones who sell you kale at the Headhouse Farmers Market. Once you’ve spent some time on a farm, however, particularly through a whole growing season, it can begin to seem a whole lot less romantic. You realize how incredibly important inordinately uncooperative weather can be, you realize that nature often seems to have a mind of its own, and you realize how incredibly messy and tiring it can be to muck around in soil day-after-day.
Most of us, of course, live lives far removed from the earthiness of gardens and farms. In fact, the greenest place in my life at the moment is this city block, which I’m grateful to occupy most days of the week. We are so lucky to be stewards of this urban oasis.
But as people largely at arm’s length from the vicissitudes of nature—most of us being city dwellers—how are we to think about and talk about a relationship with the land? About the value of land, the meaning of land, the purpose of land? We tend to think more about real estate, about property, about architecture, than we do about the land itself. And this, of course, is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of humanity. Only recently have so many of us become city dwellers, largely detached from this land and its layers of history.
The first time I really spent any time thinking about who had originally been here, on this particular bit of land, was back when we worked with Partners for Sacred Spaces on the multi-site dance project called Grounds that Shout, which explored the histories of Mother Bethel, Old Pine, and St. Peter’s and the grounds on which they sit. I learned that the Native American tribe that lived in Philadelphia when European colonists arrived was the Lenape tribe.
The Lenape people, who may have been living here for up to 10,000 years before the arrival of Europeans, inhabited what is now New Jersey, the area along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, New York City, and New York’s Hudson River Valley.
Following the arrival of the first Dutch colonists in 1631, the Lenape managed to preserve their political sovereignty for nearly fifty years as waves of Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, and English colonists settled the Delaware Valley.[i] The Lenape ultimately signed their first treaty with William Penn in 1683. And while Penn seems to have treated the tribe with a modicum of fairness, his son, Thomas, took a different approach. Thomas tricked the Lenape into giving away their land, and the tribe moved West in what became known as the Delaware Westward Trek. Most remaining members of the Lenape tribe now live in Oklahoma. Only about 985 Lenape survived the Trek out of the estimated 15,000-20,000 Lenape who lived on the East Coast before European settlers arrived.[ii]
So that’s our story, as remote as it may feel from our lived experience of this place. It’s still part and parcel of the layered history of this piece of Philadelphia land.
In our Scriptures today, we heard another story of colonization. Did you catch it? It’s so easy to miss. We heard the story of Abraham and Sarah journeying toward the promised land that God had given them. The thing we forget, though, is that the land God gave them already had people living in it. Canaan was not empty territory.
The passage Genesis says that when Abraham, Sarah, Lot, and their entourage
“…had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time, the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.”
It’s interesting, isn’t it. Interesting that God would promise to Abraham and Sarah’s offspring a land that was already occupied, a land that was already someone else’s home. In truth: it’s more troubling than interesting, really. Who does the land belong to, ultimately? Is it God’s to just re-assign at whim?
Of course, they didn’t settle there, not yet at least. There was a famine, so they had to keep moving.
But I do wonder if the promise of this land was the beginning of a whole lot of human problems, a whole lot of our struggles about sharing land, about sharing life and space with those different than us–both humans and non-humans.
This lovely idea. This idea of a homeland. Tainted by the fact that others were already there.
This Biblical text enabled the English colonists to understand North America as their Canaan and the Native Americans as their Canaanites. And to imagine that the Native Americans simply had to go.
And of course, to our ears this colonial mentality is deeply disturbing. The idea that you could treat those who stand in your way however you please. The idea that you could destroy anything and anyone who impedes your purpose. A purpose you believe to be sanctified by God.
But as disturbed as we are, I do wonder… I do wonder whether, we’re as different as we think?
If creation could speak, I wonder if it would accuse us of disregarding the original occupants of the land?
Indeed, we have not tended to see the soil, the water, the plants, and the animals as our neighbors, as our friends, as our community. We have so often seen them as dispensable. We have not realized how intricate and delicate the balance of creation really is.
In the words of my fellow Wisconsin-ite, Aldo Leopold, from A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949…
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”[iii]
Leopold contends that a viable land ethic will “[enlarge] the boundaries of [our notion] of community to [fully] include soils, waters, plants and animals.”[iv]
So maybe St. Francis of Assisi was really onto something when, in his Canticle of the Creatures, he refers to Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Wind and Sister Water.
It has always felt a bit contrived to me, but perhaps, in the end, we must become family in order to really care….in order to really work at co-existence. To work at co-existence as if our lives depended on it. Because of course, they do.
We must fall in love with the land all over again, so that we might touch it more gently, so that we might ask it what it needs, as we would ask a hurting child or a dying elder. For the land is calling to us, inviting us to notice its pain and suffering, inviting to join in its song. It’s song of joy and hope that we might still someday be one.
[i] adapted from: https://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15255.html
[ii] adapted from: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92914200