“The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers
The heavens languish together with the earth.
The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants
For they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore, a curse devours the earth...”

-Isaiah 24

“The Bible is an agrarian book that’s being interpreted by people who have no agrarian experience or sympathies. Christians have been virtually silent about the destruction of the planet. What kind of theology embraces God the creator but not God’s creation? Such a faith is no different from a toxic ideology.”

-Norman Wirzba, from the Yale Reflections interview, Sweat, Soil, and Salvation

            On the southernmost tip of the high plains lies a farm tucked between the red hills and the lowlands of the Little Arkansas River Basin. Here, the meadows are pockmarked with old buffalo wallows, which continue to hydrate and house other creatures long after the buffalo have gone. This land, once covered in tallgrass prairie and dotted with occasional giant cottonwood trees, is now dominated by black walnut, eastern red cedar, and hedge, planted by early settlers to shield them from the harsh winds of the plains.

            These 160 acres have been in the family now 113 years. My great-great grandparents, Millard and Luanna Laird purchased this land in 1908 from Horrace Carpenter, who had obtained the claim from the United States Government. There is no contesting the fact that this land and all the surrounding region was systematically and violently extracted from the Kiowa and Osage tribes who had travelled through the Tallgrass Prairie for centuries beyond record—Millard’s plow unearthed countless arrowheads bearing testimony to 10,000 years of their kinship with the land. It seems we will forever be coming to grips with the true cost of this exchange.

            Kristen and I moved to the farm three years ago with reluctance, thinking it too far gone, too degraded. While the 80 acres of mixed deciduous woodland is robust and exquisite, the 80 acres of “arable” land is a sorrowful affair. We were aware of nitrate accumulation in the groundwater, a health concern for the young and elderly. We were aware of the 1000-fold increase in earthquakes, as giant oil-fracking cavities in the earth’s crust collapse. We were conscious of fallout from decades of widespread pesticide and herbicide application: cancer in the body and dead, depleted dirt, eroding far faster than this land can afford. All of these maladies, virtually unheard of in South Central Kansas 100 years ago, are a direct consequence of our zeal for cheap energy in the form of fossil oil. Despite all these concerns, we came to make our home here, drawn by deepening affection for land and a prophetic inkling that there might be more at hand than we could see.

            During our first year, we took daily walks, tracing the many tributaries of Sand Creek. We observed the seasonal succession of plants, fungi, and habits of wildlife. We found food here: wild oyster mushrooms, mild green lamb's quarters, sand plums, black walnut sap that we gathered from our favorite trees and boiled down into a thick, rich, caramel syrup. “Being with” the land attached our hearts in affection to this place, and this affection has changed us. It has given us a new lens through which to see all places.

            The habitus of colonialism, capitalism and industrial agriculture would have us believe we can carve up lands and peoples according to our momentary needs, that we can make any necessary withdrawals on our natural resources, leaving future generations to pay the price. There is no accounting for habitat loss, deficit spending of fossil energy, or soil erosion. There is no room in industrial formulae for the loss of compass-plant and purple coneflower, the prairie chicken, rattlesnake, and buffalo, once cornerstone species of this place. At this very moment, all over the world, humanity is harvesting the first-fruits of global ecosystemic collapse.

            This loss is so vast and the stakes are so high— how can we attempt to grasp it? How do we, who worship God as Creator, develop the capacity to perceive and mourn this massive destruction in which we are complicit?

            My spirit tells me there may yet be resurrection—new life, good but different—but my vision cannot see it in detail, cannot make out the path. The land, as it was, is gone, never to return. There may be help unlooked-for, but it lies on the other side of deep, unprecedented repentance for our misguided stewardship, for the Body of Christ’s role in dismembering the natural world.

            Perhaps we may make a small beginning by learning to “be with” the land we each inhabit. Learning to love a place no matter how small, to give ourselves in love to its plants, creatures, watershed, and topography. To seek to understand its history, its specificity, and its people on its own terms. To mourn its sorrow, celebrate its abundance, walk its paths in every season. To come to know, not as spectral observers, but in communion.