My relationship with the land is simultaneously old and new. I grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a small “civilized” island surrounded by the High Plains. About 40 miles west of Cheyenne stands Vedauwoo State Park. I spent many weekends there, from my earliest years until my early twenties when I moved to Kansas City. In Vedauwoo, gigantic rock formations burst up from the ground to form small mountains. The Arapaho called this place the Land of the Earthborn Spirits and it was a pilgrimage destination for  their vision quests. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve running through the aspen groves, climbing the smooth granite rocks, fishing, cooking over a campfire, and waking up early in the morning to the smell of dewey moss and grass.

I didn’t know the meaning of the Arapaho name when I was a kid, but intuitively I knew that Vedauwoo was a “thin place”: a place where the boundary between the spiritual and the material becomes porous. I made regular pilgrimages to meet with God at the top of Turtle Rock and at the cool center of the pine woods.

As a theologian, I’m tempted to theologize these experiences. I could tell you how Genesis 1 describes the creation of the world as the cosmic temple where God and humans dwell together. I could speak of how Jesus used the relationship between human beings and the land to reveal the kingdom of God. I could open the Prophets and show how their understanding of God and their understanding of Creation arose in tandem, how they emphasize the relationship between land and worship, and how they reveal that end of all things will restore the natural world.

I will get there, because this whole experience is deeply theological. but I can’t start there.

I have a dozen false starts for this essay, all of them beginning with my attempts to explicate a passage of Scripture. But something about that doesn’t  feel genuine, because I can only know “nature,” I can only know “the land,”through Vedauwoo. If I am going to theologize about the earth or the land, Vedauwoo, the Land of the Earthborn Spirits, must be my rabbi.


Although I have always had a deep connection with Vedauwoo, I bought into the consumerist ideas fed to me by American culture. For many years, I had no regard for how my lifestyle was affecting the planet, let alone Vedauwoo. Moving to Kansas City didn’t help either: the convenience of a car, the temptation to have a chic home, the excitement of technology, and everything else associated with “city life” is always in front of my face. The city has sincerely tried to become  more “green,” but it’s been an uphill battle  for a system built on consumerist ideologies to make a sharp turn in an eco-friendly direction.

As I became more and more disconnected from Creation and from Vedauwoo, I paid less and less attention to the world God created. Living in the city also made me acutely concerned about dirt, thinking that organic matter was itself dirty. I prefered  store-bought vegetables that I knew were treated with chemicals. I prefered harsh chemical cleaners and I rejected “natural” cleaners and garden raised foods. I would tell my wife Katrina that I preferred products like Pine-Sol because “if my eyes burn, I know it’s working. I want all that organic matter dead.” I was vaguely aware of the threat these chemicals posed, not just to my body, but to the earth –but I didn’t really care. I didn’t really think about it. Over time, Vedauwoo slipped from my memory, and I forgot what that place meant to me. My time in the city, my love of chemicals, and my neglect of Vedauwoo all occurred in tandem. .

My rediscovery of the land began during a visit to Vedauwoo two summers ago. As I stood at the top of one of the rock formations, looking out over the trees and the plains, I realized this place was sacred to me. I remembered that I had an affinity with the grasses, rocks, trees, and mosses. The Land of the Earthborn Spirits felt like home for me in a way no where else has been. But it was at the Estuaries leadership retreat last spring that something changed in me. There’s not a moment or statement I can pinpoint that initiated this change. We talked a lot about ecologies and what that means for Estuaries; what it means for living in society and engaging with culture as Christians. We talked about trees and mycelium. We were surrounded by mountains. On the second evening, watching the sun set behind a mountain  capped by clouds, light breaking through in giant shafts,  I thought: “No wonder humans have always believed mountains were the dwelling places of the gods.” All of this together, combined with my experience at Vedauwoo, birthed a kind of conversion in me. Suddenly, I cared. I was given new eyes. Even though I didn’t consciously change my mind about anything, I was changed. By the time we drove to Denver, my relationship with the world was different.

Since that sudden transformation I’ve been devouring as many books as I can read about trees and ecology. I’ve been reading Genesis 1 and 2 over and over, absorbing Scripture’s first words about God’s creation. I’ve listened to podcasts and lectures on YouTube – anything I can do to learn a new way of knowing the world, to care for the world around me in new ways. Even though I am the apprentice, and the world and its Creator are my masters, and I also have gleaned wisdom from close friends, including  Beau and Kristen Davidson1 who, more than anyone else I know, live with their hands and souls in the dirt.

What have I learned?

I have learned a lot about those amazing creatures, the trees. More than anything else,  I have simply learned to notice them. On daily walks, I’ve grown acquainted with  a few trees in my neighborhood.  Like the Ayacahuite pine at the top of the hill, sky-high, with one of the widest branch-spans in the neighborhood. The needle-leaves are long. They look almost like exploding fireworks suspended in time. They’re covered in white dust, which is why I assume they’re called Mexican White Pines. The cones are long and yellow-green, but they turn copper brown when they’re ready to fall.

I’ve also gotten to know the willow down on the corner by the park. Its hair-like branches perpetually sweep the yard as it grows, drawing water from a drainage creek. Most of the neighborhood trees are pin oaks that stand like temple pillars, tall and straight, with dark green oak-shaped leaves. These trees have suffered the most, as branch after branch has been cut away to keep the air clear for cars and powerlines. Every scar on these trees looks like an eye, reminding me that I am watched and not alone as I take my familiar walk.

I have learned that other “things” in the world are beings in their own right. These beings have their own experiences of the world, and their experiences don’t necessarily correspond to human experiences. Humans experience the world and one another as humans, but dogs experience the world as dogs, trees experience the world as trees, deer as deer, honeysuckle as honeysuckle, crows as crows, ants as ants – and it’s quite possible that rocks even experience the world as rocks. In a radical statement, theologian Mari Joerstad calls these beings “other persons.” 

By  awakening to these other persons, I’ve learned these beings have their own relationships with the Creator and that these relationships are not predicated on their relationship to humanity. They exist whether or not we’re aware of them at all. Psalm 104 presents a beautiful example of this fact. The Psalm says Yahweh is great – not simply because he creates “nature,” but because Yahweh is involved in every creature’s life. Yahweh provides water for the streams and the donkeys, materials for the birds to build their homes, and he waters the mountains and the forests. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the hyrax. And the young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. Psalm 104 is about all those places where humans do not live, where the earth is not cultivated. In those spaces, the Creator is the caretaker. I’ve come to believe it is quite true that if humanity disappeared, the world and all its beings would be just fine because Yahweh is good to all, and his compassion is over all his works (Ps. 145:9)

Grounded firmly in this conversion and new way of knowing, I can re-approach Scripture and see what I’ve been missing. Scripture suggests that the untamed wilderness is not God’s ideal, at least not for humans. We have a responsibility to live in koinonia, in communion, with the land and the beings with whom we share the land. It’s easier to imagine this communion with animals, but harder to imagine it with the plants we grow and harvest, and the land on which those plants grow.

I began to reimagine Scripture’s approach to the land through the Old Testament’s commentary on the agricultural Sabbath. According to Scripture, the farm lands are to remain unplowed, unseeded, and unharvested every seven years (Ex. 23:10-11). This text beckons us to see and listen to the land with which we live. God created a rhythm to show that the land needs Sabbath, just like us. Abiding in this Sabbath allows us to perceive when animals need Sabbath, when our neighbors and family need Sabbath, and when we need Sabbath. Humans are to Sabbath so they can rest in the presence of Yahweh. The land is given a Sabbath to rest in the presence of its Creator, too.

And when God judges Israel, he does so because they will not allow the land to rest. “He took into exile in Babylon those who escaped...to fulfill the word of Yahweh by the mouth of Jeremiah the prophet, until the land had made up for its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years” (2 Chron. 36:21). In Leviticus, Moses warns: “The land shall enjoy its Sabbath years as long as it lies desolate, while you are in the land of your enemies; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbath years. As long as it lies desolate, it shall have the rest it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were living on it” (Lev. 26:34-35).


And so, we end up where I wanted to begin: in Eden. In the temple the Creator built. Perhaps we are losing what it means to be human because we have lost our relationship to the ground and the beings in and on it. Or perhaps we are losing our relationship with the ground because we’ve lost our relationship with ourselves. Maybe some mix of both.

But I believe there is a way forward. It requires us to look at the skin on our bones, to look at the ground, to look into the trees, to see the birds in flight and the squirrels at play, to feel the grass on our feet and the wind in our hair, and to know that there is a deep communion there. It means to remember that in the beginning, God looked at all he made and said: “Behold, it is very good.”

1. Beau and Kristen are on the Estuaries core team. They have devoted much of their time and attention to learning how to walk in harmony with God, the creation, and community in healthy and life-producing ways. From the beginning, their words and work have been a prophetic call to me, beckoning me to see the world and my relationship to it in new ways.