The Song of the Meadow Lark: A Conversation with Norman Wirzba

Facing the Anthropocene: a webinar series hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, with Professor Norman Wirzba of Duke Divinity School

Faced with climate change, species extinction, and sea level rise, we are compelled to rethink humanity’s place in the world, as many of the built environments designed for human flourishing now imperil the lives of countless fellow creatures and the places they inhabit. Join leading scholars in political economy, history, anthropology, theology, philosophy, environmental science, and law, as they address these and other questions (including those from the audience):

  • How shall we evaluate and correct the economies and institutions that undermine the bases and flows of life?

  • What can we learn from the past as we look toward the future?

  • Where is there reason for hope?

Can the land forgive? This was the question with which Norman Wirzba began the last of the Facing the Anthropocene webinars on April 15th.

To answer this question, Wirzba started out by talking about what it means to hope. Hope is born from nurturing life with others, he said, not from knowing what the future will be. Hope grows when people commit themselves to furthering the goodness and the beauty of the world. Citing Wendell Berry, he argued that hope lives in the means, not the ends. We can work to make hope for ourselves and others, even if the future looks bleak.

Hope, in our context, requires learning to confess, to repent, and to seek forgiveness. So much of our environmental crisis is anthropogenic. Though not every person or community is responsible in the same way or to the same extent, repentance is still a useful practice. Repentance, the attempt to right a wrong, communicates a desire to be in right relationship with others. This desire does not operate on a contractual basis: the seeking and the granting of forgiveness is always is a gift beyond deserving. It requires shedding self-defensive strategies that keep people from living well with the wounded and a commitment to being open to and instructed by the pain and suffering of the past. It can create an opening for a form of life in which people can live together with less shame.

Wirzba illustrated what this means by telling the story of Ruzicka Sunrise Farm in Killam, Alberta. Like many farmers, Don and Marie Ruzicka adopted the methods of industrialized farming in the eighties. That meant cutting down woodlots, draining wetlands, and growing grain monocultures dependent on heavy input of fertilizers and pesticides. In order to support this form of agriculture, Don and Marie took out loans. Each year their debt grew. The stress of the work and their financial situation became so serious that Don developed Crohn’s disease.

By 1995, Don and Marie could no longer avoid the question: should they quit the farm or farm in a different way?

By chance, they received a flyer about a course in holistic management in the mail. Holistic management is a way of farming that seeks to restore land to health while also allowing farmers a good life. Don and Marie decided to give it a try, even though it involved enormous risks. They sold all of their grain equipment and a large portion of their land. With their remaining 600 acres, they kept livestock, restored wetlands and native prairie land, and began using rotational grazing and organic methods.

By 1999, they had paid down their debt. Don no longer felt like he was a hostage to the banks. When they first bought their farm, they had a sense of freedom based on being able to do whatever they wanted with the land. In 1999, freedom meant something else, the freedom to serve the land, to restore its health.

Don is able to date the moment at which he knew the land had forgiven him. On May 21st, 2000, at 6am, he was moving chicken pastures to new grass. He heard the song of the meadow lark. He had not heard its song since 1989, when the bird stopped visiting the farm. Now, here it was! In its song he heard the land say, I forgive you.

The meadow lark’s song was part of a journey of self-transformation for Don and Marie.  In switching from industrial farming to holistic management, they made a commitment to stop mining and abusing the land. This went hand in hand with a growing appreciation for the land and its creature as kin. They began to see the land as a being with integrity and sanctity, one that had a moral and intimate claim on their life. Instead of their lives being an imposition on the land, their lives were now a conversation and joining with the land, a dedication to the flourishing of the land, a kind of matrimony.

Wirzba explained that the complex set of practices adopted by Don and Marie together were a way of communicating hospitality. Industrial methods are fundamentally inhospitable. They push out indigenous plants and animals. The new methods adopted on Sunrise Farm created habitats for plants, insects, birds, and mammals. We can interpret the meadow lark’s song, said Wirzba, as a form of forgiveness. The bird welcomed Don’s welcome, and intertwined its life with his.

It is not necessary, said Wirzba, to live on a farm in order to seek the land’s forgiveness. For example, in response to an audience question, Wirzba suggested practices for someone living in suburbia. Suburban places are often extremely placeless, he said. The antidote to this, Wirzba said, is first to try to understand and learn about suburbia. What is it, what is it trying to achieve? What is the history of the land on which the suburb is on?

Having learned about the history of your place, the next step is to consider how can you transform it. Can you find ways of making the history of the land a presence in your community? Wirzba suggested several possibilities: creating greenspace, growing food, and building educational programs. In more urban settings, he suggested transforming abandoned spaces to spaces for shared life. It can be as simple as tetting to know neighbors and learning to look out for each other. Seeking the forgiveness of the land can be about having better relationships with other people, about coming into the presence of each other.  

Seeking the land’s forgiveness is about living together. Living together is not just about creating hope for the future, Wirzba said, it is a fundamental good. By living together, we open ourselves up to the goodness and the beauty of the world, and by so doing, we might learn not only that the land forgives us, but that it loves us and takes care of our needs.

Mari Jørstad provides support for Facing the Anthropocene, a project under the Ethics and Environmental Policy program area. She is originally from Norway and spent a decade in Canada, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art & art history and political science and an MA in religion before coming to Duke to work toward a PhD studying the Hebrew Bible.

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