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'Water is a mirror of our communal soul' -- a ritual for healing a watershed

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Sara Leeland put together a wonderful ritual titled "In Living Community: A Spirituality of Water," that was first presented in Prince Frederick Md., on Jul. 22, 2006.

Her local watershed, Chesapeake Bay, was in trouble. Its waters are on the edge of dying. Population growth overloads the water's edges; nitrate fertilizers from local farms add up to dead zones in rivers and in the Bay.

She notes that waters are in trouble everywhere -- in Michigan, in Kansas, in the Great Lakes as a whole, in China. In Africa and South Asia, hundreds die every day as a result of drinking dirty water.

"Water is a mirror of our communal soul." Leeland's ritual and presentation is available on the Web. It is available for use by anyone and can be modified to fit your own particular watershed.

Moving beyond 'jobs at any price'

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Emotions run high when discussing unemployment. Most of us have a loved one who can’t find work. We murmur and worry about how they are going to survive. We can empathize, imaging ourselves out in the streets with no home, begging for food. The instinct for survival is primal and strong, and our current economy brings up many fears. Nothing is certain anymore. The days of milk and honey and unlimited prosperity appear to be gone. Being able to work is not a given anymore.

All we can collectively think of is, “We have to create more jobs.” And usually that means jobs like we are used to, jobs that revolve around producing goods and jobs created by big corporations or government. There’s only one tiny little problem with this—the way we’ve structured our economy, and thus our jobs, is unsustainable. There it is again—that naughty word that no one wants to utter, that innocuous-sounding word explosive with calamitous consequences.

Book Review: The Best Spiritual Writing, 2011, edited by Philip Zaleski, published by Penguin Books, $16

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This anthology appears every year, and I always look forward to it. The introductory essay is a wonderful reflection on the oft-heard quip, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” by former American Poet Laureate Billy Collins. He chronicles his own move out of his childhood Catholicism, his “nest of religious beliefs,” to his middle years when he was “pulled in opposite directions by my almost congenital faith and the multiplying, sirenlike voices of the secular world.”

He describes how the iconography and vocabulary of the Catholic church persists, even as the doctrinal faith melts away. “As one lapsed Catholic paradoxically put it: ‘I don’t’ believe in God, but I believe Mary was his mother.’”

The commonplace grace of lichens

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Lichens are pioneer plants that grow on rocks, trees, or on the ground where the leaf litter or grass has been disturbed. A symbiotic life form, they consist of an alliance between a fungus body and colonies of one-celled algae. The algae do the photosynthesizing and manufacture food. The fungus provides the structure and decomposes the rock underneath, thus aiding in soil formation.

There are three kinds and each finds its niche in the landscape. Crustose lichens attach to rock surfaces. They form crusts in broad round patches. The foliose varieties grow as green leaf-like lobes or plates attached to tree bark or rock. The hanging fruticose lichens are the most advanced types with stalked branches that sometimes resemble weird coral growths.

Lichens are tough and long-lived. They are highly resistant to cold, intense heat and to drought. Their growth is extremely slow. Lichens reproduce by means of spores from the fungi which combine with the algae, or by breaking off and reattaching in new locations.

Why falling birds put humans on alert

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In the final moments of 2010, thousands of dead birds fell from the sky over Beebe, Arkansas, frightening the town's residents and turning the world's eyes once again to birds. Read David Yarnold's commentary. Yarnold is president of the National Audubon Society.

"Why do birds -- and their struggles -- matter so much to people? They fly, and we dream about flying. We look to birds' migratory and nesting cycles to mark the passage of time and the change of seasons. Their bright plumage and beautiful songs delight us.

When birds stop flying, an essential piece of hope falls away from people as well. "Hope is the thing with feathers," mused the great American poet Emily Dickinson more than a century ago. For her and for many of us, birds have come to represent something much larger than themselves."

Environmental concerns are not the stepchild of social justice

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Most churches, Catholic or otherwise, place environmental concerns under the broader category of social justice. Like a young child in a big family, the environment vies for attention along with world hunger, peacemaking, the death penalty, and numerous other social issues. And realistically, even though justice pronouncements from on high abound, they aren’t taken very seriously on the parish level. Care for the Earth hardly makes a blip on the radar screen of church priorities. To change this, we need to make stewardship of the Earth its own stand-alone reality.

It’s time to move away from thinking of environmental concerns as one of many equally important and pressing social issues, and give it top billing.

Biblical scholar Diane Bergant says the integrity of creation is foundational, and that social justice flows out of that. Maybe the fact that the Bible starts with creation should tell us something. There is nothing without it. We’ve just taken nature for granted, but can no longer afford that luxury. The foundation is cracking, and we’d better get busy fixing it.

Don't let winter hold you hostage

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Winter is always getting a bad rap. Newscasters slander cold weather and snow like they are akin to the plague. Everyone complains about this maligned season, as if it was purposely bent on causing them misery. Now surely God didn’t doze off while winter was being created and awaken to find something had gone horribly wrong. So maybe the fault, the lack of appreciation is in us. Maybe it’s time to quit pouting about how nasty winter is and discover what there is to love about it.

As I write, several inches of snow are piled on my birdbath and car out front, and everything else, for that matter. I’m thrilled, enthralled by the loveliness, with nary a care that driving requires more caution or events might be canceled. My eyes, hungry for the beauty, can never get enough of it. A tangible joy settles over me and my house, as the flakes descend from heaven to rest there a while. My soul, usually in hiding from too much frenetic energy surrounding it, has emerged calm and content. I don’t know how the snow has wrought such magic, but surely it has.

Fr. Thomas Berry's dream for the Earth: Ten ways to achieve it

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The late Fr. Thomas Berry is one of the key figures that have shaped the Catholic ecology movement. This is the second of a series of articles that explore his thought and writings.

In the early 1990s NCR’s editor Tom Fox flew Fr. Thomas Berry to Kansas City for a few days to speak with the staff. We assembled in the third-floor conference room and Fr. Berry talked to us all day long. The night before this day-long seminar, though. Tom invited a selected group of people from all over town to his home to meet with Fr. Tom Berry and hear him speak for a short time.

As we gathered in Tom and his wife Hoa’s living room, Berry sat in a chair by the window with a glass of water. Just before he began his talk for the evening, he looked out at the thirty or so gathered and, with that lopsided grin of his, said simply: “Just about everything has to change.”

My wife and I were there and talked with him briefly as he signed our copy of his first book, The Dream of the Earth, just published by Sierra Club Books. But I’ll never forget his statement about how just about everything has to change.

America's good food fight

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It's agribusiness vs. the sustainable food movement. And reform advocates say it's possible to make delicious, nutritious, safe food available to all people of all income levels.

By Nicolette Hahn Niman
Op Ed in the L.A Times, Jan. 9, 2010

Our holiday table got quite tense. We are a mixed family — Jewish, Christian, Republican, Democrat –— but the tension wasn't from differences over religion or politics. It was about food.

At one end of the table sat my husband's nephew, who runs a food bank. He's an earnest man who spends his days seeking nourishment for the hungry, and favors almost anything that increases food's availability or lowers its price. My husband and I occupied the other end. We operate a pasture-based ranch, and spend much of our time advocating for farming grounded in ecology and stewardship. The food we raise is less readily available and more expensive than most of what's found at typical grocery stores.

Other family members sat between us. They enjoy eating well but, especially in these tough economic times, want their meals as cheap as possible.

God's not in a hurry: Theology can be less parochial

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Last year we celebrated the 400th anniversary of Galileo first pointing a telescope at the heavens. He did not invent the telescope. Rather the significance of what he did lies in four things.

In his day it was commonly believed that the Earth was obviously the center of the universe and that celestial bodies like the sun, moon and stars were “mystical” realms that orbited us. Galileo first observed that the moon, for example, was an actual place with some of the same features – valleys, volcanoes, mountains – that existed in his own native Italy.

Secondly, he observed that the planet Venus went through phases. Sometimes it was seen in its full glory, other times as a crescent and still other times it could not be seen. This was proof positive that the Copernican idea, introduced before Galileo’s exploration, that all the planets including Earth did in fact revolve around the Sun was correct.

Third, he pointed his telescope at the Milky Way overhead and determined for the first time that the vast light cloud is actually made of individual stars massed together.

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