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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.

Shepherd's Corner Ecology Center: Careful stewards of God's creation

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Shepherd's Corner, an ecology ministry in Blacklick, Ohio, is a ministry of the Dominican Sisters of Peace. Its director Dominican Sr. Diane Kozlowski introduces Shepherd's Corner and its work.

Shepherd’s Corner is an ecology ministry of the Dominican Sisters of Peace located in Blacklick, Ohio. The 160 acres of land provide a natural oasis in the midst of recent development. The land’s diverse range of habitats offers a haven for wildlife and native flora and a place of peace, beauty, and spiritual refreshment for humans. Our vision statement expresses our hopes: Shepherd’s Corner Ecology Center is a small corner of creation seeking to recreate the land’s wholeness by rediscovering the life-giving harmony between the people and the land. Here, people of all backgrounds can learn to reconnect with the natural environment, themselves, one another, and the Creator who made them all.

A feather on God's breath: Recovering our hearts

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A memory: I was 21, in Vietnam-era military police school, with 40 others in the hill country of central Texas. We were all exhausted, dirty and dispirited on a long march back from the pistol range. Suddenly one of our squad leaders started loudly singing, "Monday, Monday," a then-current hit from the folk-rock group The Mamas and the Papas.

To a man, we all took up the lyrics. Our drudgery shape-shifted into a make-it-up-as-you-go bugaloo down the gravel road. In a moment, fatigue-clad automatons were transformed into a spunky, badly harmonizing, ragtag assembly of uniquely peppy spirits with a whole new lease on life that day.

Another memory: While living on the West Coast, I was driving home in my battered little convertible across the Golden Gate Bridge The siren blast of a freighter outward bound for Capetown or Singapore duetted with the foghorns on the bridge's towers. Past the glittery bay-reflected lights of Sausalito, I saw ahead the pastel tiers of fog-stalked San Francisco looking ever so bedazzling like the Emerald City of Oz. Off to the right, the titanic, heaving mystery of the Pacific Ocean brooded in distant, cloud-shrouded darkness.

Chop, fry boil: Eating for one or for six billion

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Learning a cooking repertoire of three basic recipes can get anyone into the kitchen and beyond the realm of takeout food, microwaved popcorn and bologna sandwiches in a few days.

"Chop, Fry, Boil: Eating for One, or 6 Billion" is the latest entry in the Sustainable Living series in the New York Times, outlining three basic cooking recipes that can provide the basis for sustainable eating in the home.

The puppet and the cricket: the value of silence

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I once interviewed Jay Taylor, director of spiritual formation for the Pentecostal Assemblies of God seminary in Springfield, Mo. His students had been spending some weekends at a remote Trappist monastery 70 miles from Springfield. Taylor said the formation team was not interested in creating monks but wanted its students to learn the importance of inward-directed spiritual disciplines.

The monastery’s Catholicism, its chanting, statues, icons, woolen robes, scapulars and incense, he said, were not as alien to the Pentecostal seminarians as the hushed quiet encountered there.

“It’s more than a little intimidating. It’s a shock when they experience their mind flying all over the place, hearing their inside chatter for what it is.”

Most of us live in a cacophonous world, and suffer for it in ways we’re not even aware of. Since the desert fathers and mothers in the early centuries, silence and a quiet mind have held an important place in the Catholic spiritual tradition.

Buddhists say the silence behind creation has a density to it, a physical-ness. It is teeming with possibility and potential. Silence is creative, healing and, most important, gives us wise counsel.

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October 10-23, 2014

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