by The Rev. Steve Keplinger
This past June, I had a relationship with an individual who was around when Jesus walked the earth. I have also been with others who were standing when Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt.
Ninety-six percent of them, however, are gone. Old-growth forests are some of the most miraculous places on this planet. They soothe our souls. But that is not why they are critical. Old-growth forests are necessary because each of them is a complex system, complex beyond what humans can yet fully understand. Old growth supports a gigantic diversity of life. That biodiversity creates resilience. It is what protects life itself. Perhaps most importantly in our climate-distressed world, old-growth forests hold exponentially more carbon than younger forests. A study of Oregon National Forests showed that the larger, older trees (3% of the total trees) captured almost half of the forest carbon.
This past Earth Day, President Biden signed an executive order to do the first-ever inventory of old-growth forests. Federal scientists are tasked with providing specific details of the threats posed to each remaining forest.
I am grateful for the survey which can only result in more protection. But the truth is it takes no study to reveal the greatest threat to old-growth forests. That threat is inbred in the organization that this country created to sustain them, the U.S. Forest Service. The first chief of the Forest Service was Gifford Pinchot, and it is his philosophy that has continued to guide the policies of that governmental entity to this day. It can be summed up in this quotation from Pinchot: “There are just two things on this material earth — people and natural resources.”
Instead of understanding a forest as part of God’s creation, instead of seeing the intrinsic value of an entire ecosystem, Pinchot only saw the forest as a resource for humans to use and abuse.
Ever since, that is what we have done. We have never attempted to preserve old-growth forests because they have no value in a worldview where there are only humans and then everything else. That is why the Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture. We manage our forests like a crop. Jesus may never have met a conservationist like Gifford Pinchot. But he certainly describes his understanding of the ideal relationship between humans and the natural world. He calls that relationship the kingdom of God, or in Matthew, the kingdom of heaven.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, that someone sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” Matthew is playing with us. The words are nearly the same as in Ezekiel 17, except for the reference, there is to the Cedar of Lebanon, a giant tree that will provide shelter for all the animals and people of the earth. The shock in Jesus’s analogy comes when instead of using the giant cedar of Lebanon for the kingdom of heaven, Jesus uses that lowly mustard plant. It is lowly because mustard is at best a big bush. Mustard plants are also weeds! Jewish farmers never planted it because you cannot cultivate it. The kingdom of God starts as a speck, Jesus says and grows into…a weed. Here is Jesus’ first statement about nature. God’s world is not orderly. God’s world is biodiverse. God’s world is old growth. Human agriculture takes away from the complexity of nature. So what do we do to fix that, Jesus asks? We create complexity by planting a weed, a mustard bush, right in the cornfield. That will attract the birds of the air and begin the journey back to biodiversity. It is an ancient example of what we now call rewilding. Second, God doesn’t create things to grow just for the benefit of humanity. Some things have no benefit to humans. They are here to create a world of diversity of which humans are only a part.
So go spread your weeds until the Cedars of Lebanon, the Coast Redwoods, the Bristlecone pines, and every old-growth tree is preserved forever. That is Jesus’s vision. It should be our vision. It is time for the kingdom of heaven to be experienced and loved through the mystery and beauty of an old-growth forest.
Steve Keplinger is the Rector of Grace St. Paul’s in Tucson and a member of the diocesan Creation Care Council. He has been designing and leading a Season of Creation for the last 20 years. He served on the Season of Creation sub-committee of General Convention that produced the Creation prayers in the most recent Book of Occasional Services.