Creating a Stewardship Ethos

How Do You Help Someone Care About the Environment?

by John Wennes, Creation Care Council Member

Ethos – the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.

As a kid growing up in Tempe in the 1960s and 1970s, our family made occasional trips up north to the high country, including the Mogollon Rim, Payson, Kohls Ranch, Woods Canyon Lake, and Slide Rock in Sedona. I recall the fresh, cooler air, the trees, the wildlife, and the fishing.  I would dream about catching a beautiful rainbow trout, and occasionally I did. It was an early introduction to ‘nature’, and I thank my parents for making those trips happen.  I can’t remember a time since then when I didn’t appreciate the natural world.

When I was in high school, our family traveled from Arizona to Minnesota one summer. We stopped at a campground near a freeway in the mid-west and spent the night in our pop-up travel trailer.  Waking early the next morning and walking on a trail near the campground with my dad, we saw a deer and her fawns feeding in the woods.  What a wonderful sight; seeing the grace of their movements and their near-silent feeding was an unexpected treat.  (I can still remember it 50 years later).  Growing up in the suburbs of Phoenix I did not get to see that type of scene often enough. Maybe you had similar experiences when you were a kid?

Whatever your background might be, how was your view of nature, wildness, and God’s creation shaped?  Is it still evolving today?  Do you want to impart that love of nature or sense of stewardship to your children, your spouse, friends, or the next generation?  Regardless of your level of engagement with nature, you probably have come to hold certain values regarding the environment.  

Leading By Example 

Did your family visit parks or go on camping trips when you were growing up?  Maybe you were fortunate enough to live near undeveloped natural spaces, and could regularly hike, explore, and experience the wonders of nature firsthand.  Maybe you are just pre-disposed to love nature.  I can’t remember a time when I didn’t marvel at the wild animals I learned about, whether it was on TV, reading a magazine or newspaper, or seeing wild creatures in their natural habitat.  When young people have mentors who can show them and explain to them through stories, visits to a park, or some other first-hand experience, a spark of interest may be ignited.   Over time, that interest can grow to become a core value, a stewardship ethic.  The more you learn about creation; the complex web of life, and its interconnectedness, the more you realize how precious it is.  You want to protect it, preserve it, become a steward of it, and pass it on to the next generation in good shape so that they may experience what you did.

Working as a park ranger in Washington State, I would meet families that would bring their children to our ranger presentations.  We presented topics usually detailing the local flora and fauna found around our parks. For example, we often spoke about salmon runs on the Columbia River, which has a fascinating history. The takeaway lesson was that they looked at the river differently; understood the history of dams, power generation, agriculture, and the importance of those things; but also saw the effects that building dams had on the salmon fisheries, both immediate and over time, and the impact to native Americans.

Parents would often tell me that as children, they visited parks throughout the state and had made it a tradition that they wanted to pass on to their kids.  It was a process, that initial exposures to parks and all they had to offer eventually became a core value, a sense of stewardship, a love for the resource.  As rangers, we knew that you can’t force someone to value or appreciate something, but you can tell them as much as you can about it, and show them – through fun activities like building their own salmon from paper cut-outs, and coloring it, creating bead bracelets that tell the story of the Columbia River and its wildlife.  Over time, you hope that they come to see the parks (and by extension, all of nature) and all they have to offer as a resource to be protected, valued, and even loved.  

Show people how you care.  Your authentic actions can demonstrate to others what your priorities are.  I ride my bike to the store whenever possible.  I recycle.  I plant a tree to provide shade at my house and reduce my energy use. If you repeat something often enough, it becomes a habit. Maybe we are preaching to the choir if we are already concerned about the environment and our audience is only like-minded people.  Are we trying to influence other people and help them care about nature/creation?  If so, what might that look like?

Actions are important

Again, we can’t force someone to care about anything.  Over time, with exposure, enlightenment, experiences, sharing knowledge, and genuine enthusiasm for the resource, a sense of appreciation can be gained – and it can become part of one’s value system.  Give someone the opportunity to experience the wonder of creation firsthand and see where it takes them.

Creating a stewardship ethos is especially important as the planet is changing rapidly.  There are undeniable wild swings in weather, larger and more frequent wildfires, floods, prolonged, hotter heat waves, and risks of extinction of thousands of species.  Are we seeing irreversible changes?  Or can we mitigate some of the most extreme effects of our actions?  

There are some great naturalists, and maybe you have your favorite. If you never have had a chance to read Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac (published in 1949), you may want to give it a look.  He worked for the US Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico in the early 20th century.  I find his descriptions of the natural world transfixing.  I often re-read a paragraph to try to absorb all that he has described. His book is a tribute to our land and a bold challenge to protect the world we love.  A few entries from his book:

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it trends otherwise. 

On the plight of the passenger pigeon, which became extinct in his lifetime, he wrote:

Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are.  The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those that deprived us of pigeons.  Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange.  The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of spring?

Aldo Leopold – Sand County Almanac

Other leaders of thought and conservation from different eras that might interest you; Henry David Thoreau (Walden, published in 1854), St. Francis of Assissi, Theodore Roosevelt, and Pope Francis. Each has their own expressions of appreciation and value of nature that were shaped by their unique situations and experiences. 

Regarding St. Frances of Assisi

He believed that nature itself was the mirror of God. He called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters”, and even preached to the birds and supposedly persuaded a wolf in Gubbio to stop attacking some locals if they agreed to feed the wolf. His deep sense of brotherhood under God embraced others, and he declared that “he considered himself no friend of Christ if he did not cherish those for whom Christ died”.

On that note, my aspiration is that, through time, education, your actions, and examples – your authenticity in what you do, will instill in others an appreciation and love of nature and inspire the next generation of environmental stewards.   

John Wennes
St. Matthews Episcopal Church
Chandler, Arizona

3 comments on “Creating a Stewardship Ethos”

  1. I grew up and lived in the hills of central Pa., playing in the woods, hiking, and some hunting and sledding was where I got my appreciation for the environment .

  2. A fascinating discussion is worth comment. There’s no doubt that that you ought to publish more on this subject, it may not be a taboo matter but generally folks don’t talk about such topics.
    To the next! Kind regards!!

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