Thursday, July 11, 2019

A Multitude of Reasons to Work to Prevent Nuclear War

Red-winged blackbird pair (Image: Birds of Pennsylvania)

" ... You are also to take two of each living creature, a male and a female, on board the ship, to preserve their lives with you: two of every species of bird, mammal, and reptile -- two of everything so as to preserve their lives along with yours. Also get all the food you'll need and store it up for you and them."

Noah did everything God commanded him to do.

- Genesis 6:19-22
(translation from The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language by Eugene H. Peterson)

Dawn comes early during the summer up here on Lake Superior. I don't have to set an alarm, because the birds begin to wake me as the first hint of light appears.

It takes me a while to get my eyes open, and to get out of bed, and get dressed. It takes another few minutes to boil water and make coffee. And then, while the house is still quiet, I like to go to my desk and begin to write.

But between pouring that first cup and heading into the front room to open up my laptop, I go out into the backyard and refill the bird feeders. I will look forward throughout the day to peeking out the window, watching the ballet of birds -- mostly red-winged blackbirds -- swooping in to take turns at the feeder. And now, as I start the day by filling the feeders, I wonder if the birds have been waiting long for me. I imagine them looking at their watches, shrugging their shoulders, turning to each other, and saying, "It's about time . . . ."

*   *   *

In the course of re-reading the many wonderful sections of the Noah story, the section above about "two of each living creature" has seemed to me to be the single most wonderful part of all.

Just as earlier verses raise a profound question about the possibility of the un-creation of our world, these few sentences signify the ability to encompass the immensity of the living world in a few words. I'm imagining the story's creator -- a sort of ancient Linnaeus (or Darwin) -- saying, "There are a lot of creatures . . . and I don't know them all, personally . . . but it's clear to me that the outlines of the living world have a definite shape!"

In fact, the writer of this account sets up an interesting dynamic. In one breath, God is saying, "I'm fed up with the entire thing, I'm going to wipe it all out, I don't care if all these creatures disappear." In the next breath says, "But . . . on second thought . . .  all these creatures are kind of cool!"

So: one thing we have here is a distinction between the actual instances of the various species on Earth -- in other words, the many actual creatures who are doomed to die in the flood -- and the idea of each species, which is to be preserved on the ark. (The writer couldn't possibly have known about DNA and genes, and yet has captured the essence of genetics.)

The second thing we have is the suggestion that God isn't satisfied with just the idea of the species. Otherwise, why bother to re-populate the Earth after going to all the trouble of wiping out all the creatures in the flood?  It's as if the writer is pointing out that the species-as-idea (species-as-DNA) is a moot point if no more of these creatures are actually living in the world!

It is then a short step for us, as readers, to take up and struggle with what we today would understand as the fundamental idea of ecology: life doesn't occur in isolation, in the abstract. Life is only real in a web of interconnectedness. In theory, Noah can preserve all of the living world by making sure a breeding pair of each creature survives. But in reality, that will only become meaningful if the ark, itself, survives the flood, and the creatures can return to the world and intermingle again.

*   *   * 

It seems to me that attention to ecology must be an integral part of our work to prevent nuclear war. One way in which it is important is the need to protect biodiversity in the abstract. Equally important, I believe, is the role of the actual creatures that make our lived experience meaningful.

I often wonder: where are we going to get the strength needed to carry out the "Back From the Brink" campaign to prevent nuclear war? It is not the work of a few hours, or even a few days, or a few years. It would be the easiest thing in the world to lose heart, to start to wonder if it can be done, to say "What's the use?"

Perhaps we need to make a promise to ourselves. Perhaps we can vow to take as inspiration those amazing creatures we share this planet with. Like Noah, we can stock our personal arks with the images of birds and fish and mammals -- and, yes, even reptiles and insects and other creeping things -- that give us the determination to carry on.

For my part, I know there will be days when I'm feeling frustrated with this work -- just like there are days when I lose patience with the demanding red-winged blackbirds in my backyard. On days like those, I will try to remember there are an abundance of reasons to take a deep breath, recover my energy, and stay in the struggle  -- just like there is more than one type of bird on Madeline Island.

Bald eagles on Madeline Island (Image: Joe Scarry)

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(See Asters for Eva

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