For Land’s Sake by George Merrill

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A day or so after the hurricane struck the Carolinas, I sat on my porch. It was a relentlessly hot Maryland day, without of hint of breeze, and the air was as dense with moisture as a sauna. Our porch overlooks a small cove at the head of Broad Creek. It’s a popular feeding spot for blue herons.

I saw a heron wading in the shallows. He was stalking something. He paced slowly with furtive steps that bespoke his intent to surprise his prey. The heron did surprise a hapless critter. He stopped pacing, brought his head up and back, and with lightning speed, thrust his bill forward like a rapier, snatching a sizeable crab from the water. How could he ingest it? How could the shell’s jagged edges pass though his long skinny neck into his stomach? I couldn’t imagine. In minutes, he’d swallowed the crab. I couldn’t believe he ate the whole thing.

I live near the water. Too close. I often wonder whether I belong here. The mystique of tidewater is alluring, but fragile. There’s the pungent smell of Sulphur that the marshes exude, and the parade of wildlife I see from my studio window: herons, deer, turkeys, otters, loons, buzzards and eagles. Turtles lay eggs in the driveway. There are ospreys, seagulls, raccoons all going about their daily routines except for the owls and raccoons; they prefer the night shift.

I don’t know just how long I sat watching the heron feed. I realized that the heron had commanded my full attention. For those several minutes I was wholly absorbed, enthralled. My entire attention was fixed on the bird while something else was happening to me at the same time; I was keenly alert and paying attention in a way that I rarely do, not because I decided I would, but simply because the heron seized my imagination. To say it was like seeing some creature from another world would be accurate. The heron was just that. The heron shares all the requisites for life on this earth just as I do, but his world is far beyond my ken; he seems exotic to me and, in that moment in the shallows of the creek, I was almost lifted out of myself by becoming fully conscious of another living creature that was my geographic neighbor.

The cradle of life on the planet began with and is sustained by the world’s wetlands. Moses may have reached the mountain top, but he was launched from the marshes.

Unfortunately, a beautiful land is an invitation to live there. With the large metropolitan centers within one and a half to three hours driving time to the Shore, an elderly population retiring and wanting to live their last days in an idyllic setting leaves the Delmarva a sitting duck for what’s euphemistically referred to as “development.” Development is an economic concept and has no respect for the characteristics of land other than as a commodity to be bought and sold. We know little of land’s needs, the meaning of its habits and what role weather plays in the cycles of its life.

Like Adam and Eve, we’re complicit in our own expulsion from this global garden of extraordinary beauty. We ate of the forbidden tree of knowledge and learned enough to profit from the fruits of the garden by practicing density development even while destroying it by the same means. We want the glories of the garden to inhabit it again, but are woefully ignorant of the land’s integrity, that is, what rights properly belong to the land as we plan to occupy it.

There are environmental saints in history, prophets speaking for the earth. They give our earth a voice. These saints have gained notice, but corporations have muffled their voices. John Muir, the preeminent American ecologist founded the Sierra Club as one way to provide nature with advocacy. He once said, “No synonym for God is so perfect as beauty.”

Rachel Carson documented the toxic effects of pesticides on the ecological food chain. The world is interconnected physically as it is spiritually. Its essential unity is undisputable.

Fourteenth century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: “Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is the word of God.”

The American visionary of wilderness, Aldo Leopold, wrote of the earth as though it were a symphony.

Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote this about listening to rain: “. . . the talk it makes by itself all over the ridges and the talk of the watercourse everywhere in the hollows . . . as long as it talks, I am going to listen.”

Walt Whitman wrote, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.”

There’s far more to the earth than lots of dirt.

I’ve been thinking about the integrity of land after learning about the effects of the hurricanes in the Carolinas. Building homes on land that will be predictably inundated by water at one time or another is a failure to recognize the appropriate boundaries of land use. I know my house should never have been built so near the creek’s edge. Erecting structures so close fails to recognize that there is a natural rhythm between land and water that includes what we call periodic flooding, but I suspect it’s a form of ecological purification, a kind of realignment of natural boundaries as they are reconfigured by wind and weather. To ignore those boundaries violates the land and we suffer as a result.

It’s one more way we try to coerce nature into conforming to our will and not accommodating to hers.

And what about herons during hurricanes? They hunker down until it blows over. Then they pick up and nest nearby. They own nothing. They just live on the land . . . gently.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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