I spent a fair amount of time this summer tending to the land. My family has several acres in the woods of Wisconsin, and it is an ongoing effort to remove invasive species like buckthorn and bittersweet. At one point, I found myself in over my head – literally! – spending hours unraveling bittersweet from around the trunks and branches of about 30 aspen trees that were barely 6 foot tall. They were so choked by the twisting vines that it seemed almost futile. But I couldn’t bear to clear cut these young trees alongside their invasive neighbors. So, one at a time, tree by tree, I untangled the branches and gave them some breathing room. The tedious work has led to layers of reflection about what it means to be a steward of the land, how little of our attention the land needs to heal, and how generously it heals us in return.
These musings give me slightly different interpretations for today’s readings. The Gospel parable, similar to the first reading from Isaiah, has been interpreted different ways through the years. One set of interpretations might follow the allegorical understanding of God as the landowner. Others have offered the interpretation of this scene as a peasant uprising, with an oppressive landowner and a violent response. Parables are tricky, and we are asked to interpret them with fresh eyes to see the Good News meant for us today. When I find myself wrestling with the meaning of a parable, I like to follow Sr. Barbara Reid’s recommendation to look for the God figure. Past interpretations have suggested that the God figure is the landowner who does a lot to reshape the land and is patient to a point. Others argue the servants standing on the margins might be it, but they too only seemed concerned with the profits they might make. Both of those characters offer a problematic God figure.
After a summer working in the woods, I am convinced that the God figure is the land itself, and I must come to terms with who I am as a landowner or a tenant.
When we consider God as the Land, what can be gleaned from the various characters and their attitudes toward it? After reshaping the land to his own liking, the owner neglects it until he can gather its fruits. The tenants want to own it without having put in the work to improve it, and their main concern is ownership to reap the harvest. What might the vision of God as the land point us toward as we consider our current situation and ofttimes deep failures to care for the land?
We might begin to ask: What type of steward am I? Do I expect harvest without much effort on my part? Do I act as if I have a right to claim the land as my own? Am I oppressive, demanding profit from other’s labors? Do I take the land and my relationship to it for granted, neglecting the drama that is playing out on a global scale?
Finding balance in our relationship with the land is critical to our wholeness and resilience. Can our own attitude toward the land tell us something about our relationship to God? Do we do more reshaping, controlling, or demanding of our image of God, or do we balance ourselves in mutual collaboration where our efforts, no matter how clumsy, are offered for the common good?
When I worked in the woods this summer, the task of clearing breathing room for the saplings was also creating breathing room for me: reflective space as well as literal oxygen for breathing. Reconnecting to the land is important, not just for the bounty it yields, but also for the healing that comes from being connected to the land itself. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv discusses nature-deficit disorder and the need to connect to the land. “In our bones we need the natural curves of hills, the scent of chapparal, the whisper of pines, the possibility of wildness. We require these patches of nature for our mental health and our spiritual resilience.” (2013, pg. 202). Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, also speaks of connecting to the land and feeling its reciprocal care in return. After collecting an abundant harvest from her garden, she noted an “epiphany” where she deeply felt the land loving her back like a mother.
The project of removing buckthorn in our woods has been ongoing for years. It is slow work, but there are signs of success. When a spot is no longer choked out by buckthorn, we are surprised by the diversity and generosity that springs back to life: wild raspberries, a variety of ferns, anise hyssop. This year, we found a patch of wild blueberries! It’s not too far-fetched nor entirely new to consider God as the abundant land. The language of Mother Earth is familiar. But adding that to today’s readings invites us to ponder our attitude to the land and what that might tell us about our relationship to God.
So as gardens overflow, be thankful. As trees change color offering an amazing backdrop to life, be thankful. As the earth, the animals, and the breeze hint at abundance and hope, be thankful.
Then begin to ask, “and what must I do in return?”
This week, on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis concluded the Season of Creation by promulgating a second edition of Laudato Sì entitled, Laudate Deum. Perhaps reading this will help to re-root us to our God.
Christina R. Zaker
Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry