Originally published at Covenant, December 2, 2016.
Anglo-American folklore has designated October’s full moon the Hunter’s Moon, much as September’s is called the Harvest Moon. They mark the arrival and deepening of autumn.
Over the past month or so, the polar jet stream has made its first chilly incursions into my part of Texas. I have turned the air conditioning off in the house and opened the windows. Evenings have been delicious and mornings crisp.
My daily walk follows a course beneath live oaks, pecans, sweet gums, and a series of four bur oaks — my favorites (I try to ignore non-native ornamental trees). The nuts have begun to drop, crunching under foot, making a mess of the sidewalks. Most days I pick up a few pecans and eat them as I walk. This provokes indignation from the squirrels. They run up and down the trees and chatter at me, the thief.
Following their designated forms and ends, inbuilt by the divine wisdom, “mightily and sweetly ordering all things, reaching from one end to the other,” the flora and fauna are preparing for the coming cold. Migratory birds are on the move. Recently, on a walk in the countryside, it thrilled me to hear the rush of wings from blue wing teal and starlings as they swooped overhead. Without the city noise, you can actually hear the beat of their wings.
Josef Pieper wrote,
Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality. … For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the world of creation. (“Leisure: The Basis of Culture“)
By the middle of December, it will be cold, and the natural world will have quieted down. During the spring and summer all is a riot in woods and fields. From the microbial level and on up the ladder of being, everything is on the move, creeping and eating and singing, bearing and being born. But during winter, all is calm, all is quiet. It is, in the end, no coincidence that Christians sing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve, a few short days after the winter solstice.
I make a concerted effort to spend my days off outdoors, and I enjoy it most when the days are cold. I am an avid hunter and fisherman, but it strikes me that these activities are really more occasions for something else: for looking at the natural world and trying to understand it and, by trying to understand it, trying to understand something of what is above and behind and beyond it.
That I enjoy this seeing and seeking-to-understand has been a consolation during the first part of autumn, because dove season has been a bust in my corner of the world. Two weeks ago I set up my decoys, loaded my shotgun, and sat next to Jeb, my bird dog, against a hackberry tree by a field of cut milo. In two hours, we saw one single dove fly into a mesquite thicket on the other side of the field, well out of range. But the sun lay beautifully across the gentle contours of the land. Meadowlarks and killdeer gleaned among the browning stalks; a kestrel amused himself ambushing grasshoppers; and much to my surprise and delight, confirmed by my binoculars, a bald eagle was riding thermals in the distance.
We may read in the first chapter of Genesis that God “ended his work which he had made” and “behold, it was very good.” In leisure, man too celebrates the end of his work by allowing his inner eye to dwell for a while upon the reality of the Creation. He looks and he affirms: it is good. (“Leisure: The Basis of Culture”)
Seeing that the created world is good is an aspect of our likeness to God. We participate in a divine activity when we are at rest, still and silent; or rather, being still and silent is a material condition for participating in this divine work, seeing what God has made, and understanding that it is very good.
The natural world itself reflects this. The litter of pecans and acorns on the ground marks the coming end of the warm season’s labor — eating and singing and reproduction, photosynthesis and metabolism. The hardwood seeds that wind up in the ground will absorb nutrients from the soil during the winter stillness, like students in a catechetical school (scholē in Greek means “leisure”), waiting to be baptized by spring rains and illuminated by the all-conquering sun’s ascendancy at the vernal equinox.
The grandfather of contemporary conservation, Wendell Berry, has written:
The ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because He wanted it made. He thinks the world is good, and He loves it. It is His world; He has never relinquished title to it. And He has never revoked the conditions, bearing on His gift to us of the use of it, that oblige us to take excellent care of it. If God loves the world, then how might any person of faith be excused for not loving it or justified in destroying it? (“What are People For?” p. 98)
Christianity in America has had a propensity to cede its authority to the liberal order. This was less noticeable before the middle of the 20th century, when the ethical sphere of liberalism was itself shaped by Christian commitments. But now that faith is waning, incompatibilities and divided loyalties are bubbling increasingly to the surface of American life. Before we are anything else, Christians are Republicans and Democrats and, above all, consumers. The proof lies in an honest assessment of how willing you would be to move houses in order to integrate your family more fully into the life of your church, in comparison with how willing you would be to move houses to make your retirement goals more attainable.
Similarly, the degradation of the natural world was less noticeable when the world’s population was smaller and per-capita energy needs were a fraction of what they are now. But it is ever more difficult to ignore, as many have noted, the loss of biodiversity that has accompanied human population growth and, as Ephraim Radner writes,
changes to the earth’s atmosphere, the distribution of water on the surface of the earth, chemical compositions of water and soil, structures of subsoil layers, and so on. These changes correlate with the shifting distribution of life on the earth, and the expansion and activities of human beings have caused them. (“No safe place except hope: The Anthropocene epoch”)
The concentration of human populations in cities, which began in western Europe in the 12th century and has now accelerated frenetically and gone global, means that many people live their lives almost entirely cut off from the primary realities of nature and of natural processes. As Gerard Manley Hopkins said: “And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.” It is extremely difficult to see and understand the need for pollinators and the habitats that sustain them when all one knows of one’s food is that it comes from a supermarket.
Life inside the bubble of liberal institutions and markets hobbles our ability to participate in a divine work, to see the world as it is, and to see that it is very good. Christians must therefore find opportunities for leisure, in the way that Pieper meant, leisure as a form of “that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality.” Seeking these opportunities is not a matter of “self-care” or relaxation. Teresa of Avila spoke of the “determined determination” necessary to remain still and quiet, susceptive to God’s initiative. This is in fact “our bounden duty and service,” a form of counter-witness, of subversion and sabotage in enemy occupied territory. And it presupposes the courage to apprehend that our society is, as often as not, about the unwitting task of wrecking the good reality we are no longer able to see. “Woe to you! for you are like graves which are not seen, and men walk over them without knowing it” (Luke 11:44). Sacrificial cults always hide their victims from themselves.
Duck season is about to open. I have spent the last month or two studying migration patterns, reading the reports of wildlife biologists about spring breeding patterns and rainfall in latitudes thousands of miles from my home. I have been visiting nearby lakes and streams and taking note of who is passing through — pintails, gadwalls, and mallards — and wondering at the genius, always one step beyond what is empirically verifiable, the traces of the Choreographer of this dance. When I pull the trigger on my shotgun and see a duck fold and fall, when the hunt becomes the kill, it will be a small moment in a process of seeing and seeking-to-understand, a process that stretches from spring rains to thanks returned after a satisfying midwinter meal, and back again.