The following blog post is by Harry Ford, OFS, a Secular Franciscan and certified organic farmer. Harry has been involved with woodland and wildlife conservation on his farm and across the country for many years. He offers his thoughts on the Holy Father’s encyclical, Laudato Si.
Over a year ago, as I sat rocking our new born granddaughter, I wondered and worried what type of world she would grow up in. I thought deeply as to what could be done to make it a better and safer place for her and the other children of the world. Pope Francis expressed the same concern in Laudato Si when he stated that “Our goal is….to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” (19) and that “Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others.” (159) With the release of Laudato Si, Pope Francis has provided to me, and to all of us, so many ways to respond to this question. For me, this encyclical should be subtitled: “Francis, rebuild my world, for as you see it has fallen into disrepair.”
First of all, the title of this reflection does not mean when it was written. Sunset refers to where it was written. Many years ago, our family was able to purchase a farm to raise our family and to provide a place of enjoyment for our family and friends. After we moved onto the farm, we discovered some old, faded lettering on the equally old and faded red barn. The lettering proclaimed “Sunset Dairy.” It did not take us long to find out how appropriate was the name for our farm. Sunset farm sits on a ridge and the view to the mountains many miles west of the farm is unimpeded, so one is able to view the show that is put on every evening. The sunsets here can be absolutely beautiful and magnificent. They not only demonstrate the weather with the sun appearing and disappearing behind clouds, but also the condition of the atmosphere when the pollution from nearby cities reminds us that all is not well. The light from the setting sun is often diffused through nearby forests, and frequently we are treated to the pleasure of watching various animals, birds, and various insects as they come out for their evening journey. It becomes a time of prayer “when we can see God reflected in all that exists, our hearts are moved to praise the Lord for all his creatures and to worship him in union with them.” (87)
But the beauty of the farm is not limited only to the sunrise and sunset. Over the years, many areas of the farm have returned to their natural condition. One can now find woodlands, meadows, free running streams winding their way through tree covered passages, hill top vistas that open to valleys and mountains beyond the boundaries of the farm. Opportunities abound for a chance to walk peacefully in nature and contemplate the many gifts entrusted to us.
Protection of the many woodlands on the farm is very important to us, and we are part of the woodland stewards program in our state. Those participating in this program were taught that all of us, from those who are stewards of many acres of woodlands and forests, to those who just have a few trees in their backyard, are part of the larger ecosystem. Each of our actions produces some result that can either be beneficial or harmful to the larger environment. The woodlands stewards course emphasized many times what Pope Francis would warn about when “The replacement of virgin forest with plantations of trees, usually monocultures, is rarely adequately analyzed. Yet this can seriously compromise a biodiversity which the new species being introduced does not accommodate.”(39)
The interconnectedness between the health of the woodlands and the quality of the water flowing through and out into the rivers, bays, and oceans cannot be ignored. Sunset farm sits on a limestone ridge, and water is not in abundance. We learned early of the need to protect our water source and to use it as conservatively as possible. This helps us to understand the larger problem of water resources and access that was frequently mentioned in the encyclical.
The abundance of limestone in the area around us has brought about many open limestone quarries producing environmental problems such as the loss of open space and air and water pollution. In many ways it reminds me of the time I spent leading home repair projects for the poor of Appalachia. The young people coming with us were disheartened by the foul looking streams and the scars left by the strip mining. The people talked about how, over the years, mines, mills and railroads closed leaving them to fend for themselves. Again, Pope Francis warns us about the actions of the companies that extract the natural resources from an area and what they leave behind: “Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable.” (51) After the repair projects were completed, we always left with a renewed understanding of how poverty may not only be financial, but also spiritual and environmental as well.
As a professed Secular Franciscan, I try to learn and follow in the footsteps of St. Francis. Laudato Si gives us an overview of how St. Francis lived his life, and the way he calls us to respond, “I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically….He shows us just how inseparable is the bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”(10)
I believe that here at Sunset Farm, and other similar places, we have a gift that should be shared with all. We can provide a space that serves as a place of peace, contemplation and a chance to reconnect with the gift of creation that God has given to all of us. In this environment, we can help achieve some of the goals of an environmental education that “seeks also to restore the various levels of ecological equilibrium, establishing harmony within ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God.”(210)
I would like to close this reflection with this final thought from the encyclical:
Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.(205)
Peace and All Good,
Harry Ford, O.F.S.