The World in an Oyster – an Earth Day reflection


A COMMENTARY FOR EARTH DAY – Rev. Gordon C. Stewart | Friday, June 4, 2010 – published by MinnPost.comThe “spill” in the Gulf of Mexico raises the most basic questions about how we humans think of ourselves.

We’re at a turning point. The crisis we can’t seem to kill in the Gulf of Mexico puts before us the results of a more foundational crisis than the black goo that is choking the life out of the Gulf. The uncontrolled “blow-out” raises basic questions about how we think of ourselves and the order of nature.

Fifteen years ago I was with a group of pastors who spent four days with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, whose mission is to protect and clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Our time there began with a day on the bay on a Skipjack, one of the last remaining motorless sailing vessels that used to harvest oysters by the tens and hundreds of bushels from oyster beds. The director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and an old waterman named Earl, who had worked the bay for 54 years, took us to school.

Back then the oyster population had shrunk to a fraction of 1 percent of what it used to be. Fifteen years before our visit the oyster population would filter all the water in the bay in three days’ time. A single oyster pumps five gallons of water through its filtration system every day.

The oysters were close to extinction; the bay’s natural filtering system was in danger. “It’s humans who’ve done this,” said the old waterman. “They’ll come back; I have to believe they’ll come back.”

Others were less hopeful. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources discussed the damage to the wetlands and the estuaries, the seedbeds of life. It had sounded the alarm for public action to protect the birthplaces of all the seafood we eat, the places on which the whole chain of life depends.

Deepwater Horizon fire
Deepwater Horizon fire

This week we heard from the Gulf of Mexico that the attempted “top kill” has failed and that the “spill” is spreading in every direction — not only on the surface, but below the surface — a glob the size of the state of Texas. I think of Earl and his Skipjack as I see the poisoned oysters in the hands of Louisiana oystermen whose livelihood depends on clean Gulf waters. “It’s humans who have done this.”

But it’s not every human who has done this violence to the Gulf. It was not the indigenous people of North America, nor was it the Moken people (“the sea gypsies”) who, because they see themselves as part of nature, anticipated the 2004 Asian tsunami while the rest of the world was caught by surprise. It was a specific form of humanity known as Western culture that sees humankind as the conqueror of nature.

Our language is not the language of cooperation with nature. “And God said, ‘… fill the earth and subdue; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’ ” — (Genesis 1:28), a conquering view based in the idea of species superiority expressed in the phrase “top kill” for the attempt to plug the hole that is killing the oysters and fish of the sea.

Insofar as interpreters of the Book of Genesis have shaped this Western hubris, my Judeo-Christian tradition bears responsibility for this crisis. The idea of human exceptionalism springs from the Bible itself.

But no sooner do I sink into confession and despair than I remember a prayer that Earl called to my attention on the Skipjack 15 years ago, the prayer of St. Basil from the third century that offers a more hopeful understanding of ourselves, a view like Moken people’s that knows that the whole world’s in an oyster:

“The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. O God, enlarge within us the sense of kinship with all living things, our brothers and sisters the animals to whom You have given the Earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty, so that the voice of the Earth, which should have gone up to You in song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live not for us alone, but for themselves and for You, and that they have the sweetness of life.”


14 thoughts on “The World in an Oyster – an Earth Day reflection


    Meta Tantay was an intertribal interracial non-profit community on 262 acres of land in northeastern Nevada. It was started in 1975 and ended in 1985. It was located just east of the town of Carlin, Nevada. It was on land that is described as high mountain desert land. This is a very arid land with cold winters and hot summers.

    Meta Tantay was started by Rolling Thunder, a Cherokee Medicine Man and his wife Spotted Fawn, a Western Shoshone Native. Spotted Fawn had become a Clan Mother to the many peoples whose lives that she touched. Rolling Thunder saw that there were many people looking for a better way to live their lives and realized that there needed to be a place to be able to teach others by giving them a chance to live it.

    Mala Spotted Eagle, one of Rolling Thunder’s and Spotted Fawn’s son and his wife Sky were asked to live there from the beginning and to help on the daily guidance of the community under Rolling Thunder’s and Spotted Fawn’s guidance. The camp grew quickly and before too long there were around 50 people living there in the Winter and around 100 people in the Summer. There was also a steady stream of visitors from all over the world both Indigenous and non-indigenous.

    Although everyone had many lessons to learn coming from either a foreign or mixed cultural lifestyle, we experienced many wonderful opportunities. We saw the power of prayer over and over, we saw how the Mother Earth responded when we honored and respected her again and we were able to learn many earth based values. We were given the opportunity to use these values in our daily life.

    In 1985 Spotted Fawn crossed over into the spirit world. Rolling Thunder at that time felt he could no longer continue in the way that he had before. Within a few short months the community was closed up and people moved on. The land has since been lost to one who is trying to make it into their own vision.

    Meta Tantay – “Walk in Peace”


  2. I’ve heard recently the concept of humans’ Stewardship of the Planet as a spiritual principle, which was very thought-provoking. Essentially, God bestowing upon us the capabilities to overcome the challenges that nature poses(building shelter, refrigeration, protection from predators and so on) that no other animal on the planet exhibits also bestows upon us a responsibility to use those same creative energies to protect and assist in maintaining balance over our own inclination to conquer and consume.

    There are models that this nation has incorporated into its modus operandi that have served to make it prosperous in some ways while remaining in abject poverty on others. One of those models asserts that material gain will bring about fulfillment and happiness. I would assert that it is models like these that made the greed and unapologetic consumption like in the bay and the horror that occurred in the Gulf possible. Our unquestioning consent has made it easy for us and those that govern to forget how much our impact in these ways can ruin our material prosperity.

    Material and spiritual prosperity hand-in-hand is what I pray we see more of as we move forward…


    • Hi, Oakritchie. The idea os being a “steward” (caretaker/trustee of what belongs to another) is an essential description of the role of the human species as understood in the Hebrew Bible Bood of Genesis. Stewardship is seen as “tending the garden” yet in the very same story, the Creator’s instruction is to have “dominion” over the other creatures. The spiritual problem is right there: are we to take care of the Earth? Are we to have dominion over it? The history of the West can be reviewed through the lens of this apparent contradiction. According to Lynn White, the premier historian of the history of science and technology, until the Middle Ages science (the search to understand nature) and technology (using nature to make things) were separate disciplines. When they merged, the ability to dominate/manipulate/control nature became the primary thrust. We viewed ourselves a superior to nature, above nature, not part of nature, until we managed to manipulate atomic energy to the point where we could destroy life as we know it – the Promethean stealing of fire from the gods. We are now, perhaps, at a critical point of learning again from the “less sophisticated” cultures and religions (American Indian and other indegenous, now-westernized peoples around the world) that to be human is to live cooperatively with nature. Anything less will lead to species extinction. The presumed exception to nature will dominate its way to species extinction.


  3. Thank you for this honest and hopeful reflection for Earth Day. I live near a part of the Gulf of Mexico— and the repercussions of the choices made by major companies affects our ability to enjoy this part of the Gulf of Mexico in its natural state.

    I still have hope, though, that we will see that all elements of our ecosystem are in a delicate balance with one another, including the simple oyster. Especially the simple oyster. I’m so glad you wrote this piece— to me, it really strikes the right note for the celebration of Earth Day itself.


    • Courtenay, thanks for continuing to check in and for commenting on this piece. I’m been so preoccupied with writing and pastoral concerns that I have not spent the time reading what you have written. I apologize for that. You are such a good writer with equally good things to say. Form and content. Interesting, isn’t it, how little attention – almost NONE – has been paid to the ecosystem in the primary campaigns. It’s like we forgot, and the politicians know how short our memory is. We have a responsibility to keep it alive. Thanks.


      • I’m with you in this concern over the ecosystem balance. I think… like so many other things, so much has to do with education. Personally, my family and I live with a lot of ecosystem concerns because I come from ranchers. South Texas has a very delicate ecosystem, easily destabilized. The good thing is… I think education in this area is both easily done and naturally fascinating. I have hope.

        I hope you will forgive me also— this has been a hard writing week, so I’ve been popping in to read your posts, but not commenting due to increasing lack of sleep. It’s amazing what good quality sleep will do!


  4. Gordon, this is so powerful. And you would have liked one of the workshop sessions I attended yesterday at the Minnesota Psychological Association’s Annual meeting. It was all about gardening being taught and required as a part of social psychology classes at a couple of Minnesota colleges. All with the full cooperation of the administration and neighbors. The lesson they focused on was community, the way people are brought together when working with the earth. It reminded me of my “discovery” several years ago, with the help of my physiological psychologist friend, that the fittest who survive are not necessarily the ones who destroy each other, but the ones who cooperate — initially to provide food as well as protection. One prays for hope. On prays that the hope will be fulfilled. But not without work to help the hope along, and that’s certainly what you have done here, as in so many venues.


    • One of the Shepherd of the Hill parents has suggested that we have the families do a garden on our property – plant it, maintain it, and provide the produce to the local food shelf. What a great idea – just what you’re talking about here.


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