One night recently I heard two owls hooting to each other from 300 feet apart, each in its own tall tree. Then came a loud flutter—one owl had swooped over to join the other. In the moonlight I could see them both on the same high oak limb above me. Still hooting, still talking. What about? Was this a first date? Or two old acquaintances comparing notes about the rain soon to arrive overnight?
Chances are they were not exchanging disinformation. The bird world depends on hard facts to get through the day—data about food and predators. To my untrained ears, the moment was sweet and mysterious. It was also melancholy to think how the animals of earth must adapt to our dangerous prerogatives here below the trees, our pollution and sprawl.
The hootenanny in the treetops happened shortly before Earth Day, an unofficial holiday (April 22) that doesn’t yet have a holiday feel. Informative activities were organized, yet the rhythms of the day didn’t change much. (Interstate was loud as ever.) At this point one Earth Day a year isn’t enough. We need the 12 Days of Earth Day. We need Earth Month, Earth Year, Earth Decade, Earth Century.
A daily regard for the health of the planet and each other is not out of the question. Human society has already proved it can change its habits and policies. Earth Day didn’t exist before 1970. One space age photo spiritually transformed our history: The famous “earthrise” image of our blue-green island home, transmitted by Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. People caught their breath on it. And, exhaling, life looked a little different after. Barely a year later, in spring 1970 the first Earth Day stirred 20 million earthlings to protest oil spills, toxic dumps, and other environmental sins. It planted itself in the public mind. It united Republicans and Democrats. By the end of the year, the US had an Environmental Protection Agency and a Clean Air Act. Soon came the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973).
The religious world mobilized, shepherding a moral awakening. Suddenly Genesis 1 looked urgent again: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Today scores of entities provide inspiration, aiming for a faith response that is neither convenient nor inconvenient but heartfelt and second nature (haranguing doesn’t work). The organization GreenFaith declares: “Rooted in gratitude for life and for Earth itself, our spiritual paths guide us to care for creation or nature, live simply, avoid waste, and love our neighbors, especially the most vulnerable.”
It’s not happening fast enough. Despair is creeping in with news of wildfires, monster storms and species extinction. An everyday theology of creation still eludes the world—a way of seeing planetary life as a sacramental sign, the divine fingerprints on sunlight and wind, flora and fauna, an affirmative answer to the question: Did God create all this or not?
I hope the owls return tonight. But they don’t share their itinerary or secrets with me. They endure despite us. They’re doing their best to co-exist with us. It’s haunting to think their unearthly earthly sounds predated us and will surely outlast us, unless more and more earth days prevail.
Columnist Ray Waddle is a former Tennessean staffer.