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On Confessing To Plants

September 19th, 2019 | 5 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

So this happened yesterday: Sarah Bailey, Forest Hills Romano/Anglico/Bruderhof-inspired commune member (and WaPo religion reporter/editor) got my Plough colleague, Bruderhof member and friend of the FoHi commune Veery Huleatt, to write on Union’s goofy animist confessing-to-plants thing, and Veery, as is her wont, went deep rather than snarky.

Sarah came over to my place last night and told me about how this all went down, from tweet to pitch to piece. (Yes, all our households and all our publications are connected by semi-animist rhizomes of sympathy and synchronicity, facilitated by Twitter; I don’t really understand it, I just live here.) (I will also point out that when I tell Veery she should write about Jane Jacobs and The Pushcart War FOR HER OWN MAGAZINE, she says she has no time.)
Anyway, her piece is very, very good, and gets at something that I quoted Bruderhof farmer/poet Philip Britts on in my FPR talk:
Adam was charged with the double task to ‘subdue and replenish’ the earth. If a graph could be plotted of the subjection of nature by man, it would show a line, rising slowly at first, through several thousand years, then abruptly and very steeply in the last few years. A graph of the replenishment of the earth by man would probably show a slow rise throughout the centuries, but instead of following the sharp rise of the line of subjection in modern times, would perhaps curve downwards. This in spite of the extensive use of fertilizers, because chemicals without humus do not give lasting or balanced replenishment.
There’s nothing flaky or pagan about this. This was Adam’s call: the subjection and replenishment of the land. He was supposed to impose his will on it, to bring it to order, yes– that’s good. But he was supposed to do good to it, too, give it what it needed, and not merely take: bring it to its own order, according to its nature, not impose an alien order on it. Voluntarist farming is a recipe for agricultural disaster.
Sin against the created order that we were supposed to bring to its own fruitfulness is real sin. It’s disobedience to God’s first charge to Adam and Eve. And the created order suffers from our sin. Veery quoted Romans 12, but she could have quoted Romans 8: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
The Union seminarians weren’t wrong to see environmental sin, sin against the natural world, and even against a particular marsh or oak tree, as real sin. It is. They were only wrong in confessing those sins to the plants.
I’m not going to be the one to tell you that there definitely aren’t dryads– their existence is one of the many things on which I am an agnostic– so go ahead and apologize to trees. But it’s the God of Abraham to whom we are accountable for our neglect and failure, and he’s the one who’ll bring us through, as the present natural order “groans in childbirth” to bear the new creation.

Pieces like Veery’s sometimes make me feel like we’re all inhabiting one thought-space, and each of us is writing bits and pieces towards a true description of the real world, we’re writing our way out of secularism into reality, together. And she’s much more gracious about it than I would have been. My instinct was “these freaking mainline Prots really need Moses to show up and just CLARIFY SOME THINGS THAT I THOUGHT WE HAD SETTLED ABOUT ETHICAL MONOTHEISM.”

Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.