Last August during our 2014 Pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Appalachia, I asked Dr. Tom Barnes, a naturalist with the University of Kentucky’s Department of Forestry, to show our group some Kentucky waterfalls and talk about the region. Near Wrigley, Ky, at a waterfall that had only a trickle in its dry season, Tom sat on a flat rock wearing his wide-brim hat, holding walking stick in hand, and discussed climate change. The Appalachian region, he said, the most diverse deciduous hardwood forest in North America, was warming, and southern pines and soft woods were creeping into the area. The harder woods were moving north together with other flora and fauna.
In retrospect, the image of Tom seated on a rock, worn from illness, yet teaching with staff in hand, evoked an image of Moses, or some other prophet, instructing God’s people before his death. For almost 30 years, Tom had walked the forests of Kentucky, and he observed first hand how the climate of the mountains was changing. His talk, given two months before he died, incorporated not simply scientific knowledge, but wisdom. Humanity is contributing to global warming, and we must change our ways.
We count “care of creation” as one of the seven social teachings of the church, yet its importance for many rests solely with its relationship to people. Pollution causes cancer, foul air increases asthma. However, theologian Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson looks at Matthew 25 with its admonition to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and concludes the teaching focuses on the least among us, the poor and vulnerable. She then asks, considering how we treat the earth, whether creation is not the “new poor” and similarly the most vulnerable among us.
With Tom, a trek through the forest was like entering a cathedral. Reverent steps, moments of silence, unrushed gazing and looking filled the experience. Tom introduced me to wild flowers, one time identifying 33 varieties in less than a mile along Indian Creek near the Red River Gorge. Along a trail he would move a heart-shaped cover leaf with his walking stick, and voila!, the reddish brown flower of wild ginger. I’ve seen him prostrate himself with his camera, practically eating dirt, catching the correct angle of the sun striking a rare flower. He authored six books on Kentucky wild flowers and its beautiful undisturbed natural places. He knew where the state-threatened “blue monkshood” grew, and where secret patches of orchids flourished.
Because of our wild flower tours, I began thinking about the billions, no trillions, of flowers no human eye will ever behold, yet their beauty continually shouts praise to God! “Consider the lilies of the field…even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these” (Matt. 6:28, 29.)
Theologians refer to two sources of Revelation about God. Augustine sees creation as God’s first revelation written in our hearts. The Scriptures contained in the Bible represent the second revelation written in words. To desecrate a Bible would be sacrilege, but to blow up a mountain, pollute a river or excessively burn fossil fuel is considered economic development.
A respected scientist, Tom remained a man of faith marveling at the beauty of God’s Garden, delighting that he could share it with people. He saw creation, not for what it can give to us, but as God’s gift. Going to the woods, companions with him could breathe in and absorb the revelation of God. He wrote: “I find it hard not to believe in God who would make such a wonderful place for us to enjoy, because you know, we all think we should please God, but we never seem to consider that He is also trying to please us.”