A little over 200 years ago, in 1809, Napoleon defeated Portugal in war. Now, the Portuguese nobles had bred a special type of sheep that grew exceptionally fine, soft fleece. They called the sheep “Merino” and exported the fleeces and wool for high prices, but they never sold the sheep themselves, ensuring that they could charge almost any price they chose for the wool. When Napoleon swept through, foreigners finally got control of the Merino sheep, eventually even Vermonters. Then after the War of 1812, the US government imposed high tariffs on British goods, including wool.
Suddenly everyone in central New England had to have a Merino sheep farm. David Ludlum writes, “A wool craze swept the region, a mania as powerful as any religious fanaticism.” In the ten years between 1810 and 1820, the number of textile mills processing Merino wool tripled. By 1824, Vermont’s sheep population increased from 4,000 to 475,000. After another 16 years, the number of sheep had hit a high of 1.7 million! Tom Wessels, in his book Reading the Forested Landscape, writes, “To support all of these sheep, the landscape changed dramatically. The majority of the countryside was cleared of forest to create pasturage, and few sites were excluded from this process—steep hillsides, ridgetops, and even heavily bouldered areas were used. By 1840, approximately 75 percent of the region’s landscape had been converted to open land for agricultural use, the bulk of it sheep pasture.”
Imagine the familiar landscape around your house or apartment without the trees. I’ve seen pictures of places in Tunbridge from the mid-1800s, and I couldn’t recognize them without the forested hills.
But if you know where to look, or maybe how to look, you can see traces of our ancestors’ sheep craze everywhere, most obviously in the low stone walls. But there are other signs: Our mountains were so overgrazed that pretty soon the Merino sheep were pulling up plants by the root. The reason we have such eroded and eroding soil is because we lacked the trees and smaller plants that were holding the soil together and protecting it from being washed away in snowmelt or rainstorms. If you live on a dirt road you see this very clearly – some roads in Tunbridge are so bad that the road crew has to put in new road supports every few years, because significant amounts of road slide down into the stream every spring. Irene could have been an effective wake-up call, if only we’d looked more closely at how our road-building and soil-management practices were partly to blame for some of the erosion we experienced.
The low juniper and blackberry bushes, the sumac, the aspen and poplar trees, all these thrive in poor soil. They are among the first colonizers of over-grazed land, restoring nutrients and anchoring dirt. The black locust, which is so common around here, is a legume just like lentils. Legumes fix nitrogen; that is, they process nitrogen in the air and put it back in the soil, and they do so without the toxic build-up of commercial fertilizers. Vetch and clover are also common legumes in our area.
These plants, and others, freely help us restore our hills and mountains. There’s a long way to go. The deer, whose population is out of control, thanks to the fact that we’ve killed off or driven away almost all their natural predators, dig their sharp little hooves into the lichen and churn up the soil, undoing the plants’ work. I love hiking in the woods, but I wince inwardly on steep slopes of poor soil, as I cause mini-avalanches or crush the beneficial lichens. It will take hundreds of years for our forested mountains to recover, even if we were to stop building roads and houses tomorrow. Because of this, our mountains do not give us today all that they gave the Vermonters in the days before the sheep craze.
The point of all this is not to say that our mountains are ruined forever, or that humans are irredeemably bad – although when I think of how many species we’ve obliterated, I can’t help but hope that God is more merciful to us than we are to the natural world. Rather, I want to hold our mountains up as an icon.
The Bible speaks of mountains in two ways. First, mountains are symbols of God’s protection for Israel, as in today’s Psalm. Christ Church in Bethel has a banner in the shape of Vermont, with the words, “As the mountains are round about, so the Lord is round about his people.” The people of Judah, with their capital city of Jerusalem built on Mount Zion, and a mountain range as their eastern border, would, I think, understand and approve of how the people of Christ Church have reinterpreted their Psalm in our modern, Western context.
Besides providing security and symbolizing God’s protection, mountains are the link between the heavens and the earth. God is said, in some texts, to live on the world’s highest mountain. It was on a mountain that God made a covenant with Israel through Moses. Incidentally, this is reflected in the Jewish and Christian wedding tradition of stationing the groom up front by the bimah or altar and having the bride process up the aisle to meet him. It recalls God’s calling of Israel out of Egypt to worship God on his mountain. At Mount Sinai we children of Abraham were covenanted or married to God.
In that vein, the apocalyptic prophets saw the mountain of God as the locus of ultimate redemption. There God will begin the new creation, remaking all that humans have marred, establishing paradise on earth. Ezekiel and Joel tell us that trees will grow and bear fruit, streams will be freshened, their water made clean and bursting with fish. Humans and animals together will drink and be refreshed. As our Isaiah passage says, “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
Our biblical ancestors imagined well. They took the natural world at face value as God’s blessing to them. Our Vermont ancestors, for a couple of decades, imagined money. They bought into a get-rich-quick scheme that required the end of their mountains as they knew them. The soil eroded, the mud slid, and the waters were defiled. Those early Vermonters traded the abundance of nature for an attempt at quick profit. They weren’t bad people, and they weren’t alone. They just suffered from a failure of imagination, as other generations have done, including our own.
The imagination is a holy gift. As animals, we humans are naturally averse to risk. We dislike change and avoid it. We sometimes fear those who imagine new possibilities. But our mountains show us that we must imagine well if we are not to lose our greatest gifts. They show us that there is something stronger and more enduring than money, but also that even the most imposing parts of our landscape are fragile. We can choose to clear cut our mountain forests for development, but we will also be choosing to disrupt certain animals’ migration patterns and experience biodiversity loss. We can choose to cut trees for timber faster than they can grow back, but we’ll also be choosing to cause mudslides. We can even, God help us, literally blow the tops off mountains to get at the coal within, choosing to wipe out all life on that mountain, as well as poisoning the rivers and all who drink from them, humans and animals alike.
To imagine well is to trust God, to believe that nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God. In fact, if we pay attention we find that God’s gifts to us in creation may bring us closer to the love of God. God’s love is present in the miracle of the sprouting of seeds and the breaking down of dead matter into compost to fertilize those seeds. The Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius the Fourth of Antioch notes that although “The maternal sea is polluted, the heavens are rent, the forests are being destroyed and the desert areas are increasing,” there is yet hope. There is hope if we choose to “protect creation. Better yet, we must embellish it, render it spiritual, transfigure it. But nothing will be done unless there is a general conversion of [human] hearts and minds.”
This is our mission, the part each of us can play in the protection and care of the world. It is to love God and God’s abundant and joy-filled creation. It is to imbue our minds with a sense that the whole earth is God’s precious possession, and to let all that we do reflect that knowledge and that care. It is to refuse to give in to the prioritizing of the economy over the food we eat and the air we breathe, but to imagine a world where resources are shared with our fellow humans and non-humans alike. It is, as Psalm 121 says, to lift our eyes to the hills and remember – this is where our help comes from. Our help comes from God, who made the heavens and earth. I suggest that we who are blessed to live among mountains make a practice of looking to the mountains and the hills, and remember that God’s love surrounds us. Let us remember that failure of imagination can mar this icon of God, but also that trust of God and care for the earth can redeem our mistakes. Let us learn not to hurt or destroy, but to look to the mountains and pray for the strength to protect the earth as if we were protecting the face of God itself.
[Preached at East Barnard Church on 27 July 2014; texts were Isaiah 11.6-9 and Psalm 125.1-4.]