Happy Earth Day! Easter it is not, but this niche “holiday” does afford an opportunity to reflect on the spiritual influences behind the modern environmental movement. Its three most important figures—John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson—were all deeply influenced by the Book of Nature and the Book of Books, but none fully embraced the King of Kings.
Muir was the product of a strict Campbellite home where he learned most of the Bible “by heart and by sore flesh.” Its imprint never left him, but Muir’s spiritual vision was incomplete—he was carried to ecstasy by the work of creation, not by the Resurrection. Yet, what he saw he saw in a holy fullness that most of us now miss, and his lyrical prose is filled with biblical echoes. “Heaven knows,” Muir would write, “that John the Baptist was not more eager to get all his fellow sinners into the Jordan than I to baptize all of mine in the beauty of God’s mountains.”
If Muir, whose work protected “cathedrals” like Yosemite, was the prophet and psalmist of the wilderness, Aldo Leopold emerged as the subsequent conservation movement’s moral philosopher. Leopold, a forester and pioneering academic, saw economic self-interest as too limited and hoped to establish a stronger foothold:
No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it.
Leopold exaggerated. Elsewhere in his seminal essay he noted, “Individual thinkers since the days of Ezekiel and Isaiah have asserted that the despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong.” Certainly, though, contemporary church leaders were not beating down his door.
While Muir had Scripture whipped into him and faced the lash for his frolics into the Wisconsin wild, Leopold’s Iowa boyhood a half century later was much the opposite. Aldo’s father avoided churches but was quite happy to be his son’s first guide into the woods. Leopold would comment autobiographically on a boy “brought up an atheist” but who “changed his mind when he saw that there were a hundred-odd species of warblers, each bedecked like the rainbow.” Blind chance did not suffice, Leopold sensed “the Great Artist” at work, and he received wildflowers as coming from “The Giver of every good and perfect gift.” Knowing James’ epistle was no fluke as the Bible was long at the top of Leopold’s reading list.
He married a faithful life-long Catholic; yet, their 1912 wedding at Santa Fe’s Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi was one of the few times he sat foot in a church, and Leopold never seems to have encountered the natural theology of its namesake. Instead, the work of Piotr Ouspensky, a Russian quasi-pantheist, entered his life in 1922. Near the end of it, pressed by a church-going daughter to talk directly of religion, he could only affirm belief in a “mystical supreme power that guided the Universe,” but not a “personal God.”
Leopold died of a heart attack in 1948 while fighting a neighbor’s negligently sparked grass fire. The blaze threatened the decade-plus work of landscape restoration that the entire family, weekending in a refurbished chicken coop, had undertaken as a labor of love at an abused and abandoned farm. “The Land Ethic,” was posthumously published in a book drawn from those experiences.
“A thing is right,” wrote Leopold, “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” By practicing the conservation ethic that he preached, Leopold eased the groaning of a small sliver of creation, turning “The Shack” into a pilgrimage point for ecologists and A Sand County Almanac into the “bible” of the conservation movement.
Rachel Carson wrote another book often described in canonical terms. Silent Spring was a “protest in behalf of life,” and the first major blow to scientism’s smiling promise of “better living through chemistry.” Standing athwart history yelling stop, Carson’s singular witness launched a tsunami of concern. Earth Day drew millions to the streets on April 22, 1970 and soon thereafter President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Clean Air Act. The land-conscious conservation movement morphed into the pollution-centered environmental movement, and Carson was its patron saint.
She was the granddaughter and niece of United Presbyterian Church ministers and her parents met at a choir convention. Carson’s education was influenced by the nature-study movement, an experiential approach blending the outdoors and morals that Rachel’s doting and seminary-trained mother embraced. One of young Rachel’s favorite authors was Gene Stratton-Porter, daughter of a Methodist minister and author of Birds of the Bible, who, according to Carson biographer Linda Lear, believed that “through nature a child was led to God.”
For an older Rachel, the Presbyterian ties of the Pennsylvania College for Women, with its mandatory chapel and Bible classes, were important. There, the aspiring author would switch her major from English to Biology, realizing later that this decision gave her “something to write about.” Carson earned a masters degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins, and might well have obtained a doctorate had not ever present financial limitations pushed her to take a government job writing on scientific topics for public consumption. That good practice led to a trio of books about the sea that brought fame. She then labored through illness and the responsibilities of raising an adopted great-nephew to complete Silent Spring in 1962.
Carson never lost the sense of wonder that her faith-infused childhood instilled, but by the time of her death from cancer in 1964, her sense of the divine was rather unsettled. In place of “old-fashioned ‘certainties’ as to heaven” she could rely only on an excited curiosity about what was to come. She requested just a simple service from a Unitarian minister and dispersal of her ashes off the Maine coast. Carson’s ties to Christianity seemed to have ebbed like the tide.
What to make of the “near miss” status of these three icons? To conclude that environmental concern can only lead one down an irreligious path seems an odd result given that humanity’s first divinely appointed task was the care of creation. It also does not square with the story of a slightly lesser luminary, E. F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, who journeyed through Marxism and Buddhism before finding a home in Catholicism.
Even Earth Day itself, or at least the name, has links to a Christian activist named John McConnell whose parents helped to found the Assemblies of God denomination and who met his wife Anna with an assist from Richard John Neuhaus. McConnell’s version of Earth Day, observed on the spring equinox in March, was officially proclaimed by the City of San Francisco in 1970 and by President Ford in 1975. It was long celebrated by the United Nations, but the larger if potentially plagiarizing April edition (first billed as the “Environmental Teach-In”) eventually came to dominate the public mind.
Schumacher and McConnell, dedicated if eccentric outsiders, demonstrate that creation stewardship can be both a bridge to faith and a valid expression of it. Yet, the bridge has now largely been shunned by conservative Christians, ceding the hands of spiritually curious greens to a wide variety of others—from New Agers to biblically influenced figures like Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben, men whose heterodoxies seem to some to justify Samaritan-like treatment.
Francis, who preached to the birds and called the moon his sister, reminds us that today’s eccentric may be tomorrow’s saint. Jesus reminds us that Samaritans can sometimes make good role models. And Paul reminds us that creation waits in “eager expectation” for believers to bring what Francis Schaeffer—another eccentric who changed the world—called the “substantial healing” that is possible here and now. If Earth Day is not an appropriately “holy” day, perhaps we Christians have only ourselves to blame.
John Murdock is spending this Earth Day teaching environmental law at the Handong International Law School in South Korea. Otherwise, he writes from Texas, helps direct Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, and exists online at johnmurdock.org.