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Beginning a Long Work

I have sympathy for suffering waters.

Burns and creeks spiderweb the hills of East Tennessee, echoing by their burbling the chords of a different era. Not to glorify the past, but there was a time when one didn’t worry so much about drinking from a stream. My wife was raised on well water, and for a time, we got fresh drinking water from a community spring on the east side of town. Under a roadside shelter, people would line up with bottles large and small, preferring the taste of clay and mineral particulates to the fluoridated precision of city-run taps. I personally liked collecting our water there, because it mitigated the tendency of my mind to callus over. Trained by the convenience of a kitchen sink, I can easily dismiss my connection to the many waters near which I reside—the waters on which my neighbors, my children, and my animals depend. At Love’s Creek spring, we had to pay better heed to the weather, for example. Collect too soon after a storm, and you’ll have extra silt in your mouth. Plus, you had to stand and wait your turn, chatting with strangers and glorying in the general un-productivity that peppers a life well lived. Village pumps and wells are a longstanding tradition of the world anyway. Through the lens of history, sinks and faucets are the exception. I ought not think myself or others lowly by dint of these good labors, nor be overawed by the latest kitchen hardware.

In addition, creeks are one half of the water-and-soil language that make up the terroir of our sundry regions. I’ll spare you my rant on bottled water—though it is quite dramatic—but unless you’re irrigating your life with English Mountain or Aquafina, everything local that you eat tastes a little like home. Rivers themselves are spoken tongues, white-noise voices unique to their geographic physiognomy. Caring for them is caring for humanity.

Thus, we’ve begun rehabilitating the little stormwater creek behind our house.

It isn’t much, though it can get fairly assertive after a good squall. In seasons of flood, it creeps up the rise of the backyard, eddying Van Gogh swirls of dark and froth through impeding brambles. It’s been home to our resident dinosaur, a snapping turtle the size of a manhole cover (or larger, depending on who tells the tale). Rufus-sided towhees make their winter pilgrimage and skitter in the surrounding underbrush. Rabbits graze and thump alarm beneath battlements of cocklebur. Herons and red-tails pass on their patrols.

Yet like many an urban waterway, it isn’t as whole as it might be. In time past, some enterprising soul shoveled a dam into place at the bottom of the yard, just above the creek line, perhaps for livestock. These days, the pond it creates is only for mosquitos. I’m in the midst of cutting a hole into it, though I have to be cautious about runoff from the garden.

Someone also put down plastic netting along the creek bed. It might have been a good idea in the short term. Soil unrestrained by plants and rocks will travel for miles along streams, affecting oxygen levels, plants, and animals. Furthermore, unnatural erosion—that is, humanly exacerbated erosion—is an unsung concern of urban and rural areas alike. Plastic in a creek, however, is slow poison. It leaches chemicals and degrades into ever-smaller pieces, creating a snow of pollution that filters into the food chain, being consumed by animals and perhaps even, new studies are suggesting, gathering on the tips of taproots that you and I eat.

We decided to create a riffle, a little zigzag of rocks that encourages moving waters to meander instead of rushing. The plan is to take up the netting section by section, setting down lines of rock instead, and eventually replacing invasive privet with cattails, switchgrass, and bluestem. It’s slow work. It doesn’t pay fiscal dividends, but it is good labor in the service of others, of those who will occupy this land when we are gone. We’ll hopefully be poking away at this job as long as we’re here at The Watershed.

We have to be careful about it. We can’t take too many stones from any one parcel of creek bank, or pull back offending plants too quickly, lest we encourage erosion there. I’ve weighed the idea of buying a load of stone, though I struggle with the knowledge that it would have to come from somewhere else, impacting someone else’s sphere, as it were. In the end, I suppose, it is Scriptural to say that all actions—even the best—are somewhat marred. We must do the good of which we’re able anyway.

And this? This is where we are. As a Church. As peoples.

Ideas do not happen in a vacuum. I myself am a watershed, and everything trickles into my speech and my daily actions. Adam Whipple

The Capitol Insurrection and the war of thoughts that have marked American society have not exempted Jesus’s Church. I find myself grateful to sources of rhetoric that have offended my brothers and sisters, for they point out how I’ve been a poor servant to my neighbors. When my critics actually see a Levite in me instead of a Samaritan, I must repent somehow. I have somewhere an old Hutchmoot folder, into which is tucked a paper liturgy by Doug McKelvey, a precursor to Every Moment Holy. Called “The Liturgy of Lost Rhyme,” it washed through my spirit several years ago with the line, “The demons of this age are ideas.” What demons have I fed or served by my own thoughts? Ideas do not happen in a vacuum. I myself am a watershed, and everything trickles into my speech and my daily actions.

Ecclesiastically speaking, we’ve had netting in place for a long time. This is a gross oversimplification, but just to mention a few things (of which I have much personal experience): racism, misogyny, the Church as a political bully, the freedom of markets over servanthood, the refusal to criticize or accept criticism from our friends—all these, some for pure ill and some well-intentioned, have been the plastic netting barely holding down the mud on the riverbeds of our hearts. So, too, has been the traditional social contrivance that we mustn’t talk about religion or politics.

The silt and pollutants have washed down to us. People cannot breathe.

So what do we do? We pull the thing up. With unflinching determination, we removed the failed artifice of Christ-less ideas, replacing it with the Gospel, the truth that is Jesus. Should we be surprised that such endeavors aren’t pretty? When you try cleaning a sickened creek, you stir up mud, and you get covered in it. Wherever you step, you send little clouds of effluvium downstream to who-knows-where, affecting other parts of creation. You end up with an ugly collection of litter, some new, and some of it mired in place long ages ago. You make mistakes. Your efforts are occasionally striped with the sin of vanity, the desire to impress others.

Yet overall, the job is a good one. Necessary. Commanded. “Blessed is he who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of mockers.” (Psalm 1:1) “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) A wild man in camel hair and holding a gnarled staff should haunt our dreams, reminding us how to prepare the way of the Lord.

We are so exhausted. All of us. There is immeasurable work ahead. Much of it consists of thinking hard, listening well, and talking carefully. There will be a lot of wait-and-see, and a good deal of try-again. It is holy work. It is the prayerful work of healing the sick, having finally realized that sickness is not limited to our cells and tissues.

The good news is that it isn’t new. Repentance and the actions it necessitates are an ongoing work of God’s people, and the Church has been at it since her beginning. Among the great cloud of witnesses, we are not alone in our efforts. Take courage. We will be doing this for the rest of our lives, to serve those who come after us. Such service is worship of the King.


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