A reflection on the Leard Forest Retreat
In 1968, an astronaut on the Apollo 8 expedition took an amazing photo of Earth rising above the moon. “Earthrise”, as it became called, has been described as an image that changed the world. Perhaps you remember seeing it? For the first time, humans were able to picture planet Earth as a whole from a distance – a small, blue and white globe in the vastness of space – a fragile home for an amazing diversity of life. In the midst of a growing awareness of gathering ecological crises, Earthrise helped to prompt a shift in perspective of what Earth is and who we are. One human family, one Earth family, interconnected and interdependent.
The outworking of transcendent experience – this view of Earth from space – can mean that we return to our grounded, everyday reality with a renewed appreciation for and commitment to that reality. But other outworkings are more ambiguous – especially space tourism, an enterprise that deliberately feeds a hunger to directly experience for ourselves what those first astronauts did – to physically transcend the world – at great ecological cost.
The Old Testament reading for Earth Sunday is a large part of the Genesis 1 creation narrative (verses 1-24) – before humans –controversially – enter the story. For now, humanity’s transcendence or otherwise over otherkind is not our focus. Australian Lutheran theologian Norman Habel, who was the driving force behind the Season of Creation, has looked at this passage and asked the question: does Earth have agency, and how? Reading the passage through this lens, he sees that Earth is transformed through cooperation with God. Earth emerges when the waters are gathered together, Earth brings forth life. Far from being a passive entity, Earth is a co-creator in partnership with God, in response to the Word of God.
The introduction to John’s gospel (chapter 1, verses 1-14) celebrates Jesus as the Word of God. The creative impulse of God – called the Word – through which all things came into being – became a specific, bounded, human being.
Catholic theologian Denis Edwards says of the incarnation: “The fact that God comes to us in the particularity of Jesus can encourage us to see God at work in all the particularities and ordinariness of our own lives and in the creatures around us … God’s love of the particular can remind us to be open to God’s Word to us in this particular magpie, this beautiful flowering eucalyptus tree, and in this vulnerable person before me.” (Edwards, 2012, Jesus and the Natural World, p.35)
And so here we shift between the whole and the particular, and between Planet Earth and “small e” earth – the place where we are, the local ecological community of which we are a part.
At the start of September, at a retreat and awareness raiser organised by Uniting Earth Ministry, I visited a place where the global and the local, the broad and the specific, collide in complex ways – the Leard Forest in north west New South Wales. The forest is the largest remnant of native vegetation on the heavily cleared and agriculturally rich Liverpool Plain. A biodiversity hotspot, Leard Forest is home to the Grassy White Box Woodland, a critically endangered ecological community, and many threatened species. Since the mid 2000s, the Leard has been subject to extensive clearing for three open cut coalmines. At their full extent, these mines will clear more than half of the already vulnerable forest, and fragment what remains.
As well as the impacts on biodiversity, local issues associated with these mines have included the denial of access for the traditional owners, the Gomeroi people, to their sacred sites and the destruction of those sites. It also pollutes groundwater, causes production of dust and noise, as well as other associated impacts of mines on farming and health.
For a few years, Leard Forest also became a flashpoint for campaigning around a global issue – climate change. Climate change compounds other pressures – ecological and otherwise – pushing already vulnerable communities towards an even more precarious situation. In the context of our governments’ abrogation of their responsibilities to put in place policies, plans and structures to shift our country away from activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions, the campaign focused specifically on the newest coalmine – Whitehaven’s Maules Creek mine. Activists highlighted the impacts of mining and burning coal on the global climate, the financing of new coal projects, and the precedent that the new Maules Creek mine would create for other mining projects to go ahead.
This Maules Creek campaign was effectively lost. The mine started shipping coal earlier this year. The larger NGOs moved on to other impending mines – including Adani’s Carmichael coalmine in the Galilee Basin, and Shenhua’s Watermark coalmine elsewhere on the Liverpool Plain. Back at the Leard, the Gomeroi people and their supporters, with tremendous resilience and dignity, continue to advocate for their rights. Locals are now also acting as a watchdog on the mines. The struggle to save the Leard continues.
“The fact that God comes to us in the particularity of Jesus can encourage us to see God at work in all the particularities and ordinariness of our own lives and in the creatures around us”. (Denis Edwards)
As I came away, making my way back into the heart of the city on the train – there are particular experiences that stay with me. Of birdsong and mining noise in the forest cathedral where we gathered for prayer. Of the bright glory of wattles in bloom leaning in across the bush track. Of a marvelous moonrise interrupting conversation around the fire at the former Leard protest camp one evening. Of stories of resistance at particular places in the forest, now sacred memory. Of one activist’s account of how, after all she had seen of the destruction of the forest, her grief poured out when she witnessed a magnificent river red gum toppled. She lay full body along the trunk for some time. Of a strange community of farmers, musicians, traditional owners, church people, itinerants, activists sharing a few days together. Of a traditional owner’s deep conviction that, whoever we are, we don’t own the land – the land owns us. By being in this place, by breathing the air, we all belong, we are all one. That universalism, in the particularities of that place, and the dance between the global and the local, is something for me to bring home – to where I live in Redfern – to explore and celebrate anew in this particular place.
Where do you experience God at work in the particularities and ordinariness of your life and in the creatures around you?
Dr Miriam Pepper