“The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” For the Gwich’in people, this place is the coastal plains of Northern Alaska. The coastal plains are home to the breeding grounds of countless migratory bird species, polar bears, and the Porcupine Caribou which plays a significant role in the lives of the Gwich’in as a means of sustenance and spirituality. When one learns of the role of the coastal plains in regard to the breeding and calving grounds for all of these animals, it is hard to dispute that is anything less than divine Creation at work—it is a space that is temperate enough for mothers and newborns to have proper nutrients from vegetation but not so warm to allow breeding of the hoards of mosquitoes that will descend upon the area in warmer months as a nuisance to everything that has blood, and the plains are often safer from predators allowing newborns to grow well. It is truly sacred ground.
Fortunately, the value and importance of this land as a sacred space that creates new life and helps species and cultures flourish has been known for some time, and in 1960, legislation was passed protecting over 19 million acres of this area, creating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And even just last January, President Obama proposed to designate over 12 million acres of the refuge as wilderness, further protecting it.
However, some would consider the coastal plains and the refuge sacred for other reasons. You see, this place where life begins is also where United States-owned oil reserves begin.
According to the US Geological Survey, there are approximately “896 million barrels of conventional, undiscovered oil,” located underneath the coastal plains and many individuals, corporations, and members of the government have been clamoring to drill there since the mid-1970s despite the location’s status as a wilderness refuge. While the monetary profits of such drilling are certain, the reality is that the oil that comes from the refuge would provide only 1 to 2 percent of the oil that the United States consumes each day—in that knowledge, one must consider if it is truly worth it.
Drilling in this delicate habitat would irreparably change the landscape of the environment—altering migration patterns and threatening survival rates of newborns animals and entire species, for that matter. Unfortunately, this is a pattern that we have seen too often throughout human history; we are many times willing to forego the protection of Creation and all that is in if for the “betterment” of human society, or so we think.
Scientists are actually calling this period of time the sixth extinction crisis in geological history, and according to the World Wildlife Fund, the current rate of species loss is between 1000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. It is nearly indisputable that there is one species causing this to happen. Who guessed humans? Well, you would be correct.
We find ourselves as the most dangerous predator to other species on the planet; we are superior, and our needs far outweigh the needs of creation. Or so we far too often like to think. This is not the life that we were called to, though, as our scripture today shows us.
The Creation narrative is one of the most familiar books of the Bible, yet it still holds key lessons for us to learn (or relearn) today. It’s where it all started—quite literally “In the beginning…” God created the heavens and the earth, the seas and the land, day and night, and every living creature that swims, crawls, slithers, burrows, flies, and walks. God saw what God had created and declared all of it—every last bit of it, in its original and undefiled state, as good.
In the middle of all of that creating and declaring of goodness, humans were given a special role to fill as the keepers of everything that had come before; from the beginning, God made us stewards over all of Creation, and in that moment of divine decision making, once again, God thought that doing so was good. We have been given dominion over creation and all the creatures in it; we have been given this Earth as a source of sustenance, but the Earth has also been given us to tend and care for it.
Our friends from the Gwich’in tribe know the fine balance of this role well. Earlier, I spoke about how important the Porcupine caribou is to this group of people; throughout their history, they have been tied to the caribou through countless ways.
Princess Johnson, a Gwich’in leader, wrote in a recent blog post for Sojourners that “our communities still rely heavily on the Porcupine caribou herd for sustenance, as well as our culture and spiritual wellbeing. Our elders have taught us that our connection is sacred.” Without the caribou, they would lose not only a meal source but also a connection to their culture. It seems safe to say that the caribou, and consequently the coastal plains where they breed, are a lifeline for the Gwich’in.
Yet, in spite of this, or maybe because of it, they have very specific rules about how they will or will not interact with the animals. Even in seasons where caribou are scarce, they will not go into the coastal plains to hunt, despite knowing that the hunting would be easy and the reward would be great. The Gwich’in respect the need for the caribou to have a safe space to breed and raise their calves without fear of predation in order to maintain the herd, and they would rather choose to go without than to threaten the balance of their relationship; they are willing to forego the domination that they could have over the caribou in place of having a right relationship with Creation. They see and understand the sacredness of their relationship with the caribou and the land.
Given that Genesis is only the beginning of our story, it seems fitting that we see reminders of this role we were assigned to play throughout the rest of the Bible–from the Wisdom books in the Old Testament to Paul’s letters. One scripture that reinforces the importance of taking care of what has been given to us comes from Ecclesiates 3:19– “For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals.”
It’s made clear in those few sentences that we are tied much more closely to the animal kingdom than many of us would like to think. In God’s infinite wisdom, God made our planet into a finely woven and delicately balanced ecosystem. This connection reminds me of a game that we would often play with the kids at the summer camp where I worked through high school and college. Standing in a circle, one person would throw a ball of yarn across to someone else, holding on to their end of the string. This would continue until everyone in the circle had received and thrown the yarn, always holding on to their piece before throwing it.
In the end, what was created was a web, connecting each of us to the rest. If one person were to pull on their end of the string, it would cause a chain reaction forcing everyone else to lean in or loosen their hold. Or if another person dropped their end, the rest of the group would have to pick up the slack to keep the web together.
In this way, much like the yarn connected our group, we are all connected in Creation with one another. Anything that I can do, will affect Creation around me. Every time I drive a car or water the garden or throw away trash, I’m altering the environment; sometimes that’s a good thing as I watch the baby spinach plants grow right outside, a product of tender care, but sometimes what I do causes pollution or harm–to animals, to the earth, or even to other people. And sometimes I don’t even realize the impact of what I’m doing.
We live in a world where we are fairly far removed from seeing the results of our choices. Driving a car or using a plastic anything requires petroleum, which has to come from somewhere. It’s easy to fill up the gas tank or drink out of a water bottle and not consider the line of production that it took to get to me. Without seeing how the coastal plains will be damaged, and the caribou herds being driven out, and the Gwich’in losing a part of their heritage, it makes it a lot easier to drop the ball on being a good steward to the earth. And God sees what is being done, and knows that it is not good.
On the sixth day, God created humankind and put us in charge. While we’ve veered off course, often choosing domination over creation instead of serving and tending to it, it is not too late–for us or for the earth. We can take simple steps every day to be stewards, whether that’s just taking the time to learn more about the impacts that our choices make, like where our food comes from or how the things we buy impact the earth, or if it means taking concrete steps like choosing to walk or bike more or even just turning off the water while we brush our teeth. Little steps add up to make big changes.
God saw what God made, and knew that it was good. If we each took a little more time out of our days to see the good in creation, we would probably end up with a greater appreciation and a greater caring for what is around us. By choosing to see the divine spark that all of us–people, animals, and even plants–were created with, we would not so quickly take the easy path of destruction or harm. I know it is a lot harder for me to take the lazy way of unsustainable choices or to want to see the end of certain species (mosquitoes) when I remember that we all belong to God.
Perhaps the best thought comes from one Gwich’in leader. When asked how to say “wilderness” in the Gwich’in language, she responded that there is no word for that, but that the closest phrase is to “leave it the way the Creator made.” Whether we are looking to drill in far away places for nonrenewable oil or to make changes in our own communities that would hurt God’s creation, we should take this lesson with us. Let us work as best we can to leave it as God created. And it will be declared good. Amen.