The following posts originally appeared at the Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light blog for our climate change ride. I’m reposting my Rider Profile and my post-trip reflection here for a few reasons. PA-IPL just graciously reposted my piece on Earth Overshoot Day (thanks Cricket!). Second, as we are between the unveiling of the Laudato Si and the Clean Power Plan (behind us) and the Paris Climate Talks and U.S. elections, we should keep minding ethically grounded action on climate change. Third, I hope they inspire a bit. I’d take some time and read some of the rider profiles there too. They’re inspiring.
I hope you’ll consider supporting Interfaith Power & Light. I’m an atheistic Unitarian who loves this group and will work with them at every turn. Their capacity to develop the conversation and action on climate action and sustainability is great. It’ll be greater if you donate.
I woke up early to do a long mountain bike ride. Putting on my jersey, I noticed something was lodged below my right armpit. It was a tiny deer tick nymph, its limp legs dangling out of my flesh, its mouth parts bolted into my flesh. The previous day I’d been walking around a vernal pond watching ring-necked ducks and tundra swans on a gorgeous 60-degree day.
It was February. In Pennsylvania.
The white and pink blossoms of my black cherry tree were blossoming. Down the street narcissus and daffodils were budding.
It was early March.
Up on the ridge, hemlocks were losing their needles. Year after year, the line of devastation crept ever higher. The hemlock wooly adelgid were feasting their ways to the tree’s deaths.
These could seem like isolated incidents, just weird weather, if it weren’t for their being a part of longer trends. Fewer cold snaps, more warm days, changed understory conditions, and other optimal conditions are altering the forests of my home in central Pennsylvania, affecting the lives of the hemlock, the cherries, and the oaks that make the acorns that feed the mice who feed the ticks who live through the winter with fewer cold snaps (this year excepted).
If you take the time and consult people who have been paying attention—naturalists and foresters, farmers like my uncle, or climate scientists and ecologists—you’ll see the change. When we compare or match these changes to those in other parts of the world, a pattern emerges. Glaciers the size of Manhattan on Greenland have calved, record-breaking droughts have desiccated California while Noachian floods have deluged Pakistan, some first nations people of Nunavut can’t travel across the mires of their ancestral lands and no snow fell for part of the 2015 Iditarod, and cataclysmic cyclones and typhoons have swept the Philippinesand Vanuatu in the last two years. We know, without a doubt, that the growing fossil fuel economy has reshaped the ground under our feet, the oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers that surround us, and the foundations of the living systems that have made civilization possible.As a person of conscience, I feel called to act.
After years of being an ardently unaffiliated atheist, I have become a Unitarian Universalist. As a community of conscience and gratitude, we believe in the dignity of people, a just world, and that we must respect the integrated web of all existence. We are called to invest in justice, dignity, and integrity. We owe it to ourselves, to our ancestors and our progeny, and the creatures that we share this world with—human and other than human—a convivial way of being, a way of living that respects the intrinsic good of individual people, the communities in which they live, and the web of relationships that support all of us. That takes action.
I’m not a casual person. I don’t tend to get halfway into something and then decide, “Meh. That’s just not my thing.” If something grabs me, I grab it back, and we go for a ride.
Riding bikes tends to be pretty consuming. In May 2000, at 24, I started riding a bike again after 10 years of cigarette smoking. I did my first mountain bike race that fall. The next year I got a road bike and did my first 100-mile ride solo. Two years later, I entered a 100-mile mountain bike race. I’ve done it seven times. I’ve ridden with friends over 200 miles in one day several times. The bicycle may be the greatest piece of transport technology humans have created. Riding is part of me. It speaks with me. We can speak conscience.
On March 9th, 2011, I rode about 120 miles from my home in the village of Pine Grove Mills, Pennsylvania to the state capitol building in Harrisburg to meet our former Governor Tom Corbett. He had rescinded the moratorium on new horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—“fracking”—leases in the state forests. When I read it, I shook. My whole body, mind, and soul burned. Sadly, he wasn’t there. But the group who joined me met with one of his undersecretaries. I believe we were the only citizen group to get a meeting with a Corbett cabinet member on fracking. Thankfully, our newest governor Tom Wolf has reinstated that moratorium. The journey goes on.
My deepest sense of good for the world—the world to which my every breath for life and health and whose every draught of water brings reprieve—called from my depths like the psalmist crying out to God, “De profundis clamavi ad te Domine.” “Out of the depths I call to you Lord.” Nature called me, through me. I had to respond. That response, though, required an intimate relationship with bicycles.
The bicycle connects us to our path in a way both mechanical and human. It is still largely under human power. But with gravity and no brakes, I can descend at 50 miles per hour, giving me the sense of diving like a falcon. On my mountain bike, I ride trails at speeds my feet cannot, and yet I feel the trail in my whole body. On our sandstone-lined ridge tops in central Pennsylvania, the slabs of rock bring challenges for my body and brain, liberating both from their limitations because the technological marvel of the bicycle brings me to Nature in novel ways. Being in those moments sets me free. I am with the simple human-powered machine, the broken stone, the mountain laurel, rhodedendron, blueberries, hemlock, shagbark hickories, swamp white oaks, and maple, the cooper’s hawk with a rodent in her talons streaking through the canopy, and the black bear staring me down as she guards her cubs by Laurel Run.
Were it not for six-hour rides steeped in mind-body, machine, and nature, I’d have no sense of the seismic shifts under our feet, in the soils and understory. I’d have no idea that we are changing the Earth’s fabric. I would have no connection between those drowned on Vanuatu, the parched grounds in California, the snowless winter landscapes in Alaska, or the mired first nations people in Nunavut, and the dying hemlocks. But it’s not just the plights I’ve seen. In the Moshannon and Rothrock State forests, there are raised trails covered in moss and ringed by laurel and swamp white oak. When you ride them, their unevenness pitches you around. On my first ride around Rock Run, I wondered what had happened. It struck me that I was on an a rail car causeway used to feed and empty the old iron furnaces. Feeding those furnaces turned Pennsylvania’s forests into the Pennsylvania Desert, literally millions upon millions of acres of clear cuts. Where I was riding had once been a gouged scape, a great wound. That day I saw a black bear and heard the drilling of eager pileated woodpeckers. And I rode there with a friend. Nature is strong. We are strong. There is hope in the action of that long recovery.
“Hope lives in action.” That’s become my mantra over the last few years. So I’m riding for hope, knowing that this little ride will draw attention not just to the plight of a changing climate, but also the resilience of nature and we as people in it, and our ability to come together for the integrity of the breathing creation.
Our ride gave me a lot of time to think about our relationship to the creation. Talking with new friends like Joyce, Ben, and Pam or respected elders like Dorothy and Jon brought me to think so much about the good of the long game of justice and creation care. On my solo ride from State College to Brunswick, Maryland I saw light glimmer on ululating creeks, passed the remnants of the early 20th-century iron industry , and watched a pileated woodpecker fly over power lines into the canopy . The air surrounded me and graced my brow. I was in the planet, in the creation. I need this place to be whole.
Whether you are a Buddhist, a Mennonite or a Catholic, a Jew or a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, you are dependent on the creation working more or less as it has for the last 10,000 years. The stable climate of the last several millennia has basically made civilization possible. This world is a gift and we should treat it as one.
You can read history from a secular or a religious standpoint and see that we have long sought to control our environments through agriculture, animal domestication, construction, and fire. But we did not anticipate that we would alter this gift so much that people would rename it. Humanity became the dominant force in the Holocene—the whole period. Today there is a good argument from scientists, philosophers, writers, environmentalists, and some clergy who call the present age the Anthropocene—the age of man. Basically, industrial humanity has so altered earth’s systems that we are a geological and biological force on the planet more powerful than any other organism and on par with a slow-moving asteroid. In a five, 100, 10,000, and 1,000,000 years, the last two century’s worth of pollution, of construction, and the extinction of thousands of species will be present in the geological record. If this is the age of man then it is not the age of caring man of shepherds of the earth.
Is this the legacy we want to leave and the legacy by which a creator would judge us? When I say “our” and “we” I mean all of us to some degree, but particularly people who practice a religion. When you read dominion in Genesis 1, is dominion for domination that leads to the distortion of both humanity and creation? I hope not. Maybe we can all see it as dominion found in the partnership of marriage and the care of our domicile.
Our legacy through the climate ride is one of solidarity with and justice for those who suffer from climate change today and tomorrow. We have been called to build on the greatest gift we have—love. We love our neighbors, the riders next to us. We love our neighbors losing their homes in the Maldives to sea level rise, our neighbors losing their ancestral ranging lands to melting permafrost in Nunavut, and our non-human neighbors losing their homes or lives as corals bleach, bark beetles eat the Ponderosa pines, or who are parched from increasing droughts and wildfires in California or Australia. And we love our neighbors who will live in a fundamentally altered world in the coming decades and century because of a morally impoverished vision of life we and our decision makers could leave.
It is a fundamental belief of mine that setting an example of unified action and open conversation can lead our leaders to help us realize a better world. Our legacy does not have to be some frightening climate changed world. Our legacy ought to be one of caring relationships expressed in all of our ways of being.
Imagine a world in which most of us rode bicycles most of the time to do most of what we do day to day. What a quieter, more peaceful, and more creation-caring world than the car-congested carbon-soaked one of today.
Imagine a world where coal-fired power plants are displaced by quieter, barely polluting solar and wind power. How many more clean streams and healthy children would thrive together with less coal?
Imagine a world in which our cities were lined with wildlife corridors. Imagine a world in which we take care of the poor and disadvantaged because it is the right thing to do.
Something like that world is what I/we took small pedal strokes for as we rode, laughed, and spoke to our legislators’ aides in Washington.
What is your relationship to the people and the creatures around you today? How does your faith inform it? How will you serve the creation and its creator today in your actions? Tomorrow? In a week, month, or year? I hope that you will join us in spirit and talk with friends and family, your congregations, and our leaders to see that to love our neighbors in this new world we must love the health and integrity of our relationship to the creation. When we act from fierce love for all, from what some call the Holy Spirit and others simply call the right thing to do, we are our best selves.
Maybe, just maybe, you will find that you are called by something greater than yourself—God, people suffering from climate change, or the clutch of eggs the Pileated woodpecker laid—to join us next year and act from this fierce love. I am sure we would be honored to meet you and share this legacy with you so that hope may continue to live in our actions.