At first the rain was light, and the mud just made the going a bit slippery.
It was our inaugural morning out with the North Branch Restoration Project—a veteran group of “dedicated citizens that work to help protect and restore native Illinois ecosystems.”
In the parking lot, site steward Jette Thomassen had outfitted each of us with safety glasses, a pair of loppers, and a handsaw. Our task: to clear our little section of the Harms Flatwoods of invasive European buckthorn.
Back in the day, those blind to the beauty and utility of native Illinois flora brought buckthorn across the ocean to be used as hedges. They couldn’t foresee that, apart from its historical evolutionary competitors, and with delectable berries to entice our avian friends into gladly sowing successive generations, European buckthorn would wreak havoc in the ancient prairies and woodlands of the New World.
Our particular section of woods that grey March morning was so thick with buckthorn that it was easiest for Jette and the other experienced naturalists to mark the native oaks and woodland shrubs—to tell us what not to cut. If these were going to have any chance of getting the sunlight they needed to reach maturity, the rest (the buckthorn), had to go.
So we went at it—lopping, sawing, and burning. The buckthorn had to be burned so that the seeds would be destroyed. Later, the stumps would be painted with herbicide to prevent them from growing back again. After a while the rain picked up, beaded on the lenses of our glasses, soaked through our clothes, and squished in our boots. Mud was everywhere. We took a short break to talk conservation with Jette over water and snacks, and then returned to burn what remained of our piles and pack up for the day, the mud now almost swallowing our boots with every step.
Back at the church, having ditched our muddy boots and changed into drier clothes, we reflected on our experience over hot slices of well-earned pizza. Though the weather was less than pleasant, we had made a real difference. The front lines of invading buckthorn had been noticeably pushed back; and now, in our little section of woods at least, the natives would again have a chance to thrive and grow up strong.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead…” (Luke 10:25-37). When I finished reading the parable, I asked, “why do you think I chose this text for this morning?”
One rather perceptive youngster ventured a guess: “Because the native trees and plants are like the man who was beaten up? And the buckthorn is like the robbers!”
Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in reply to a lawyer who was seeking a limit to his neighborly obligation. We, like the lawyer, sometimes find ourselves seeking to draw in the circle of our concern, to rationalize our exclusion—because the need is too overwhelming, or the cost of helping is too high. We too find ourselves asking: “And who is my neighbor?” But this parable is always there to reorient us—to say, “sorry, wrong question.”
The youngster was spot on. Our neighbors come in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes. They come with different languages and customs, with skin of all different colors; they come with fur, feathers, and scales; even with bark, roots, and leaves. And in the woods and prairies of Illinois, the buckthorn is certainly reminiscent of the robbers. If we were to dig a little deeper, however, we would find that it is we who are ultimately the robbers.
In 2015, Pope Francis wrote that “each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons relating to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”
Our act of service on that dreary morning in Lent might be seen as a spiritual act of repentance. It was a time to turn around and go a different way. Rather than playing the part of the robbers, or of those who pass by on the other side, that morning we braved the rain, and got down in the mud, to see and help our non-human neighbors (and to encounter the God who meets us in them).