Healing and Sustaining Mother Earth

Judy Antoine displayed the “Green Rule” poster, created by the same person who had designed the “Golden Rule” multifaith poster that we have used in the past. The “Green Rule” poster lists many faith traditions, along with quotations from their scripture honoring the earth. 

From the information on that poster, Judy had made 15 paper “leaves,” each representing one of the following faith traditions: Bahá’í, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native Spirituality, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism, Unitarian Universalism, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism. She handed the leaves to various women in the audience. Each woman read the words on the front of her leaf—the name of the faith tradition and the quotation from its scripture—then handed her leaf to a woman next to her, who read the words on the back—the name of the tree associated with that faith tradition and the religious significance of that tree.

Our first speaker was Catherine Landis, a doctoral student in forest ecology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY–ESF). She recently completed a master’s degree at SUNY–ESF, studying streamside plant restoration along an urban stream: Onondaga Creek. Her interests lie in ecological and cultural connections for land and water restoration.

Catherine began by telling of her youth, growing up in Central New York. She lived in Westvale and remembers that when she was a child, her family would drive past Onondaga Lake, and she would hear about it being the most polluted lake in the world. Local industries, such as Solvay Process, General Motors, and Crucible Steel, dumped industrial chemicals directly into the lake, and the city of Syracuse allowed excess raw sewage to empty into the lake and its tributaries. As a child, Catherine also spent her summers at a church camp on Vanderkamp Lake in Cleveland, New York, where 5000 acres of lake, forest, streams, and wetlands provided the perfect area for fishing, swimming, canoeing, sailing, hiking, building forts, learning the names of trees and ferns, and picking wild blueberries. The lake was clear and pure and treated with reverence and respect. As she grew older, she wondered at the different treatment that these two bodies of water received. This disparity was important to her and led her to the work she does today.

When Catherine did biological field work in southeastern Utah, she studied three types of birds; she amazed us with a haunting owl cry that, she assured us, the nocturnal creatures would invariably answer with their own cries. As Catherine worked in the rich, undisturbed ecosystem, she found herself in a night world alive with beings whose eyes would shine with reflections from her work light. She realized that we impoverish ourselves when we do not share the land in a way that lets other creatures thrive. Her work today is to find ways to live with the creatures that really support us.

Catherine returned to Syracuse to care for her mother; then she became ill herself. She was taking continuing education courses at SUNY–ESF but was not well enough to travel. When she turned to the Zen Center for meditation, she discovered Onondaga Creek. As Catherine continued to take courses, she met professors who were interested in the creek, and she decided to work on a master’s thesis, doing research on the natural resources along the creek and the possibility of bringing back some of the creek’s natural features, including the flow and the plant life. Beginning in the 19th and 20th centuries and continuing today, the creek has been straightened, with many sections encased in rock or concrete, and with many tributaries covered over. Catherine showed slides picturing how we treat the creek: tributaries of quite pure water now full of trash; sewer overflows during heavy rains; stream burial to prevent flooding (as exemplified in a picture of a neighboring stream, Meadow Brook, during construction of a culvert project that would benight that portion of the stream). Catherine acknowledged that flood control is important, but she feels there are better ways to address the problem. Then she showed us a split-screen slide: on the left was the channelized Onondaga Creek, with a concrete bed and sides, and on the right was the creek restored to its natural beauty, with riparian plants adorning and supporting the banks and moderating the water flow. 

 In response to a question, Catherine told us that a citizen’s committee has prepared a booklet addressing Onondaga Creek’s problems and proposing a revitalization plan. In the past, there were several widely publicized drownings, and the creek was deemed to be unsafe. To solve this problem, the creek was made inaccessible: fences and other barriers were installed, and the water flow was restricted to tunnels. These measures took a meandering creek and channelized it, making it faster and therefore more dangerous. Today’s planners are attempting to undo unwise decisions of the past and reestablish Onondaga Creek as an attractive, accessible, natural stream. Catherine’s work at the portion of the creek abutting the Zen Center—helping to create and maintain a rain garden to reduce runoff into the creek and adding water plants to slow the water flow—are models for the future. Catherine said the plan also includes a shelf-like system of low banks that serve as a floodplain to accommodate and absorb flood waters after snow melt or heavy rains.

The week before our meeting, Catherine had attended graduation ceremonies and received her master’s degree; now she is gearing up for a doctoral project. She showed a handwritten historical map of Central New York filled with Haudenosaunee place names that record the ecological history of the area. For example, Caughdenoy, the name of a community in Oswego County, means “place where the eels lie down.” In 1900, about 50,000 eels were caught in the Oneida Lake drainage area; today there are almost none, in part due to dams. The Haudenosaunee place names on Catherine’s map show how the native people lived here in harmony with, and were sustained by, the wildlife.

Catherine is currently helping to teach a SUNY–ESF course on “the global environment and sustaining Mother Earth” to students at Corcoran High School. One major issue being addressed in the course is oil depletion. Catherine showed us slides explaining the history of oil discoveries and illustrating how those discoveries are declining. She expects there to be a large gap between future supply and future demand and therefore anticipates rising energy costs.

A second major issue in her course is climate change. According to the best predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2090 New York State will have climate conditions considerably warmer than today. If heat-trapping emissions from fossil fuels continue to rise during this century, our climate may become similar to that currently found in Georgia and South Carolina. If, on the other hand, there is a shift in favor of clean energy technologies, with a commensurate decline in emissions, temperatures will rise less, leaving us with a climate similar to that of Virginia. Thus we can expect longer spring and summer seasons (up to six weeks longer in the former scenario, two to three weeks longer in the latter scenario) and milder winters. 

Catherine explained that with rising energy costs, we will need to provide for our needs locally, without importing goods like food, energy, or clothing from great distances. We will need to work with nature—because it takes energy to work against nature. Utilizing the services of an intact ecosystem (such as in the production of food and energy) makes sense; and letting natural processes determine the form of our neighborhoods is more aesthetically pleasing and beneficial. Our neighborhoods can make use of local water sources, filter pollutants, produce food, provide recreation and education, and restore biological richness.

 Catherine expects the 21st century to be an era of restoration in ecology. She quoted the wisdom of the Haudenosaunee peacemaker: He urged a relationship between sustainability and gratitude toward water, air, plants and animals, and he rejected the concept of mind–body dualism in favor of a concept of the oneness of humankind with the environment. This gives Catherine a sense of hope. The fact that the Haudenosaunee were able to live sustainably in this place proves that we can too.

Catherine recommended steps we can take to achieve this sustainability: drive less, use less, become energy efficient, practice habitat landscaping, grow some of our own food, and support local farms. We must urge our communities, governments and legal systems to incorporate ecological wisdom into the decision-making process. Catherine cited the problems created by the federal government’s fire-suppression policy that allowed fuel buildup and resulted in hotter, more destructive fires. Policymakers need to recognize the interdependence of systems and the contributions these systems make to the cycles of life.  Catherine quoted from “Greetings to the Natural World,” a prayer that the Haudenosaunee recite at the beginning of every gathering to greet, acknowledge, and thank the Creator and all aspects of creation. Catherine feels that if Americans were to recite this before every important gathering, such as a graduation or a zoning board meeting, it would instill an appreciation for the relatedness and interdependence of humankind and our environment.

Our second speaker was Jonnell Allen. Jonnell has a master of public health (MPH) degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in geography. She has a position at Syracuse University serving as Syracuse community geographer; in this capacity she assists socially minded, community-oriented organizations in using mapping to better understand and address local concerns such as hunger, teen pregnancy, access to child care, neighborhood safety, youth programming, literacy, economic development, and more.

 Jonnell explained that she does not choose the projects she works on; rather, they are proposed by community groups in Syracuse, Onondaga County, and other parts of Central New York. Her first project as Syracuse community geographer was to assist the Syracuse Hunger Project in its efforts to identify the local emergency food supply: what was available, and where. Onondaga County has 89 food pantries, most run by faith-based organizations, as well as soup kitchens and WIC program (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) sites. Jonnell created maps showing the areas where supplementary food needs were greatest and the sites where food services were located. Her maps also revealed that most supplemental food is available during weekday, daytime hours, when many people are attending school or working. By using these maps, planners could determine which areas were underserved, and they could begin to coordinate what is offered at the different sites. Similarly, Jonnell mapped senior dining services to determine which ones were on bus routes or within walking distance of those in greatest need. Jonnell invited us to see these and other maps at www.mapsonline.net/Syracuse.

Concerned about the lack of fresh food in many people’s diets, Jonnell helped co-found Syracuse Grows, a group that promotes self-sufficiency through community gardening. Jonnell praised the founder of Lots to Gardens, a youth and community organization in Maine that has created a number of urban gardens and has an informational website. When the Syracuse program was struggling to get off the ground, the Lots to Gardens founder came here to help them get started. Jonnell also praised Mable Wilson, a South Side woman who has been a community gardener for almost a decade. Mable uses her garden as a source of spiritual cleansing, a place to rest and do something positive for her community. By raising awareness and getting more people involved, Mable has helped nurture and expand Syracuse’s fledgling community-garden movement.

Jonnell said that although the primary purpose of community gardens is to provide fresh organic produce, they also beautify blighted neighborhoods. Syracuse has 3400 vacant lots (notably, this number does not include lots with boarded-up houses) that can be congregation sites for undesirable behavior. Gardens afford an opportunity for healthy exercise and provide environmental services (such as food for bees). They bring neighbors together and connect people across generations and cultures. Research across the country indicates that crime decreases near community gardens because people are out of their houses and aware of their surroundings. People can connect with nature, and being in a green space can bring tranquility as well as spiritual and emotional healing. Syracuse currently has nine community gardens, with more being added, although Jonnell pointed out that she keeps hearing about other gardens, so the exact number might be higher.

Jonnell showed a slide of a group of city residents canning homemade apple sauce. They were making the sauce with apples picked (with landowners’ permission) from neglected trees—apples that would have otherwise gone to waste. The project connected the people with each other and their neighborhood, and it provided them with healthy food to take home.

Jonnell discussed Syracuse’s community gardens. SUNY–ESF tested the soil in each garden, and all but one were within the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limit for lead levels. Lead gets into the soil primarily from leaded gasoline and lead paint. Even rain falling on lead paint will cause lead to leach into the soil. Uninformed practices in the past have left Syracuse and other cities across the country with a legacy of contaminated soil. WTB’s Tapestry Garden on Isabella Street is the one with very high lead levels. In order to eliminate contact with this soil, Beth Killian’s family laid heavy sheets of barrier fabric on top of the soil. Planting boxes were constructed on top of this fabric and filled with eighteen inches of fresh new soil; the paths between the boxes were covered with wood mulch. When asked about the topsoil or potting soil we buy, Jonnell said that very little of it is tested; we do not even know the heavy-metal content of produce we buy in grocery stores. Jonnell recommended that city residents have their soil tested for heavy metals. She also mentioned that Greenscapes, a local company, does test its soil for contaminants. 


Tanya Atwood-Adams thanked our speakers and explained that we would close our meeting with a tree planting. Among the first peoples of the world, as well as in many religions, each species of tree has a spiritual significance. In Islam the olive is the central tree, the world axis, a symbol of Universal Man and of the Prophet; both Judaism and Christianity recognize the Tree of Life; the Asvattha tree has its roots in Brahma. The young blue spruce that WTB has chosen to beautify the grounds of Jowonio School represents new realizations, healing, and intuition. Tanya invited each woman to take a short length of yarn, variegated in color to represent our diversity and our sisterhood in WTB, and to hang it on the tree to provide material for the springtime nest-builders. Gathered around the tree in silence, we offered thanks, each of us in our own tradition, for the beauty and bounty of the earth and for the passion and strength to nurture it.