You may have wondered, “Where has Fr. James been this summer?” Fear not, I have not fallen off the face of the earth. The reason I have not posted in a while is simple: I’m frustrated!
The frustration stems from a summer of smoke. For those who live in North America, you are well aware of the tragic Canadian wildfires. Though these fires are an annual occurrence, the frequency and severity of these fires this summer are unprecedented. Below is today’s updated wildfire map from Canada’s natural resource department (red is really bad, blue is really good).
“Wait Fr. James, these fires are in Canada… you live in Wisconsin… Why are you frustrated?” The frustration stems from the jet stream. Wisconsin’s summer weather is dominated by two primary moves of the jet stream. When the jet stream moves north, we’re blessed with hot and humid winds from the Gulf of Mexico. When the jet stream moves south, we’re blessed with cooler, dry air from Canada.
Unfortunately, when wildfires happen in Canada, we also receive the second hand smoke from these fires. Right now, our weather is dominated by air from Canada, which means the wildfire smoke is rather intense today. Here’s an updated map of the smoke drift into the United States’ upper midwest.
This smoke can create potential health hazards for people with breathing issues. In addition to health concerns, the smoke kills the night sky for observing and astrophotography. And since this was going to be my great summer of astrophotography… yeah… not much to image this summer. Ergo, why you haven’t heard much from me lately.
Now, I need to be careful. Yes, the wildfire smoke is annoying, but these flames have been absolutely devastating to the people of Canada. I always temper my frustration with prayers for the people who are suffering through these fires and the wildlife that is impacted. I might not be able to see stars, but I haven’t lost my home.
Another aspect of these fires is that I sense people are starting to think differently about care for creation. At times, some people I know poke fun at me as the loony who believes in climate change. The pokes are never mean-spirited, but do reflect the differing cultural perspectives of our time. However, these same people are now pulling me aside and asking me, “Fr. James, are these fires happening because of climate change?” It affirms an insight I’ve had over the years I wish wasn’t true – People will only appreciate a clean environment when that environment is no longer clean.
So, how do I respond? As someone who grew up in a state with a “let’s go camping” culture, we intuitively know that the vast majority of wildfires start from human activity: Not putting out a campfire, throwing cigarette butts out the car window, people setting off fireworks, etc. Once started, I can only offer insight from professionals as to how climate change impacts how these fires spread (Click here for a nice summary of the relationship between wildfires and climate change).
What I can say is that these fires do teach us the simple lessons at the core of Catholic Social Teaching’s principle of Care for Creation. To put theology into everyday “Wisconsin-Speak,” If you like to fish a lake and eat the fish from the lake, don’t pollute the lake. If you want to enjoy a wooded area for camping or fishing, don’t be careless with fire.
There are more examples I could use, but each would point back to basic insights of the late Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis – Human Ecology and Integral Ecology respectively.
- Human Ecology – When we make ecological decisions that support the health of the human person it also cares for the created world around us.
- Integral Ecology – We make these decisions with an awareness that we are a part of this created world and not somehow outside of creation.
So, how has the summer of smoke impacted my relationship with God through the contemplation of God’s creation? What this summer has taught me is slightly depressing: When we are prevented from experiencing the awe and wonder of the night sky, one’s passion for that night sky can wane.
What we need, as I’ve shared in the past, is a renewed vigor and ethos to both care for God’s creation and wonder at God’s creation. We need to rediscover the ancient roots of the Christian East that see not only an ethical dimension to choices we make in creation (the Christian West’s approach), but also a sacramental understanding that includes the language of desecration of something that is God’s gift. We need to revisit one of the most basic understandings of God’s creative act – God created in love, all is gift, and all should be treated as such.
Spiritual Exercise: Pray for the people of Canada who are experiencing these wildfires. Yes, there is a natural dimension to these fires that leads to the renewal of creation. Still, let us do what we can to have these events occur in a truly natural way. Let’s make choices that avoid escalation of these situations in a way that can lead to long term damage instead of a renewal of God’s creation.