Wild Goose Day Four: Ecosystems

The southern Appalachians are one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. The forests in those ancient mountains, where the town of Hot Springs is located and where the Wild Goose Festival was held these past four days, are almost obscenely fertile. There can be more biodiversity in a single cove there, in a single fold in the earth, than there is on the entire continent of Europe. It’s a landscape of remarkable fecundity and raucous growth.

This was all on display at the Wild Goose Festival this year. It rained nearly constantly, or else it felt like it was raining, as saturated as the air was with humidity. Insects of various kinds ran riot in the festival grounds, forming clouds in the grassy areas, making biting attacks at dawn and dusk, and finding their way into tents and luggage. The river was a constant friendly buzz behind the sound of music and conversation. It was a place alive—not only with the lively energy of people, but also with the limitless activity of the rest of God’s creation.

Brian McLaren said something along these lines in one of his sessions during the festival. He spoke of monocultures and ecosystems, and the relative strengths of each. Monocultures—his example was an Iowa corn field—are a productive way to grow food, given certain circumstances. If you use industrial fertilizers and pesticides, and if you tend to the field using heavy farm equipment, and if you irrigate beyond the land’s natural capacity to bear growth, it’s possible to grow prolific crops in monocultural systems—rows and rows of corn, or soybeans as far as the eye can see. But McLaren pointed out that this kind of planting should not be confused for an ecosystem.

An ecosystem functions very differently. It evolves, for one thing. The parts fit together because they grew and grow together. It exists in cycles in which particular species might boom or bust, but the system itself is strikingly resilient, because of its diversity. One boom cycle of a pest, for example, or a drought, or a forest fire is not likely to permanently decimate an ecosystem. It will grow back. But if those things happen to a monoculture—if those things happen in a system dependent on human intervention at every step—there is almost no hope of the system surviving the trauma.

Before the Wild Goose Festival commenced, I wrote about the American Chestnut and its fate at the hands of a blight. I mourned the loss of the tree, which is now mostly absent from its former range along Appalachian mountains. It was a loss to those forests when the tree fell; in many places it was the dominant plant species. But being under the canopy of the Appalachian forest this weekend at the Wild Goose, I was reminded more than once that the forest is doing just fine, thank you very much. The American Chestnut is gone—and that is tragic. But the forest is not lost for the trees. It’s still there, populated by a list of species that is longer, literally, than all the species on a continent elsewhere in the world. Poplars, oaks, sourwoods, dogwoods, maples, laurels, rhododendrons, hickories, and dozens of other species have flourished, and flourish still, and the forest still stands.

I came away from the Wild Goose Festival feeling similarly about Christianity. My branch of mostly-white Protestant Christianity is obsessed with its own death. It frets about its demise constantly, asks itself how to prevent its decline, worries about its legacy, and, like a dying plant, apportions its resources in bare maintenance patterns, often in levels too low to really support life. We’re dying out there, slowly.

But I think we sometimes miss the forest for the trees. Something Phyllis Tickle said at the festival echoed a conversation I was having with some of my congregants last week: globally, the church is doing fine. In Africa and Central and South America, Christianity has exploded with the advent of the Pentecostal movement. Elsewhere in the world, traditions old and new are thriving. When you’re the tree that’s starved for resources, and maybe losing branches, it’s easy to worry about the future. But the forest is healthy, and there is rebirth in every death in the forest, and all will be well in the end. The forest is doing fine.

I can commend to you the Wild Goose Festival. It is a remarkable event, populated by fascinating people full of the energy of the divine. I am glad to have been there, and I am glad to have learned at the muddy, muddy feet of so many beautiful souls. If I may press the forest metaphor one step more, the Wild Goose Festival is evidence that many trees stand tall and many more stand small but striving for the canopy and the sun. At times during the festival I looked around and wondered if it might someday be remembered in the same spirit as some of the great revival and reform movements that came before it—the Great Awakening and Acts 2, the gatherings at Cane Ridge and Azusa Street and Nicaea and the church door in Wittenberg. Those all reached high in the forest. The Wild Goose is just getting started, just finding its leaves and just feeling out its space. But give it time, and let’s see what it can grow into.

Read all of Eric’s posts from his Wild Goose journey here.

The Reverend Doctor Eric C. Smith is the Minister of Community Life at First Plymouth Congregational Church in Englewood, CO. He joined the First Plymouth staff in July 2007, after serving a church in Asheville, North Carolina, for 5 years. He holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Interpretation from the Joint PhD Program of Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver, a Master of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt Divinity School, and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Mars Hill College. He was ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2007. 


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