And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good (Gn 1:31)
Happy World Environment Day!
As I’ve recently shared, I am a writer. But writing isn’t my only calling. By trade, I am an ecologist. Today I want to lean into my ecology background to share one concrete step faith-based organizations should take to become greener: native plants.
Catholic Perspective on the Environment
The Catholic faith is necessarily implicated with environmentalism. The earth was entrusted to us not so we could overexploit it, but so that we could participate in God’s Creation. As Pope Francis writes in encyclical Laudato Si,
This [Genesis creation story] implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations (LS 67)
This is in line with Catholic teaching:
Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation (CCC 2415)
Many celebrated saints and several popes emphasized the importance of caring for the earth.
Pope John Paul II writes in Redemptor Hominis:
Man often seems to see no other meaning in his natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption. Yet it was the Creator’s will that man should communicate with nature as an intelligent and noble “master” and “guardian”, and not as a heedless “exploiter” and “destroyer” (RH 15)
Benedict XVI writes in Caritas in Veritate:
The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole. When nature, including the human being, is viewed as the result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism, our sense of responsibility wanes. In nature, the believer recognizes the wonderful result of God’s creative activity, which we may use responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation. If this vision is lost, we end up either considering nature an untouchable taboo or, on the contrary, abusing it. Neither attitude is consonant with the Christian vision of nature as the fruit of God’s creation. (CV 48)
St. Francis of Assisi
And, of course, St. Francis of Assisi is renowned for his connection to Creation, referring to Mother Earth, Brother Sun, Sister Water etc. in his prayer Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
Environmentalism is tied to Social Justice
Not only does the earth, as God’s Creation, have value in and of itself, but environmental issues are intrinsically linked to social justice. It has been demonstrated over and over that those who suffer the most from issues such as climate change and pollution are the poor. Laudato Si acknowledges,
In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest” (LS 134)
The rights to clean water, clean air, etc. should not be privileges. Therefore, all Christians are called to actively seek out solutions to our environmental problems.
Native plants are plants that belong in a region. They evolved there in conjunction with animals. Therefore, they have special adaptations to survive in a specific region. A banana tree cannot survive in a desert any more than a cactus can survive in a rainforest.
Native plants are one of the best ways individual people and organizations can become greener. We are often encouraged to plant trees, but it’s even more useful to plant native plants. The Central United States, for example, was once a large grassland. In these areas it’s more helpful to plant grasses and wildflowers.
Native plants are accessible to everyone. Therefore, planting native plants in our churches and homes can make a significant impact on the environment.
Environmental Benefits of Native Plants
Native plants are perfectly adapted to their environment. Everything in nature works in conjunction with each other. A prickly pear cactus, for example, has special adaptations to survive arid environments. It has shallow, wide-sprawling roots that allows it to suck up rain as soon as it hits the earth. It further, stores water in itself for times of drought. Desert animals, such as cactus wrens, can then turn to cacti as sources of water when eating its fruit. This in turn helps the cactus reproduce by spreading seeds.
If either the cactus or the wren is removed, then the equation is unbalanced. Of course, the cacti and birds are interacting with more than just each other. There is an intricate balance in the environment. Therefore, by reintroducing native plants to the equation, we help balance the equation and restore natural ecosystem processes.
Spiritual Benefits of Native Plants
Greenery has significant positive psychological impacts on us, such as “improved attention, lower stress, better mood, reduced risk of psychiatric disorders and even upticks in empathy and cooperation” (American Psychological Association). These positive impacts are spiritual as well. Most notably, Jesus often went to remote places to pray. In the mountains, surely he reveled in the beauty of the birds, the fluidity of the clouds, the intricate patterns of the rocks. Nature itself can be a place of worship. Animals, “by their mere existence…bless him [God] and give him glory” (CCC 2416).
Recognizing this, most churches feature gardens. Nestled among trees and flower bushes, we can more intensely reflect on the Stations of the Cross or more vulnerably come to our mother.
How much more complete will these spiritual benefits be if our churches featured native plants?
Logistical Benefits of Native Plants
Given that native plants are adapted to the region, they will require less care. I live in Texas. Therefore, having a garden filled with juniper and cacti will require significantly less care than a garden of venus fly traps. My native plants garden will require less watering and less fertilizing. In addition, native animals will naturally pollinate the plants. Not only does this require less time on my part, but it saves money.
Difficulties in Setting up a Native Plants Garden
It can be a little difficult to locate native plants. If you enter any plant store across the US, you’re likely to find the same sorts of ornamental plants. Orchids, spider plants, zebra plants…To find native plants might require bypassing the big-name garden stores. It will require some more research. (check out the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder)
However, the environmental, spiritual, and logistical benefits of native plants encourage and almost demand this extra effort on our part.
Overall, native plants provide environmental, spiritual, and logistical benefits. I encourage every church to put in the extra effort to feature native plants in their gardens. Thus, we will more fully respond to God’s directive of stewarding the earth.
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