Becoming Dependent by Taryn Strauss

I’m going to tell you the story of how a species was saved in a McDonald’s parking lot.

The Clinch River, which begins in Virginia and flows southwest into Tennessee, is renowned for the incredible diversity of life in its waters, especially its unique variety of freshwater mussels. In addition to being home to a tremendous diversity of life, the Clinch River is a growing river destination for paddlers. This burgeoning economy and abundant wildlife depend on a healthy river, which in turn depends on solid stewardship.

Stream health and water quality is about far more than these tiny mussels. Yet, freshwater mussels are indicator species – their well-being reflects the health of the stream where they live. Therefore, when mussels are flourishing, it means the stream is healthy, which in-turn is important to everyone from anglers, to paddlers, to towns that use streams as a drinking water supply for their residents.

In late August, 1998, a tanker truck carrying a chemical used to make foam rubber overturned on U.S. route 460, spilling its contents into Virginia’s Clinch River. That spill killed stream animals for miles, including more than 7,000 mussels.

Before the spill, the only place in the world where the golden riffleshell mussel could be found was the Clinch River and one of its tributaries, Indian Creek.

The spill completely eliminated the mussel from the Clinch, meaning the estimated 400 individual mussels holding on in about a mile of Indian Creek were all that remained in the world. Nearly twenty years later, this number had dwindled to the point that biologists were having trouble locating even a handful over the course of several weeks, and most feared the mussel’s extinction was imminent.

Freshwater mussels spend their larval stage attached to fish gills, which provide them with the nutrients needed to develop into young mussels. Monte McGregor, director of Kentucky’s Center for Mollusk Conservation, was familiar with the golden riffleshell from working in Virginia, and had also led a team that developed a way to mature the larval mussels in a nutrient bath, cutting out the need for a temporary fish host – his lab is one of only a handful in the nation with this ability.

In 2016, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologists could find only three female golden riffleshell mussels in the wild that were carrying larval young.

They placed these mussels in a holding tub and drove them to a McDonald’s parking lot in Pikeville, Ky., where McGregor met them and extracted the larvae, placing them in petri dishes with his nutrient bath. The adults were quickly returned to the river, and over the coming months, McGregor’s lab successfully raised 1,600 young mussels. Using the nutrient bath instead of a host fish proved key.

Most of these mussels were transported to Virginia’s Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center, where they were grown to adult size. McGregor thinks the released mussels began reproducing this past fall. Biologists are keeping 300 mussels in captivity to start a captive breeding program in anticipation of future stocking efforts.

Though the clinch river mussel’s future remains tenuous, friends, if we can pull a species back from near extinction, with only three left of their kind, then we can make the case for active and rigorous hope.

This is not blind optimism.

This is a religious discipline of gratitude, grounded in our UU theology that claims each of us an honored part of the interconnected web of all existence.

Humans, unlike the clinch river mussel, are not an indicator species.  Or are we?

I was raised with a powerful humanist ethic that often conflicted with the resources and orientation required for environmental advocacy, or so it seemed.  I was raised in lower middle class Chicago where vegetarianism seemed to us to be an exotic ritual reserved for the wealthy and privileged with time on their hands and money to shop for their food at places they called “markets” with fancy track lighting or open air.

But I want to suggest that in fact the arc of human justice is inexorably linked to our environmental destiny, and the living conditions of those people existing on the margins, in poverty, are in fact the indicators of our planetary health.

Meaning, we are each dependent on each other’s survival.

Our most nomadic, our most beleaguered, our most vulnerable members of humanity are the people who must thrive, if our destiny depends upon one another’s ability to flourish.

Our transcendentalist identity, articulated by the American Unitarian preacher Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us how “The noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God.  It is the organ through which the Universal Spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead the person back to it.”

Insisting we are the transparent eyeball, that our essence is “part and particle of God”, Emerson calls humans to stand in awe of nature, as evidence of Divine presence.

Our first sacred source of our UU faith is:  Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;

Right now, that direct experience of mystery and wonder draws our attention to the places where our planet is the most wounded.  We must not look away.

We can incorporate our grief into our wonder.  Wonder does not require optimism of us, but it does require our loving, steady gaze, our humility and loving care.

Unitarian Universalist preacher Galen Guengerich takes Emerson’s religious experience of nature and transforms it into a discipline.

“I believe that Unitarian Universalism should be defined by gratitude,” Guengerich writes.

Why gratitude?

The discipline of gratitude reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and world around us for everything that matters.

But how do we practice this?  What steps must we take?

I too, am guilty of succumbing to despair, and closing my eyes to the painful losses of our shifting ecosystem.

Perhaps like some of you, I have scrolled quickly past the image of the horrifically skinny, starving, lonesome polar bear, teetering on a tiny island of ice.  I too, have slammed my computer shut, pushing away images of the giant, growing island of plastic, a landfill churning in the Pacific ocean, growing like a lesion on our beautiful blue boat we call home.

I too, heaved a long, resigned sigh for the last male white rhino, and turned quickly to the funny pages.  I understand. This learning experience is not a pleasant one. One must have grit.

I remember this same despairing, overwhelmed feeling, from that one blazing hot New York summer I spent as a chaplain at Beth Israel Medical Center, a community hospital on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  Deep in the infectious disease unit, one of the people on my rounds was a man in his sixties, who, through a series of sad events, was about to have his swollen, gangrenous foot amputated at the ankle.

He stayed in room 404, one of the few with a single room all to himself, due to the overwhelming stench of his rotting infection.  Each day I struggled to come to his bedside. Where was I to train my eyes? Did I look at him, was I staring, at his foot, at his face, at his room?

I admit I felt repelled and had to resist the urge to retreat as soon as I had approached him.  He did not invite my eye contact, in fact he was extremely grouchy and generally annoyed at my presence.  I ran through my basic pastoral script, eager to dart back out and visit my more gracious patients, with more gracious ailments.

Finally, one day, a nurse stopped me and said he had asked that I not visit him anymore.  I wish I could have told you I felt remorse or a sense of personal failure, but to tell you the truth, in that moment, I only felt relief.

Until, I had to share this experience with my chaplaincy education cohort, three of whom were Eastern Orthodox priests-in-training, and three of whom were rabbinical students, and then there was me.  The Unitarian Universalist. Woman.

I will never forget what my Eastern Orthodox colleague asked me.  “Why were you focusing so much on his foot, and not his soul, his eyes, his heart, or the rest of him?  He was so much more than his foot.”

I realized two things simultaneously:  I was only seeing his foot, yet I was not caring for his foot.

I knew what I should have done, or offered to do.  I should have held a funeral for his foot!

I should have offered the chance for him to grieve his foot, to express his love and his loss for his foot.  I should have created a ritual of letting go of his foot.

Then, together we could have attended to him, to his whole self, and to his future.  Instead, I was stuck right along with him in the panic, and the horror and overwhelming shock of the foot and its imminent separation from his body.  I allowed my panic to keep me from confronting it, appreciating it, and finally grieving its demise with him.

There are species we will never see again, from every part of our biosphere.  And we must properly mourn them! We must hold a funeral for the last male white rhino.

We must summon the grit and the moral courage to confront and grieve our southern forests when they burn.  We must confront the loss and terror of the starving, lonely polar bear. And after we properly grieve, then something new will be uncovered.  Then we follow where that leads us.

The second thing I realized is that the man in room 404 has a full life ahead of him.  He has more relationships to tend to, more people to love, more work to do. He will not bring his foot along with him on the remainder of his life’s journey, but his future continues to hold meaning, promise, worth, and dignity.

Like this patient, our Earth will carry on living, even after we have amputated a precious and beloved part of her.  We must honor her, care for her, tend to her, and fight for the vast life and prolific future that remains after the amputation.

The religious experience, defined by Guengerich as a combination of awe and obligation, leads us conveners and carriers of Unitarian Universalist tradition to transcend our cynism.  To push through our overwhelmed stagnation, and take on the mantle of fighting for the survival of our wounded but still thriving Earth.

We are co-creators with God of an infinite network of possibility, of life fighting for itself, and all is not lost.

Refuse to despair.

Reject paralysis.

Renounce blissful ignorance.

Surrender to utter dependence upon this network of possibility.

None of us created this moment alone, and we cannot move through it alone.

We are right now, suspended, caught in this moment poet Marie Howe suggests is the moment just before the storm gathers, but it never comes.  We are, like the poet, like Eve’s discussion, waiting inside the moment, on the precipice, filled with dread of what will come.

But here’s the thing.

We are the prophets of a future that does not belong to us.

What comes next is an open mystery.

We are not alone.  We are in this together.

Together, in religious community, you can be disciplined in your gratitude.  You can live in awe, and face both your personal grief, and our collective pain for this precious Earth.

You can help him discover his unique role in caring for the planet as it is, wounded, broken but surviving.  Together, we can hold each other accountable to our plan.

Side by side, we can stand in awe and praise God’s holy and beautiful creation, and with all the innovation and scrappiness of that McDonald’s parking lot petri dish, we can work together for its mysterious future.

 

Sources:

Gary Peeples, US Fish and Wildlife Service https://www.fws.gov/southeast/news/2017/10/clinch-river-mussel-pulled-back-from-the-brink-of-extinction/

Clinch River mussel pulled back from the brink of … Clinch River mussel pulled back from the brink of extinction A chemical spill, innovative science and a McDonald’s parking lot. October 16, 2017

Galen Guengerich, UU World  “A Theology of Gratitude” https://www.uuworld.org/articles/a-theology-gratitude

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”