To mourn our ravaged Earth, look to the psalms

Biblical poetry of exile and lament provides comfort when stranded in an unfamiliar place.
Religion

What does it mean to be in exile? The Christian tradition treats the idea of exile as a spiritual phenomenon: being sundered from our pristine beginnings, cast out of Eden, separated from God. “After this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus,” we pray to Mary.

Truth lies behind the idea that we are always a little homeless on this Earth, that our roots never get deep enough to nourish us completely. Yet at the same time, a notion of a purely spiritual exile can be dangerous, since we are physical beings, part of the ecosystems in which we live.

Too much emphasis on spiritual exile can distract us from our responsibility toward the broken and imperfect paradise of the everyday.

This is why I find the Hebrew Bible poetry of exile so compelling. It can be read allegorically, of course, with the Babylonian captivity standing for sin or concupiscence. But on their most visceral level, these verses, from Psalms to Jeremiah to Lamentations, capture a deeply human longing for beloved places. They express the deep grief we feel when we are physically exiled, our roots torn up. Or when our beloved places are destroyed.

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If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

(Psalms 137:5–6)

When I was 10, my family moved into an old abandoned farmhouse in Ohio coal country. This region, the Appalachian Coal Basin, has been a source of coal since the early 1800s, but strip mining there began only about 50 years ago. Strip mining involves forcibly extracting all surface materials, all topsoil and vegetation, to get at the seams beneath. With strip mining came the giant power shovels, made to scoop out hundreds of thousands of pounds of earth in a single bite. Each giant shovel had its own name, like famous weapons of old: the Silver Spade, the Gem of Egypt, Big Muskie.

When the coal was gone, the giant shovels moved on, leaving only desolation. Nature returned uneasily to the blasted and poisoned landscape. Ferns and multiflora rose sprouted on the spoil banks. Now toxic pools of neon orange or sickly green reflect the trunks of pale birches, trees uniquely suited to thrive in this acidic soil. In some places you can literally set the rocks in black coalpits on fire. And over it all loom the high walls, sedimentary cliffs where you can count the Earth’s exposed layers.

Eventually reclamation became mandatory, and coal companies were no longer permitted to leave moonscapes in their wake—but reclamation is only a Band-Aid on the wounds of industry. This thin crust of dirt rolled on and smoothed out is no true topsoil, just a conglomerate of dead grit. You can graze livestock there, but nothing much beyond grass will grow. Sometimes the deep roots of the invasive multiflora rose crack through to the toxic deposits hidden beneath those deceptively innocent fields.

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Near our house was a strange, solitary place the mining had not touched. We called it the Island: a tall table of land 200 feet above the canyons, swamps, and coalpits. Except for one steep road, the Island fell away on all sides in sheer, high walls. All around it was desolation and secondary wilderness, but that road led up to the rippling fields and shadowy woods of an earlier time, mysteriously unscathed.

In the long winters—back when we had long winters—my father cut wood in those deep forests. We explored the Island as children, daring ourselves to shuffle to the crumbling cliff edges, to venture into the dangerous crevasses where whole slices of land had peeled away. As teenagers, it was our escape, our place of wild rebellion. We camped up there, raced our horses.

Once my sister, a friend, and I stood atop a cliff, took off our T-shirts, and flashed the drivers far below: That’s just how invincible we felt up there.

I grew up and left home with no illusions that home was a constant. We’d moved too often, lived in situations too weird and precarious. This might be why my sense of belonging has more to do with land and landscapes. Houses crumble, barns burn, and even castles are built on sand, but you can always count on going back to that secret pond or lazy river, that forest with its smell of moss or resin, that field that caught the shadows of the clouds’ remote drift.

So when I moved back to Ohio as an adult, I went to find the past preserved in the land. Even the tumult of broken rock and poisonous coalpits had their charmed memories for me. Along the ridges of those canyons I had cantered my ponies, riding wild on the edge of the world. This terrain held whispered secrets, first kisses, passionate friendships—and always the haunt of religion that whispered of apocalypse, the wrath of an angry God.

But in my absence an unexpected apocalypse occurred: Mining companies had come back and laid the Island flat, unwilling to let a morsel of coal escape. When the coal was gone, they made the Island a quarry and kept on digging, dynamiting, bulldozing. Where had once been the high cliffs leading up to an enchanted wilderness, there was now a tumble of boulders and dust clouds like something out of Mordor, littered with heavy equipment and guarded by cameras and “Danger” signs.

You don’t realize how deeply you can feel the loss of a landscape until all that remains is a memory. It’s not simply past or far away. It is gone forever. The sense you have is not only of loss but also of exile. An insurmountable barrier now lies between you and the land, the forests, the fields you loved—and not just the usual barrier of time. It’s the boundary between is and isn’t. 

William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The past has its hold in the land, in the living things that surpass and outnumber us. But what about when the land is overturned and every living thing wiped out? There’s nothing left to hold the memory. The destruction of whole landscapes, whole ecosystems, leaves the past without its conduit. How can we revisit our history when its very setting, the Earth and the living things that sustained it, is no more? When it’s not just that our roots are gone, but that there’s nothing left to put roots into?

Guilt dwells on top of this profound loss: This did not just happen. Humanity did it. We did it. We brought this upon ourselves.

For years, whenever I have tried to write about my remembered landscapes in Ohio coal country, I have found myself drawn back to the Hebrew Bible poetry of exile and lamentation.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

(Psalms 137:1–4)

I picture harps hanging, forgotten, on the pale birches that flourish in that acid soil. By the poisoned ponds and the coalpits I sat down and wept, I write. I am not the first to have done so. This poem from a community of exiled people has spoken to many grieving or oppressed people through the ages—from abolitionists and civil rights activists to immigrants from all over the globe.

Scholars have written about how the exile literature of the Hebrew Bible can speak to the plight of refugees and migrants as well as survivors of natural disasters and acts of war. I think it speaks to our feelings today, globally, as we face the mounting disaster wrought by our own acts of war against the environment.

In my memories, the despoiled land and the untouched land are connected, so it’s hard to say whether I’m mourning the loss of poisoned ponds or lamenting them as a curse. This is what it means to live in a landscape that is undergoing the radical change of ecological devastation: Our relationship with the Earth is a relationship with something that is already broken. But of course, we are already broken, too. I’m often skeptical about the doctrine of original sin, but when I see the land and what we have done to it, I know something in us has gone seriously wrong. And we spread our wrongness about, wound the Earth with it. This is why we need a poetry that addresses this ambiguity, this mingled sense of reproach and shame, of beauty and desecration.

Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
look, and see our disgrace!
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
our homes to aliens.
We have become orphans, fatherless;
our mothers are like widows.
We must pay for the water we drink;
the wood we get must be bought.
With a yoke on our necks we are hard driven;
we are weary, we are given no rest.
We have made a pact with Egypt and Assyria,
to get enough bread.
Our ancestors sinned; they are no more,
and we bear their iniquities.

(Lamentations 5:1–7)

What we have experienced here in coal country for decades—the actual destruction of landscapes, the loss of beloved natural places—is what the rest of the developed world is about to experience. Between the loss of ecosystems to climate change, the devastation of landscapes by industry, and the entire upheaval of cultures due to global unrest, humanity is looking toward a future of loss—of exile from our beloved places, from our shared past.

Our beaches are being eaten away. Glaciers are melting. And now, as I write this, I learn daily of new—and necessary—restrictions on travel to stop the spread of a global pandemic. We feel ourselves exiled not only from friends and family but also from the places we love. I wonder when I will see the barrier islands or mountains of North Carolina again, whether I will ever again visit London or Rome. People are finding themselves stranded in unfamiliar places. While we are reminded anew of our responsibility to think globally, the largeness of the world and our lack of control over what happens in it make us cherish the known places—the home places—even more.

While I am increasingly distrustful of the kind of religion that offers easy answers and cheap grace, I find the religious sense evoked by the exile poetry of Psalms, Lamentations, and the books of the prophets to be strangely compelling. This poetry gives me the words I need when I look at what we have done to the Earth and how these changes will soon drastically alter our lives. This poetry of lamentation and exile comforts me not because of any comfort or promises offered but because it allows us to voice a profound grief without flinching from self-laceration. We must pay for the water we drink; the wood we get must be bought—how apt, and how shattering.

Contemporary Western culture has forgotten its rituals of grief, grown uncomfortable with addressing collective shame. But we may be moving into a time when we must face the kind of communal reckoning the Israelites faced when they were taken into captivity. These writings from centuries past provide us with a language for expressing lamentation and collective guilt—but also love and longing. At a time when religion is so easily used as a tool for domination, these writings offer us a spirituality of antidomination and a poetics of ritual grief for the religious and nonreligious alike as we move into our future, our exile. 

This article also appears in the July issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 7, pages 12-14). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Flickr.com/The U.S. National Archives