Listening to the Forest and Learning to Care

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During Lent, the College Chapel Choir of the University of King’s College is singing Choral Evensong at All Saints Cathedral, Halifax, on Wednesday afternoons at 5 p.m. Each Wednesday, a member of the King’s College Community has been asked to offer short reflections (8 minutes) on the question “Why Care?” The larger context for this question is the recognition that ‘acedia’, or ‘listless indifference’, is the spiritual disease of our time, which can bring us to lethargy or meaningless frenetic activity. Speakers were asked to explore what has drawn them away from indifference, taught them to care, and given meaning and shape to what they do.

The following is the text for the reflections offered by King’s College President William Lahey, the first speaker in the series, who spoke on March 13.

Listening to the Forest and Learning to Care

I can’t start these reflections on why we should care without taking a moment to speak of my parents, Raymond and Patricia, who raised a family of eight children on a poultry farm and woodlot on the Miramichi—in what many King’s people know as the country of David Adams Richards.

They were devout people—their lives together exemplified the two great commandments on which hang “all the Law and the Prophets,” to love God and thy neighbours as thyself. Every evening during Lent, after supper and before evening barn work, all of us were on our knees to say the rosary, each person kneeling at one of the kitchen chairs, as the day’s last light came through the windows. My brother and I looked longingly out those windows, at our friends playing hockey on the ice that formed every spring in our front field, solely we thought, to torment us.

My father, who is now 96, will be saying the rosary tonight with my sisters who live nearby, quite possibly at this very hour. My mother, if she were alive, would be thrilled to know her son was offering Lenten reflections, in the Anglican Cathedral in Halifax no less. She would take satisfaction knowing I now have a job which virtually requires me to go to church, sometimes twice a week. The first she would see as improbable—the second, as revenge.

If I have avoided the ”temptation to indifference” and been “taught to care,” I owe it largely to my parents and to their example.

It surprised me that “listless indifference” is the spiritual disease of our time. It made me realize that I have always been surrounded by people who care about what they are doing and are highly engaged in what they care about. Indifference has never struck me as option or temptation. I have never had to be drawn away from it or to struggle to find “meaning and shape to what I do.” I have always had interesting and fulfilling work, surrounded by people doing interesting and fulfilling work. Part of that fulfillment are the opportunities I have had to make a difference in the Maritimes, where I was born and raised with a sense of pride in where I am from and a sense of mission to make it better. That sense of place—of knowing where I belong—is another legacy of my upbringing. Purpose and parochialism go together for me.

I know I am very fortunate: many do not have work that fulfills and yet they toil to pay for those, like me, who do. I appreciate also that the opposite of indifference (or of lethargy) is not necessarily caring, if by caring we mean something more than being actively interested in something. Ambition, greed, rivalry, pride, as well as the fear of failure, can all prevent indifference without producing caring. My own avoidance of indifference is not immune: I have been motivated by ambition for and pride in accomplishments and recognition, by insecurity, and by a feeling of responsibility and a fear of failure that are captured in the saying “from those to whom much has been given, much is expected.”

What the world needs, what people need, what I need, is caring based on concern and love for life, people, nature … in other words, love for the creation of God, as well as for the creations of people on which we all, especially the poor and marginalized, depend, be it church, city, government, hospital or university. It is this kind of caring that not only banishes indifference but replaces it with who and what is cared for rather than with the ambitions, insecurities, pride, fears or sense of obligation of those who care.

I have started to feel this transition in my own life and work, and I am exceedingly grateful for it. I am striving to abandon the arrogance of being a problem solver for others and to embrace the contribution I can make by putting experience at the service of others.  I am intent on being a listener who absorbs and is guided by the wisdom of others and by experience and insight beyond and outside of my own.

You may have heard of what the media calls “The Lahey Report,” but which is, in reality, the work of a team of smart, knowledgeable and caring people. It calls for a new ecological paradigm for forestry—forestry to protect and enhance ecosystems and biodiversity, not simply to minimize its adverse impact on them. Unlike my other contributions to environmental policy, the report does not seek a more environmentally friendly balance between the environment and the economy by treating them as equals. Instead, the report accepts that we must allow ecosystems and biodiversity to be our guides in determining where the balance lies, because they are the foundational values. It is we who must accommodate ourselves to them.

Two experiences led me to that approach. The first was the roughly two years I had by then spent at King’s, away from the pragmatic culture of law, learning to again appreciate that while rights, duties, processes and systems are the essential mechanisms of modern life, human flourishing depends on love, beauty, kindness, compassion and justice. It also depends on our essential need to love and to be embraced by nature.

The second experience was meeting with Mi’kmaq foresters. As with others, I asked them how forestry should identify forests that can be cut intensively and those that should be cut selectively, or not at all. Their answer was the simplest and most profound answer I got—that we had only to listen to the forests and follow what they are telling us about what they can provide and how they can provide it.

This answer was consistent with much of the scientific evidence and analysis I heard from those who taught me about forestry managed to replicate what ecologists call “natural disturbance regimes.” But it said so much more than analysis and evidence could convey.

It said we need a world view that puts nature in the centre and people in nature with all of the other parts of creation that together make a forest a sacred, living, beautiful and awesome thing—a thing of reverence.

As I was finishing the forestry report, the idea of listening to the forest—of learning how to listen to them—came again on a forest walk on a trip to British Columbia. There, among some of the most majestic trees on earth, a plaque memoralized these words from the writer Herman Hesse:

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

These words suggested that the Mi’kmaq wisdom of “listening to the forests” captured something that lives in the hearts of us all, if we are attentive to it, guided by love for each other as well as the forests. Looking back, this is what my father was saying to me as we walked and worked together in our woods while he told me the stories of our family’s history. I now realize, better than I did then, that they were stories about how our family and our neighbours had been cared for across five generations by the trees that surrounded us.

Two weeks ago I was thinking about this theme of listening as the foundation for caring as I listened to the Rev. Dr. Tom Curran give one of his revelatory sermons in the King’s College Chapel. He quoted the following words from the Epistle of St. James: “and so let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”

Tonight, I have not spoken to you about wrath—I only say that when it comes to our relationship with nature, it is not the wrath of man we should be concerned about. What I have been speaking to you about is caring that is “swift to hear, slow to speak.” Better than I can, these words express my desire to turn my lack of indifference into true caring, not only in how I might yet contribute to my place of belonging but also in how I live as son, husband and father, friend, teacher, President, faithful servant, and human being.

William Lahey, President, University of King’s College, March 13, 2019