Skip to main content

The great American poet Wallace Stevens stated:

“..true religious force in the world is not the church, but the world itself — the mysterious calling of Nature and our responses…The priest in me worshiped one God at one shrine; the poet another God at another shrine. The priest worshipped Mercy and Love; the poet, Beauty and Might.”

The dichotomy of the two “shrines” that Wallace Stevens noticed in himself captures well the modern struggle between art and religion, or perhaps more accurately, nature and religion. In that struggle, Art navigates the two paths, or is forced to vacillate between them. The split makes it difficult to speak of Creation Care in our pragmatic, utility driven culture, or even in academic discourse. Like Stevens, we struggle to capture where God is located in modern times.

How are we to navigate the divided terrain? Is there a path that will bring us nearer to seeing God both in religious traditions and nature, together? Can the God who created all there is, and God the Poet who sang creation into being, give us guidance to lead us into Creation Care?

What I call Culture Care naturally flows out of these concerns. The divided terrain causes an immediate polarity as we speak of Creation Care; there is an immediate breakdown of communication. We need a language of reconciliation embedded in the soil of culture before we can sow seeds of Creation Care. Further, Culture Care assumes a stance that is far removed from the “we versus them” mentality of the culture wars.

St Paul writes in his epistle to the Galatians: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22). What I offer as “Culture Care” is a consideration of the work of the Spirit in culture. In other words, we ask not just how I or you may be doing as a follower of Christ; we also ask audaciously, “how is our culture doing?” When one ponders this, it seems clear that for all the talk in the church about being filled with the Spirit, and despite our individual focus on personal spiritual formation, we exhibit very little evidence of such spiritual fruit as the Body of Christ and in the larger culture. We may argue that we should have these qualities in the church, but cannot expect that to spill over into the world. Okay…then, I ask, what does the world perceive to be the culture of the church? The world sees Sunday morning as the most segregated hour of the week. Instead of exhibiting qualities that Christians understand to be the fruit of the Spirit, Christianity today (especially American Evangelicalism) is seen in the world as exhibiting an outward face of hatred instead of love, fear instead of joy, anxiousness instead of peace, judgmentalism instead of forbearance, jealous exclusion instead of kindness, narcissism instead of goodness, fear filled cynicism instead of faithfulness, rage instead of self-control. We need to ponder why, despite what we desire to be Spirit filled people, the world does not see us exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit.

There is a link between the culture of the church and the culture of the world. The church is supposed to take the lead to provide an oasis of safety, to be a birthplace for culture and care for our world. Culture Care is to reset how the gospel is to be played out into the wider world — to lead from the margins of culture into a place of shalom. If the church is not birthing culture by making, we will always be on the defensive, without the language of generative possibilities.

As I ruminate on these thoughts, it occurs to me that two American writers stand out as giving us maps to navigate this condition of complexity, and provide us the needed language of reconciliation: Emily Dickinson and Rachel Carson. Dickinson’s writings stitch their way into a place of longing; Carson’s awaken in us the minute particulars of concern for the sea and the worthiness of nature. Both writers are prophetic in our modern ears. Both of them gave considerable care to the divides. Both also struggled with that gap between religion and nature, as Wallace Stevens did; but they point beyond, to craft a language and the world of generative possibilities — the possibilities of the New Creation. I am not suggesting that these writers were perfected souls whose lives did not share the same struggles of our mortal souls. But their art points, through these flaws, failures and brokenness, toward what is New. And such authentic language can heal the divides and bring Creation Care conversations into Culture Care, a way to see culture as an abundant ecosystem rather than a limited resource with territories to defend and fight over, as in the Culture Wars of our flesh. Our ears cannot hear anymore, because of the bombardment constantly raging in our airwaves. Any talk of environmental stewardship is immediately hijacked by those who claim different political agendas, and may even be perceived as a threat to industry. We need a new language of generatively, and these American writers provide us with that language.

There is a garden at Amherst, Massachusetts that Frederick Olmsted, the master designer of Central Park, visited when he travelled there. He knew only that the garden belonged to the son of Edward Dickinson, a noted politician of Amherst. Austin Dickinson and his family took care of the garden. Olmsted never met the real force behind these renowned garden designs. With her Irish workers, Emily Dickinson spent much time cultivating flowers, especially ones that would survive the cutting, to be given away to the neighbors in need, with her baked goods that she is known to have won prizes for. Her “black cake” or coconut cake often came with her flowers, and her poems.

None of the poems she gave away survive, but the recipes do. At an exhibit at the Poet’s House in downtown Manhattan, where I used to live, I noticed something very peculiar about the way she wrote her recipes. There is a formal script that she learned well as a groomed young lady of Amherst. Many of her letters come in that formal calligraphy. But her recipes use a rather informal writing of playfulness, intimacy and joy. Now, guess which type of writing she used for her poems? Her poems use the writing style akin to her recipes, not her formal letters. Her poems were recipes for our lives, given away freely to the world.

Emily quipped once that the only commandment she ever obeyed was “Consider the Lilies.” An interesting comment, as it is true that Jesus’s statement in Matthew 6 is a command: we are not to be anxious about our daily toil, but should trust our Father’s gift. To observe nature closely with a poet’s eye is to consider the lilies. You consider them as a gardener/poet; you till the soil in which these bulbs will be planted and buried. You consider them through the harsh winter, through the snow-covered barren days in Amherst, and underneath the ground, cold and darkness set in motion the rooting necessary for the flowers to emerge in the spring.

In 1879, she wrote a poem we know today as “The Humming-bird” (Dickinson rarely put titles, but this one she named at the end, but she named it “Humming” “-” “bird”):

The Humming-bird

A route of evanescence With a revolving wheel; A resonance of emerald, A rush of cochineal; And every blossom on the bush Adjusts its tumbled head, - The mail from Tunis, probably, An easy morning’s ride.

This playful poem is an illumination. The mention of emerald and cochineal burgundy dye extracted from a little Indian beetle, a dye that I use in my work, only reinforces the pictorial quality of her poems. Her mention of Tunis, a North African city, connotes exotic adventure within a place where splendors of the past are hidden and revealed. Because she spent her life almost exclusively in Amherst, Tunis serves more as a mental location than a physical one. Her references to foreign cities are comparable to van Gogh’s perceptions of “Japan” — a foreign place of paradise inaccessible to the artist. There is an Edenic consciousness at work here. But her language even move beyond Eden as such a journey is an outward journey toward the future New. The “route of evanescence” of a hummingbird lends such exotic splendor to a mail carrier’s ordinary “morning ride.” This is a good example of how the very structure of Dickinson’s writings seem to visually echo what she saw and observed in nature— the iambic rhythm of these verses, the slant rhymes (wheel/cochineal, head/ride) alternating between verses, and the alliterations (resonance/rush, tumbled/Tunis) that weave in and out of her poems like a humming-bird seeking nectar.

She delicately layered slant rhymes and alliteration. They act as visual devices precisely because they are not full rhymes. We should note here that the editors of her day offered to publish her poems, but only if she took out the hyphens and dashes, and they offered assistance to turn her half rhymes into whole ones. She never published again. Hyphens and dashes are “unnecessary” for information, yes, but to Emily they represented herself; that “unnecessary” part was her. There are reasons why she made half rhymes. She was struggling to understand a world that does not rhyme fully. When young boys of Amherst return in coffins with their limbs gone, it does not seem to make sense to keep rhyming whole. We live also in time that does not rhyme fully. There are dire warnings that our earth is depleted and abandoned. In such a time, we need poets to remind us to behold, and so that we can hear ourselves, to remind ourselves why we live. We can live as humming-birds, which has been called the “miracle birds” as they have to consume, in human scale, over 155,000 calories a day. How could such creatures exist?

In her hesitant rhyme schemes, we are forced to examine words visually, and see the echoes, rather than settle on sounds perfectly aligned. The reader can sense the poet’s childlike, playful exuberance as she feels these words: when she sees the tiny dash of a bird and its many sudden pauses represented in the dash of the title. The fantastical allusion of “mail from Tunis” suggests a sense of anticipation, as if the bird is a letter from an unexpected source, even from a foreign country. Hummingbirds migrate over 500 miles non stop. We, the readers who know that, are the “blossom of the bush”, “[adjusting] its tumbled head” in anticipation of the arrival of the miraculous. The poem is a numinous painting, with many layers and colors of overlapping sounds, images, and meaning.

Emily Dickinson acutely observed a singular, momentary event, only seconds long, and she expanded that glimpse of that micro-experience into a vast adventure. This is the nature of the poetic gift—the poet takes a quick glance, a moment most of us would not even see, and expands it to a cosmic level of significance. There is Eucharistic reality to her words, or at least a longing toward that transport of the spirit into matter, a humble but profound mystery.

Those not live yet
Who doubt to live again —
“Again” is of twice
But this — is one —
The Ship beneath the Draw
Aground — is he?
Death — so — the Hyphen of the Sea —
Deep is the Schedule
Of the Disk to be
Costumeless Consciousness —
That is he —

Hyphens/dashes are liminal: floating about in the structures of a poem, hovering in between heaven and earth, between the spirit and the material. Hyphens are to poetic expression what poets are to society: a quiet and surprising intrusion, even an agitating pause, tempting society to edit them out for the sake of clarity. Yet fundamentally it is the most needed pause, a sanity in the chaotic survival game of life. Such was the life of Emily Dickinson: she was to become the “hyphen of the sea” of modernism. She spoke into, and even created within, a liminal space, in between a forced split between the rational and the intuitive, in between religion and nature. The dash divides and connects the medieval world and our own liquid modernity. She stood outside of the conventional means of “success,” entered popular consciousness without needing to resort to the path of acceptance — either by the commoditization of her art, or by acceptance into the elite literary circles.

Emily Dickinson’s hyphens leave the reader suspended between her words. Her hyphens are as important as the individual words that come before and after them. She, in this sense, works as a bridge to bring Franciscan theology into our times, a bridge to a world in which the birds, plants and animals were named and celebrated, a time in which theology, theatre, art and mystery co-existed. Like medieval illuminators, she envisioned in the margins of her words, and the dashes give her a holding place for irreducible ideas.

When she writes, “Those not live yet/ Who doubt to live again —” (1454) her words move in and out of a threshold, planting themselves into the terrains of darkness, and then elevating above ground as if to bring us out of a stupor. We are like those tulip bulbs she planted, being warmed by the spring sun. Here, the cadence of the poem forces the reader to read the first “live” as in “alive,” (“live” in conventional way of reading to read “Those not live yet” will break up the rhythm) while the second stanza reads conventionally “doubt to live.” What we have is a “visual rhyme” accentuated by the repetition (both literally and figuratively) of themes, reinforced by the word “Again.”

“Again” is of twice
But this — is one —

“A” is repeated, and forced, as in the first stanza; we are forced to add an “a” in our minds to read “Those not (a)live yet,” and this “invisible a” is then picked up as a significant marker to our reading of the poem. Emily Dickinson forces us to pay attention to the liminal, to give weight to the smallest of the details. She is making us aware of the invisible nature of what being “alive” means. She is teaching us to behold.

The young men of Amherst who came home in coffins, they are like the ships that never left the harbor, youth whose lives are never allowed to become “alive,” alive in order to see the fulfillment of their potential. Without the “a” we are merely “live,” incomplete and never “alive.” But “Again” without the “A” is also a “gain,” a play on the same principle, as if to give a fresh meaning into what a “gain” really is.

What is she referring to? She is speaking of the promise of the resurrection, in which life is taken up in death to be with God, but then reunited with the body, when Heaven and Earth will be fused. The hyphens, therefore, lead into the New Creation. “Again is of twice” is the profound repetition of the promise of the Bible, prompting the Bishop N. T. Wright to speak of the mystery of the resurrection as “the life after life after death.” For Dickinson, such promise is fully understood not just from the perspective of faith, but also of doubt (“Who doubt to live again”). And such mental vacillation makes her hard to pin down ideologically and theologically. Some have suggested her poems have a Buddhistic tone of reincarnation, but rather than see this as circular patterns of reincarnation, it’s more accurate to read her words as a sacramental movement, an upward vortex toward the New Creation.

It makes sense, then, that beyond the “Hyphen of the Sea” belies the “Schedule/of the Disk to be.” Like a circadian rhythm of nature, or the tide of the ocean, the rhythm of life and death take on the mystery the depth of time. “Disk” can be, as noted by many, a sun or a moon in its regular courses, appearing and reappearing, in its “death” and “life,” as it were. But visually speaking, a disk is a halo of angels and saints whose “Costumeless Consciousness” bodes beyond the veil. Here the words offer alternative pronunciations: “Sch(K)edule” can be pronounced as “Shedule,” echoing then the forced alliteration into “Coschumeless Conchiousness.” The rhythm of the words read, and the nuances of the sounds, create gentle waves of the sea, a lullaby for our age of doubt.

In this poem, she calls “Death (dash) so (dash) Hyphen of the Sea —” The very presence of the word “hyphen” she suspends between dashes. Like the names of the dead, they are caught between reality and imagination, between life and death, between clarity and ambiguity.

And while they are to make a reader pause, to break the flow of words, they are also there to create another form of visual imagery. The dashes are stitches weaving in and out of her liquid words, her gentle but aggressive operation on the dis-eased body of industry and war, sutures to close the wounds of the incisions made into our dehumanized, torn world.

If Death is indeed “the Hyphen on the Sea” of life, a pause before the appearance of our “Costumeless Consciousness,” then what does the dashes themselves signify? To Emily Dickinson, the dash was the most idiosyncratic visage of a poet, her most endearing creation. To me, Dickinson’s hyphens point us toward the New Creation.

…And Rachel Carson’s writings. “One way to open our eyes is to ask yourself, what is I had never seen this before? What if I would never see it again.” A single mother of creation care. Emily Dickinson found her solitude in her bedroom in Amherst. Rachel Carson’s solitary journey as a woman began as a marine biologist who needed to take care of her aging parents, and later her ill sister and her sister’s child (who Carson would eventually adopt). But a bureaucratic job in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife office in Baltimore gave her an opportunity to write down what she was observing. If Dickinson considered the lilies, Carson considered the ocean, with care-filled, scientific precision. Her observations about the sea do not seem prophetic, or remotely dangerous to the status quo. But her words changed the world. I believe that her words are just as powerful, just as prophetic, as Dr. Martin King Jr.’s speeches. She dreamt of a world in which we neither take nature as our adversary nor take Nature’s gifts for granted.

We must recall that when she began to write, creation care, or even the word “environmentalism”, was not even a footnote. There was no concept or language for protecting the environment. Man was to win against nature, and there was no place for a woman to write against such inevitable domination. If you watched Terrance Malick’s “Tree of Life” you saw the children in the streets of Waco dancing about while being sprayed by clouds of DDT. DDT saved lives from malaria and it needs now take over the streets of Waco, and chemical companies are to make money by providing such a benefit to society. But Carson saw a sinister shadow. She began to collect data on the effect of manmade chemicals on the environment. Before long, she was writing against some of the most powerful industrial forces of chemical companies, whilst feeding her family by herself, and later battling her own breast cancer. Before she wrote that manifesto which literally reshaped our environmental activism, Silent Spring, she wrote another book, a masterpiece of precise, exquisite sentences. Here a paragraph from The Sea Around Us :

The activities of the microscopic vegetables of the sea, of which the diatoms are most important, make the mineral wealth of the water available to the animals. Feeding directly on the diatoms and other groups of minute unicellular algae are the marine protozoa, many crustaceans, the young of crabs, barnacles, sea worms, and fishes. Hordes of the small carnivores, the first link in the chain of flesh eaters, move among these peaceful grazers. There are fierce little dragons half an inch long, the sharp-jawed arrow-worms. There are gooseberry-like comb jellies, armed with grasping tentacles, and there are the shrimp like euphausiids that straw food from the water with their bristly appendages. Since they drift where the currents carry them, with no power or will to oppose that of the sea, this strange community of creatures and the marine plants that sustain them are called “plankton,” a word driven from the Greek, meaning “wandering.”

Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

I read these description of the minutia of the sea, and found myself deeply moved. I wondered why: How could a series of objective details of the ocean move me so much? Then I began to notice a chiasmus built into this paragraph. It hinges on the phrase “small carnivore” at the middle of the paragraph. Everything in this paragraph hinges on the word “small.” How can you tell? Try removing that word and the connected words, and entire paragraph does not work. “Hordes of carnivores” does not have the power of the juxtaposition of contrasts that the expression “Hordes of small carnivores” carries. Notice, then, how this one word “small” is echoed and amplified throughout the paragraph. “Microscopic vegetables,” “diatoms,” “minute unicellular algae,” “fierce little dragons.” And the paragraph concludes with a stunning sentence, a shifting tide of rhythm, meaning and intrigue: “Since they drift where the currents carry them, with no power or will to oppose that of the sea, this strange community of creatures and the marine plants that sustain them are called ‘plankton’, a word driven from the Greek, meaning ‘wandering’.”

Carson is not just describing the ocean and its inhabitants. She is seeing in the “wandering” plankton her own soul. Just as much as Emily Dickinson saw herself in the dashes and hyphens, Carson saw herself to be “small.” She wrote a sentence that completely depends on the adjectives. That is the point: She feels like an adjective, an addendum, powerless in a world in which such tender care to the minute particulars would be a nuisance dismissed by the powerful. And yet, in the strange community of creatures represented by plankton, she identifies the invisible power of nature. The vertical, linear descriptors that echo the word “small” create an empathetic chorus that sings with her and enlists us to join the choir. These words do not just accurately inform us of the ocean; they are an invocation and benediction to invite us to a feast, as we are the ocean waves.

I used to assume that culture care is a natural extension of creation care. That writers like Rachel Carson would lead the way by transitioning from ecological concerns to caring for culture at large. But then I realized that such care has to find its voice in words woven carefully. Creation care efforts can be easily be hijacked by Culture Wars polarization. To write well is to create an antidote to divisive language and culture. The arts can provide the antidote for our polarized culture, or be conscripted into skirmishes of Culture Wars front lines. In Carson’s writings, there is Culture Care before there is Creation Care. An artist can be a prophetic, poetic healing voice, but words of transgression can serve as a propaganda for predetermined ideologies. The carefully drawn words of Carson and Dickinson provide for us a map toward Creation Care. Carson fulfills Dickinson’s dashes and hyphens and fills them with small wonders. Her words cascade in a collective awe, and at the end of the paragraph, we, too, are wandering plankton in the ocean full of life and mystery. (We see why she was so effective, a plankton David fighting the Goliath Chemical Companies. Before even the first stone is thrown, the stage is set and her words direct and frame the trajectory of the battle. Goliath has no chance; the victory is hers already. Her caring words of sea creatures serve as her small stones.)

Small carnivores and dashes. That two women writers have had this much impact speaks of the power of words — perhaps one can say the power of dashes and adjectives. To write is to tap into such a surprising source of the power of the New.

The New is generative, and moves beyond status quo and sustainability.

There is a particular word that is used when the New Testament speaks of the New, as in 2 Cor. 5:17 — which, roughly translated, goes like this:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

(2 Cor. 5:17 ESVi, my modification)

The Greek word used here for “new” is kainos. I define kainos to be “New newness.” In other words, kainos is a new category. It’s akin to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. Yes, it is transformation, but it’s more that — it’s transfiguration (metamorphoo, a word Paul used that is often translated as “transformation”, but it should be transfiguration). I may even go further and say that kainos is not just a new species, but a new concept of what a species is. When I speak of generativity, I am speaking of the potential that each one of us, even in our ordinary days, has to attain this new newness. I believe such potential is often found in the margins of human experiences: in the dashes, in the minute creatures, in the gratuitous, in the discarded, in the exiled voices of poets and artists.

All artists seek the New; great ones redefine what newness is.

Before Rachel Carson, there was no language for creation care coming forth from marine sciences. Before Emily Dickinson, no one dared to write over 1800 poems and hide them in neatly stitched fascicles. What it means to observe, to capture, to behold — what it means to long for a world restored and made new — what it means to hide such a precious collection — such is the effort of poets and artists. Carson and Dickinson gave us this “new newness,” and opened up the possibility of future discourse about a world that is fundamentally different from what they saw, a world in which our worth is defined and delimited by industrial pragmatism.

Rachel Carson stated: “I am not afraid of being thought a sentimentalist when I stand here tonight and tell you that I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society. I believe that whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man’s spiritual growth.”

Stewardship of creation needs to be led by poets, writers, musicians, dancers, directors, artists and architects. They are the catalysts for this “spiritual growth” into the New. We live in a day and age in which preachers no longer speak of the New; they speak of fixing the world, or they speak of the apocalyptic End instead of the New. When industries no longer can define us or our work, or can no longer define our communities, and when the luminaries of our time believe in this Singularity that would reduce us to machines. When we ignore the pauses, the silences in between; when we can segment our data to reproduce human speech; when we ignore the prosaic in our complexity of our beings, reductivism will always short-change us to be less than our full potential, or far worse.

The abundant diversity of Creation is a celebration. It is a dance. It is the highest realm of God’s theater. But in order to celebrate, we need first a language of abundance and delight; we need a feast of “Love, (of) joy, (of) peace, (of) patience, (of) kindness, (of) goodness, (of) faithfulness, and (of) self-control.” Culture Care language injects such possibilities and will usher in Creation Care. The hyphens and dashes that editors took out of Dickinson’s poems articulate for us the path of the unnecessary, of the exuberant, of the extravagant abundance in which “small carnivores” can thrive under the watchful delight of Carson, and they lead us into the delight of Creation and the Feast of New Creation.