Sunday, September 16, 2012

Controlled Burn

Another Rosh Hashanah sermon from the files. May the new year bring us a rich harvest of joy and reflection.

Controlled Burn

Creating a prairie required an acre of dead grass, apparently. Somehow the trees survived whatever killing agent the Chicago Park District had laid down; they remained broad and green despite the dry, brown lawn stretching out around them. The same paths wound through the dead zone as through the untouched landscape. Only a big sign announcing the inception of the Burnham Prairie Project let you know that this acre of partial death was premedtiated, and geared toward some greater end.
Once prairie covered most of what is now called Illinois. Now, prairie must be installed, after erasing whatever was there before. Was this exact parcel of land once a prairie, or was it a swamp full of stinking onion? Could this truly be called restoration? Glancing at the project as my bus rumbled by on Lake Shore Drive, I found it hard not be cynical, not to dismiss the project as a Disneyland of flora, simulating what could never be again or maybe never was.
I was not opposed to landscaping with prairie plants. I had ripped out my own little patch of urban lawn and replaced it with native perennials once it was clear that the gas company, after running a new meter line underground, had patched up our yard with grub-infested sod. I had always wanted to get rid of the grass anyway: it took more time to drag the mower up front from the garage than it did to mow. Now I had weeding to do, mostly in the spring, but the plants would reestablish their residency soon enough. They were dependable ornaments, requiring no feeding or other fussing. They knew how to take care of themselves in the summer heat, letting their leaves droop during the dry spells, guarding their moisture inside their hard, fuzzy stems. They also looked right for this flat, Midwestern locale: quietly pretty, sometimes a bit ungainly or informal, but pleasant for all that.
Still, as the bus rolled past this blighted stretch of as-yet unrestored landscape, I was struck more by the evidence of eradication, undistinguished as this grassy area had been, than by the sign’s promise of a more decorative future. On the other side of the road, a ragged line of trees hid the vacant lots created when the projects were imploded but nothing was put in their place. After the leaves came down, in winter, you could see the rubble and naked dirt. This city knows all too well about renewal as a euphemism for erasure.
I had been pondering the nature of renewal during my commutes, reading texts about it from the mystical tradition in Judaism; when I looked up from my book, I also found a lesson in scene on the side of the road. My reading of these texts and my viewing of the prairie’s unfolding taught me that whether renewal takes the form of encouraging the return of what once was, or the emergence of what should have been, those undertaking the process must recognize that it is an act of creation, requiring care and commitment to an ongoing process of growth. True renewal must be undertaken with humility and sensitivity, because it requires the destruction of what was there before. It must involve risk and perhaps even pain, no matter how untenable the situation might be that needs changing.
The prairie itself embodies renewal, especially in the guise of transformation through destruction. During a springtime visit, a notice inside the Trailside Museum in the Cook County Forest Preserve warned visitors about controlled burns in the area. Another notice in the flower beds just outside the door explained that, here too, a controlled burn had taken place. You could see the black marks where some flammable liquid had been poured in neat, curving lines, and then lit. Prairies need fire, the notice explained. Old or invasive growth needs to be cleared away. Some native plant seeds even need the scorching to germinate.
Trained professionals start these fires now, we were told, not lightening in the dry grass; they keep them from getting out of hand. Do not try this at home, was the implicit warning, although I was tempted to squirt curving lines into my own garden. I wanted to see if I could make new life out of burning. I wanted to be the one who made the flames rise, who watched them do their work, and then squelched them when the time was right, smoke rising from the smoldering flowerbed. To be honest, I was also hoping that the clover and crabgrass and other weeds that I was always battling would have the kind of seeds that are not encouraged by fire. I really hate weeding. Fortunately for our neighbors and for the underwriter on our homeowners’ insurance, my partner convinced me to leave my pyromaniacal urges unfulfilled.
Fortunate, too, as I learned from my textual explorations, because true renewal does not assert power, but relinquishes it; it requires the “I” to exist in conversation with the “thou,” to use Martin Buber’s terms. As Adin Steinsaltz says when writing about the Jewish concept of t’shuvah (literally “turning”; often translated as repentance), it “does not bring a sense of serenity or of completion but stimulates a reaching out in further effort” (The Thirteen Petalled Rose, p. 132). For Steinsaltz, t’shuvah is “a constant process of going toward,” the ultimate goal of which “lies beyond the correction of sinful deeds and the creation of independent, new patterns,” but “is reached when the change and the correction penetrate the very essence of the sins once committed and, as the sages say, create the condition in which a man’s transgressions become his merits” (p. 135). Inspired by Steinsaltz’s comments, Lawrence Kushner claims:
Ultimately, teshuvah is nothing less than a willingness to die and become one again with one’s Creator. It is clicking on the computer software button that says, “Restore default configuration.” (The Way into Jewish Mystical Tradition, p. 110)
This default configuration is oneness with God: to perform true t’shuvah is to connect with the Source of all creation and possibility, and make that connection manifest in the world. Or, as Steinsaltz puts it, “The penitent thus does more than return to his proper place. He performs an act of amendment of cosmic significance; he restores the sparks of holiness which had been captured by the powers of evil” (Thirteen, p. 136).
According to the Jewish mystical tradition, creation by its very nature depends upon dissolution. The Maggid of Mezeritch argues:
Nothing is able to change from one form to another – for example, an egg that would hatch into a chick, without first completely nullifying its present form, which is to say, the egg. Only then will another form be able to come forth from it. It is this way with everything in the world: it must attain the level of Ayin, Nothingness. Then it will be able to become something else. (Maggid Devarav Le-Yaakov, sec. 30; quoted in Kushner, p. 33)
In the Jewish mystical understanding, creation did not happen once and for all; it happens continually, every moment. The world that we see, Yesh, or Somethingness, came into being at one point, but it would cease to exist without the sustaining energy of Ayin, or Nothingness – not an empty nothingness, but a complete No-one-thingness, the ocean that at every moment can become, is, and has been individual waves, but is not merely the particular waves themselves. When we become aware of Ayin, Levi Ytizchak teaches, “then the Name of God, as it were, enters the present tense and God’s Name becomes the One who creates, even at this very moment!” When we “[return] to the level of Yesh,” however, “the Name of the Creator then reverts to [the past tense] “…the One who created” (Levi Yitzchak, 1:1, quoted in Kushner, p. 22). The prairie blooms, dries up, and comes to life again through the application of both fire and water; this cycle parallels the way in which t’shuvah creates new life: cleansing fire and healing water create new structures which embody Creation, a continually renewing force.

In time, the dead grass of the Prairie Project was succeeded by naked earth marked with an array of red, pink, and yellow flags. I saw an elderly man there one afternoon, sitting in a metal folding chair at the edge of the field of markers, most likely just taking some air and enjoying the late summer sun, but looking to me like he was keeping this expanse of earth company while it waited for its (re)new(ed) state to become visible. And it did, slowly: green growth filled in around the little flags, so that even when plain dirt could still be seen, and the plants had not yet reached their mature height and bloomed, I had to strain to remember what the scene looked like before.
This unassuming pageant of prairie restoration reminded me that its human planners could take advantage of a capacity for growth which they – I – did not share. At the “L” station where I started and ended my daily commute, spindly stands of Queen Anne’s Lace, unafraid to blossom anywhere, graced the cracks along the concrete abutment that separated the train tracks from the Eisenhower Expressway. With some plants, bidden or unbidden, their seeds are present, and they grow. How much more so when they are planted and tended?
Prairie plants are unself-consciously hardy, engineered for renewal, even seeking the aid of a great consuming fire toward that end; human beings must struggle with fear, complacency, vanity, solipsism, and the human mind’s many other blocks to releasing oneself into a mindful process of change. We must seek out renewal, actively engage it, all the while making sure that our intention is not merely to improve the self, but to reach out beyond the self, to make our words, thoughts, and deeds reflect the not-one-thingness which is the Source of creation as it happens every moment. That is our burning, the fire which sets us free to become what we once were, or should have been: the very embodiment of change.

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