Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The God of Bird's Nests

"If you happen to come upon a bird's nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young."--Deuteronomy 22:6

This verse kept going through my head yesterday when we were at the state capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky, protesting against mountaintop removal, a form of coal mining that is devastating the mountains of America. There were about 800 of us there, united by a common goal: to save the mountains, and our waterways, which are being forever affected by the ravages of this irresponsible form of coal mining.

I don't know where the Bible verse came from...I don't even remember ever being taught this verse. But there it was, and it was a comfort throughout the day. While out there protesting it was empowering to see all those people standing up for what they believed in. Walking up the capitol steps holding that sign of protest (NOT ONE MORE MILE) while chanting with everyone else ("Whose mountains? Our mountains! Whose streams? Our streams! Whose future? Our future!") was a really moving thing.

Even more moving to me were the faces of all the people there who were fighting against Big Business and standing up for what is right.

Yes, Ashley Judd was there, and that's been widely publicized. But she was not there as the movie star Ashley Judd. She was there as a concerned citizen, a proud Appalachian, someone who always cares for the bird's nest. People like to criticize celebrities when they speak out. They say they don't want someone famous "telling them what to believe." But Judd was simply there voicing what she believes. And she believes in what she's saying. She gave her time to be there, paid her own way, asked for nothing in return. I introduced her as "a great light," as someone who "loves and loves and loves." She was there because she believes in protecting the environment and she believes in everyone being good to one another. This is a lesson the coal companies and the government and big business would be well-served to learn as well.

There were dozens of children (the youngest was so little she was strapped to her mother's chest), chanting into the bullhorn, holding their signs high above their heads. One teacher, Blossom Brosi, brought over a hundred students from Boyle County High School. That's the kind of teacher who becomes a hero to kids. There were college students, emboldened by the possibility of change. The oldest marcher, Marie Cassidy, is 96 years old.  And I saw so many people who have fought tirelessly and bravely for years and years, now. They are not about to give up. Among them were people like Teri Blanton, Carl Shoupe, Jim Webb, Bev Futtrell, Sue Massek, George Brosi, Connie Brosi, and so many more.

But the person I want to pause to point out particularly is Patty Wallace, a woman from Louisa, Kentucky who has been fighting the coal industry for years. She once told me that she "ran down" a coal truck driver to thank him for driving safely when the companies so often force them to speed to keep up with production. A couple years ago, Patty was interviewed and said: "We may talk funny but our brains work. The coal company says we need more flatland, we need more Wal-Marts ... We're not stupid, but they keep telling us what we need. When they haul the coal out of Black Mountain, it's just like tearing out my heart."

Ironically, Wallace (pictured here, on the right) had a heart stint put in just a few days ago. But she was out there on the march yesterday. According to her friends, Wallace's heart rhythm was struggling. As we came up Capitol Avenue she grew tired, but she refused to stop. Police officers, stationed along the route, offered to drive her on up to the Capitol steps, but she refused. "I can rest while I walk," she said. She was determined to make her voice heard, to stand up for what she believed in, to give of herself to protect the water and the mountains.

Patty Wallace is a protector of bird's nests. And one of my heroes.

But it was a frustrating day, too. It was frustrating to see little children holding jars of polluted well water, polluted by coal companies who claim to be making our land a better place. It was frustrating to see people having to march to save their water, our most precious commodity. It's mind-boggling, like something out of a science fiction novel, that people would actually have to fight for that. It was even more frustrating to know that our governor refused to come out and hear our pleas, even though he did come out to greet coal mining officials on the front steps of the capitol less than a year ago.

What's even more frustrating is that Governor Beshear is a good man who has stood up to the industry in the past. His refusal to come greet us worries me that the industry has gotten through to him, too.

I think what Deut. 22:6 is saying is that we have to be kind to even the smallest creatures. I believe it means that we should be compassionate, and thoughtful, and responsible. And I believe that it means we should not be short-sighted or mean-hearted or greedy. To be good people, the verse says, we must all be protectors of bird's nests.

However, I believe that the Bible is a living thing and that its wisdom is only as good and thick as its readers allow it to be. People have been misconstruing the Bible for ages for their own benefit, and have done a great job of it, using it to hold up slavery, anti-suffrage, and intolerance.

I choose to seek the positive in the Bible. The light. The God I believe in is one of love and compassion, not wrath and jealousy. I believe in a God of Bird's Nests.

The God I believe in is not the one I grew up knowing, though. That was one group of people's God, a group that had molded and shaped the words of the Bible to mean what they wanted them to mean. That's not what I'm trying to do here. But I am turning to the Bible to seek knowledge and wisdom, to help me understand the ways of people and the world. And this is what I have taken from it. To me, finding something of light, something positive, is just as amazing as coming upon a perfect little bird's nest in a low branch. Like my friend and great poet Lisa Parker says of such nests: "It's all in how you carry 'em, brother."

Now that's the truth.

Years and years ago, the coal companies stumbled upon a rich, beautiful bird's nest called Appalachia. But instead of acting with responsibility and taking only what they needed, they took everything: the babies and the mother. The mishandled the nest. They plundered and robbed. They were short-sighted, not looking ahead to the future. Because if you take the mother and the babies, what do you do with the future, when you need more songbirds? You have nothing but an empty nest, tumbling away in the wind.