Monkeyface and Pimpleback

Nancy and I paddled down the Duck River last Saturday, from Cortner Mill, just below Normandy Dam, to Wartrace. It was a gorgeous day, sunny but not too hot, and the mosquitoes apparently had other things to do. We saw several turtles on muddy logs along the banks and watched a heron silently crossing the water in front of us. We even passed a parrot perched on the gunwale of a canoe. The lady in the stern of the boat told us she took the bird, because her kid didn’t want to go paddling with her. Nancy and I kept moving downriver, enjoying every moment of the trip. We weren’t aware, though, that we were on a river teeming below the surface with an almost unsurpassed variety of freshwater animal life.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Duck River is one of three hot spots for fish and mussel diversity in the entire world. With 151 species of fish, 60 freshwater mussel species, and 22 species of aquatic snails, it is generally considered to be the richest river in varieties of freshwater animals on the North American continent. The Duck contains more species of fish than are found in all the rivers of Europe combined. Perhaps we should rename it the Mighty Duck…

Downstream from Columbia is the Yanahli Wildlife Preserve, occupying land which once was meant to be a TVA reservoir. Construction on the Columbia Dam had already begun, when in 1977 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added two mussels, the Cumberland monkeyface and the birdwing pearly mussel, to the endangered species list. In 1999, after years of litigation, the dam, with the concrete work largely completed, was dismantled, at what the folks at wikipedia call “a loss approaching $80,000,000 of public funds.”[1]

Was it a loss? Freshwater mussels have disappeared across much of the United States. But the Duck River is one of a handful of rivers in Tennessee where they have survived and are still thriving, among them the Cumberlandian combshell, the Tennessee pigtoe, the purple wartyback, the pimpleback, the deertoe, and the Duck River darter snapper.

God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”[2]

This was the sixth day, when the waters were already swarming with living creatures of every kindand the osprey, the bluebird, the swallow, the raven, the red hawk and birds of every kind were flying across the vast expanse of the sky and nesting in the trees along the banks of the riversand the land was filled with animals of all shapes and sizeslet us make humankind, God said, in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over all this, as far as the eye can see. What kind of a mandate is that, dominion?

Fifty years ago, Lynn White, a historian of medieval science and technology, published a short article, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.”[3] The crisis, he argued, is not simply the result of powerful technologies that have increased human impact on the environment. The root cause of the crisis is our profound misunderstanding of dominion. “What people do about their ecology,” White wrote, “depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them.” Christian tradition, particularly in the West, according to White, has taught us to view ourselves as “superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.” The Christian ethicist James Gustafson calls it “despotism”[4]—one of the historical ways that people of faith have interpreted their divine right to dominion over the earth. In this view, you do not concern yourself with a river’s tiny inhabitants whose names you never heard before; you use the world to make a world, your worldyou build the dam. This is how you rule. You don’t have to ask a tree before you bulldoze it for a subdivision. You knock it down. You push it into a pile with the corpses of other trees and throw a match on it. You scrape the clear-cut earth free of green moss, trillium, tiny orchids, unsuspecting Gopher frogs and a couple of thousand years’ worth of topsoil before calling the pavers to come and cover it all with blacktop. Done. Oh—and if the mountain laurel block your view of the river, just cut them down too. The next time the river floods, the banks will collapse without those living roots—the river will silt up—the trout will diewho cares, you buy yours anyway at the grocery store—already cleaned and boned, for just a few bucks a pound. This is how you rule. This is your playground, after all—God said so. It is all for you.[5]

Dominion isn’t despotism, and thankfully we have come a long way since White published his paper in 1967. But we still have a long way to go. White wrote, “we shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the … axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve [humans].” As long as we see ourselves as somehow “above” creation rather than as part of creation, our understanding of dominion will be distorted. We may actually care for rivers, oceans, soil and air, but only because of their usefulness to us. We see them as precious resources we need to manage well for our own survival, but we don’t see and respect them as divine creatures in their own right. Humans, White pointed out, commit their lives to what they consider good, which means, that we must learn to see creation in its entirety as goodnot just good for usfor life to continue to flourish. Dominion is not a license to exploit, but a commission to see and name and care.

Seven times in the first chapter of Genesis, we are told that God saw. Seven times, God stepped back, as it were, to behold God’s work in life’s unfolding, God’s gaze lingering on every leaf and flower, every feather, every wing, this grasshopper, that minnow by the rock, the busy chipmunk, the child in the neighbors’ yard… God is not in a hurry. God observes. God attends. God notices. God delights. God sees. “And God saw that it was good,” it says, again and again, like the refrain to a song. And God saw that it was good, good, good, gooduntil the end of the sixth day when God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. And on the seventh day, God rested.This is how God rules.

Humans have a special place in creation, but we’re not that special. We don’t even have our own separate day set aside, you know, for the “crown of creation.” We are latecomers to the miracle of life, creatures of the sixth day who arrive in the afternoon, as it were, after cattle and creeping things and wild animals of every kind. And yet, humans are the only creatures made in the image of God and entrusted to represent God’s dominion among each other and in our relation to the nonhuman creation. We are the first creatures who not only participate in the miracle of life, but who have also been given the capacity to see the commonality of all life; the first ones to see how fearfully and wonderfully made all creatures are and how each is connected with the other in layers of relationships forming a single web. We are the first creatures who don’t just float along with the current in the river of life, but delight in naming every other creature swimming with us. We are the creatures who observe the motion of the planets and in endless wonder explore the depths of the universe and the grammar of the genome. We are the ones gifted with the capacity to see everything that God has made and how very good it all is, and to say so. We are the creatures who give voice to the unfolding miracle of creation. There was joy in heaven when the first human beings let themselves be overwhelmed by awesome wonder and said, “Thank you.”

Dominion is not despotism and it’s not just good stewardship in the interest of self-preservation. We are made in the image of God; we are here to love as God loves, to see as God sees, and to never stop singing in response to God’s unceasing grace. We are here to participate in the dominion of love that unites earth and heaven—without secret devotion to any other dominion, including the one in which the value of all things is reduced to their price.

I think about the woman with the parrot in her canoe. I wonder what she can do get her kid to join her on the river, so she’ll learn to love it for the wonder it is…



[2] Genesis 1:26

[3] Science vol. 155, no. 3767, 1967, 1203-1207.

[4] James M. Gustafson, A Sense of the Divine (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1994), 87.

[5] With thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Dominion of Love.” Journal for Preachers 31, no. 4 (2008) 24-28.

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