Community Formed by Fire
Photo Credit: Robert B. Clontz/TNC
A week ago, two of my sons and I got to spend several hours as part of a group looking for red cockaded woodpeckers at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Virginia’s Piney Grove Preserve near Wakefield, Virginia. Invited by State Director Michael Lipford and introduced to the bird and its habitat by TNC biologists and land stewards Brian van Eerd and Bobby Clontz, we were hoping to see the endangered birds at the northernmost limit of their present range, and to help count and identify individuals as they returned to their roosting trees for the night. But while we came on account of the woodpeckers—and protecting and encouraging their local population was the initial aim of assembling the contiguous tracts of pine forest that make up Piney Grove Preserve—it quickly became clear to us that the ongoing project of restoration was not about a single species, but an interconnected system.
As I wrote in a previous post, one assumption shared within the BioLogos community is that the natural world as revealed through scientific investigation provides signposts that point us to the Creator. Sometimes this means attending to the symbolism of specific creatures like the coelacanth or the red cockaded woodpecker (or RCW, as it’s sometimes called) in terms of qualities of God or the individual believer, but in other cases it means looking carefully not just at individual kinds but at the synergy between plants, animals and the land itself—looking at an ecology, in other words. Such a view can also heighten our appreciation of the ideal the Scriptures set forth for the whole human community, modeled first and foremost by the Church. Thus, while the red cockaded woodpecker is the “marquis species” in the restored pine savanna, understanding how the bird is integrated with many other kinds of living things (and even forces of nature) is suggestive of the interrelation between God’s providence and grace, and our own call to cultivate His world.
With that in mind, let me briefly suggest three of the elements in the pine savanna ecology that Christians may take as prompts for meditation on life in Christ: first, the pine trees in which the woodpeckers nest; second, the birds’ cooperative social structure; and third, the fire that enables both to thrive.
Alone of North American woodpeckers, the RCW carves out its home in the hearts of mature, living pine trees, generally at least eighty years old. It is on account of this habitat requirement that they became endangered by human appetite for pulpwood in the twentieth century, as a shift in logging practices to meet a changed demand meant that few mature trees were left standing. It was easier and more profitable to clear-cut swaths of young trees for paper than to grow old trees for timber. As our Conservancy guides and other sources attest, it is not just the size and age of the trees (making soft heartwood more likely) that is of benefit to the birds, but the fact that they are still living and producing sap.
Black rat snakes are a principal predator of creatures nesting in tree cavities, as the snakes are adept at climbing even the fairly limb-free lower reaches of pines. Red cockaded woodpeckers not only carve their brooding and roosting cavities into the trees, but in response to this danger also peck into the sapwood above and around their nests, causing a flow of the sticky pinesap to coat the area around the holes. These sap-flows form a physical and chemical barrier to the snakes, and give trees in which the woodpeckers nest a distinctively pale, candle-like look from the ground. Peering at a tree “grayed” by the birds that live within it, I could not help but consider that the tree offered sanctuary to the very creatures that wounded it, and granted them a sacrificial shelter exactly by spilling its life-blood.
The red cockaded woodpecker’s cooperative social structure is the second aspect of its life in the pines that offers an image worth consideration by Christians. These are not solitary birds, but ones that build their homes in clusters with several roosting trees for the non-breeding members of the group arrayed around a central tree that serves as home for the breeding pair and the chicks. The birds in the cluster are typically related, but there is considerable diversity in how the relationships between the birds plays out over time in terms of which birds become part of the breeding pair each year, how long the helper birds remain in that role and how they move off to form new clusters of their own. But all the birds in a given cluster contribute to cavity excavation and help provide food for the growing chicks.
While we can certainly take a more or less direct lesson in sociability and community interdependence from the woodpeckers, what is perhaps more instructive about this arrangement in terms of the science/faith dialogue is not its novelty, but that, any more, it is an example of what contemporary evolutionary biologists expect to find. As biologists gain increasing knowledge of the way the natural world operates as much by cooperation and interdependence as by a vulgar “survival of the fittest” model, evolution can be recognized as a tool by which some of the human values God has ordained for His people (including self-sacrifice, as above) are written into the rest of creation, as well.
Finally, a few words about fire. One of the principle duties of the Nature Conservancy’s Bobby Clontz at Piney Grove is to burn the woods, for the ecosystem that he and others in pine savanna settings across the Southeast are trying to restore depends on fire to maintain its distinctive park-like appearance and its specific diversity of species, both in the canopy and on the forest floor. While restoration of the original and especially fire-friendly longleaf pine is a slow process, even the now-dominant loblolly pine is safe from the smaller fires that result from regular burning of the under-story and, when mature, provide the same sort of safe haven for woodpeckers and all manner of other creatures.
Similarly, many of the native grasses that carpeted Southern forests two centuries ago also depend on fire not only to set seed and reproduce, but to keep down the bushy, mid-story plants that compete for sun and space and provide abundant fuel for larger, more destructive fires that reach into the crowns of the trees. Without fire there is no hope of recovery for the red cockaded woodpecker, because without fire the complex community of the forest cannot be restored, much less maintained. In this ecology, then, fire is not principally a force of destruction, but rather an indispensable source of renewal.
If the task here is to take note of signposts to the Lord that He has provided in the natural world, it is especially appropriate that we end by speaking of fire, as this is the Sunday on which the Church celebrates Pentecost, when the Spirit was bestowed upon Jesus’ disciples in the outward form of tongues of flame. Certainly that particular fire is no less critical to the health and life of the church than regular “controlled burns” are within the forest, but it may also be worth pointing out that in both the forest and the church, fire has often been pointed to principally as something to be feared—a harbinger and means of “the end”— rather than as a constant source of refinement and new beginnings.
As we consider the complex web of interrelations in the pine savanna, and how careful stewardship is bringing restoration not just to the red cockaded woodpecker but to the whole living community of which it is only the best known example, may God grant by the fire of his Spirit a similar revival within the church, for the blessing and renewal of the whole human community.