As a photographer, I spend time carefully composing a scene and exploring its details through my viewfinder. This practice requires slowing down, noticing, and thinking about the relationships between objects in my view.
This practice of noticing elements in a photograph leads me to reflect on the subjects and their relationship to the larger whole. Such relational thinking inevitably prompts me as a theologian to think about creation’s relation to God, and about God’s relation to creatures and the natural world.
The photos and short reflections here provide a small taste of the ideas that swirl about my brain as a theologian-photographer engaging with God’s creation. In the case of these photos, I had in mind issues of creation care in loving response to a loving Creator.
Psalm 24 begins, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…” That psalm comes to mind sometimes when I gaze brilliant fall foliage against the backdrop of a multi-colored earth.
I made this photo at Capital Reef National Park. The yellow and orange leaves complimented the reds, grays, and browns of the soil. The reef is a geologic monocline, or what is more commonly called a “water pocket.” It extends over 100 miles in Utah.
One might not think a place like this could be harmed much by humans. But it can, in the form of oil drilling. Thankfully, Capital Reef has been protected since the 1930s. But that hasn’t stopped drilling nearby. And in an interrelated universe, what goes on in one place affects what goes on in another.
I think about the problem of evil when I see forest fires. I find the barren landscape ugly, and I imagine all the creatures that perished in the flames. Death reigns. I’m often told not to worry about forest fires. They’re a natural part of the ecosystem, say experts. Without them, certain growth could not happen and diseases stopped.
I wonder if these same people who tell me not to worry about forest fires would say not to worry about war, genocide, or plagues that kill large number of humans. I doubt it. Many make a sharp distinction between death in nature and death among humans. But aren’t humans part of nature? Climate change increases forest fires. There’s plenty of evidence for this truth. And climate change is influenced by human choices. There’s also plenty of evidence for this. So does this mean that at least some forest fires are unnatural? Perhaps we need to stop making a sharp distinction between natural and moral evil. Other creatures and plants matter too.
Some creatures are easy to want to protect. The majestic bald eagle falls in that category for me. As I hike Idaho, it’s a treat to see the bald eagle elegantly fly above me, eyeing the territory, looking for resting spot.
We have many more bald eagles in Idaho than is apparent to most observers. Young bald eagles have no white head, and so they are difficult to distinguish from other eagles.
America nearly lost all of its bald eagles thanks to DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). This chemical was introduced as an insecticide. But it interfered with eagle reproduction, causing the egg shells to be so thin they broke prematurely. For the most part, the American Bald Eagle is a conservation success story today. The US government banned DDT, and conservation groups worked to protect it. It is no longer an endangered species. Concerted efforts to conserve can make a difference.
Idaho has a half-dozen or so wild horse herds. The state has set aside large chunks of land for these horses, and it monitors herd sizes in proportion to the needs of other species.
Wild horses are not native to my state, however. They were brought to America from abroad. To a great degree, they’ve learned to adapt. Wild horses have some negative impact on the habitat of other ungulates. Environmentalists are not among those most concerned with the impact of horses. Ranchers who graze cattle on public land are most concerned. Wild horses use grazing land, sometimes break fences, and occasionally have negative effects on domestic horses.
I want to keep a small number of wild horses in America. They are a good example, in my mind, of how the value of creation can extend beyond even the intrinsic value of each creature. To me and to many, wild horses represent freedom—that “don’t fence me in” kind of freedom. And even this matters when it comes to discerning how best to be stewards of God’s good world and its creatures.
As I hike mountains, valleys, and deserts, I’m often amazed at the complex beauty of the world and its creatures. I often forget that the most diverse animals, birds, insects, amphibians, and more need something quite basic: H2O.
Hikers like me often think about water, of course, at least in terms of our needing to drink it. As a light-weight backpacker, I’m always trying to guess how little water I need to carry before I can get a refill. And as a photographer, I’m often thinking about how I might include water in my art.
A photo like this one—Jackson Lake near Grand Teton National Park—might make us think water is readily available. But water supplies are decreasing, and clean water is not available to many on this planet.
On the issue of water, my mind goes to a controversial subject: population growth. We live on a planet with many more people using much more water than ever before. Human population growth is exponential.
At what point will the majority of people decide we need to conserve water? When will the majority think population growth must be slowed? Or will famine, wars, disease, and other catastrophes—directly or indirectly caused by lack of water—be the population reduction mechanism? As I see it, love demands that we make difficult choices to reduce as much suffering as possible.