On Saturday morning a week ago, you could have found a dozen of us along the banks of Penns Creek in Spring Mills, tossing our empty lines into the glistening water, practicing fly casting.
I was there with my younger daughter in the cool spring morning, learning about mayflies and water bugs from a Penn State entomologist, and then about the art of fly fishing from a local fishing guide and ecology from a conservationist.
It was a part of our church’s project to engage the community in ways that are not necessarily religious.
Except sometimes there is more holiness in the natural world than you find among pews and hymnals.
Out on the banks of the stream, I could feel the kind of passion I recalled from those revival meetings of my youth, the entomologist’s passion from 40 years of studying the book of nature, the guide’s reverence for the trout rising to the perfectly cast fly, and the passion of a man’s working with others to restore the watershed ecology, a process not unlike building a medieval cathedral that requires generations of selfless labor.
It seems a leap to compare a dozen people casting an empty line into the water to a religious experience, but the new eco-consciousness we see sprouting up all around us in communal urban gardens, local farmers markets, cycling to work or sustainability movements of various kinds is a sign of the resacralization of nature, of putting the holy back into creation.
I have been reading a new book by historian and journalist Peter Watson, “The Age of Atheists,” that crystalised these thoughts.
This wide-ranging work is a compilation and explanation of the attempts to live without God in the decades since Friedrich Nietzsche declared that “God is dead” and Charles Darwin shook the foundations of faith with the theory of evolution.
Although many people, maybe a majority of people, disagree with Nietzsche’s statement, there is, nevertheless, a crack in the wall of faith, and many different pebbles of belief are being used to fill in the empty spaces.
Watson says there are more than 100,000 known religions, including 21 major world religions and all of those New Age cults and old religions resurfacing. He goes on to include psychoanalysis and the -isms of the last century — communism, fascism, and nationalism, even poetry and dance, as ways to fill a void left by secularism.
Science itself is a belief system, telling us our origin story in the Big Bang, and claiming the primacy of reason. We seem to have an innate need to believe in something.
It is hard to come up with ultimate meaning, but preserving the Earth for future generations has those qualities that are the definition of meaning: being part of something that is larger than ourselves; sacrificing for a future goal that is worthy of our sacrifice; invoking a sense of wonder and mystery; providing a sense of wholeness that the mechanistic reductionism of technology and science has broken.
And that is only the short list.
I am not one to chain myself to a redwood tree.
My own love of nature comes and goes pretty much with the season and the weather, but even I see the day coming when ecology will be second nature, when we will hear, along with the poet, the sabbath ringing slowly in the pebbles of the holy streams. In fact, I think I heard that sound last Saturday on the banks of Penns Creek.