Beyond the Edge of Knowledge: An Ecological Hope for Lent

The Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
The Black-footed Ferret
Thursday, February 29, 2024

“Every single creature is full of God
and is a book about God.
Every creature is a word of God.
If I spend enough time with the tiniest creature,
even a caterpillar,
I would never have to prepare a sermon.
So full of God is every creature.”
Meister Eckhart

Black-footed Ferret

The black-footed ferret is “audaciously alive,” says Gayle Boss, “curious and quick, lithe and strong” these creatures dance. They dance “just because they are, just because they can.” Like Psalm 150, they dance to the Lord, “let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” The dancing seems gratuitous, unwarranted, undue. And yet for those who have seen it, it seems unavoidable, these black-footed ferrets, with unmerited joy, spinning and twirling and leaping. At home in the prairies of Wyoming, they thrived for nearly one million years in a symbiotic relationship with prairie dogs. 

All was well. The dance of the black-footed ferret was dynamic and spirited, and they sheltered in prairie dog burrows. This mutually beneficial relationship thrived. But about one hundred and fifty years ago, the prairie dog population shrank drastically when settlers began farming the prairies, and so the black-footed ferret declined in turn. And about forty years ago, distemper and the flea-born sylvatic plague was brought from Asia to Wyoming and decimated the prairie dog and black-footed ferret population. The black-footed ferrets were even thought to be extinct, until 1985, when Shep the Wyoming ranch dog happened upon a band of black-footed ferrets and plopped one down at his owner’s feet. Biologists swept the area, trapping as many as the nearly-extinct species as they could, the last of which was named (charmingly) Scarface. Ferrets don’t often breed in captivity, so scientists wondered if their work was all in vain, a Noah’s Ark story still ending in disaster, but in 1987 Scarface fathered a litter of kits. Now a vaccine for sylvatic plague makes it more possible for the black-footed ferret and the prairie dog to survive. 

I’m struck by the human-spread diseases that impact animals. J.R.R. Tolkien says “not all those who wander are lost,” but even so much is at risk when we wander far and then bring with us diseases against which our ecosystems have little defense. Our globetrotting and jet setting are not neutral it appears. Sometimes our wanderlust leaves a trail of destruction in its wake without our even knowing it. That is what is so heartbreaking. There is something invisible here. The consequences are not immediately apparent. 

When asked what advice he’d like to give young people trying to find their way through these kinds of complexities, Bill Nye said this “Follow your passion—I know people tell you that, but I’m not kidding. You will find your way to something that you really enjoy if you just keep looking, and you’ll be surprised [to see that] you can change the world. So my advice is: pursue that—leave the world better than you found it, and everybody’s responsible for his or her own actions, and sometimes…you [have to] pick up other people’s trash, that’s just how it goes.”[1] May we go and do likewise.

Give us eyes to see, O God.
Give us hearts to hear.
Give us ways to respond.
Let us be audaciously alive
to your call to care.


February 29, 2024

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