Beyond the Edge of Knowledge: An Ecological Hope for Lent

Sarah Champlin
The Lowland Tapir
Thursday, March 7, 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

The Lowland Tapir in the savannah of Cerrado

The region of tropical savanna in Brazil known as the Cerrado teems with abundant life. This bioregion is less well-known than its famous neighbor the Amazon rainforest, yet it hosts multitudes of wildlife that are found nowhere else on Earth. The many varieties of flora and fauna found there make it the most biodiverse savanna in the world, home to 5% of the world’s plants and animals.[1] It’s ironic then, that this area was named for its perceived worthlessness—since it could not be cultivated for agriculture it was called “cerrado,” a Portuguese word meaning “closed”.  This “worthless” place is where the lowland tapir makes its home, grazing on local vegetation, and wading in cool ponds. Gayle Boss calls this creature the “gardener of the forest” because it spreads the seeds of its snacks far and wide through its fecal matter. As one of the native animals of this savanna, the tapir ostensibly falls under the “worthless” category of this bioregion. Yet if you asked the native plants who depend on the tapir for the survival and propagation of their species, I’m sure that “worthless” would be the last word they would use to describe this helpful creature.

Much like beauty, worthlessness is in the eye of the beholder. The Taoist sage Zhuangzi illustrates the subjective nature of this adjective in his parable “The Useless Tree,” which follows an encounter between an old, broad tree and a carpenter who walks right by it because its gnarled branches make it useless for timber. Later the tree visits the carpenter in a dream and explains that it is exactly its uselessness that has enabled it to live a long and full life. Fruit and timber trees are plucked, torn apart, and cut down in their prime until there is nothing left of them, while the useless tree continues on. The tree concludes with a scathing indictment of our propensity to ascribe value so narrowly: “What’s the point of this—things condemning things? You, a worthless man about to die—how do you know I’m a worthless tree?”

In her book How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell references this story as an example of what she calls “resistance-in-place”. To resist-in-place is “to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system… [to refuse] the frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship.”[2] A narrow view of usefulness has us twisting ourselves into the shapes that are most palatable for consumption by others, others who believe a life’s worth can be measured and ranked. This mindset is nearly impossible to escape—I even see our youth (as young as junior high!) twist themselves into unnatural shapes when they choose how to spend their time based on what looks best on a college application.

When we resist-in-place, we opt out of this ladder-climbing value system in favor of a wider and more holistic sense of worth. This kind of expansive worth takes God at God’s own word: we are very good, just as we are. Resistance-in-place empowers us to stop measuring ourselves by our individual productivity and instead define ourselves as part of an intricately woven ecology of interdependence. We would do well to take a leaf (pardon the pun) from the useless tree’s book to rest, enjoy the sunshine, and grow on our own terms. Embracing the freedom of uselessness allows us, like the Cerrado, to flourish in more varied and creative ways than we could have previously imagined for ourselves.

Unfortunately the invention and widespread distribution of artificial fertilizers eventually enabled farmers to utilize the Cerrado’s land for growing corn and soybeans for animal feed. Worthless no more the biodiversity of this region now suffers from the introduction of plants that were never meant to grow there. The original Cerrado has been reduced by about half in favor of agricultural land. Reduced by half—but not gone. The portion of untouched Cerrado remains firmly in place, continuing to generate abundance and resisting our narrow-minded attempts to define its worth. After all God has claimed this land already and has called it very good. The mere fact of the tapir’s existence on this shrinking stretch of fecund earth is itself resistance-in-place as he defies us to answer his question: “How do you know I’m worthless?”

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the air and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. —Genesis 1:29–31


[1] https://www.worldwildlife.org/places/cerrado

[2] Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.

March 7, 2024

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