Beyond the Edge of Knowledge: An Ecological Hope for Lent

The Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
The Four-Toed Salamander
Thursday, February 15, 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

four-toed salamander

What brings me to the work of ecological preservation (if I can play any small part, O God) is wonder and amazement. I am astonished at the biodiversity of our planet, and marvel at the fragility and abundance that can unfold in each unique forest, grassland, canyon, cave, river, lake, marsh, or even in the hybrid ecotones where two animal habitats intersect. 

Have you ever seen a salamander up close? I am humbled by the animals that seek vitality, trying to thrive in our suburban landscape. There are in Illinois, six species of salamander who are endangered or threatened. The four-toed salamander used to live just about everywhere in Illinois but now it only finds a few little habitats where it can dwell. Habitat loss or even habitat fragmentation, where for example, our big highways divide salamanders from their ponds, plus other human actions like draining wetlands and clearing forests feel like the kind of things that are impossible to disrupt. They involve systems, governments, corporations: seemingly enigmatic immovable institutions. But the salamander is an indicator species, highly sensitive to changes in their environment, and therefore helps scientists determine what changes in a habitat’s biodiversity might be causing a ripple effect not yet seen in other species. 

Pay attention to the salamanders then. Watch for them. When you see a salamander wonder about its life. Where it spends the night. Where it’s kin dwell. Where it’s next meal might come from. Mary Oliver says “To pay attention / this is our endless and proper work.” Mary Oliver like so many of the poets helps us find our way through times of change and uncertainty. She leads us down the path toward prayer, even a salamander-kind-of-prayer, saying “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is / I do know how to pay attention.” 

With awe and reverence, let us pay attention to the salamanders.

Prayer by Pádraig Ó Tuama
Jesus of the beasts,
you noticed foxes, birds, cattle, sheep;
fish, and humans too.
Looking at other breathing things, 
even trees,
may we see our place in this fragile family,
because unless we do
we’ll subdue them,
demeaning the value
of everything that lives
or moves
or has being.

February 15, 2024

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