Some years ago, I stood with a cousin of mine on a balmy June evening at the edge of a field on our late grandfather’s farm. It was about 10:00 p.m. and the field stretched away for nearly a mile to a distant tree line, visible as a dark jagged ribbon against a luminous night sky. We’d gone to that field because of its distance from any night lights and our desire for a clear view of the Milky Way. We stretched out on our backs in the thick turf and with our heads in our interlocked hands looked up. There it glowed above us, what the Bushmen of the Kalahari in South Africa call “The Backbone of Night.” It began in the constellation Cassiopeia directly overhead and stretched into the southwest. I felt the usual awe as I stared up into infinity and contemplated the immensity of the universe. “It’s just so awesome,” my cousin said.
“Sure makes me feel small,” I said. He pointed out the steady movement of a satellite, we laughed at the blinking lights of a high altitude airplane, and began to notice the various shades of color in the stars.
Then, I started to notice some things closer to earth. I could hear the night creaks of the insects and the calls of frogs from a small pond in the field to our backs. It felt familiar because my cousin and I had been to that very field many times over the years, long before we were married, had kids, got educated and moved to cities where ground glare made it impossible to see the Milky Way and where the night sounds included far more sirens than frogs.
I waxed a bit nostalgic. I said, “You know, it’s so quiet out here, but I haven’t heard a whippoorwill the whole time we’ve been here.”
My cousin sighed. (He’d returned to the farm much more frequently than I.) He said, “I miss them, too.” He went on, “They used to fill the air with their calls this time of year, but they’ve grown less frequent over the last few years.”
“Why is that,” I asked.
“There’re all kinds of theories, but I can tell you what happened here. First, they bulldozed all the hedgerows, which was where they hung out.”
“Why’d they bulldoze the hedgerows?”
“They wanted a bigger farm and they wanted to plant a lot of corn and the hedgerows made it inconvenient for the big machinery. Of course, without the hedgerows, the whippoorwills weren’t around to eat the moths that got in the corn, so they upped their usage of pesticides. After that, my grand-dad and dad wouldn’t let livestock in the fields to eat the stubble because they were afraid the pesticides would poison them, so the natural fertilizer wasn’t there anymore, which led to using artificial fertilizers. The heavy machinery compacted the soil, so they have to use even more fertilizers and pesticides. And now, the run-off from all those chemicals has killed off most of the bass in the tributaries to the Pee Dee. And if by chance you DO catch a bass in those creeks, I wouldn’t advise eating it.”
My cousin waved his hand at the Cosmos above us. “We might not notice it right away, but all of this is connected. I think we’ll hear that missing whippoorwill song again when we take all these connections seriously.”
I thought of that night when I was reading some research the other day. The author made the statement that the notion of “independence” is an abstract political term, but independence doesn’t happen in nature. Rather, interdependence characterizes the way the creation works. If bees don’t pollinate crops in California, grocery shoppers in Alabama pay higher prices – IF they can get the product.
That’s why we do Support Teams, in fact, because we human beings depend upon one another far more than many of us want to admit. As I’ve come to see, health isn’t just the absence of disease. To be healthy means a person is living and loving within a network of relationships, embodied in a community, and making a contribution to the community while enjoying other people’s contributions. Too often in our work as chaplains, we come across people who believe the “rugged cowboy” myth of our society, that if you’re what you ought to be, you can handle whatever comes your way all by yourself. We do Support Teams because we weren’t born alone, we weren’t raised alone, we weren’t educated alone, we don’t make all our clothes or raise all our food, or mine the minerals that someone else used to make our iPhones, TVs, and automobiles. We aren’t even entertained alone.
And we will not get well and stay healthy alone, either.
So we regularly offer our counsel and companionship so that folks can better use the unique medicine that is their community. For so many folks, that organized community is the missing piece in their worlds. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, needing each other to be healthy. And so often, when we take our actual interconnectedness seriously and organize and nurture it, a missing song returns.