From Smallest Seed: Music inspired by community and conservation

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There are so many things to care about, so many broken things that need fixing, so many wounds that need mending, so much good waiting to happen in our world. As a songwriter by vocation and a biology teacher’s daughter, a couple years ago, I found myself standing (metaphorically) at the intersection of writing songs and hymns, reading National Geographic, nurturing my two young children, and performing as a musician. I made an album called Desire Like Dynamite which explores conservation, faith, and relationships. Nature. God. People. Three elements, one revolving dance.

Around that same time, I met Peter and Miranda Harris, founders of A Rocha International, a Christian conservation organization. I found such resonance in their vision for hope and renewal in the world. I started wondering what a life that includes conservation could look like for me personally, and for our community in Nashville.

To backtrack several years: I had been part of an annual retreat of songwriters in Tulsa hosted by my friends (and pop-star-harmony-singing-brothers) the Hansons. Each year, different songwriters were invited to come for a weekend to write in rotating small groups. It was a fruitful experience, and it sparked much growth and creativity from all the artists through the practice of collaboration.

Relationships. Faith. Ecology. Songwriting. These ideas tumbled around in my head, and I began to wonder, what role could songwriting play in the work of conservation? I know from years working with Indelible Grace and the retuned hymn movement that we are shaped by what we sing. What songs do we sing at our churches about the beauty of creation? Do we ever confess our ecological sins against God’s world, corporately or personally?

The ideas crystallized in April 2013, when we hosted our first Nashville A Rocha songwriter retreat. We kept it simple—a meal, conversation, and a day of songwriting together in small groups, all of it shaped by my experience of songwriting with friends in Tulsa, my love for renewing old hymns, and the belief that we are shaped by the songs that we sing. We wanted to bring people together around the table and around ecological themes to see what would come of it. The result was a collection of eight songs, which we recorded and assembled into an album, From Smallest Seed: The A Rocha Project (Vol. 1).

During this same time, the Nashville chapter of A Rocha was growing, and then Jenna (and Trevor) Henderson started officially working for Nashville A Rocha. Conversations were springing up all over the neighborhood. Jill and Andy Gullahorn hosted Creation Care Camp in their backyard. A small group started meeting to explore the idea of doing conservation work in our urban and suburban yards. Four of us planted urban rain gardens, taking notes on the “before and after” of birds and insects that came to visit. In these small activities, the dichotomy between what is often labeled politically “liberal” or “conservative” was being pulled toward the middle. Reintegration. Small things bringing renewal between people and place.

As I look around at the work of A Rocha in 20 countries around the world, one of the most significant things I notice is that each project is unique to the particulars of its place. Some A Rocha programs focus on agriculture, others on birds. Education is often part of the work, as is research, and, in some places, poverty alleviation. Earlier this year I visited the A Rocha project in Surrey, British Columbia, where they have robust and wide ranging activities centered around generous acres of property, including housing and family meals with L’Abri-like hospitality.

Each of the A Rocha locations and projects brings people, the needs of the community, and creation into better harmony. Even the word “harmony” is a fitting metaphor of what it means to ring out one chord with many voices. As we in Nashville A Rocha continue to figure out the shape of our work, we are slowly learning to be more attentive to the place where we live, and we’re looking for ways to cultivate that kind of harmony, to improve the balance of that place. Liz Whiting Pierce, a doctoral student in Ethics and Society at Emory University, was a guest with us this August for the songwriter retreat and observed: “The educational value of the rain gardens and the backyard habitats is that they teach city people to pay attention to what is actually happening in their eco-systems. They get to engage it physically and therefore emotionally.”

Nashville A Rocha’s holistic hope is that as the songwriting retreats nourish the musicians, the music that grows out of these relationships can help to shape the affections of the church more broadly around the themes of creation care. From there, the resources that flow back in from the music can support the science and practice of local conservation work and maybe even spark more local efforts around the Southeast and the U.S.

Liz continues, “If it gets woven into educational curricula and church maintenance, people also start to feel what it’s like to draw ecological realities into their interpersonal relationships; they become co-stewards. The social part is important. One of the values of church is that it gives us a tradition and a community to belong to. Other eco-friendly activities (recycling, planting trees, cycling to work) don’t necessarily give people that sense of belonging (to other people, to a place or to God).”

To love what God loves, in the songs we write, in the ordinariness of our neighborhood, and in the butterflies that visit our backyards—love in action means education and humility to begin to re-integrate our daily actions with consequences. The effects of how we spend our money, how we spend our time, or what we choose to eat are often hidden. At the recent retreat, David and Sarah Dark encouraged us to “re-member” where we are from and who we are becoming. To put things back together that have been falsely divorced. In the words of Wendell Berry, “We’ve got to learn to orient our education to the possibility [of] going home to our neighborhood. Go be a good neighbor. It’s rich beyond telling.” Building up biodiversity in the backyard, building stronger relationships with each other and to our place, sustains a robust cycle of nourishment, to the glory of God.

So being a neighbor begins with the smallest seed—just eight songs. It begins by sharing a meal with the family next door. It begins by planting a rain garden to help reabsorb the roof top run off in the front yard, or with Flo Paris teaching neighborhood kids how to build bug houses at Shelby Park. It is faithfulness in the daily-ness of the work. So, set a bench out in your yard. Watch and pray. Who knows what harvest may come of small things?

[From Smallest Seed, volume 1 of The A Rocha Project is now available. The CD features music by Don & Lori Chaffer (Waterdeep), Kenny Meeks, Sandra McCracken, Buddy Greene, Sarah Masen, Susan Enan, Jordan Brooke Hamlin, Sara Groves, Andy Gullahorn, Jill Phillips, Chelsey Scott, Kellie Haddock, and Flo Paris. Click here to check it out.]

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4 Comments

  1. Tom Murphy

    This is a great post Sandra. As an intern at Park Cities Presbyterian in Dallas this summer, we led our Elementary children to build a four plot sunflower garden next to the church. We also gave them sunflower seeds in cups to plant at home.

    Each plot was labeled with a stage of Redemptive History:
    1) Creation
    2) Fall
    3) Redemption
    4) Consummation

    The light for each plot kind of matched up. The Fall was pretty shady, but the Creation/Redemption having mostly sun, and the Consummation was full sun.

    I created a whole curriculum if you’d like me to share it. We chose sunflowers because of how impressive their growth is. To watch 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders plant a seed that then begins to tower over them was a pretty great Theological lesson. They were learning Ecology as the Theological reality set in…

  2. JamesDWitmer

    Thanks for sharing this, Sandra.

    It resonates for me on a number of frequencies. The word, conservation, makes me twitchy – for all the power struggles it has represented. But I was raised to thankfulness and love of nature as God’s gift to us, as a source of revelation, and as the richest – yet most accessible – fount of beauty.

    I’ve struggled when trying to explain my convictions about the value of conservation to believers who don’t understand. It is encouraging and affirming to read your gracious words about what seems to be a serious, but grace-filled and joyful movement.

    And you’ve made me think – my family is slowly building an ambitiously scaled pleasure garden – rich in habitat and, hopefully, beauty – at our home. Perhaps in the end this will be all the argument I need make. 🙂

    I look forward to listening to From Smallest Seed!

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