Interview with a green giant, Pt. 2 Holmes Rolston & the Power of Psalms

Yosemite National Park panorama Holmes Rolston III is in his mid-70s, now, and has devoted many years to helping faith and science meet—all to protect our natural world. He has so much accumulated wisdom to share that we’ve continued our Interview With Holmes Rolston into Part 2 today. (CLICK HERE to jump back and read Part 1.)

Holmes says that he does his best teaching by “sneaking up on people and inviting them to get in a whole lot deeper than they ever thought possible.”
In publishing the 1979 story of the humble pasqueflower, Holmes snuck up on readers around the world. He chuckles that the pasqueflower story was “the best sermon anyone ever snuck into Natural History magazine.”


Forest_fire_in_Shoshone_National_Forest_2001     DAVID: In the first half of our interview, you explained at least some of the arguments you’ve developed to bring together science and religion in a deeper appreciation of our natural world. We also urged readers to pick up a copy of your new biography and learn more about your life’s work. (There’s a link to Amazon above.)
NOW, let’s talk about two more important arguments you’ve made that I think also will fascinate people of faith. One we might call “the problem of beauty.” And another is your appreciation of how Psalms can fit into all of this.
First of all—the problem of beauty:
One easy way to inspire people to protect nature is to show them the most beautiful places in the world—like mountain peaks in the western United States.
That’s fine, you say. You’ve led lots of hikes into the mountains yourself. But it’s not sufficient to protect nature—because a lot of places people think are beautiful actually don’t contain much life. Everyone wants to save mountain peaks. But, it may be that a valley far below or even an ugly swamp are more important to save, right?
Beauty actually can become a problem of misplaced priorities.
ROLSTON: I think it’s a problem we can turn into an opportunity.
In talking with people about nature, I sometimes do start out with the beauty and grandeur of the Grand Canyon or the Grand Tetons. Nobody denies these are beautiful places we must preserve.
But then, once we’ve established that, I like to say: You know, you have to look more closely and you may find beauty where you don’t expect it.
We all can look up at a mountain peak, but I’ll say: Look at where we’re standing right now. Look at this little flower over there. And let’s look at this little bug on that flower.
And I’ll say: Let’s talk about the DNA carried by this little bug. Isn’t there a kind of splendor in the minute proportions in these things and the way that these things fit together?
A bird will eat this bug and the bird will have its young and the young will live here a while, at least the ones that survive. Some of the young birds will be eaten by a fox that passes through. Some of the birds will migrate south for the fall. And you begin to tell this story of the interdependence of life in these landscapes.

New pine growth after forest fire     DAVID: So far, you’re sounding like a Disney nature film, which is fine. But you don’t stop there. You’re also known for pointing out the dramatic stories in landscapes that may seem downright ugly—like a forest ravaged by a wildfire.
ROLSTON: Yes. I’ll say: We can find lots of pretty things to look at. But now, let’s look over there at those burned trees on that hillside. It’s ugly over there, isn’t it?
Then, we look more closely and we realize that new trees are coming up again where these fires occurred. That’s how a tree like the lodgepole pine works. It replaces itself after fires.
What I’m pointing out is the grandeur of the whole story: Life persisting in the midst of its perpetual perishing.
Now that truly is beautiful.
Yes, the Tetons are grand, but what’s truly grand is life’s persistence.

DAVID: I know that you love the Psalms. And you’ve got an interpretation of Psalm 23 that relates to what we’re discussing.
ROLSTON: Yes, I have an ecological interpretation of Psalm 23. That’s everybody’s favorite Psalm, isn’t it?
But what is Psalm 23 all about? It says that life should be in green pastures beside still waters. Isn’t that a kind of ecological metaphor? Life requires green pastures. Life requires water. Isn’t our world full of green? Isn’t Earth a marvelous planet in which to live because of the water around us?
But, wait a minute! There’s more in this Psalm, isn’t there? The Psalm goes on to talk about being led through a valley of deep darkness and it says there will be comfort as well. Isn’t this Psalmist saying that there always will be death as well as life. Isn’t this Psalmist celebrating a world in which death and life—exist together. Death. Life. Death. Life.
Life persists in the midst of its perpetual perishing.
It’s right there in Psalm 23. This is how life has persisted over the millennia here on Earth.
Now, that’s a grand story!

A tree in a swampy area     DAVID: So, in the end, are you hopeful? Or are you worried about our future?
ROLSTON: Well, the future holds more of this living—and this perishing. We’re going to lose some things. I’m afraid that a lot of the charismatic mega-fauna in Africa will be lost or reduced to zoos.
But we’re also going to win some things. Early in my life, I never would have dreamed that we’d have 600 wilderness areas in the United States. We’ve got the Clean Water Act. We’ve got the Clean Air Act. We’ve got the Endangered Species Act. We’ve had a lot of successes. And in other parts of the world, like the European Union, environmental protection has outpaced what we’ve done here in the United States.
DAVID: There may be an even deeper problem, though, with our human species. We may not have the global willpower to actually change our direction as a species in time to save the world as we know it. That’s a real threat, isn’t it?
ROLSTON: There are people who say that human beings are not capable of facing a crisis at this level. They say that human beings’ ability to adapt is too focused on ourselves and our families. We did figure out how to make it through winter here on Earth. Humans figured out how to raise their children into adulthood.
But humans never were naturally selected to care for an entire planet. There are people who argue that our human genes are maladaptive to a world crisis, because we’re too short sighted. We’re too centered on ourselves and our children and grandchildren.
We can’t cope with a crisis on a global scale.
But, when I hear that argument coming at me, I say: Now, wait a minute! There is something else at work here. The religions of the world are global institutions. Religion has transcended nations for thousands of years. Look at how these religions have moved all around the globe.
My background is Presbyterian. We started out in Geneva, Switzerland, but we’ve moved and adapted all around the world. Do you know where the most Presbyterians live today? In Korea.
Our great world faiths focus our vision on the whole world. We need that. If anybody can supply a vision that enables us to transcend our immediate self-interest, it’s surely the world’s great religions.
We need that vision of respect for life all around the Earth. That’s our biggest hope. Faith is more likely to help us face this environmental crisis than any other institution we’ve got on this planet.

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