Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground. … The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it. [Genesis 1:28,2:15 (NLT)]
It is terrible to hear the young birds calling for food after the old ones have been killed to get the feathers for rich women to wear. I am not going to have my birds sacrificed that way.” [Rhett Green (Corkscrew Swamp Audubon Warden from 1912 – 1917)]
The wading birds of southwest Florida are absolutely beautiful, especially this time of year when they’re wearing their stunning mating plumage. A little more than 100 years ago, I would have been hard put to see any of these beautiful creatures. Bird feathers became the fashion craze in women’s hats in the late 1800s. Along with a plethora of plumes, some hats even featured an entire exotic bird! By 1900, more than five million birds were being killed every year, and plume hunters had nearly wiped out the entire egret population. It wasn’t just the egrets with their white mating plumes—herons, roseate spoonbills, flamingoes and peacocks were among the fifty North American species being killed for their plumage. No bird was safe.
After killing the birds and stripping them of their plumage, poachers would leave the carcasses to rot. They also left abandoned nests with eggs that would never hatch or baby birds unable to fend for themselves. For the hunters, poaching was profitable; they could easily bag 100 birds on a good day and the plumes sold for as much as $32 dollars an ounce (the price of gold). The bird population in rookeries throughout Florida and the southeast U.S. was decimated and all for the sake of fashion! Fortunately, because of a grass roots campaign by two Boston socialites, organizations like the Audubon Society, and both state and national legislation, the carnage of these beautiful creatures has stopped.
We were called to be good stewards of the earth, but we still show little regard for God’s creation. According to National Geographic, out of the over 9,900 species of birds, some 1,300 species face the threat of extinction today. We’re not wearing fancy feathered hats but loss of habitat, climate change, wind farms, cell towers, pesticides, cats and even windows pose threats. It’s not just birds that are in danger; we face plenty of other pressing environmental issues including oil spills, water pollution, global warming, toxic spills, unsafe water, waste disposal, fossil fuel dependency, a diminishing rain forest, and the loss of open land (to name just a few).
When I look at the birds with their beautiful plumage, I thank God for their creation and for the people who took action to save them. Although God did the creating, it is up to us to do the maintaining. In Genesis 1, we read that God made man and gave him permission to govern the earth and reign over all the animals; that was a tremendous responsibility. With mankind’s free will, that governing and reign gave us the power to sustain God’s good creation and make it thrive or to destroy it. In Genesis 2, God placed man in the Garden to tend and watch over it. The Hebrew word used for “tend” was “shamar” and it means more than keeping the land cultivated and free of weeds. It means to keep watch, preserve, guard and protect. Tomorrow is Earth Day and it seems a good time to ask ourselves how we’re doing in the tending, guarding and protecting department. Have we tended God’s garden and made it thrive or have we run roughshod over it without regard for His creation? Earth Day, celebrated by over a billion people every year, has become the largest secular observance in the world. Concern for our environment, however, is not a secular concern—it is a sacred responsibility given to us by God. Let us remember that every day is Earth Day!
O Lord, we honor you and praise you for the gift of life and the awesome responsibility you have given us to be good stewards of this earth, our home. May we be ever mindful of the fragility and interconnectedness of all creation. Help us to be wise in our use of resources. Guide us to live so as to preserve the beauty and goodness of the earth for ourselves and for all generations to come. Amen. [Catholic Health Association of the U.S.]