by Lowell Bliss
I am under something of a deadline with this blog post, but I find myself consumed with the breaking news: it is Monday, April 15 and Notre Dame cathedral in Paris is burning. I watch the footage. I check repeatedly for updates. I recognize that I am feeling sad. I am mourning.
I am not Parisian nor from France. I’m not Roman Catholic. I’ve only been inside Notre Dame once. It isn’t even my favorite cathedral in Paris. Yet, what I’m feeling is more than empathy for a city and its beloved landmark. I feel this personally. Barack Obama spoke deftly to what I’m feeling when just five minutes ago, he tweeted: “Notre Dame is one of the world’s great treasures, and we’re thinking of the people of France in your time of grief. It’s in our nature to mourn when we see history lost – but it’s also in our nature to rebuild for tomorrow, as strong as we can.” Yes, Notre Dame is a great treasure, and because I live in this world, it is also my treasure too. But I recognize, as does Obama, that Notre Dame means something particular to the French people. It is their time of grief, and I want to honor that. I’m glad to be reminded that “it’s in our nature to mourn when we see history lost,” or beauty lost, or certainly if lives are host. (At the time I was writing this, there was concern that if the Great Bell were to fall, the entire tower would collapse and endanger the firefighters battling the blaze from below. Thank God, the structure remains standing and no lives were lost—but when we do lose our loved ones, “it is in our nature to mourn.”) If I have any complaint with Obama’s tweet is that it rushes too quickly to words of encouragement and rebuilding. If grief is natural, then all the time that grief might require of us is natural as well.
My one visit to the inside of the Notre Dame cathedral was in 2015 during the time of COP 21, the UN climate summit which produced the Paris Agreement. I skipped out on the climate-related ecumenical service, an act of hooky which I blame on jet-lag and little comfort for such events. Nonetheless I enjoyed the climate-related art installations tucked away in its alcoves and the special tapestries draped down its center aisle. Don’t worry: I don’t intend to draw any garish analogies here about how the planet is burning in like manner as the cathedral. Instead I want to talk about one unavoidable emotion of creation care.
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. . .” (Romans 1:20a NIV.) The phrase “what has been made” is translated from the Greek word poiema, from which we also derive
our English word “poem.” God is a poet. Henry Morris says “Everything in the universe, animate and inanimate, constitutes a marvelous product of God’s creative forethought and inventive skill. If a beautiful poem requires a poet to create it, so much the more does the complex cosmic poem of the universe demand a great poet of consummate wisdom and infinite power.”
The Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola) was one of the Creator’s masterpieces, though you may feel about rats the same way some people feel about Gothic architecture: you would never care to visit more example of one. These small rodents lived on a single Australian island in the eastern Torres strait of the Great Barrier Reef. Two months ago, the Australian government officially declared the Bramble Cay memolys extinct. National Geographic, in its reporting, used the same tone of language that you could image Paris fire inspectors or French historians might use in the weeks ahead:
"The rats were first seen by Europeans on the island in 1845, and there were several hundred there as of 1978. But since 1998, the part of the island that sits above high tide has shrunk from 9.8 acres to 6.2 acres. That means the island's vegetation has been shrinking, and the rodents have lost about 97 percent of their habitat.
"'The key factor responsible for the extirpation of this population was almost certainly ocean inundation of the low-lying cay, very likely on multiple occasions, during the last decade, causing dramatic habitat loss and perhaps also direct mortality of individuals,' writes the team, led by Ian Gynther from Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection.
“'For low-lying islands like Bramble Cay, the destructive effects of extreme water levels resulting from severe meteorological events are compounded by the impacts from anthropogenic climate change-driven sea-level rise,' the authors add."
As a consequence of this study and the Government’s pronouncement, National Geographic ran this headline: “First mammal species recognized as extinct due to climate change.”
I’ve never been to Torres strait, nor to the Great Barrier Reef, nor to Australia. I have never seen a Bramble Cay melomys. Back in 2008, when I was first getting involved in climate action, I used to report on the speculation that the small mountain pika might be the first mammal species to go extinct from climate change. The pika are also a small rodent and I’ve seen them myself while hiking above timberline in my beloved Rocky Mountain National Park. Pika are cute; the Bramble Cay melomys really wasn’t. . . at least in my opinion. So why did I suddenly feel sad when I first saw the announcement come across my newsfeed of the melomys’s extinction? Why do I find myself grieving again as I write this? Because a masterpiece created by the hand of “a great poet of consummate wisdom and infinite power” has just been lost. Even though I never knew this particular poem, I have loved its poet since I was a young child.
The last Bramble Cay melomys was spotted by a fisherman in 2009. God however—who we believe gazes upon every creature of his, not just the sparrows (Matt 10:29)--surely witnessed the last of his Bramble Cay melomys fall to the ground. I imagine he must be sad. In the end, God creates the natural world for many of the same reasons why stone masons laid a cornerstone for Notre Dame in Paris in 1163 AD. God’s invisible qualities—his divine nature and his eternal power—are made visible to us, intelligible to us, even dear to us through the craft of a skilled designer and artist. And places like Notre Dame and lives like the Bramble Cay melomys are created with the purpose of glorifying God by their very existence. Every time another species goes extinct it feels to me like a page in my favorite hymnal has been ripped out, never to be recovered. I don’t care if I was never personally familiar with that hymn. I mourn its loss. During COP 21, the Notre Dame cathedral was used to teach us about honoring God through taking climate action. Today, I feel like it is teaching us how to grieve all that we are losing, and will lose, with climate change. It’s in our nature to mourn when we see something lost.