It may seem obvious that the message of Christmas has relatively little to do with native prairie plants. On the one hand you have a religious holiday speaking of God drawing near and salvation in the midst of a brutal world. On the other, you have one of many threatened ecosystems and the plant nerds who notice. It’s hard to see how one has anything to do with the other. One conversation is had in our Sunday best, amidst candlelight in a crowded sanctuary; the other in hiking boots and using Latin names, but not those of the traditional Mass.

As I write this it is Christmas Eve. I have just finished my religious observances for the day… disinfecting my germination rack and washing all my reusable plastic seedling trays! I say that somewhat tongue in cheek, but not entirely. I have been telling people recently that my work with native plants is the most integrated venture I’ve ever set myself to. As someone who has a graduate education in theology, that might come off as a puzzling statement.

For me the connection is entirely natural, and as I was hosing off trays this morning it occurred to me that Christmas might help this make sense for people. Maybe. We’ll see…

The core message of Christmas is the idea of the creator being born within creation. The mystics within the Christian tradition have always had a way of reading the Christmas story that has made the established/politically organized church nervous. They saw in the Christmas narrative an allegory for experience of union with God, that is, the birth of God within the human spirit.

Now, this kind of thinking was problematic for the established church because it made possible a chaotic crisis of authority. If there was only one who was united with God, then by tracing lines of succession the church could always claim to utter the final word. Just imagine if anyone could stand up and claim to have the final word on any given contentious matter! As such, “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one” was downplayed to the preference of placing Jesus on a pedestal.

This line of thinking entirely misses what the mystics are pointing towards, however. Seeing why is not quite as “in the weeds” as it might first seem.

The experience of union with God that the mystics were familiar with cannot be thought of as one person meeting another, even if by “another” we mean the greatest being of all. The language used by those who have experienced this is always paradoxical. On the one hand union with God is described as a sort of dying or annihilation of our separate, isolated identity, and on the other it is a realization of one’s connection with all that is. One does not return from such an experience with divine information, but rather with a realization of one’s inseparable connectedness with all reality. As such, the divisions that we normally live by, our morality, our language, our law, all find themselves utterly secondary to a direct experience of life described most simply as “love.’ 

For the one who has tasted this, the whole world becomes sacred.  

It is of course true that most of us most of the time don’t live out of this kind of consciousness (myself included). We are instead separate, threatened, at war with each other, and with ourselves. It is exhausting.

And so you will find me, on a cloudy day upon a windy hilltop, the plants dancing as they are tossed about. There is no one around as far as the eye can see. There are no words, just a living memory beneath my feet. This place has nothing to do with the harried life of separation in which I mostly live. That identity dies here. The clouds race across the windswept landscape. God is born.

the sky

For perhaps but a moment, I do not exist. There is only wonder.

Here lies the core of my work with native plants. To call it ecological is far too narrow. Sure, it involves the pollinators, but it’s larger than them. Attempts to justify planting natives by resorting to descriptions of how they can benefit human life, though perhaps true, stand solidly before the threshold I find myself urged beyond. In the wild spaces of the prairie I am quite simply brought to life.

As the mystical theologians have always noted, Christmas is the awakening of divinity in the world. It may not be easy for many of us to think of the wild spaces of the prairie as being the sort of place such an ecstasy occurs. Then again, if you think about it, neither is a manger in Palestine! Merry Christmas, my friends!

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