Everyone knows, practically every day, the cost of a gallon of gasoline at the local pump. What we may not recognize so constantly are its hidden costs, the environmental costs of its extraction from the ground, its transport, its refinement, and its burning into the atmosphere, emitting tons of both toxic fumes and greenhouse gases. These costs are not included on the gas station marquee. They remain off the human books, but they still stand in nature’s accounting.
But what is the value of a tree? I lived in downtown Jeffersonville, Indiana for several years before I realized that there was a large Granny Smith apple tree four blocks from my house. This tree stands messy and ill-tended in the front yard of a rundown house with broken window shades. Walking past it one September, I saw hundreds of apples covering the ground, and hundreds more crowding the branches. I took one home to taste. It was delicious. So I brought a basket to pick up more. I knocked on the door and no one answered. Someone walked by and said, “They don’t care about that tree. Take what you want.”
So I returned with a makeshift apple picker fashioned from a broomstick and a milk carton. Knocked again, no answer. Filled two baskets. Went out and bought a real apple picker. Knocked once again. Started filling baskets, and saw a woman watching from across the street. “I don’t think anyone lives there,” she said. “Thanks for cleaning up the mess.”
I was astounded that a tree filled with good looking, sweet and tasty organic fruit could stand on a busy urban street with neighbors all around, and no one seemed to value it. I made a lot of applesauce that year.
The next September I put a note in the house’s mailbox, and the owner wrote back, “Take as much as you can.” We collected three bushels.
That tree is a powerful example of what environmentalists call ecosystem services, the untold benefits humans receive, which we could never repay, from the natural world — beginning with the three trillion trees that clean and process our air, break up the soil, shelter beneficial species, cool forests and cities, and give building material, firewood, beauty, and food.
We could add to the trees the world’s oceans that moderate the temperature and provide food, rain, borders, and majesty. We should also note the tiny creatures, the ones biologist E. O. Wilson calls the little things that run the world, most of whom aren’t even named yet. Without us, they would simply go on as usual, but without them, humans wouldn’t last a year, Wilson says. The billions of nematodes in the ground, the microbes in our guts, the “ants, as well as bacteria, fungi, termites, [that] process most of the dead vegetation and … keep the great tropical forests alive.”1
The value of all these is rarely calculated. But they are what make the earth’s inhabitants very rich. One team of researchers estimates the annual economic value to humans of the ecosystem services of the world’s biomes at twice the human gross domestic product (GDP). Yet we don’t even have these services listed on our spreadsheets. So we are just beginning to calculate the lost value when parts of the earth are degraded. The human economy, with all its signage and stock indexes, is unfathomably embedded in and indebted to nature, and humans hardly see it. It’s like the air we breathe — in fact, it is the air that we breathe — and we’ve barely begun to notice it.
This is the garden earth that tends us, as long as we do our job and tend it well, or at least try not to destroy it. Just as the trees, oceans, and the tiny creatures are here not just for themselves, but serve the lives of others, including us, we too are here not just for ourselves.
The readings from Exodus in September and October are especially filled with reminders of the God-given gifts of life: safety, water, food, and divine faithfulness. The Psalms overflow with imagery from the natural world: eagles, vineyards, pastures, fields, and trees. Readings from Matthew teach common sense humility in generosity toward neighbors and resistance to wealth’s temptations. Any of these tracks can offer a full season of meditation on a creation that enriches us far beyond our power to imagine.
- Exodus 3:1-15 (semi-continuous) depicts God’s appearance to Moses in the Horeb wilderness in a flaming bush.
- Psalm 26:1-8 requests vindication for a righteous worshiper.
- Matthew 16:21-28 relates Jesus’ saying that those who seek to gain profit in this world risk losing their souls.
- Exodus 12:1-14 (semi-continuous) relates the miracle of Passover, involving a lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs.
- Psalm 119:33-40 prays for loyalty to God’s ways rather than vanity and selfish gain.
- Matthew 18:15-20 pledges Christ’s presence even when only two gather.
- Exodus 14:19-31 (semi-continuous) relates the miracle of the sea’s parting for the Israelites.
- Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 pictures worshipers’ life renewed like the eagle’s.
- Matthew 18:21-35 relates a story to commend forgiveness, since God’s mercy is infinitely greater than any we can offer.
- Exodus 16:2-15 (semi-continuous) tells the story of the manna that fed the Israelites in the wilderness.
- Psalm 145:1-8 proclaims God’s greatness and goodness to all living creatures.
- Matthew 20:1-16 describes God’s generosity toward hired laborers, reminding us of the plight of migrants who harvest our food.
- Exodus 17:1-7 (semi-continuous) relates God’s provision of water in the wilderness.
- Psalm 25:1-9 employs the metaphor of “path” to pray for divine guidance.
- Matthew 21:23-32 teaches that faithful deeds are far more worthy than empty words.
- Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 (semi-continuous) commands worship of God alone, and no other gods or idols, including covetousness.
- Psalm 80:7-15 compares humans to a vineyard planted by God, and pleads for restoration.
- Matthew 21:33-46 retells the story of God’s vineyard from another perspective, and counsels producing the fruits of God’s reign.
- Exodus 32:1-14 (semi-continuous) tells of Aaron’s calf, cast from golden jewelry, that the Israelites worshiped at Mount Sinai.
- Psalm 23 asserts faith in God’s provident guidance through green pastures, still waters, right paths, and even darkest valleys.
- Matthew 22:1-14 tells the parable of the great wedding banquet that many were too distracted to attend.
- Exodus 33:12-23 (semi-continuous) promises Moses, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
- Psalm 96:1-9 (10-13) calls earth, sea, field, and trees to sing before God.
- Matthew 22:15-22 reminds disciples to “give to God the things that are God’s.”
- Deuteronomy 34:1-12 (semi-continuous) tells of the death of Moses, Israel’s incomparable leader, at the border of the promised land.
- Psalm 1 envisions followers of Torah as well-watered trees, filled with fruit, prospering in all they do.
- Matthew 22:34-46 repeats the commandments to love God and neighbor.
1. E. O. Wilson, “The Little Things That Run the World (The Importance and Conservation of Invertebrates),” Conservation Biology 1:4 (Dec 1987): 344-46.