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“As often as the misdeeds of human beings pollute the elements, God will use human torments and calamities to purify them again; for God wants a clean earth and will not allow it to be harmed or destroyed through human actions.” Hildegard of Bingen 1098-1179

The Merrimack River begins in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and flows into Massachusetts through the cities of Lawrence, North Andover (my hometown) and Haverhill and on to the Gulf of Maine and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a beautiful river and I never tired of watching it. The memory of it still plays in my minds’ eye.

The Merrimack once was a pristine river where salmon, shad and sturgeon were abundant and supported the Pennacook Indians who met at the Pawtucket Falls to fish during the day and conduct business at night. After the fish run, they moved north to plant and harvest crops. In the 17th century, smallpox, war and English settlement devastated the Pennacooks. Many died, others moved away, and a way of life was gone forever.

The Falls were eventually dammed to move the flow of the water into canals to be used for industry and the falls were dry except in the spring snow runoff. The river then supported textile and tanning industries. Huge textile mills lined the river by the time I was born, and there were days when I remember the river running red or green or purple depending on whatever was being dyed that day in the mills. The fish were also gone from the river. We were told that it would be a lifetime before the river could recover. But surprisingly it did recover within a few years after the mills, plagued by union strikes, were closed when the industry moved to the south where labor was cheap. Fish returned, but not the salmon. Today, the river is still plagued by pollution. This time human waste, when heavy rains overwhelm treatment plants, flows by millions of gallons into the river. The lesson I took away from my youth, and have cherished all my life, was that nature can renew itself and if left to itself will survive. In 1849, Henry David Thoreau said of the Merrimack, “Perchance, after a few thousands of years, if the fishes will be patient, and pass their summers elsewhere…. nature will have levelled the factories, and the Grass-ground River will run clear again.”

We are in danger of running out of the water and clean air that we need to survive. A 16-year-old girl named Greta, is warning us that our earth is on fire. We are in danger of our own extinction. Soon!

What troubles me the most are the words of Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.” The definition of Subdue? Conquer, bring under control, defeat, pacify, subordinate, vanquish. More and more in our arrogance, we are being successful in accomplishing just this. Is this what God really envisioned?

Perchance, after we have gone the way of the dinosaurs, our way of life, like the Pennacook, will be gone forever. And after a few more thousands of years, if nature is patient, the rivers will run clear again and the air will be pure once more. Or can we learn from the Celts to live in relationship with creation, not in opposition to it?


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