What I Learned in Big Sky Country

Eco-Steward Evelyn Meisenbacher attends Drew University, where she is majoring in environmental studies as an undergraduate student. Evelyn is co-president of the Drew Environmental Action League and a member of Students for Sustainable Food and Food Justice. Next semester, she will reside at Spirituality House, a community of religious students who promote faith-based activities on campus. In the post below, Evelyn reflects on her participation in the recent Eco-Stewards Montana Program: Sustainability and Reconciliation through Agriculture, Health and Green Building.

I distinctly remember the first emotion I had upon my arrival in Billings, Montana—awe. I was overcome by the landscape. As a New Jersey native, I wasn’t used to the breathtaking amount of space I encountered here in the Northwest—stark cliffs overlooking vast, rolling plains, bordered by snow-capped jagged mountains in the distance.

What I would come to learn over the course of a week, however, is that this land—for all its rugged and seemingly well-worn exterior— is not infinite, and it is not invulnerable. The recent floods, after years of drought, have made farmlands susceptible to ruin. The reality of intensive coal mining is looming—which, for all its economic benefits, would wreak massive environmental damage, threatening air and water quality. Unsustainable ranching practices contribute toward the continued overgrazing of the plains, the misuse of public waters, and the permanent loss of biodiversity. The water that runs through the Crow reservation is ridden with mercury and coliforms.

The forces of modernization have swept among a place and people once rich in cultural heritage. We have neglected our care for the earth. But after hearing the stories and testimonies of folks from all different walks of life, I can be sure now, more than ever, that healing and reconciliation are taking place. I think I’ve emerged from this week-long experience with not only that initial sense of amazement at the beauty of Creation—but with an inspired outlook to protect it. Environmental justice is as mandated by the Christian faith as social justice in the traditional sense. If we fail to do our part in taking care of the earth, we have ultimately failed ourselves. But the message at the end of the week was not a misanthropic, doom-and-gloom pessimism—it was a message of hope. By strengthening the ties of community, just as we did in Montana, we can restore what has been lost, and celebrate what we do have.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and every living thing. Let us take care—let us be aware!”

Be Still And Know: An Eco-Steward’s Reflection

Eco-Steward Vickie Machado wrote this reflection about a particularly moving day she experienced during our recent Montana Eco-Stewards Program: Reconciliation and Sustainability through Agriculture, Health and Green Building. Machado studies religion and nature in a graduate program at the University of Florida.

GREENWOOD FARM, Montana– After a delicious breakfast of homemade bread and apple butter, we all headed out to the open space behind the farmhouse to engage our bodies, minds, and spirits in some morning yoga. After various positions of dog, cat, cobra, and tree, Rob read Scripture from a Celtic prayer book: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).  This message rang true through our meditation. God was all around us in the far off mountains and the vast blue sky. It placed our minds at peace as we embarked upon the day’s activities.

We rounded up our crew and set off to explore the Crow Agency. Upon arriving in Crow, we drove around town, seeing the college, hospital, and various churches. We drove by a skate park, a great idea until we realized the placement of it was a bit far from the center of town, let alone kids who wanted to utilize it. Our journey led us to Spirit of Life Foursquare Church, a Pentecostal church with a new building. Unsure of what we would be doing, most of us dressed in old work clothes and rain boots so we could help in flood relief. Upon arrival at the church, we offered ourselves to wherever we were needed. Since the skies were blue and there was no standing water, our group was led inside to help prepare the church for a wedding. We vacuumed, mopped, cleaned bathrooms, and washed windows in an effort to help Kenny Pretty On Top Jr., the worship leader who was in charge of the preparation. He showed some of us his soundboard equipment featuring an array of musical technology, which was all pretty impressive.

Toward the end of our cleaning session, a couple of us went with Rob to meet the Backbone family, who lives nearby. They were so kind and inviting. I was surprised with the amount of people at the house. Family and extended family lived together. Coming from a rather small family, I really appreciated this. The joys and dangers of life on the “rez” took a real form as I learned about high school graduation celebrations and tragic car crashes.

We walked back over to the church to find everyone outside ready for a small tour of the area. Kenny walked us around the neighboring lots. He recalled growing up with a father who taught him that “if it ain’t green, it ain’t clean.” He commented on the fact that kids today didn’t view the world like this, and mostly everything is considered expendable in their eyes.

We departed the church and continued our tour of Crow at the hospital. It also was a fairly new building. Being closed due to the flood, we were able to go inside to explore. Elements of Crow culture were found all around the hospital. A couple display boxes held intricate beadwork, while the walls were lined with various paintings depicting native culture, such as one piece of artwork which portrayed the elk tooth dress, a traditional gown worn by respected women. Upstairs we learned about smudging and how it was practiced as a kind of cleansing ritual. We also were shown the inside of an interfaith chapel, a circular meditation room designed to resemble a tepee. There was an altar-like space on the side of the chapel, open and inviting for any religion or tradition. While native medicine was not included in the hospital, we were told it was not uncommon for patients to seek additional medical advice from grandmothers and medicine men. As we left the hospital, I looked to the sky, a few wispy, white clouds floated through a background of blue: “Be still and know that I am God.”

Back at Greenwood Farm, we ate another delicious lunch and were given some down time. A group gathered inside by the piano, making beautiful music; others went outside to start work on the earthship, cutting tires and filling them with sand and dirt. With a shovel in my hand and a broad brimmed hat from China on my head, I joined the work outside. I thoroughly enjoyed the hands-on experience of starting an earthship. While my help was minimal, I still felt the importance of putting my body to work, of being productive, or better yet in the sense of the natural environment, being fruitful. I imagine both groups felt the importance of being useful and creative, be it piecing together a song or putting our efforts together to start the foundation of a low energy structure.

After a shower at the local pool (which was INDOORS, understandable given the winter snow, but still a crazy thought for this Florida girl!), we headed back to the farm for dinner, a presentation, and the start of our eco-faith journeys.

Earlier in the day, back at the Pentecostal church, we had asked Kenny about the intersection of land and faith. He said something that stood out to me: “I don’t associate God with places, I associated Him with people [pointing to his heart].” While I had discovered this throughout my life, I found that this wild Montana landscape seemed to truly hold God’s power. After all, our group had gathered together on this eco-stewardship program in an effort to connect God with the land. After listening to the eco-faith journeys and sharing my own, I realized how applicable Kenny’s statement was to our day and our time spent together. God is not just in the land, but He is in the people around us. Many of us had voiced this as we shared our outlooks on the intersection of social and environmental justice. They go hand in hand, and you cannot consider one without the other.

Looking back, I saw God throughout our week together. Like Joe Bear Cloud had said the previous day, “God gives us the language through sounds: wind, water, and earth [earth being man who was made from dust].” I heard the language of God in the mountains and in the sky. I also heard God in our journeys: in our hardships, confusion, and joys. God is in so much, sometimes it takes a new atmosphere in order to silence the noise of the world and hear His voice. At the end of the day and before our campfire, we gathered outside to stand in awe of the setting sun and the fiery sky. Once again the words appeared: “Be still and know that I am God” and know that I am here.

Stories From Crow: A Multimedia Slideshow

Our team of Eco-Stewards reporters and photographers created this multimedia slideshow featuring stories of those living with and from the land on the Crow Reservation and in Big Sky Country. The theme of our 2011 Montana program was “reconciliation and sustainability through agriculture, health and green building.” Enjoy this 8-minute video. And in the toolbar on the right, we’ve added recipes from Greenwood Farm and information about how to donate to the Eco-Stewards Program.