A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese. I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof. Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?”
Leopold reveled in the natural world around his Wisconsin home: geese, prairies, oaks, chickadees, wild flowers. As a university professor Leopold educated his students on the principles, practices and techniques of wildlife management, but as a man he advocated an awareness of the natural world, knowing that such an awareness helps us see beauty and prompts us to act as good stewards. While cutting firewood he saw the history of his county and thought of humility; with an ax in hand he considered his biases and the impact his actions had on the land; in migrating geese he saw courage and a model for international cooperation.
Everyday details show what we are aware of and what we value. Our work, our homes, our recreation, what we buy and what we dispose of reveal what we see as things of lesser worth.
Our church urges us to be done with lesser things: “Rise up, O men of God! Have done with lesser things. Give heart and soul and mind and strength to serve the King of Kings” (Hymn 324).
When we treat anything like garbage we see it as a lesser thing to be done with. But if we are aware we will see much more of the world as beautiful, as good, as a building block for creation. For me, as manager of a recycling center, this happens every day.
The physical reality of a recycling center reflects some of the excess of our society. A glut of boxes, superfluous copies and empty water bottles comprise the majority of what we receive. These once protected and transported the products consumers desired. Newspapers carried thoughts and ideas that were current for a day. The bottles we sort held milk, pop and water, some of which still sloshes around spoiled in the bottom. Boxes helped move iPads, oranges and furniture. Because they were simply the conveyors, once the content is read, swallowed or removed we tend to discard the paper, bottles and boxes as lesser things.
These castoffs arrive as regularly as people exhale. I receive them gladly, not just because they are the substance of our business and a potential source of revenue but because I’ve learned to see their value, because in these discards I see the beauty and possibility of new creations. I look at stacks of yellowed and forgotten newspapers and see them transformed into attic insulation. As I bend to pick up crumpled, empty plastic bottles I see them spun into polyester clothing. I corral discarded, dirty and bent cardboard because I know it can be transformed into new boxes. As recycler I see these lesser things as building blocks, as the elements for more creation.
It helps to see these discards piled together in mountains because the sheer volume urges action. In isolation of ones and twos, a stray bottle, a lone newspaper, a solitary box seems like nothing. But gathered together they become mountains that we can move and make something out of.
How we handle what society sees as of lesser worth says something about us, our devotion to God and our adherence to His commandments. Our disposal practices are an application of the phrase “to be used, with judgement, not to excess” found in Doctrine and Covenants 59. But beyond those practical decisions we also need to seek to gladden our hearts and enliven our souls. For that I need to stop and notice God’s creations as I strive to take care of my daily responsibilities.
Last November, I stayed late to move six hundred thousand pounds of cardboard we used to build a maze to attract attention to how much material we collectively use and to promote recycling. As I worked, I paused to talk to a student and then stopped mid-sentence when I heard a distant but familiar sound. I looked up and spotted a flock of cranes circling near Utah Lake a few miles to the southwest. Sandhill cranes were common fall and spring migrants when I lived in Wisconsin and Indiana but are much less common in Utah.
Recognizing their calls felt like hearing the familiar accent of the people in the town where you grew up but moved away from decades ago. I took me a few days but eventually I realized that the reason I stopped so suddenly and listened and stared was not just nostalgia but because those birds reminded me of the current why and the immediate what of the things I do. I recycle and work in recycling because it helps preserve space and habitat for cranes and maples and columbines. The cranes reminded me of beauty of the creation, which reminded me of the Creator, which reminds me to act in love and devotion.