An Interview with Anne Rowthorn: Environmentalist, Author, and Religious Lay Leader
Transcribed & Interviewed By: Greg Farr and Published By: Caela Collins
I was very impressed though with the scope of your dissertation, the topic was on the development of recreational therapy in the United States, right? And you looked at the early 20th century all the way up to the present day. So that must have been very formative in how you thought about things in your later career endeavors?
Well, you know, I like the historical process and I enjoyed doing it. And I liked that recreation therapy really came out of the settlement houses in Chicago and New York, and it was helping a great deal in hard times. And there was a historical thread – I was a delegate to the diocesan convention. I was a New Haven deanery delegate and at that time that the church was organized not in regions but in deaneries. And we had a small suburban church in Hamden, where we lived, and we had a general annual general meeting where they elected the vestry members. And there was the delegate to the deanery [position] to the diocese, and nobody would take that position. So, they said, “Well, how about you Anne?” And, you know, I was just trying to finish this PhD, and I’m working part-time…
And the 3 kids!…
Yes, three kids! And so they said, “yeah, just go ahead and do it!”. And so actually, I did do it. We had 19 churches in and around New Haven. They were marvelous priests, marvelous lay people. It was very, very involved in the community.
Some of our members were instrumental in forming Columbus House, the first homeless shelter in New Haven, and their after-school programs. There were soup kitchens, feeding programs. We were probably, along with the Bridgeport Deanery, the most active deanery in the diocese. And we were very good at getting diocesan money to run our programs.
Well, at one point, the Bicentennial of the Episcopal Church was coming up, and we always needed more money. So, I thought, well, I’ll write their bicentennial biography of Samuel Seabury, our first bishop, and then, you know, see if we can arrange some tours so that maybe Episcopalians of means could go to Scotland where Seabury was ordained Bishop.
And actually, that was the first thing I thought – if I could find more about this guy, then we would have a little bit historical basis for planning these tours. But then I thought, wow, this is so good, and he was such an interesting character, I would just write a book. The book did become the bi-centennial book of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and it was my first book – and it was a lot of fun doing it.
And I discovered his journals. and I edited those adding illustrations by a really marvelous woman named Jane Hooker, who was this New Haven artist. And so that kind of got me started.
So, the media has recognized you as a writer specializing in Eco-Spirituality. Tell me a little bit about that recognition if you would and about your understanding of the way theology and ecology, and the practice of those disciplines, intertwine.
What shall I say? Well, I’ve was very influenced by John Muir. And John Muir, as you know, grew up in biblical tradition. He had memorized all of the Old Testament by the time he was 12, and most of the New Testament. Yet going out to Yosemite, which was particularly his epiphany, but he had other nature trips. First, he really realized that this is where God is present – this is sacred land, this is my cathedral. And, and I feel that way too. Because I feel, truly going back even perhaps to my past, that I might have had a dysfunctional family but nature was always there.
Nature was always beautiful, though violent at times, but always regenerative. And, in fact, the land we walk on is really sacred ground. And, I saw, going back to my experience with the Lakota people, that they thought of the world of the land differently than we did. They thought that it was sacred, they thought that the sky was sacred. This is just built into their DNA, the sky, the winds, the animals are sacred. And it’s been my feeling, and that others very much like me, John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker at the Yale Forum for Religion and Ecology, that the churches need to open themselves up to the natural world as really a primary teacher. And I hope it’s not good sounding heretical to say that, that we have the Trinity of three persons – and God, the Creator … well, things have changed, we’ll have to say … is very much being eclipsed in the face of Jesus, the Redeemer.
And so, the three aspects of the Trinity are not treated equally. And, now is the time and our planet is truly suffering, as you know. And so the churches have a great role in opening up their doors and seeing that sacredness extends beyond the beautiful windows and the church … and even the community and even the people. Churches have a role in saying, “Well, who is my neighbor?” Well my neighbor is not just the neighbor sitting beside me in the church or where I live, but my neighbor is the animals, the ground, the plants, the sea, the sky. My neighbor is all of creation, and to widen their prayers and widen their spirituality to that idea of that my neighbor is the world – my neighbor is creation.
Which is including many people, many cultures.
So, please allow me one last big question. You know, I was thinking about ‘healing’. Healing seems to be one of the primary themes that runs through most of your work because, you know, we’re not the Garden of Eden anymore. We have got problems and we’ve got things that need healing. How do you understand that concept or that process today? I know that we started out talking about lament. What does that look like for you today? Is it the same or different?
I think that we need to acknowledge what hurts. We need to acknowledge the causes of lament. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of Joanna Macy? Joanna Macy is very much influenced by Buddhist tradition. And she kind of got her name through naming the dangers of nuclear build-up and nuclear weapons. And one of her conclusions – and she’s basically moved over to [writing about] the environment – was that we need to acknowledge the hurt, we need to acknowledge the danger, and only in acknowledging danger can we build ourselves up?
We have to break down the barriers. We do have to have to acknowledge the hurt. And, I’d say the other thing with healing, is if you want to talk about healing – I get healing every day. See there’s a field there [gesturing out through the window]. I wake up at six every morning and I take a little hike through the woods to that field. Then I’ll take a hike in the afternoon. So, creation is very hurt. We have many hurt people and hurt communities. The only way I combat that – just speaking for myself – is by a good dose of nature every day. The Japanese call it “nature bathing”. I just call it, “just taking a walk in the woods”.