A Covenant of Land & Waters

Social ForumBy Bill Wylie-Kellermann

Come spring and then through summer and fall, we used to take our daughters for regular walks in Elmwood Cemetery on the near east side of Detroit. A favorite photo has them looking up in sun, caught in delight. This European burial ground is the last surviving bit of pre-Columbian terrain in the city. All the remaining earth has been cleared and graded and leveled first as farmland, then paved as urban built environment. This is not to say it’s old growth forest (that wood is long hauled off and the transplants tended into a canopy of stately beauties) but the land has rocky outcrops, ridges, rills, and a stream that emerges from underground to pool before slipping back beneath the street toward the river.

That stream first called Parents Creek had a name change in 1763 when Pontiac’s warriors were encamped there. Risen up against the British and laying siege to Fort Detroit, the Odawa were attacked, though not surprised, by 250 troops. The stream ran red with British blood and became ever since, Bloody Run.

There are many such streams shedding water to the great river. Five years ago during the US Social Forum in Detroit (photo above), environment justice and theatrical activists walked the route of the Savoyard Creek which, encased in a brick tomb, still carries rainwater run-off, even flowing by the Penobscot “Temple of Finance” beneath the streets of downtown Detroit. The activists made puppets of creatures past and present, then undertook a festive procession street-level following the Ghostwaters, as they called it. Sturgeon and trout, birds and bugs swam or flew the streets in a liturgy of memory, celebration, and resistance.

Detroit is a cemetery for buried creeks, some with living water still. In Southwest there is buried stream called Baby Creek or in the French, Beau Bay, running from the Spring Wells area of Delray. On the east side, my friend keeps a boat at the foot of Meadow Brook Road. Also north and east, Connor’s Creek flows under the I94 Ford Freeway which rises from the cement ditch at the golf course to get over the underground run.

Recently and incidentally these have been invoked in the Detroit Water struggle. Those ridiculing water as a human right are not above saying, “Yes, it’s your right. Take your bucket down to the creek and draw what you want.” Charity Hicks, urban agriculturalist and water warrior now of blessed memory responded, “Really? Show me the Creek!”

Sometimes when I’m watering the garden at St Peter’s, I think of the stream, variously called Campau’s Creek, then Gabacier’s, then May’s, which flowed by just a block or so south on Trumbull Avenue. Where its route approaches the river it was covered by the Michigan Central Station and its bed used for a rail line.

We garden in a dozen raised beds because the soil around St Peter’s tests high for lead. We began Manna Community Garden six or seven years ago when there was drug activity kitty corner from the church. Gardening is a way of reclaiming social space and building community, as much as it is about growing our own food. The project has always been a collaboration between the church, the Worker soup kitchen (Manna Community Meal), and our neighbors.

Manna is a Hebrew word that means “what is it?” It’s the flaky “bread,” found on the ground, which the Israelites lived on in the wilderness after they walked out of Egypt. The wilderness sojourn was a time of unlearning empire, so manna was a lesson and a test. Imperial economy is one of domination and extraction – taking, storing , and hoarding. The Hebrew slaves, in fact, were making bricks for the building of granary storage facilities. Empire in a nutshell. By contrast, Manna economy is one of gift, of sharing, of sufficiency. It means living in accord with the land and not collecting more than one’s need for the day. If an Israelite tried to store up extra manna, it rotted and stank. Our daily bread means no one has more than they need and everyone has enough. It must have been an important lesson because the only things kept in the ark of the covenant, were the stone tablets of the law and a jar of Manna – just enough to remember.

Manna Community Garden enjoys a good bit of “street harvest.” In some community gardens that can be a problem, but we’re cool with it even happy for it. As the harvest comes in we also bring the fruits and roots and leaves, to the altar where it joins with the gifts of Eucharist. At the end of the service congregants and guests take what they need. The altar names the gift and serves as a point of redistribution.

A few weeks ago, after the hot crops went in, we made a Sunday morning procession to the beds for our garden blessing. We sang, poured water upon it, and made our covenant with these words:

By and through Manna Community Garden, we renew ourselves in God’s covenant with all creation. In it we pledge ourselves to help protect this fragile and finite earth. We stand together against all threats to the great community of life. As followers of Jesus we commit ourselves anew to one another, to our neighbors, and to the growing among us of justice and community. What we grow, what we receive from this good earth, we give and share at common tables. We do so partnering with worms and water, sun and air, with living soil beneath us, and all the forces of life. Together we pledge to notice beauty in our city and God’s creation: the opening leaf, the sunrise and sunset, flowers and fruit, rainbows arching high, the power of starlight, one another on the street, and all forms of life among whom we live. Here we listen to the “music of the universe”- the sound of water falling to earth, trees bending in the wind, the world waking and warming to morning sun. We remember to reverence all that God has created. Let this garden bless us and bless our community.

Amen. So be it.

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