By Laurel Dykstra
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
The image of large well-watered trees growing larger is used in scripture as a symbol of human prosperity, abundance, and flourishing for individuals (Psalm 92:12-13) and nations (Ezekiel 31). Often the type of tree is unnamed but a significant number are cedars. In an arid landscape shade as a luxury, an association amplified by the biblical equation of cedar wood with wealth.
The passages that describe cedars planted near water or watered by rain are vague on the means of propagation but the profoundly agricultural orientation of the biblical authors is evidenced by the assumption that even forests must have a gardener or farmer. Some passages focus on the identity of this planter. The other passages emphasize the greatness of one who is able to plant (even) cedars: Psalm 72:16 prays that under Solomon grain will be as abundant and tall as Lebanon, in Psalm 104: 16-17 the cedars of Lebanon are numbered among the natural wonders God planted and cares for, and in Ezekiel 17 two eagles, the kings of Babylon and Egypt, and then YHWH, plant and re-plant a shoot from the top of a cedar.
Viewed with a bioregional lens, the unifying theme in these cedar passages is water. While drought resistant once established, Cedrus libani the biblical Cedars of Lebanon require significant rainfall. From the arid scrub landscape of the Levant, large trees were rare and forests exotic but the image of trees flourishing beside fresh water is a persistent sign of divine blessing in scripture. Fruit trees convey fertility and food security while the passages that specify cedars emphasize the magnitude of the blessing, the luxury and refreshment of shade, and a place of safety and protection for the creatures that inhabit them.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests; Psalm 104: 16-17
The importance of water and an agricultural orientation are further emphasized by its opposite. Trees are also depicted as endangered or judged by fire (Judges 9:15, Jer 22:18, Zech 11:1-2) a threat that is more relevant to farmers exploiting scrub-land than it is to actual forests.
Reading these “cedars by the water” passages from my own bioregion in the shade of the well-watered Western Red Cedars of the lower Fraser watershed, during a time of global climate crisis raises a number of points.
The first is that in a place where fresh water flows from taps, plastic bottles line supermarket shelves and gutters, and water conservation means limits on lawn-watering every few summers, we don’t always recognize abundant water as a blessing. The cedars both biblical and bioregional can be a call to pay attention to the value and vulnerability of fresh water. A few kilometers from where I write, and all over the region, rivers and salmon stocks are at risk from pipleline and tanker spills of oil, liquefied gas and dilute bitumen; north and east in this watershed a racist-colonial logic has kept Nazko, Alexis Creek, and Lake Babine First Nations, under boil-water advisories or other water accessibility issues for 16 years, and recent changes to Canadian regulations mining, fisheries and water have gutted protections on rivers, lakes and groundwater.
The “fear of fire” passages resonate with two different realities in this region. On the one hand the way the passages reveal the agriculturalist’s priorities resembles the way that corporate-driven forestry practices of the 20th Century focused narrowly on the prevention of forest fires to protect timber products rather than the health of forests. In the present, the once unrealistic threat “fire may devour your cedars!” is becoming a reality. This region where we are experiencing unprecedented fires even in forests that typically receive more than 500 cm of rain per year and an increased burning season.
The third point relates to bioregional accountability. The biblical passages associate the cedars of Lebanon with the life sustaining quality of water. But the logging of red cedar and Douglas-fir forests in Cascadia causes a massive net release of carbon, forestry is responsible for 77% of British Columbia’s greenhouse gas emissions, so in reality the western red cedar contributes to the drought, rising sea levels, and increasing number and intensity of storms that impact island nations and coastal communities, disproportionately claiming the homes, livelihood and lives of poor and indigenous people.
Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on land, creation and environmental justice themes in the texts of the revised common lectionary, is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territories.