I want to introduce my friend Steve Blackmer to the readers of Restoring the Waters. Were I pressed to give the substance of embodiment to the intersection of spirituality and ecology, it would look pretty much like Steve. Steve’s about to graduate from the Yale Divinity School, probably as big a surprise to him as anyone. In fact Steve’s personal narrative reminds me a little of Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station, where Harry and friends board the train for Hogwarts. Steve’s touchstones have been as familiar as railroad tracks, and yet several years ago, he stepped into a kind of parallel universe. I am introducing him through portions of a recent article appearing in the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Ethics “Transforming Themselves in Order to Change the Planet, written by Marc Wortman.
Just a short walk separates The School of Forestry and Environmental Studies from the Yale Divinity School (YDS) campus at the top of Prospect Street. Yet it took Stephen Blackmer ’83 more than 20 years after graduating to make the journey up the hill from F&ES. The long circle that brought him back to Yale shows the ways in which environmentalists are seeking a deeper moral and spiritual grounding for their work and how believers are applying their faith to environmental advocacy.
Blackmer said he “never dreamed” of taking a course at YDS while studying at F&ES. He wasn’t religious and didn’t see any connection between religious faith and his career. His master’s thesis examined how the 19th-century development of the American canal system affected forests. He briefly considered an academic career but left Yale to work in forest management and environmental advocacy.
Over the next two decades, he proved to be an exceptionally effective environmental coalition builder. Based in New Hampshire, he founded the Northern Forest Alliance (NFA) in 1988 and the Northern Forest Center (NFC) nine years later. The organizations became leading centers in conserving forest land and implementing sustainable forestry practices for the 30 million acres of forest along the United States-Canada border that stretches 400 miles from New York State to Maine. With Blackmer at its head, the NFA doubled the amount of protected natural land in the region, to 3 million acres; at the same time, the NFC “helped move the region from a clear-cut to a sustainable forestry model.”
His work brought him a wide following in the regional environmental community and won him national recognition, including the 2003 International Paper Conservation Partnership Award, but then “something happened.”
Blackmer said he started experiencing burnout and a growing recognition that environmental destruction could not be averted only by scientists and the political process. “I had this formless sense that there was a deeper problem to explain the situation, and there was a deeper place I wanted to get to.”
In 2005, in his search for insights, he went on a wilderness vision quest in the Inyo Mountains of southern California, a high-desert region. He spent four days and nights alone with no food and limited water. He returned to New Hampshire wrestling with why individuals and societies damage their environments in the first place. “What is wrong with us that we do such violence to the planet, to each other, to ourselves? How is environmental destruction related to other forms of human harm or evil?”
To find answers, he began attending Christian religious services. He said his prayers led him to the “excruciating” realization that his life as a conservationist was “dead, over” and that resulted in a long period of depression. “My whole identity was wrapped up in that, yet I knew a change had to happen.”
In 2007 he resigned from the NFC (he had already left the NFA) and spent a year as a Bullard Fellow at the Harvard Forest. In 2009 he came to New Haven to study at YDS. He is now completing studies for a master of arts in religion, with a thesis on his own spiritual journey that led him “to become a Christian in order to take my environmental work to the next level.” He intends to become an ordained priest—an “eco-priest,” he calls it—in the Episcopal Church after graduating next spring.
Blackmer is among an increasing number of students at Yale who are combining religious and environmental studies. In each of the past five years, around 10 new students have enrolled in the first—and what remains the world’s only—formal joint degree program in divinity and environmental studies. The students ultimately earn master’s degrees from both programs.
“The bottom line is this”, says Blackmer. “It is not only failed or outdated policies, technologies and economies that are the problem. We are. By allowing myself to be transformed, I can bring further transformation into the world. And if that kind of change can spread, there is hope even in the face of the worst violence and destruction.”
I have a personal reason to welcome Steve to Restoring the Waters. We both live in New Hampshire, and have been scheming, for the past many months, how we might partner in this exploration of the intersection ~ where ecology and spirituality and – in this case (not exclusively – let me underline that – not exclusively) – Christian principles and practices (along with their commensurate theology) have the opportunity to engage in the dance whose goal is nothing less than the transformation of self and community, in service to the healing of our planet.