Of Phragmites and Chickens:
By Melissa Inouye
I live across the street from a small city park called the Mehraban Wetland Park. I love the wetlands. I love the smell of the warm, wet earth, the light on the water, the variety and changeability, but also the constancy of growing things. Truly, as the psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).
The more time we spend in the wetland, the more we learn about it; and the more we learn about it, the more we realize that its beauty is fragile and threatened. It exists in a balance.
The park once had another catchment basin, a third pond, but this basin has been completely filled in by the most pernicious weed of all: phragmites. The problem with phragmites is that they take over. They spread both through seed, blown through the air, and through roots, which spread horizontally below ground. They propagate rapidly, creating thick mats of biomass that choke out other vegetation usually found in wetland areas: bulrushes, sedges, willows, cattails.
Biodiversity, scientists tell us, is not simply a matter of nature being quirky and creating a lot of embellishments. It is fundamental to sustaining life on the planet itself: the food that grows, the water we drink, the seasons, and the stable weather on which human beings depend. Biodiversity of species on the living planet is like rivets on the wing of a plane. The loss of one or two will not crash the plane, but the more that are lost, the more likelihood there is of a serious problem.
By destroying God’s creations and being extractors, not stewards, of the natural life that They have placed on earth, modern human beings have now created this serious problem. We have taken over, destroyed the Earth’s natural bounty of trees, plants, bushes, creeping things, and fishes in the water (30 percent of which are critically low). We have waged war on the birds of the air in all their variety and replaced them with chickens.
That’s right, chickens. Seventy percent of all birds on earth are domestic birds, the vast majority chickens. Only 30 percent of the birds on earth are non-chickens. Many of them, like the peregrine falcon, the bald eagle, and the hummingbird, are threatened for loss of habitat.
But what does biodiversity have to do with the theme of “Gathering Light and Truth from All Nations”?
God did not create a world to be covered with only Latter-day Saints or only Pure Land Buddhists. Our Eternal Father and Mother did not endow Their children with the spiritual imagination to only see the beauty of the Qur’an or to only appreciate the Bhagavad Gita. My point is that diversity is essential in all life. Without incredible variety and complex difference, there is no life.
Biodiversity—the fullness of the earth—is literally a matter of divine design. Our Father and Mother could have created a world in which every lake shore was covered with only phragmites and 70 percent of the birds were chickens. But instead They created a complex, ever-evolving system with willows, cottonwoods, bulrushes, sedges, and cattails, with peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and hummingbirds. God did create them as part of a grand design of sustaining the intricate webs of life on the planet, where all God’s children live, breathe oxygen, drink water, and eat the fruit of the soil.
With regard to scripture and spiritual teaching and ontological assumptions, our Father and Mother could have created a world in which everyone shared the same holy works, the same spiritual exemplars, and the same frameworks of reality. It was within Their power. It was within Their capacity to reveal to everybody the same truths.
And yet God created conditions in which individuals have wildly different access to ideas, theology, and moral codes. Why? For those of us who are religious, who believe in a God who has all truth and all power, who loves all people on the earth with a parent’s love, this can be a head-scratcher.
Why would a God who loved everyone and wanted everyone to flourish not give everyone the same access to truth and righteousness? How could we imagine that Heavenly Parents who loved all Their children and dedicated Their whole work to helping them all become better would select a few “chosen children” to have it all?
Gave I unto Men and Women Their Agency
In that same book of scripture where God is explaining Their work and Their glory—“to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of [Their children]” (Moses 1:39)—God also gives a lit- tle note about how this was supposed to come about: “In the Garden of Eden, gave I unto [men and women their] agency; . . . [I have] said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood” (Moses 7:32–33). To rephrase this, God gave Their children the choice to love one another and to love God. The heavens weep because people choose not to love one another (see Moses 7:28). Clearly, making this choice isn’t easy because of our immense plurality, because of our many differences. But it is this process of choosing to love one another despite our differences that leads to immortality and eternal life.
We Latter-day Saints believe that this was the risk inherent in God’s plan, a risk that was avoided in Satan’s plan. In Satan’s plan for human redemption, people would be forced
to make the correct choices, and none of us would be allowed to screw up. There would be
no diversity whatsoever. We would all have chicken and phragmites. We would get used to chicken and phragmites and would not cultivate the potential for complexity, maturity, or the vast experience in our divine nature.
In God’s plan, there would be immense variety, innumerable differences, causing us to frequently fail to choose one another and, thereby, fail to choose God. But because of the difficulty of the task, when we did figure out how to bridge our differences and understand from multiple perspectives, we would have come closer to seeing as God sees.
Negotiating the Spaces Between Us
This is why, I believe, when God created the natural world, They made sure to create it with such biodiversity, and when God created humankind, They made sure to create us with spiritual diversity. Acknowledging planetary-scale spiritual diversity is not some watery, weak- kneed gesture of moral relativism, because both the laws of creation and Latter-day Saint theology witness that diversity is a fundamental principle of God’s plan for us.
God did not intend for us to learn to follow Them in a world of only phragmites and chick- ens. God wants us to live rich lives, connected to many others in a complex web of interaction and interdependence, using distinctive gifts within distinctive roles to bless all God’s children and help them achieve their divine potential.
The project of becoming as our Heavenly Parents involves negotiating the wide, empty spaces between us and our fellow beings in our many different circumstances. As we learn
to know and to understand and to receive each other, we are able to give each other gifts of wisdom and insight that bring us closer to that perfect, divine understanding. There’s nothing wrong with phragmites or chickens. The only problem is when there’s nothing but phragmites or nothing but chickens.
Spiritual Biodiversity and Latter-day Saints
Now, some of my fellow Latter-day Saints might be getting nervous. You might be thinking, “We’re a missionary faith.” “We want to spread to all corners of the world.” “We believe that we will fill the earth.” “Is she saying, ‘Latter-day Saints are an invasive species’?” “Is she saying, ‘We’re phragmites or chickens’?”
In the realm of human religiosity, we are so far from being phragmites or chickens. Compared to all the religions out there that have ever been over thousands and thousands of years, our presence barely registers.
In the context of God’s vast plan and all varieties of God’s creation, we, the Latter-day Saints, are both supremely unimportant and absolutely essential.
Latter-day Saints, currently the most numerous we have ever been, constitute .02 percent of the world’s population. This is tiny. In terms of biomass, we are definitely not on par with chickens. Not even ostriches or emus. More like hummingbirds: tiny but energetic, willing to expend a lot of energy to get to where we’re going, very detail oriented. We move around a lot. We’re not the only good birds out there. We’re just a fairly recent species of hummingbird. But like all living things, we have a distinctive contribution to make. All by ourselves, there aren’t enough of us to sustain life or save the world. But we must do the work we do best, the work God has called us to do. As Patrick Mason points out in his book Restoration, only we know how important this work is, only we can do it, and if we don’t do it, it won’t get done.
In the context of God’s vast plan and all varieties of God’s creation, we, the Latter-day Saints, are both supremely unimportant and absolutely essential. And we exist within a wider network, a system, of other human beings in every place who do what they do. This diversity of action and roles is not only beautiful but life-giving.
For thousands of years of humanity, God, our Eternal Father and Mother, have spoken to us, Their children, in our own language and cultural idiom. They spoke to the ancient Israelites. They spoke to the people of ancient India. They spoke to the woman at the well in first-century Palestine. They spoke to Juan Diego, the Aztec who heard music and saw a vision at Tepeyac Hill in 1531. They spoke to my ancestors in Japan as they prayed in the Jodo Shinshu temples and to my Uncle Frank and Auntie Kay at the Evergreen Baptist Church.
I don’t know why God has called me to be a Latter-day Saint, to serve a Latter-day Saint mission in Taiwan and invite others to come join with us, to marry in a Latter-day Saint temple, and to muddle through my callings in a local Latter-day Saint ward. It is through a distinctly Latter-day Saint lens that I see God—my divine Father and Mother. It is through a distinctly Latter-day Saint lens that I see Christ. I know we are tiny and the world is wide. But time and again, the Spirit has declared that this is where God wants me. Here, as T. S. Eliot says in Four Quartets, “prayer has been valid.” Here, I find joy, strength, and truth.
It can be unsettling to follow Joseph Smith in seeking truth wherever it can be found, ranging widely across the world’s many varieties of right. But the spirit of the Latter-day Restoration is of expansion, interconnection, synthesis, plurality. The restored gospel can accommodate truth wherever it is found, and we Latter-day Saints who grew up singing “I Am a Child of God” can find sisters and brothers everywhere.
May we not squander the extravagant diversity—the fullness—with which God has blessed this earth and all the living souls upon it. May we not long for a world with only phragmites and chickens but instead work to protect a world in which all of God’s creations, majestic and miniature, find ways to thrive and enrich each other. This is the life that God, in Their wisdom, prescribed for Their children on the earth. As we protect each other’s sacred relation- ships with the divine and share our unique gifts, we will learn to live in the spaces outside our own experience. We will gain emptiness for receiving and become useful vessels in Their great plan.
Melissa Inouye is senior lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Auckland and historian/writer in the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This excerpt is from her talk “‘The Earth Is the Lord’s, and the Fulness Thereof ’: Divine Biodiversity,” delivered at the 31st Annual International Society Conference, held online in April 2021, where she received the International Service Award. Watch her full remarks at youtube.com/watch?v=5QsPERjmBH0.