Earth Day in the Time of Pandemic

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Today, April 22nd we celebrate earth day. Earth Day is an annual event celebrated worldwide to honor our common planet we call earth and to highlight our role as stewards of mother nature.

After more than a month of lockdown due to the pandemic, earth and mother nature is thriving once again. The absence of human incursion and industrial activity have provided a wondrous time for mother nature to heal and to rest. Air is clean more than ever. Dolphins have swam back into the canals of Venice. Wildlife is venturing out into the streets again. Animals and birds must surely be asking themselves what’s changed, where have we gone?

The lockdown also gave the opportunity for us humans to take a stock of our relationship with mother nature in the context of the pandemic. Would have our continuous incursion into the environment contributed to the genesis of the virus? A number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19 to arise. Disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University’s department of environmental sciences says,

“Major landscape changes are causing animals to lose habitats, which means species become crowded together and also come into greater contact with humans. Species that survive change are now moving and mixing with different animals and with humans.”[1]

The covid-19 pandemic have, more than ever, highlighted the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems. One of the biggest challenges of the pandemic is how to re-think our attitudes to and reshape our relations with Nature–God’s Creation. The pandemic calls for radical, not just cosmetic, changes to our values and lifestyle with regards to the earth and mother nature.

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Painting by Nick Esquivias

The Baclaran shrine joins the whole world every year in celebrating earth day. The shrine takes part in several activities worldwide like turning off non-essential electric lights, for one hour, usually from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. On some years, the shrine organizes a tree planting or clean-up drive.

Caring for creation is an important part of the programs and values of the shrine. This is first of all reflected in the immediate environment around the shrine.

When the Redemptorist settled at Baclaran in 1932, the place was a big grassland near the sea shore. Throughout the years, Redemptorists who were assigned to Baclaran planted their favorite trees. Amongst the many species of trees planted in the surroundings were Mahogany, Nymph Tree, Golden Shower, Narra, molave, fire tree, butterfly and mefacasia.

Today, the shrine compound is a lush area full of trees. The desolation and the emptiness of Baclaran’s early days have been replaced by verdant trees giving shade to the devotees.  Both Church and convent are no longer located on grassland near the seashore but on a mini-forest. The shrine and its surroundings serve as an oasis in the city. In fact, it is the only green place in the whole of the densely populated highly urbanized Baclaran.

Many devotees appreciate the natural surroundings of the shrine like Kris Vente Tagayon, who wrote in August 29, 2017,

Nice place to visit where you can light candles and reflect and take pictures in the walkway, and even if it’s crowded, it’s so refreshing outside the church because of the trees surrounding it. It’s my first time to come here.[2]

Likewise Liezel Besuña, writes in January 7, 2018, “I love so much Baclaran church … It’s so beautiful here, the air is cool … adorable…”[3]

Many sit and gather under the trees relaxing and chatting with each other after the novena and mass. The green surroundings provide respite and peace especially for the worried and burdened devotees like Raine Zetolemrac, who wrote in May 22, 2017: “Its ambiance melts my weariness. For me … this is the best place to rest.”

The various hardwood and fruit trees around the shrine provide sanctuary not just for humans but also for many birds, insects and other animals. Just recently new appearances of wildlife were sighted in the trees—squirrels, a migratory bird and a Philippine hawk (Lawin). Nobody knows how the squirrels (sometimes seen as two, other times alone) got inside the shrine grounds.  We assumed that someone let loose these exotic animals in the shrine compound thinking that squirrels will be better off running free in the shrine compound rather than confined in cages.  The squirrels are very shy though; they spend most of the time hiding in the trees. Occasionally, however, one can see them hopping on tree branches.

In November 2016, a migratory bird called Narcissus Flycatcher from China was spotted on the trees of the shrine compound.  The word spread fast and in no time, many bird photographers and researchers flocked to Baclaran and spent almost a week photographing the special visitor. The narcissus flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina) is a passerine bird in the Old World flycatcher family. It is native to East Asia, from Sakhalin to the north, through Japan across through Korea, mainland China, and Taiwan, wintering in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines and Borneo.[4] It is highly migratory. The bird watchers surmised that the birds chose to stay at the shrine because they found lots of food in the many trees of the compound.

The shrine has implemented several ecological programs through the years. The shrine, for example, has long been converting its biodegradable waste like food waste, paper waste, dry leaves and twigs into compost. The compost is used to fertilize the flowers and other plants in the shrine compound.

The shrine has been practicing waste segregation since the 90s.  Three separate bins are scattered all around the shrine where devotees can throw their trash. Announcements in every novena and masses enjoin the devotees to throw their trash in the proper bins. The first bin is for organics like food scraps: fruit, vegetable, meat, bread, pasta, rice, garden waste: grass clippings, leaves, flowers, weeds, twigs, small branches, soiled paper and cardboard and small timber off-cuts. Everything that goes into this bin gets must be able to decompose and thus, goes to the compost. The second bin is for recyclable materials like milk and juice containers, paper and cardboard, glass and crockery, plastic containers, plastic bags and soft plastics, aluminum cans, clean foil, steel cans, aerosol spray cans and dry paint tins, hard plastics such as children’s toys and plastic tableware, small plastics such as bread tags and straws bagged. The third bin is for mixed rubbish items that cannot be composted or recycled like small plate glass, disposable nappies, scrap metal, pet droppings in a plastic bag and others.

Care for the environment is also integrated in the liturgy of the shrine. On October 4th, 2005, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, a blessing of animals was held for the first time in the shrine. This began a yearly tradition in the shrine. Every year on  4th of October, except when it falls on a Sunday, devotees bring their pets—dogs, cats, hamsters, birds, turtles and other animal pets—for the blessing of animals.

Since 2014, the shrine has been observing the Season of creation. The season of Creation is celebrated during the four Sundays of September that precede the feast of St Francis of Assisi on the 4th of October. The season of Creation incorporates into the liturgy, prayers and visual elements celebrating God’s creation.

Promotion of the integrity of creation is also incorporated in the novena. In the latest version of the novena—the 2016 Jubilee edition of the novena—one petition to Our Mother of Perpetual was added for the care of creation:

That we may care and protect God’s creation, Loving Mother pray for us.

In 2015, the Redemptorist community began a project called greening of the shrine. The first step undertaken along this project is the banning of smoking within the shrine compound. The project also involved using recycled materials for the beautification of the garden and wall art.

The community also initiated vertical gardening on some of the fences of the shrine. This was aimed at showing that growing vegetables even in the city is feasible, and consequently, encourage the devotees to grow their own vegetables right in their own backyard. The shrine also conducted seminars on Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on caring for creation, and some concrete ways to care for the environment like waste management and urban gardening.

Another project in line with the greening of the shrine was the installation of solar panels in the shrine and convent in 2016. The shrine and the convent now use free electricity from the sun during the day and revert to MERALCO at night. The shrine has the highest number of solar panels among all the churches in the Philippines. There is also a plan for a water harvesting system which will harness rain water.

Caring for the environment is not just practiced within the shrine. Every year the shrine volunteers and devotees participate in the beach cleanup activity in the nearby Manila bay. The event is part of the International Coastal Cleanup Day, the world’s largest annual preservation and protection event and volunteer effort for beaches and waterways. It is celebrated annually on the third Saturday in September since its inception in 1986.

 


 

[1]  ‘Thomas Gillespie, Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?” The Gurdian, accessed 22/04/2020 at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/18/tip-of-the-iceberg-is-our-destruction-of-nature-responsible-for-covid-19-aoe

[2] https://www.facebook.com/pg/omphbaclaran/reviews/

[3] https://www.facebook.com/pg/omphbaclaran/reviews/

[4] Narcissus flycatcher, Wikipedia. Accessed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissus_flycatcher.