Do Stones Feel?
By Zoe Matties
May 5, 2022
I received a copy of the poet Mary Oliver’s book Devotions for Christmas this past year and I have been slowly taking it in, a poem or two per day. I encountered a curious poem today called “Do Stones Feel?”
Have you ever wondered such things? Why is it a stretch for most of us to think about creation in this way?
We know from a scientific standpoint that rocks and flowers and trees don’t have feelings the way that we do as humans, but I recently read an article in The Guardian about how mushrooms potentially communicate with each other using electrical impulses! We also know that trees share water and nutrients with each other, and baby Orcas babble while they are learning their whale language.
There’s an incredible Radiolab podcast episode called Animal Minds that recounts the story of a humpback whale who was caught in some fishing lines for several days. A team of divers went out and was able to free the whale. Rather than simply swim away, the whale stayed and went to each diver in turn looking at them, nudging them, and letting them touch her. They were amazed. The divers had to ask, was this whale trying to express her gratitude? (Give the episode a listen if you’re curious about human-animal communication!).
Do you think we would care for creation better if we listened for the trees delighting, the clouds happy to release their rain, and whales saying thank you?
As I was pondering this question, I came across an interesting passage of scripture in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem and proclaimed a message of judgement towards the corrupt leaders of Israel for rebelling against their covenant with God. Isaiah warned that Israel would be cut down like a tree and taken into exile by the kings of Assyria and Babylon. The king of Babylon, like other kings in the region, boasted of his godlike dominion, not only over humans, but over creation too. He boasted about his capacity to destroy, about how many lions he had killed, and trees he had laid to waste. This king clear cut huge swathes of trees to provide timber for his military constructions. But Isaiah proclaims a message of hope, that God would bring about the downfall of the king of Babylon. Written in the style of a satirical funeral dirge Isaiah 14:4-8 says:
You will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon: How the oppressor has ceased! How the flood has receded! The Lord has broken the staff of the wicked, the rod of tyrants that struck peoples in rage with ceaseless blows, that ruled nations with anger, with relentless aggression. All the earth rests quietly, then it breaks into song. Even the cypresses rejoice over you, the cedars of Lebanon: “Since you were laid low, no logger comes up against us!”
I was amazed to read that in this story the trees speak! They voice their frustration and exclaim joy that the king is gone. It’s not the only story in scripture that gives creation agency. From the very beginning of Genesis creatures are given roles and tasks within the creation. Not only that, but the whole earth and all creatures are included as partners in God’s covenant with Noah.
Jesus takes up this theme in the book of Luke. As he is riding into Jerusalem, the crowds are praising God, but the pharisees are upset and ask Jesus to quiet them down. In response, Jesus declares, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.” (Luke 19:40). Jesus is drawing on a powerful biblical precedent here of stones bearing witness to divine-human interaction and covenant (Gen. 28:17-18 or Joshua 24:25-27). If the people of Jerusalem won’t recognize Jesus the Messiah, the stones of the city certainly will. In Matthew, we read that as Jesus breathed his last, the earth quaked violently, and rocks split (Matthew 27:50-51). Katerina Friesen, in her excellent sermon “Sacred Stones” writes, “How can they help but split in two when our Lord Christ, in whom all things hold together, is broken on the cross?”
Today the stones and the earth itself also bear witness to us, and to God, of our history. The earth’s wounds are a warning of the danger of our hubris, its beauty and joy a reminder of God’s grace.
What if you were to listen for the voice of creation the next time you were outside? Would you hear the trees rejoice? Could you hear the stones shout? Would you join them?