Sunday, July 30, 2017

A requiem for Brother Snooty

While the unnervingly usual tumult of life-or-death headlines washed over the nation and world last week, we here in Florida were ... caught up in those headlines pretty much like everybody else.

Floridians were also, however, caught up in the death of a manatee.

Specifically, the death of a manatee called Snooty garnered attention across a large swath of the state, leading to the kind of impromptu memorials normally reserved for athletes killed young or other such human tragedies.

The first-above link largely captures the Snooty story. Written by Craig Pittman of the Tampa Bay Times, a noted chronicler of Florida weirdness, it covers the life story of a manatee who lived to an unfathomable age for manatees in captivity, and died in a sad and stupid accident the day after his birthday. In between, from birth in captivity on a boat in Miami to years as a feature attraction at a museum in Bradenton, Snooty achieved the peculiar kind of legendary status that sits at the intersection of overly human-oriented animals, the ever-present desire of humans to escape their own rottenness and pettiness in a way that cute animals can provide, and the above-noted Florida weirdness.

There is inherently something sad about such a story, given that Snooty was born, lived, and died in what can only sanely be described as captivity, and that virtually all non-natural causes of manatee death are human-related; we are in a sense their worst enemies. In nature, manatees are all too frequently maimed by boats, whether large or small. Another human-created threat to manatees comes from the spoilage or destruction of their natural habitats (even the red tide that can kill manatees is frequently linked to runoff from human activities). Those manatees that are on display (a telling phrase) in places such as The Seas at Disney World's Epcot theme park and Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park (my two go-to manatee viewing spots) are frequently manatees in rehabilitation before a hoped-for return to the wild; in some cases the extensive damage the creatures have suffered mean they'll never be able to be released. Snooty's case -- actually born on a boat after his mother had been critically injured -- meant he most likely never would have had a chance in the wild. There was little for Snooty to be other than a feature attraction; that he did so and was so beloved (so to speak) as such is both heartwarming and tragic.

In many ways it is only as an object of this peculiar variety of pity that manatees have much of a chance in Florida. Manatee lives in the wild aren't particularly interesting; Discovery Channel is never going to create Manatee Week. They swim, coming to surface every twenty minutes or so to breathe (they are mammals), and otherwise munch contentedly on green vegetation in shallow waters. (Manatees in captivity or rehabilitation are usually seen munching on lettuce, which is I suppose close enough.) Because their particular food is found in shallow waters and they have to surface frequently, manatees will pretty much always be vulnerable to boat traffic. Beyond that, manatees don't really do anything exciting to garner human attention. Mind you, a manatee life actually sounds pretty enticing to me; find a way to work in books and music and I could go for it, but for too many people manatees are just big stupid "sea cows" who oughta get out of the way.

That manatees like Snooty or his wild compatriots actually hold so much fascination for as many people as they do (myself included) almost feels like a form of self-indictment.

Not Snooty; a manatee in rehab at Epcot.

It's almost as if we know better. The manatee's ultra-simple lifestyle, extreme vulnerability to us humans, and frequent captive status are a full-fledged three-strikes-and-out on us humans and our relationship to manatees and pretty much all of creation, if we're ever honest about it. They're not useful or exciting to us; they get in the way of our recreations. Even Snooty, bless his aquatic heart, first got his "in" with humans by being able to learn some simple tricks on command, not because of his essential manatee-ness or creatureliness. 

Even I'm guilty of using manatees in writing this blog post, in order to make a point (there is one, and here it comes). The human relationship to creation, Snooty included, is something that the church has failed monstrously. We have gotten all riled up by horrible translations of Genesis and indulged our thirst for "dominion" by despoiling creation on a regular and continuing basis. Seas are filling up with plastic, water is horribly abused, we've screwed up the climate royally, and the things we do in search of fossil fuels are grotesque. And church folk pretend these things aren't happening, or worse say horrible things about how we owe the oil industry our gratitude (I actually heard this with my own two ears, at a presbytery meeting no less) and our money. We use "natural resources" without any connection to the nature of which we are a created part.

So, mainline, maybe this is a humility we could learn to practice? 

When even the Apostle Paul chimes in from scripture about all creation "groaning in labor pains" (Romans 8, lightly alluded to in my sermon today!), we probably ought to learn that we really are in this together with all of God's creation. We suffer when God's creation suffers, and God's creation certainly suffers from our doings. Our fates are inseparable; maybe we could learn to live accordingly.

But that of course requires us to step away from the whole dominion thing, being boss of nature or conquering or turning real live creation into "nature...on a leash." 

And maybe, if we learned the humility of being part of creation, we might also learn the humility of being part of humanity. Maybe we'd also learn to be among God's children rather than always fancying ourselves God's favorites or (even worse) indispensible to God in a way that others simply aren't. Even where we are now we haven't truly shed a lot of the arrogance of our cultural-influence peak, which doesn't help us going forward with any kind of genuine Christ-like witness. 

Maybe in our chastened state of shrinkage and decreased relevancy we in the mainline could learn that humility, OK? It won't do Snooty any good. But perhaps we might be a little less in need of the likes of Snooty to remind ourselves of our place in creation.

This is Snooty, (apparently) a few days before his final birthday.

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