The Goldfields Leaf Litter

From the Goldfields

God-Talk: Leaf Litter

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The Revd Dr Elizabeth J Smith AM, Mission Priest, Parish of The Goldfields

It’s a dry, dry ecosystem out here. Every leaf or twig that falls, every strip of bark that peels off, just lies on the ground. Nothing really rots; it merely accumulates. The leaf litter crunches and crackles underfoot as I walk.

Eventually, some of it will dry out completely and turn to dust, to be blown away on the breeze or merge with the soil. Some of it will be carefully nibbled and marvellously digested by termites, or carried away by creatures that use it to line their cool, underground homes or weave their nests in the trees.

Although the rain here falls erratically, there is enough of it to sustain an amazing diversity of plants, from lofty salmon gums to the smallest desert-lovers. But the evaporation rate is high, and today’s thunderstorm moisture will be well and truly gone by the day after tomorrow. Thus the dry leaves rest lightly on the ground, and the shards of bark lie where they fall.

Fire is the dry country ecosystem’s answer to the build-up of organic material that will not decay and cannot contribute its goodness to the plants that are otherwise eager to grow in the red dirt. A lightning strike, or a carefully managed First People’s burning, turns leaf and twig and bark to accessible nutrients for the trees that survive, though singed. Awakened by chemicals in the smoke, new seeds will germinate, springing up to repopulate the understorey.

What do I need, to deal with the accumulation of dead matter in my life? I am beset by patterns of thought, habits of speech, and images of God that were once alive and useful. They were positive contributors to my faith and prayer, to my relationships and ministry, but are now dried out, inert or even burdensome, the spiritual equivalent of leaf litter in the bush.

Some of it I can deal with through the ordinary good habits of prayer and worship. I confess the dessicated, lifeless debris of my life. God hears and forgives, every time; and the breeze of the Spirit blows the dust of death away to give me more breathing space, more living space.

As Lent approaches, I will be adding a few eucalyptus leaves and some bark to last year’s Passiontide palm crosses, as we burn them to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday’s solemn ritual. There is the fire! The ash is marked as a cross on my forehead. It points to the cosmic conflagration of Jesus Christ’s offering of himself to die for all the sin of all the world, and for mine. It comes with gentle words about my mortality, and God’s mercy.

Ash from devastating burning smells like disaster to anyone who has lost a home or a livelihood to out-of-control bushfires. But Ash Wednesday’s ashes are a sign of forgiveness, not of destruction. They are neither a judgement nor a punishment. They are a promise of fertility and growth, so that new life can begin to flourish.

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