LOS ANGELES -- To get here -- here being a city that lunches, that has its people call your people, that entertains itself to death -- our plane flew over land that grows amber fields of wheat, land sketched with crop circles, those huge pie charts perfectly visible from 38,000 feet, all those irrigated farms that suck the water out of the disappearing Ogallala Aquifer so we can have our morning toast, our cereal, our wheat germ to keep us healthy, all the gluten that now we learn makes some people sick.
After that, we looked down on pocked land, acned, rutted earth, stretches so ruined and gutted, so eaten away that a huge patch of it has become a tourist attraction with a bloated name -- the Grand Canyon.
And once again it's clear what a pasted-together, rambling, ad hoc, impossible country this is from Pacific to Atlantic, Canada to Mexico, Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, Florida to, well, unrelated, disparate parts of Florida -- all the alligator swamps, the private beaches, the Deep South car racing country -- the California of the sunny beaches to some wildly other California of Sequoia trees and grapes being grown for Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs.
From my fifth-floor hotel window here I can see Interstate 405. Just now, in the late afternoon, it's rush hour (When is it not rush hour in Southern California?) and the 405 northbound is packed hood to trunk, hood to trunk, hood to trunk. If any car is doing 10 miles per hour I would be surprised.
It's impossible for me to look at such a scene -- all the one-per-car commuters crawling away from something and to something else -- and not think about Pope Francis' voice crying in the ecological wilderness in his encyclical, Laudato Si, about the way we human beings have been foolishly irresponsible in our treatment of Mother Earth.
Quoting St. Francis of Assisi, after whom he took his name, Pope Francis says that "our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life." But, the pope says, "this sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her."
Goods like rivers and mountains, which makes me think again of the Grand Canyon, which is, of course, simply nature's art work -- especially stunning from high above it. Humankind had nothing much to do with the fact that a river gnawed through rocky land, though it might be a reminder that nature has her ways and we would do well to pay attention to those ways and not work so consistently against them in our sprawl, our mechanized means of filling the clean air with the residue of the fuel that lets us fly from Kansas City to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 59 minutes nonstop.
"The earth, our home," Pope Francis says in Laudato Si, "is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth."
The words seem intentionally harsh, given how much beauty remains in our hills, our valleys, plains, river beds, sea shores. And yet it's hard to look anywhere and not notice what the pope is talking about, hard to ignore the packed land fills, the junk yards, the brackish water in rivers that used to run bluer and sweeter. The glaciers are melting, the clouds sometimes rain poison on us, the earth heats up, and we frogs sit in the increasing steam not much noticing.
And like Holocaust deniers, climate change deniers look at the evidence and call it a hoax. And some of our politicians imagine that if they, too, ignore the evidence they will be rewarded with public office and a chance to build a bigger house for their family, drive a bigger car, own more energy-sucking gadgets.
"Climate change is a global problem," Francis writes in this encyclical, "with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods."
Yes, and what we need to learn to say is this: "And I am part of the problem." Only by acknowledging that I live wastefully can I free myself to think about how to change. But how odd that one way to see that anew is by getting in a noisy, expensive, fuel-eating airplane and polluting the very air that sustains us all.
(The photo here today I took from the Getty Museum, looking through the smog toward the circular Hotel Angelino, where I stayed.)
* * *
WHAT TOOK SO LONG?
Pope Francis says it's time for Christians to apologize for their treatment of gays and lesbians. Once again the man is right. But once again a church leader follows and does not lead. This should have happened long ago.