Teaching the Eco-Justice Ethic: The Parable of the Billerica Dam

by J. Ronald Engel

Dr. Engel is professor of social ethics at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, Chicago.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 13, 1987, p. 466. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The churches’ ability to teach the ethic of eco-justice to the public depends on the assessment we make of the religious and ethical significance of our public traditions — in particular, the civic tradition of participatory democracy.

On the last day of August 1839, Henry David Thoreau, then 22 years old, and his brother, John, 24, set out in their homemade dory on Massachusetts’s Concord River for a week’s camping trip. Thoreau later wrote about the trip in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

After passing through Concord and traveling past the first battleground of the Revolution, where in 1775 "once the embattled farmers stood! And fired the shot heard round the world," they drifted leisurely downstream for most of the afternoon, winding their way through the lush meadows that lay on either side of the river, arriving near sundown at the outskirts of the town of Billerica. Here, on a spit of land jutting into the river, they camped for the night -- the first night in his life Thoreau spent out of doors.

As they rowed along that afternoon, Thoreau observed with delight the rich diversity of fishes and plants that inhabited the river and its banks, and the occasional solitary fisherman who lingered by its shores. But when the two brothers neared Billerica a sudden shift in perception occurred. Three species of fish -- salmon, shad and alewives -- Thoreau writes, "were formerly abundant here, and taken in weirs by the Indians, who taught this method to the whites, by whom they were used as food and as manure." Now, however, fish were missing from the river because "the dam, and afterward the canal at Billerica. . . put an end to their migrations hitherward." There was a time, he recalls, still within memory of the eldest citizens, when the river overflowed with ‘‘miraculous draughts of fishes."

Thoreau’s interest was especially attracted to the plight of the shad, which migrated each year up the river only to be met "by the Corporation with its dam":

Poor shad! where is thy redress? When Nature gave thee instinct, gave she thee the heart to bear thy fate? Still wandering the sea in thy scaly armor to inquire humbly at the mouths of rivers if man has perchance left them free for thee to enter. . . . Armed with no sword, . . . but mere shad, armed only with innocence and a just cause. . . I for one am with thee, and who knows what may avail a crow-bar against that Billerica dam?

Yet the shad were not alone in being oppressed by the dam. Thoreau goes on: "At length it would seem that the interests, not of the fishes only, but of the men of Wayland, of Sudbury, of Concord, demand the levelling of that dam." For the dam had not only stopped the harvesting of fish for food and manure, but had also flooded the meadows for many miles upstream. And in the heavily wooded Massachusetts countryside of 1839, natural meadows were a precious resource, essential to farmers for hay to feed their livestock. The farmers now stood idly "with scythes whet," vainly "waiting the subsiding of the waters." "So many sources of wealth inaccessible," Thoreau exclaims.

If we are going to teach the ethic of eco-justice in ways that will empower the public to act on its own behalf, we will need to tell stories about reality.

Jesus began the revolution that is Christianity by teaching parables of the Kingdom. For generations, black Americans have maintained their struggle for political freedom by telling stories of spiritual liberation. According to John Adams, the real American Revolution took place in the hearts and minds of the people long before it happened on the battlefield. British loyalists failed because they had no story to match the sacred story of human rights.

People learn and act through stories. We know how true this is for us as individuals and as members of congregations: our private lives are governed largely by the personal stories we understand ourselves to be living out. Our religious communities live or die on the basis of the redemptive reality of the stories they tell. This is no less true of the civic communities in which we participate -- and the stories that we live out as citizens. Our collective destiny is shaped by the public stories that we believe provide trustworthy clues to the meaning of our common world and direction for the future.

If we are going to teach a public ethic of eco-justice, we need public stories of eco-justice -- public parables that have the capacity to communicate the meaning of our love for the earth and for people as citizens: the reality of the struggle for eco-justice in the ongoing history of our civic communities.

Such public parables must undergird all of the policies, programs, pronouncements, speeches, resolutions, action plans, studies and reports that we make on the limits of natural resources and the unjust distribution of economic costs and benefits. Without those parables, everything else is futile. They alone will empower us to take the two most basic actions in this regard: first, to identify ourselves as members of civic communities -- inclusive of the natural communities with which we share common ground; and second, to organize ourselves as civic communities by regaining control of our social, political and economic institutions and reinhabiting the land that sustains us.

It is evident that in today’s world such public stories are by definition revolutionary. It is also evident that they will be, in one way or another, parables of democratic faith, carrying forward the prophetic convictions of our biblical and religious heritage through the story of our shared secular struggle toward "liberty and justice for all." Substantial resources for parables of eco-justice are to be found in the literature of progressive democratic traditions of the United States (and of other world cultures) Thoreau’s story of Billerica Dam is one.

The story begins in the world of ordinary experience. Thoreau and his brother, cruising down the Concord River, admiring the scenery, come upon Billerica Dam. It is an ordinary enough sight -- faint purple clouds reflected in the water, cowbells along the banks. Then Thoreau abruptly begins to address not the reader but the fish of the river. He suddenly shifts the point of view, and we find ourselves looking at the scene through the eyes of lowly shad seeking a way up the river to spawn; through the eyes of elderly citizens who remember their own childhood when the fish swam free; through the eyes of farmers with their oxen, barred from cutting hay. Then our eyes are opened, and we see that at the core of the ordinary world there is a world struggling to be free, that this is the world that is worthy of our love:

Who hears the fishes when they cry? It will not be forgotten by some memory that we were contemporaries. Thou shalt ere long have thy way up the rivers, up all the rivers of the globe, if I am not mistaken. Yea, even thy dull watery dream shall be more than realized. If it were not so, but thou were to be overlooked at first and at last, then would not I take their heaven. . . . Keep a stiff fin then, and stem all the tides thou mayest meet.

This is the world-affirming truth about the scene. The story of shad and farmers and oxen is the true story. The "Corporation and its dam" -- so apparently the stuff of the ordinary course of events, like the priest and the Levite passing on the other side -- is a story that is world-denying.

What analogy does Thoreau use that enables this sudden and radical shift in our perception? Is it not the analogy between the human struggle for liberation and nature’s struggle to be free? And that between the oppression of people and the oppression of the earth? Again like the parables of Jesus, Thoreau’s tale is built upon a new and radical metaphor which serves well as the basic metaphor for all stories that teach the ethic of eco-justice.

Not by accident does Thoreau begin his account in passing the Concord battlefield. This is the assumed metaphorical reference for everything that follows. The shad, like the Concord farmers, have, as he says, a "just cause," and when he asks what might avail a crowbar against the Billerica Dam, he is pointing, by means of a parable, to a radically new understanding of the story of human existence. The whole point of Thoreau’s parable -- indeed, of all his writings, including Walden, Civil Disobedience and his famous Plea for Captain John Brown -- is to declare that the revolution of 1776 is not yet over; the people and the land we love still struggle for liberation.

It is by virtue of this analogy that the parable gains its moral power. It bids us ask: How can this be? Why should a corporation be able to oppress the people and other living creatures who depend on the Concord River’s running free?

The most powerful tools available to us for teaching the ethic of eco-justice are these stories built upon the analogy between human oppression and nature’s oppression, between the human struggle for liberation and nature’s struggle for fulfillment. All that we hope to say about the interdependence of people and the earth, economic justice and ecological responsibility, is ultimately based in this metaphor and its message that the struggle of humanity and the earth are one.

This is not a new metaphor in human history. It lies latent, occasionally becoming explicit, in the biblical texts. "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream," declares Amos. "The land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air; and even the fish of the sea are taken away," laments Hosea. "For I reckon that the sufferings we now endure bear no comparison with the splendour, as yet unrevealed, which is in store for us," writes Paul in his letter to the Romans. "Up to the present, we know, the whole created universe groans in all its parts as if in the pangs of childbirth."

Such images, deeply engraved on our cultural memory, lie behind Thoreau’s parable on Billerica Dam. But the moral import of these images has become clear only in the modern era. Indeed, their full existential implications may be clear for the first time to our generation.

The critical turning point was the 18th century: the age of human rights and the first democratic revolutions. The English reformer William Wilberforce, after successfully leading the struggle to abolish slavery from the British empire, sponsored Parliament’s first bill to protect animals -- at the same time that movements for human rights began. Thomas Paine declared that, if it had not been for tyrants, "the earth, in its natural, uncultivated state, was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race." The Declaration of Independence audaciously grounded the inalienable rights of persons in the laws of nature and nature’s God.

By 1839, at least one American, Henry David Thoreau, grasped the metaphor’s new moral implications and made the crucial connection with the public story of democracy told by his compatriots. In the years since, as the means of human destruction have grown ever greater, and the extent of humanity’s willingness to deny the world has become ever more apparent, the profound truth of the analogy has also become increasingly evident, and its connection with democratic aspirations even stronger.

Or talk to Roy Brown of Puerto Rico, whose band, Aires Bucaneros, plays songs that seek to make a statement about present-day society and are associated with the Puerto Rican movement for independence. Ask him about the group’s song called "Arboles" ("Trees") He will tell you that it relates the importance of trees to Puerto Rico’s future; the purity of trees, how straight they are, how honest they are in their beauty -- how human beings should be like that, should take the side of the least powerful, should, like trees, give shade. And he will also tell you about how the commercial radio stations in Puerto Rico refuse to play his songs because they are considered politically dangerous.

Or talk to the people in the village of Reni in northern India. One day in 1970, so the story goes, the women of the village spontaneously began to hug the local trees, their precious source of firewood, stopping New Delhi corporations from logging the forests for foreign export. Thus the Andolan Chipko movement was born. For weeks a sizable procession marched to the music of drums, bells and cymbals as similar symbolic actions spread rapidly throughout the region. Eventually a 12,000-square-kilometer watershed was saved and an ambitious community-based development program begun -- all because these few women had hugged the life-giving, water-saving trees.

One afternoon I found myself wondering what happened to Billerica Dam. To my surprise, I discovered that the Unitarian Universalist Association, with which I am affiliated, has a member church in Billerica -- in fact, the First Parish of Billerica. A call to the minister, Phil Larson, yielded the information that what looked like "Biller-ica" was pronounced "Bill-rica," and the suggestion that I call church historian Charles Stearns.

From Stearns I learned that the dam Thoreau saw was built in 1835 by a Boston business concern in order to supply water to the Middlesex canal and divert trade from Newburyport to Boston. Other dams had preceded this one; m fact, in the 18th century local farmers filed a series of legal suits against the various corporations that built dams on the river. In 1725 one of these suits was actually won, and a dam was temporarily torn down. Stearns told me that while the dam and canal are now preserved as a national historic landmark, the Concord River is so polluted by manufacturing plants upstream at Sudbury that his children would never think of fishing, swimming or boating in it. He suggested that I call Wayne Klug about the conservation battle going on in Billerica.

Klug, a local college teacher, was eager to talk. It seems that recently an old farm that abutted the river was privately sold to a developer who plans to turn it into a housing development for Boston commuters. The land includes the site on which Thoreau and his brother camped in 1839; it is also crucial to the preservation of the river wetlands. Wayne said that his group had come straight up against the local power structure, which considers private property to be sacrosanct. He also said that the battle had taught him the need to "revolutionize our priorities." But this was not the only environmental battle that had been fought in Billerica. "Call Helen Knight," he said.

Knight, a retired English teacher, led an "infamous group of five" in a successful battle to clean up the Billerica dump. She said that she had never engaged in this kind of activity before, but she was outraged when, seven years ago, her first complaints were brushed aside by the local board of health. The group discovered that the dump contained toxic materials that were contaminating the groundwater of Billerica and the Concord River, as well as creating other threats to human health. The group fought hard to get the attorney general of Massachusetts involved; now the site is on the federal superfund list. In addition to corruption, the basic problem, she said, was the local power structure’s conviction that the dump owner could do anything he wished with his "private property. I have become a very radical old lady," Helen Knight commented.

Billerica is not unique. Grace George, a longtime resident of Patterson, New Jersey, tells stories of the magnificent rainbows that appear in the Passaic River’s Great Falls at Patterson, the very falls that began the industrial revolution in the United States. Today the Passaic is heavily polluted and the city of Patterson is in economic depression. Yet Grace George says that the rainbow -- the symbol of the original promise of the covenant of creation -- is still present, a symbol of the new covenant of free citizens to restore the region’s environmental and social health.

In the final analysis, the churches’ ability to teach the ethic of eco-justice to the public depends on the assessment we make of the religious and ethical significance of our public traditions -- in particular, the civic tradition of participatory democracy. If we are unable to affirm important enough meanings in the stories of our civic communities to be shared and celebrated in our churches, we will always stand in a secondary rather than a primary relationship to the struggle for eco-justice. If, on the other hand, we find such stories illuminating of the prophetic convictions of our biblical and religious heritage -- in some cases, expanding those meanings in new and revealing ways -- we will find the inspiration to speak new words of judgment and hope.