“Wow, that’s a big one”, Billy Baxter said to his mother, referring to the prize super-giant zucchini she had brought home from the farmers’ market. “Are we going to eat it?”
“No”, said his mother. “We’re going to put it on the mantelpiece”.
The zucchini was bigger than any salami hanging at Katz’ delicatessen. It was dark green with yellow striations, perfectly symmetrical, without blemishes, and had a natural, health sheen. “It will honor the farmers of Poolesville”, Martha Baxter said, “and celebrate the bounty of nature.”
Mrs. Baxter hadn’t always been an ardent and committed environmentalist. She grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey and the gardens of The Garden State were far to the South. She remembered when she was a little girl asked her father where the gardens were, because in her neighborhood the only patch of green was on a traffic island that was all weedy and nasty looking. Bits of plastic caught onto the stumpy ragweed that blew in from Parsippany, found purchase in the sandy dirt, and survived car exhaust, road salt, and snow. In the Spring when the snow melted, the plastic bits were still there stuck on the brown ragweed stalks, blowing in the March wind.
“There are no gardens in Jersey”, replied her father. “It’s all a big joke”.
She didn’t make it out of New Jersey until after college. Although she could have gone elsewhere, Rutgers was close, affordable, and competitive enough for her. She majored in business administration because she had an aptitude for numbers; and shortly after graduation got a job in the accounting department at Jersey Power and Light. Not long after she started work she met her future husband, Richie, and their son, Billy, soon followed.
They moved often – first to Ardmore, then Lancaster, and finally to Rockville, Maryland. Their life was predictable and uninteresting. They lived in a condo development off 270, commuted to jobs at opposite ends of the country, and arranged all-day pre-school programs for Billy.
After three years, Martha became very depressed. Her job was routine, her home was no more than a box on top of other boxes linked by circular drives, and her social life limited to parents’ pot lucks and school benefits. “Is this all?”, she asked herself.
This is how many people come to faith. Those who are barely making ends meet have no time for apathy or self-pity. Working two shit jobs and living in a trailer can motivate anyone. People living in Potomac, Maclean, or Great Falls are secular doubters and can afford to be spiritually indifferent because of the optimism that money secures. Women in the middle like Martha, however, are betwixt and between, living an arid and empty life and acutely aware of it, seeing few prospects for change or even a glimmer of light in the distance. They are ready for religion, and whether it comes like a summer breeze or a bolt of lightning, they feel invigorated and purposeful.
A co-worker of Martha’s gave her a brochure announcing an ‘Urban Revival’, a gathering of ‘the spiritually dispossessed’ in a new mega-church in Baltimore. The Reverend H. Lewis Ballard was the preacher, and Martha’s colleague assured her that her life would never be the same.
Despite the sarcasm and flippant remarks of her husband, Martha went to the advertised service the following Sunday. The church was bigger than any she had ever seen in Bayonne; bigger, in fact, than the Polish cathedral on Broad Street; and what it gave up in height and steeples, it gained in square footage. The church was as big as an airplane hanger, and was so spacious that giant television screens had to be mounted along the side walls so that the congregation could see and hear the Reverend. The hall was packed with men, women, and children; and when she walked in, a choir was singing, and the music piped throughout the church.
The Reverend Barnard had come up from Memphis and before that Tupelo, and had cut his teeth on old time white cracker religion. No one in Baltimore or Rockville had witnessed anything like him. He was exciting, electric, and persuasive. He was theatrical and passionate, but honest tears streamed down his face when he talked of Jesus’s painful path to Calvary. He made Jesus real – a living, suffering, beautiful human being who was blessed with divinity. Martha was indeed a changed woman, and returned to the church every Sunday thereafter.
Her allegiance to the church and to Reverend Ballard did not stop there. She volunteered to spread his gospel and with another member of the church went door-to-door introducing themselves, the church, and the Reverend. No matter how many doors were slammed in her face, Martha was invigorated and energized. For the first time, her life had purpose and meaning.
The preacher, like many fundamentalist orators, was fixated on hell and damnation, and used his state-of-the-art audio-visual system to show pictures of destruction, desolation, and waste. Crops burning under a fiery sun, plants reduced to stubble because of drought and blazing heat; rivers run dry, birds shaking and quivering on roadsides, deer fleeing raging forest fires. All this was a result of God’s vengeful wrath. His people had once again forsaken him, gone over to the Dark Side, consorted with the devil and followed his evil ways.
Martha, however, was not one for Scripture or for Biblical exegesis. She had come to the church as a lonely wanderer, and looked up to the Reverend Ballard for inspiration and renewed faith. She did not try to make any sense out of the seemingly random catastrophes that seemed to befall Man more than ever; nor questioned the pastor’s errant logic.
Perhaps because she was not rooted in radical fundamentalist theory, nor even schooled in traditional Protestant thought, her spirit found other avenues along which to seek solace and salvation. The images of despoiled waterways, burned crops, and polluted cities – never meant by the preacher to be clarion calls to environmental action – resonated deep within her. If God was unhappy with mankind and was visiting on him the most horrific punishment, then it was the duty of all men and women to understand His injunction. You have dominion over the beasts of the field and the fish of the seas, His thunderous voice intoned, but you have neglected your stewardship.
And thus Martha Baxter joined the Environmental Movement. She was on God’s errand, and she was more evangelical about His purpose than she ever had been for Pastor Ballard. Her door-to-door visits combined a devout and passionate Christianity with a born-again commitment to Mother Earth. Over time she came to believe that the Earth was a living, sentient being just like Man, possessed of spirit and soul and longed for resurrection from the evil visited upon it.
There was no cause that escaped her attention. “The bees are in trouble”, she shouted to her husband one morning. “They are dying. They are suffering and cannot pollinate the earth. We must do something”.
A dead crow was a sign of an approaching environmental Armageddon. Code Orange meant that the godless were spewing the Devil’s bile into the air, aerosol droplets of evil. She felt herself a latter-day St. Francis of Assisi, and a militant, feminist Joan of Arc. Not only did she become enraged at the progressive degradation of the natural world, she became incensed at the ignorance and apathy of her neighbors and colleagues. She organized Mother Earth prayer groups at her place of work, volunteered at her son’s school to supervise garden days, and distributed pamphlets and brochures for every environmental cause that came her way. Every item in the news about fracking, pipelines, lowered air quality standards, the inexorable warming of the planet caused her pain and psychic suffering.
She began to neglect her family. She hadn’t slept with Richie in months, nor taken her son to the park. She was feverish with passion and possessed by the Will of God. Every environmental disaster drove her to her knees. She prayed to Jesus, God, and Mother Earth, her new Trinity. In her mind saving the planet became her Mission and climate change was the new Biblical flood – this time a progressive but inexorable annihilation of the world rather than a quick rising of the tides.
She was indefatigable in her mission. She decried the despoiling of the Earth and loudly and insistently as Pastor Ballard railed on about sin and evil. She found the secularism of American ‘progressives’ nettling and enervating. They had commitment but no passion. They were unaware of God’s unhappiness, his vengeful rain of holy terror onto the land, and the coming ultimate disaster resulting from it. These academic and theoretical men were sanctimonious, self-assured, and boring. They lacked the fire and brimstone of a truly Biblical confrontation. Worst of all, she felt their withering scorn and supercilious arrogance. She was nothing to them – a religious nut, a fringe prophet that gave the movement a bad name. They shut their doors to her, kept her out of their councils and deliberations.
When Richie Baxter saw the gigantic zucchini on the mantelpiece, stuck with matchbook crosses and purple bunting, he knew that his wife had finally gone around the bend. For months she had built shrines throughout the house, all made of Mother’s children – bird feathers, snake scales, and bee wings. Each one was darker and more troubling. Demonic, diabolic images were introduced. Her vision became both good and evil. God and the Devil were engaged in a new Miltonian struggle.
A few months later, Martha was admitted to Parkview Rest Home, a mental institution in Olney. Luckily the insurance paid for most of it, although after more than a year the money ran out and Martha had to be committed to the State Hospital in Landover. Richie and his son lived far more happily without the crazy woman. They both missed her in their own ways, but Richie was glad to be rid of this wild harridan and since Billy knew that he would never have his sweet Mommy back again, he was just as glad to get rid of her unbalanced stand-in.
I had never heard of environmentalism driving anyone mad. I know that the movement has plenty of fringes and slightly unhinged outliers, but nothing like Martha Baxter. The Gaia followers have the same reverence for Mother Earth as Martha did, but it is more New Age philosophy than rock-ribbed fundamentalism. There are now legions of ‘Godly Progressives’ who believe that God commanded Man to be a faithful steward of the Earth, and thus the movement has now been enriched by religious faith. Martha Baxter, however cooked up a volatile mix of revivalism, fundamental Christianity, and wacko save-the-planet secular hysteria that drove her nuts. Secular environmentalists drive me nuts with their sanctimonious pestering and Chicken Little warnings; so I can only imagine the workings of Martha’s fevered brain.
I have meant to check in with Richie on the welfare of his wife; but it has been a number of years now, and I know that he and his son have completely forgotten her. She was one of a kind.