The Price of Gopher Wood

July 24, 2018

Many of us can recall the image of Noah and the Ark from our childhood. Noah stands with flowing beard, giraffes project necks out a window, two zebras walk up the gangplank. With crayons and blunt nosed scissors we created paper animals and placed them on a paper ark. We remember the story: A great flood was coming, and God asked Noah to save the great lineages of God’s creatures from extinction.

Noah was faithful. Noah’s act was an endangered species act.

Noah’s story is a story of faithfulness, a story so important that we were taught it as very young children. It is a children’s story, of course, but it is even more an adult story. It is an adult story for our time. As in Noah’s day, the great lineages of God’s creatures are again threatened with extinction. And as then, human beings are the reason for today’s species extinctions; and as then, human beings—faithful human beings—are able to save the creatures from extinction.

Noah and the Ark is a story of faithfulness, a story of putting the whole world into perspective. It is a story of making the saving of threatened and endangered creatures the very highest priority—way beyond questions of cost, time, and human popularity.

Some years ago, I was having lunch with a college student who had just returned from visiting the Kirtland’s Warbler preservation project in northern lower Michigan: “What a waste to spend all that time, energy, and money to try to save a tiny bird.” My response to her was: “Yes, the price of gopher wood is very high these days; certainly we could find something more productive on which to spend our time and money!” Reflecting on her childhood image of Noah and the Ark she paused thoughtfully. And then she replied, “I get the point, and it is a good one!”

In our day we can very responsibly ask, “What would Noah do?” God had made it clear with Noah that God cared so much for the creatures—God’s masterpieces—that they had to be saved from impending extinction. God asked Noah to build a large boat out of gopher wood at a great cost of time, energy, and materials to save not only himself and his family but also the other creatures. Concerns about time or money apparently were not raised by Noah and neither were questions about the significance or worthiness of each species. Noah did as the Lord commanded him. Noah responded faithfully. Faith-fully! What would Noah do? Noah would be faithful to the Creator of heaven and earth. Noah would spare no expense of time, effort, or reputation to follow God’s request to save the lineages of God’s creatures. More than that, Noah would move beyond saving them for the moment, but he would in time bring them to full recovery by letting them off the temporary ark to enter their natural habitats.

How much less time-consuming and less expensive would it have been to build a smaller boat! Why not just a boat for Noah and family? Or, why not a boat for them and only the animals of use to them? The answer of course, is rooted in faithfulness. Noah’s act—Noah’s endangered species act—was not done out of self-interest or his personal survival. Noah’s act was accomplished on behalf of the Creator, for God’s Creation. That is his reason, pure and simple.

In our day, God continues to remain true to the covenantal promise not to destroy the world with a great flood. Yet, our human actions on the land and its life has brought many of God’s creatures to the verge of extinction. Many of us have put our immediate personal interests at the expense of Creation. Some of us have even found reason to criticize and ridicule those who work to preserve God’s creatures from extinction.

While some speak out against the destruction of the creatures, many others work to convert the creatures and their homes and habitats into personal profits. Living in the great gallery of the Great Artist, some cry out against the destruction of His creative works; others work diligently to convert the treasury of the creatures and their habitats into cold cash. The elephant creatures are slaughtered so their great teeth can be reworked into ivory ornaments by human artists; the seals are killed so the coverings which protect them in the cold arctic waters can adorn our women of fashion; the tropical birds are destroyed to provide the feathers for hats; rare animals are wrenched from their native homes and sold to be placed behind bars in our cities; the great whales are hunted to extinction with ever more sophisticated ships to provide a trickle of whale oil, perfume, and meat for the marketplace. Even more amazingly, some speak strongly in favor of saving species but do not support saving the homes and habitats needed by these creatures for their survival—it is similar to Noah’s decision to save the creatures by keeping them on the ark, not restoring them to their proper homes and habitats.

This careless extinguishing of species, their homes, and their habitats in pursuit of human greed runs counter to the value the Creator puts upon His creatures. God expects us to respect his creatures, their remarkable character, and their inter-relationships with their supporting habitats. For Behemoth, God asks Job and us to give the creatures respect due to them and their habitats:

Behold, Behemoth, which I made as I made you; he eats grass like an ox.
Behold, his strength in his loins, and his power in the muscles of his belly.
He makes his tail stiff like a cedar; the sinews of his thighs are knit together.
His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like bars of iron.
He is the first of the works of God; let him who made him bring near his sword!
(Job 40:15-19)

What is the status of God’s Creation in our day? Many of the masterpieces—the endangered and threatened species—in the great gallery of the Creator are effectively being trashed. The great treasury of the Creation is also endangered and threatened.

Where are the Noahs? Where are people engaged in ark-building? Where are the people engaged in protection and restoration of homes and habitat? The whole Creation is standing on tippy toes, waiting!

This article was first published in 1989 in Faculty Dialogue Volume 12, pages 59-62.

About the Author
  • Calvin B. DeWitt is an environmental scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and member of graduate faculties of Land Resources, Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development, Water Resources Management, and Limnology and Marine Science; is a Fellow of the Teaching Academy and recipient of the Chancellor's Award for Distinguished Teaching. He developed Au Sable Institute as its Director and President from 1979 to 2005. Cal has degrees in biology and zoology from Calvin College (B.A.) and The University of Michigan (M.A. and Ph.D). In 2005 he received the National Wildlife Federation’s “Connie” Award for his work in bridging environmental science and ethics.

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