Ichabod's Kin
A place for politics, pop culture, and social issues

It Was Never Easy Being Green

You’d think nature worship went back to the Beginning–whenever that was, and we decry pollution, have national parks and license hunting. And the English and Europeans come here to “get away from it all,” find a more pristine life and fewer people. Doesn’t that all mean something?

Well, yes, but things changed along the way, and pioneers don’t live forever, and when they die no one seems to be left but developers. So do we really love nature or do we just think we do?

Our early settlers ran from one civilization, then created another one. They quickly realized they were in a battle with the wilderness. Tocqueville said that, for Americans, living in the wild created a bias against it, and as a result they had little good to say about it. William Bradford, hardly a charming little puritan of the Hallmark Card variety, called his first view “hideous and desolate”–and he was talking about Cape Cod, for god’s sake.

To other humans who were already here–whom we call Indians or Native Americans, this was an awe-inspiring spectacle. Chief Standing Bear tried to get along with whitey until the mess at Wounded Knee, and said that to the white man nature was a “wilderness” of “wild” animals and “savage” people. The Indian, he said, did not think of it as wild but “hospitable; not forbidding but friendly.” And they trod softly on this good earth.

For them there was and still is no word for “wilderness,” only terms that mean “green places” and they found it curious that white settlers felt caged in and the whole scene “nightmarish.” They had left other cities behind but were never at home in the wilderness, either. The U.S. Forest Service once tried out new words for nature, but threw up their hands and finally just let the word “wilderness” be whatever we think it is.

Add to that, our settlers thought the Indian had no redeeming qualities and that whites could degenerate from the briefest encounters with them. Oh, DUH-uh! And it got a lot worse when those fun folks became fully genocidal towards the Indian.

Now the pendulum has swung and we’re all romantic about nature and even make a religion of it; that’s why we buy cabins in the Berkshires and the Blue Ridge. We can thank Rachel Carson for raising our consciousness, and Charles Reich’s ‘70s book, The Greening of America, but we can thank John Muir the most. When land was set aside for protection, you had to fight to keep it that way, and all struggles need a champion.

When Muir heard Thoreau had made a careless comment about there being such a thing as “too much wilderness,” he thought it was a sad commentary on Henry and his crowd. To Muir, the wild was the house of God and where we go for salvation.

And when developers wanted a fight, they got one from him. They came up with the word “conservation,” which really meant something between wise use and planned development and Muir threw back at them the word “preservation”–meaning no compromise with wilderness as a means to satisfy human needs. That was a bloody struggle and from it came–the Sierra Club.

Muir even joined Teddy Roosevelt on a tour of the Yosemite, but didn’t let the invitation soften his attitude, scolding the Prez for bragging about hunting and told him he ought to “get beyond the boyishness of killing things.” Then he convinced Teddy to support California’s return of the Yosemite Valley to the federal government as a park by that name–and later the Grand Canyon as a national monument. So good deals can be made other than by playing golf with your clients.

Truth is, our modern appreciation for the outdoors is almost as ruinous as development. The earth can take a lot of tramping on and survive, but no longer without our help. When we let up or look away, someone’s trying to make a buck from it: look at European mountaintops killed by acid rain, or American lakes once vibrant for sport and recreation, now filled with toxic chemicals.

It is often said that those who hunt and fish a lot are the most conservation-minded and that is true to an extent, but I grew up among that crowd and know that many of them care not a fig when they go too far. It’s just a way of life and nobody’s going to stop them.

We’re part of a vast and interdependent  web of life, and we can choose  to tread softly on this good earth–the garden that is our home. The alternative can kill us all.

Thoreau had few lapses like the one mentioned above. His first public speech was at the Concord Lyceum. Barely twenty years old, shy, slight and stooped of frame, he began with immortal words that were a hint of an extraordinary life about to unfold: “I would speak a word,” he said, “for nature.”

So should we all.

3 Responses to “It Was Never Easy Being Green”

  1. Have to agree with you re: people that hunt and fish. I grew up with both (mostly fishermen) and they have no problem stomping on the environment if it means reaching their goals. They’ll spew toxic fuels into the water, leave trash, over-fish a species to extinction, etc.
    Most people don’t want to live in a wilderness – it’s too tough. But by romanticizing nature, it does help because people will re-cycle, cut back on fuel and plastics, etc., which is good for all of us. I believe, since most people don’t think at all, continuing to romanticize nature is the best way to get people to be more responsible for their actions. Of course, fear is always a great motivator (climate warming), but lots of people choose to believe it is being caused by cattle expelling methane and volcanoes erupting, instead of by fossil fuels, so they don’t have to change their behavior.

  2. Ah yes. Not just the sweet smell of freshly mown grass, but the flowers – they too enrich us. We have a marvelous planet wrapped in a crust of loam and water. Things grow, and we eat them with pleasure; things grow and we eat them at peril.

    The wonderful battle of the gasses is erupting now on this planet. Carbon Dioxide is the real stinker, the most evil; it spumes from our ugly smokestacks constructed with natural brick and mortar.
    It spits from our mufflers as we drive to and from the Farmers’ Mart.

    Carbon Dioxide is bad. I’m not exactly sure why, though.

    Yeah, it’s a gas, and yeah it can filter sunlight and make the air heat up around it as it interferes with the sunlight. The old Global Warming Cause Effect Theory.

    But someone asked me why Hydrogen and Nitrogen and Oxygen aren’t heating up the atmosphere? And I couldn’t answer the question. They said the amount of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere is too small to mathematically cause air temperatures to rise. There isn’t enough of it.

    Shoot! I thought I had the answer to Global Warming and along comes this science guy who blows open this question.

    Any answers out there? John, thank you for the thought and organization you put into your writing.

  3. Mothers’ Night

    cascading shards
    echoes falling
    “It’s our calling.”

    Rape of Earth,
    hot spurts of words
    savage knives
    Abiding Mothers,
    sacred and mundane
    twist into harridan
    cold stars

    wail, hurtling waves
    Sad, old, crust of ages
    sliced, screwed, carved up for profit
    “It’s not the color of the skin,
    the culture of the smile”

    the scent of danger,
    the inborn stranger —
    all excuses for Us (superior)
    and Them (inferior)
    “They are not like we;
    but lower curs.”
    we may harm with unfettered glee

    Cursed to be cut to our requirement.
    Borders clear
    “Here, fear fences in
    our livelihood and wives.”
    Leave THEM to putrid pits
    cunning jabs,
    our pleasure.

    Thus, all treasure that might regale,
    heal, reveal true worth,
    of man and Earth
    sold for pittance of potash
    to dance a weary jig

    May 10, 2010

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