From Heal the Earth, Heal the Soul,
Environmental leaders of forty or fifty years ago were missionaries who gave us broad shoulders to stand on. Yet now I recognize the world has changed dramatically since their time, and maybe mine too.
It frightens me to observe the upheaval in this country and everywhere else on earth as well. I feel strange and uncomfortable in this modern, dehumanized new age.
For example, in years past we didn’t talk much about global warming because we did not fully understand it or its implications. Now I daresay that global warming is widely recognized as a threat to civilization. But it isn’t simply global warming that concerns me; it’s the sum and substance of its causes more than its effects.
I mean that supertechnology has led to superconsumerism, and that advanced means of production have enabled the manufacture of more goods than people need or logically can use. In consequence, to keep the system going, people must be persuaded to buy and use more, and more again, and never mind the waste of it. That is what advertising, marketing and mass media are meant to do, and why more people mean more consumers, everywhere.
In the onward march of globalized trade and commerce, every part of the world is encompassed and exploited. The earth is treated as a commodity to be surveyed, bought and sold and converted into merchandise. The air, water and land all are polluted and poisoned and degraded in the process with toxic materials applied to induce some product or other to grow faster, cheaper and more profitably.
In this global atmosphere, people are separated from land and nature. Traditions and entire cultures are overrun and obliterated. In a globalized economy, standards of living are not raised but lowered. As I see it, globalization, with its competition for materials and markets, does not bring people together as neighbors and friends but drives them apart with fear and hatred of each other. It leads to war, one war after another, in which the innocents are the victims.
While writing these lines in late 2006, I received a letter from an old friend and compadre, Dick Carter, who as director of the High Uintas Preservation Council in Utah has long labored for a noble cause “You are a true elder in the most meaningful sense of the word,” he wrote,” and I only wish we could step back in time where far more hope prevailed. The idea that things will always and simply get better as the arrow of time moves forward is not true.”
My friend has a strong point there. History shows that yesterday’s victory must be won again and again or likely will turn into tomorrow’s defeat. Laws and regulations have their place, but only people make things work: people who are alert and involved and who keep in there swinging, who sets their sights higher, and never lower them.
At the same time, I enjoy and find encouragement in the mood reflected in a note from Martha McCracken, a friend in Puerto Rico She addressed the issue of global warming, but said she reminds people that even baby steps forward can make a difference. Yes, they do. Then she wrote: “If I didn't have faith I wouldn't be able to cope but I know there is a God who gives us the freedom to make a mess of our world and our lives but still loves us. I see good all around me: I see it in the laughter of children, the wisdom of the elders and the energy and hope of young people.”
Personally, I wish God took a stronger hand. I’ve learned something about religion, though without adhering to it. I do, however, read and choose biblical selections that stir, stimulate and support ideals that reach beyond religion, such as:
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (from Hebrews 11:1).
I cannot think of any way to say it better. But I will try to express it a little differently. Like Martha, I see good all around me, too. Earlier I said that environmental leaders of forty or fifty years ago were missionaries, and then I wrote that they want us now to work together through tough and trying times, to sound the alarm and to alert the public, from the grassroots to Washington, in defense of wild places. I know many, many people who are doing that, out of conscience and conviction, and without fear or favor. That is continuum.
Like Harvey Broome and Ernie Dickerman, the best of them get outdoors and walk the trails. That is where inspiration comes from. It doesn’t come simply from reading or from office work, and certainly not from riding on a snowmobile or off-road vehicle. Those machines are the essence of superconsumerism run amok in the woods. They cause a lot of damage, to the natural resource, and to the rider as well -- physically, psychologically and spiritually, giving the illusion of strength and satisfaction when the power is all in the machine and the rider’s high is more like it derives from nicotine or narcotics. Fifty years ago we didn’t see much of those machines and failed to realize they would prove such a nuisance. I dare to hope they will be gone in the next fifty years.
John B. Oakes was another excellent outdoors person. That is where he found his feeling for conservation as manifest in the editorial pages of the New York Times. In 1981 we made a dory trip together in a group down the Colorado River where it flows through the Grand Canyon. We both recognized that it takes time and patience to allow messages from the raw earth to filter through one’s outer defenses and touch the inner spirit. Each day when we explored ashore, up steep canyons to springs and gardens and ancient Indian stone structures, John showed himself limber, energetic and absorbed, much as he was with the editorials of the Times. And that newspaper has continued, even now, to publish powerful editorials on conservation and natural resources well worthy of him. And the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism is awarded annually by the Natural Resources Defense Council to the author of an article or series in a U.S. newspaper or magazine that makes an exceptional contribution to public understanding of environmental issues. That is his legacy.
In this same vein, I well remember when Tom Bell founded High Country News and ran it as a one-man show from the back room of his home in Lander, Wyoming. Tom poured all his savings and energy into reporting western environmental issues in his fortnightly. It was hard going; ultimately Tom made certain the paper would survive and moved on. High Country News (or HCN) relocated to Paonia, in western Colorado, where it became well established and staffed, and well read and respected by people who care about the West. HCN has spawned many able writers who have gone out to spread the gospel. And they are Tom Bell’s continuum.
A few words here about outdoor writers and writing. I was never one of them myself. For that matter, I wasn’t a nature writer either. I was simply a conservation writer focused on protecting and preserving nature in the out-of-doors and in that role belonged for many years to the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA). Through good fortune, in 1994 I was awarded the Jade of Chiefs and inducted into the Circle of Chiefs, the conservation council of the OWAA, where I have connected with literate, gifted writers and conservationists, including Ted Williams, of Massachusetts, who contributed the eloquent foreword to this book; Tony Dean, of South Dakota; Michael Furtman, of Minnesota; George Laycock, of Ohio; Joel Vance, of Missouri, and others as well.
For myself, I’m glad when new writers with environmental concern and commitment come along and that I can call them friends and colleagues. Here in Wisconsin Eric Hansen worked for twenty years as a machinist until he followed his heart outdoors to the hiking trails and then to writing about them. But producing two good guidebooks to the trails was not enough for Eric. In time he wrote a thoughtful, insightful essay for the Chicago Tribune on mining threats to special sanctuaries of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that won an award for him. Then he published another essay, this one in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, headlined BEHIND WISCONSIN WILDLIFE STORY, and with this subhead:
A cleaner environment also benefits
The humans who watch them
Perhaps that is what it is all about. In any case, for me it’s a treat when Eric comes out from Milwaukee and we walk the trails in Lion’s Den County Park to the breezy overlook high above our inland ocean called Lake Michigan. It’s the ideal place to share ideas and visions, and to look across the waters into forever.
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