Quotes Annotated Archive

 

 

2001

2000

1999

upstream interpretayion home

January Ruth Kirk & John Hay Annie Dillard    
February   Stephen Jay Gould  

 

March A Modern Tale David W. Or    
April   Charles Wright Edward Abbey  
May   William Least Heat-Moon  H. D. Thoreau  
June John Burroughs Aldo Leopold Outrage  
July Alexander Wilson Ralph Waldo Emerson Barry Lopez  
August Daniel B. Botkin Wendell Berry Walt Whitman  
September Paul Martin Gerard Manley Hopkins John Muir  
October Sue Halpern Robert Frost Bill Stokes  
November Basho Kathleen Dean Moore Eric Idle  
December Jeffrey A. Lockwood Bernd Heinrich James Thomson Upstream Interpretation Home

 

 

December 2001

And so, in answering the polite and honest question, "What is a grasshopper good for?".... my answer is that a grasshopper isn't good for anything. Its presence is of no significance -- an ultimate zero. Its value is in being a grasshopper, nothing more. The grasshopper just is. And that is enough.

Jeffrey A. Lockwood

Lockwood opens this article, "Good For Nothing" in UUWorld (published by the Unitarian Universalist Association), May/June 2001, saying that he admires the increasing human awareness that we are part of an interconnected web, but that this still implies that the "purpose of this web somehow involves us humans." And goes on, (as I have quoted others in this space: especially Stephen J. Gould) to say that "ecosystems don't care about us... and the universe doesn't really need us." There is a paradox involved, pointed out as long as 2000 years ago by Marcus Aurelius, that while our actions are significant, our individual place in the universe is insignificant
     Lockwood began this philosophy of grasshopper existence by contemplating the results of his early research on their behavior, in which he documented countless hours of grasshoppers literally doing nothing. One practical lesson he learned was to reframe the problem; it turns out that contrary to expectations, grasshoppers were more active at night, while no one was watching.
     Lockwood argues that ecology and evolution are defined by the structures of human economics: we expect living things to be in brutal competition for limited resources. His grasshoppers defied this notion, and he suggests that if we "reconstruct our scientific understanding in the context of intinsic value, the notion that something can have worth in and of itself, then a rather different interpretation of animal behavior, ecology, and evolution emerges." In human terms, it is akin to the difference between the Protestant work ethic (see the classic tale, the ant and the grasshopper!) and the Buddhist notion that sometimes problems are better solved by the dictum: don't do something, just sit there. Perhaps grasshoppers would make good Buddhists.
     This quote sums up Lockwood's point neatly, but the answer really is so much more complex. He says that in answer to the question, the ecologist/evolutionist in him wants to give answers about nutrient cycling and success in replication. But he goes on, "We might as well ask ourselves what children are good for: Do we love them because they are efficient omnivores, effective competitors, successful phenotypes, genetic successors? These are the right answers to the wrong question. The reason we value our children is not because of what they do, but because of who they are."
     I had never heard of Lockwood until a colleague showed me this article. The magazine says he is a a professor of entomology at the University of Wyoming. At one time it might have surprised me to find an entomologist so philosophical, but no more. Jean-Henri Fabre, Howard Evans, E.O. Wilson, and many other entomologists have written eloquently about insects and drawn many lessons from them. Watch next month for more on this subject from Sue Hubbell's work with bees.

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November 2001
on a barren branch
a raven has perched -
autumn dusk

Basho

This is "Basho's first masterpiece" according to Faubion Bowers, editor of The Classic Tradition of Haiku, An Anthology (Dover Thrift Editions, 1996). It first appeared in 1681. Basho is the best known Japanese haiku poet, and also according to Bowers, the "most significant." The translation is by William J. Higginson.
     Here are two other translations:
 
On a leafless bough
A crow is sitting: - autumn
Darkening now -
 
(Harold Gould Henderson)
 
On dead branches crows remain perched at autumn's end
 
(Hiroaki Sato)
 
     Japanese poetry does not translate easily into English, and there is a great deal of misconception about the 17 syllable form, which in Japanese is generally much shorter, when spoken, than 17 syllables in English. Higginson, the author of The Haiku Handbook, which I found to be a very clear and understandable introduction, recommends three lines of two, three, and two accented beats for Haiku in English. With spare additional syllables per line, this usually comes out to about 12 syllables, which he says comes much closer to the spoken rhythym of a traditional Japanese haiku.
     But of course there are many opinions, and there is no right way of haiku. Even in Japan, where the traditional form developed hundreds of years ago is still much revered, there have been many differences. A traditional haiku always included a seasonal word and a reference to nature. Later humor and human foibles were often subjects.
     The very simplicity of haiku sometimes makes it difficult for me. In my attempts at the form, I am often disappointed in my inability to put "meaning" into so few words, but simple observation is the goal. And yet, simple observation, without some sort of additional emotional impact - what someone called the "ah-ha" of the moment, is to me not very satisfying, and I find much haiku in English fails to reach me with that revelation.
     Of course I am no expert, and writing haiku or other short, observational poems is a very good exercise in awareness even if the results are not likely to endure like Basho's. If you wish to pursue the subject here is a web link to begin with:
http://www.ahapoetry.com/haiku.htm
There are many other sites, books and magazines, writing groups, etc. devoted to haiku.
     To close this month, here is another of Basho's that I especially like (translated by Janine Beichman):
 
The waters fade
and the wild ducks' cries
are faintly white

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October 2001

How easy it is to feel insignificant when you're part of something so much bigger than yourself, to just go on about your business as if your particular actions had no obvious consequences - if you're a farmer in Iowa, say, or a tree cutter in Michoacan, and you know that even if you personally don't do that thing that is destructive to monarchs or monarch habitat or to monarch larvae, someone else, somewhere else, might. And then who will know whose fault it is that the web is coming undone?

Sue Halpern

The essence of this well-written account of monarch butterflys, Four Wings and a Prayer (Pantheon Books, 2001), is summed up in the quote. What are the threats to monarchs, and by extension to all of the natural world? What actions, intentional or inadvertent, affect butterflys? Monarchs are still incredibly abundant, but can this fragile and seemingly illogical life style survive in a developed world?
     And, whose fault is it when the web comes undone? Not just the web of the monarch life cycle, but the web of life? It is the fault of each and every one of us, you and me, every day.
     I think, sadly, that this quote applies not just to monarchs, or the web of nature, but to social structure as well. We might also ask this question of human relations: Whose fault is it when the web comes undone?
     This a fine account of monarch migration and the many threats to monarch butterflys, but even more it is a tale of how the mysteries of such a unique life style were unraveled. I was especially struck by the political and personal conflicts; scientists and researchers who disagree so strongly over methodology and jealous guarding of data that they won't even speak to each other are a part of the story I found strangely fascinating.
     The role of ordinary people - "citizen scientists" - in monarch research is one of the major disagreements. It is a disagreement that bears on conflicts in resource management here in northeastern Illinois, and while this book offers no answers I found that reading about similar conflicts offered some insight into issues near at hand.

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September 2001

In the shadows along the trail, I keep an eye out for ghosts, the beasts of the ice age. What is the purpose of the thorns on the mesquites in my backyard in Tucson? Why do they and honey locusts have sugary pods so attractive to livestock? Whose foot is devil's claw intended to intercept? Such musings add magic to a walk and may help to liberate us from tunnel vision, the hubris of the present, the misleading notion that nature is self-evident.

Paul Martin

Ok, it was August and I was lazy, so I am violating my rule of not posting quotes unless I have read the original. I have in fact only recently had my interest in paleoecology, Paul Martin's field, piqued. I borrowed the quote from the lead of an article by Connie Barlow titled "Ghost Stories from the Ice Age," in the September 2001 issue of Natural History magazine. That article is taken from her book, The Ghosts of Evolution (Basic Books, 2001), in which she cites the source of Martin's quote as an article in "a popular journal at the radical end of the conservation movement: Wild Earth."
     I like this quote for its reiteration of one of my favorite themes: always be aware of the different view, take nothing for granted. This is especially important for a working interpretive naturalist.
     Martin's theme, though, is more focused. He is talking about recognizing evolution and adaptation in North America through the ice age. We humans have made drastic changes in natural communities, and how to salvage and restore the remnants is a topic often fraught with controversy. We usually look at these communities in terms of the changes of the past two or three hundred years, at most; here in the Chicago area a pre-settlement period of around the end of the 18th century is often posited as an ideal. Martin and Barlow propose a much longer view. Their theory is that humans arriving during the recent ice age created major changes in the existing communities, and were the major cause of the extinction of the North American mega-fauna, the elephants, camels, horses, and others that disappeared within a few thousand years of human arrival.
     Theirs is a controversial view; there is strong evidence that human hunting at least contributed to the radical changes of that time, but climate change was rapid and many other factors were probably involved. Barlow and Martin, according to the magazine, propose the introduction of elephants to grasslands in the southwest, to restore a balance between surviving grazers and large browsers, which are now absent. Without having read detailed arguments, this strikes me as too extreme and unworkable. Do we really know enough about all the changes that have taken place over the past 12,000 years?
     Still, it is a thought-provoking notion. If nothing else it should remind us that there are many different ways of thinking about ecology. Long term environmental change is difficult for we short-lived humans to grasp. Thinking back a few hundred years is hard enough, thinking ahead 50 or 100 seems almost impossible for many of us. I have just started Barlow's book. I will post further thoughts here when appropriate. Meanwhile, if anyone out there has more information or ideas please send them along to:
jmelliott@upstreaminterp.com

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August 2001

What we learn from the mountain lion and the mule deer is about what we believed, not about what we know.

Daniel B. Botkin

This quote from Discordant Harmonies, A New Ecology for the Twenty-first Century, (American Philological Association, 1990) comes at the end of a discussion of the beliefs and preconceptions that guided ecological theory through the first three quarters of the 20th century. It refers to the famous case of the explosion of the mule deer population on the north rim of the Grand Canyon after elimination of mountain lions as predators. An icon of ecology, the story has been repeated over and over in textbooks and popular literature to show how disruption of predator/prey relationships leads to unforeseen and often disastrous results.
     It is no doubt true that this was a seminal part of the early development of wildlife ecology, and much has been learned from it. Botkin argues, however, that the facts of the incident never actually fit the neat theories that were derived from it, that in fact, the theory of balance in undisturbed predator and prey populations was as much a product of preconceptions about order in the universe as was the idea of divine order at the hand of God. In more detail, Botkin says, "In reviewing ... the idea of a divinely ordered universe and the scientific observations of order, it has not been my purpose to argue either for or against a religious interpretation ... of nature, but merely to show the parallel and the historical connection between the ancient, religious, and metaphysical perspectives on nature and modern beliefs that have been accepted as scientific."
     In this book Botkin carefully dismantles much of the conventional wisdom of ecology, showing with numerous detailed examples how in the last 25 years ecological theory has moved far beyond simplistic notions of succession and the balance of nature. For those of us who showed classic films like The National Film Board of Canada's "World in a Marsh," and Ducks Unlimited's "Wood Duck World" to thousands of students, this can be a tough pill to swallow. Those, along with dozens of other movies, tv shows, text books, and nature center and park interpretive programs, have extolled the wonders of this perhaps mythical balance of nature. But, Botkin argues, change - often random and unpredictable change - is a fundamental fact of nature. "Change appears intrinsic and natural at many scales of time and pace in the biosphere," and "The idea that change is natural has created problems in natural resource management. How do you manage something that is always changing?"
     Botkin recognizes the Pandora's box this notion of change opens. If change is natural, why then should we worry about the loss of endangered species, for example? Does this not simply make humans yet another part of natural change, giving us carte blanche? No. He goes on to say, "...the fact that some changes are natural and necessary does not imply that all changes, regardless of time, intensity and rate are desirable.... To recognize that melodies and themes are made up of changing tones does not imply that any noise is music. The key to a new but wise management of nature is to accept changes that are natural in kind and in frequency, to pick out the melodies from the noise."
     I first read this book ten years ago when it was new and it presented quite a personal and professional challenge. Now many of the ideas presented have become more widespread; one hardly hears the notion of a climax community any more, except perhaps in boy scout manuals. Still, anyone interested in ecology and the disastrous state of much natural resource management, and especially teachers and interpreters, can learn a lot from this thoughtful, well written book.
     For an interesting parallel view on culture and interpretation of nature, see last month's quote.

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July 2001

While our sense of the natural world has always been encumbered by our sense of human culture and history, there was a time, not long ago, when you could get out of your car at a curve on a scenic road and admire the view on something resembling its own terms. There were no signs directing your gaze, no coin-operated binoculars, and no brochures answering your unasked questions about local flora, geology, or the history of land use.

Alexander Wilson

If read with an open and inquiring mind, The Culture of Nature, North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez (Between the Lines, 1991), will make you stop, take a breath, and say to yourself, I haven't been looking at our landscape in quite that way. This quote is the opening of Chapter 2, "Nature Education and Promotion," which goes on to say "environmental educators, government agencies, and corporate public-relations departments all make claims on our understanding of nature...."
     That does not mean that Wilson opposses environmental education. It does indicate that throughout the book he looks at nature from a cultural perspective, and is willing to challenge all assumptions. In this chapter he discusses competing, usually promotional, views and how difficult it is to get accurate information, or even to just experience nature. Wilson points out how a quasi-religious view of nature may be touted as environmental education, while on the other side of the coin business interests paint themselves as moral crusaders. Recreation research and interpretation-as-entertainment are what Wilson calls the "construction of the visitor," and conflicts within interpretation and environmentalism are reviewed.
     The first chapter is a survey of the development of tourism in our wealthy, technological culture. Following a severe critique of "technological utopias" another chapter begins: "The history of nature parks and zoos differs little from that of fairs and theme parks." Nature films and television get a scathing review, as Wilson points out how intrusive film-making is, and how the result puts the viewer both too close and too distant from the real thing. Other chapters review landscape design and "nuclear plants and other environmental architectures."
     Not all is negative, as Wilson finds advances in our understanding, and what to him are clearly steps forward in our relationship to landscape. This book is often frustrating, however, as insight may be followed by unsupported assertions, and while Wilson is quick to challenge the biases of others his own are sometimes obvious. A summary or other clearer tie of many disparate ideas of nature would also have been welcome, and even though it is less than 10 years old there have been significant changes since it was published. Despite its flaws this book provides a stimulating challenge to our thinking about land and nature.
     A good parallel read is the much tighter and better organized book Discordant Harmonies, A New Ecology for the Twenty-first Century, by Daniel B. Botkin, a challenge to the assumptions and conventional wisdom of textbook and popular ecology. More on that book next month.

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June 2001

With June the cup is full, our hearts are satisfied, there is no more to be desired. The perfection of the season, among other things, has brought the perfection of the song and plumage of the birds. The master artists are all here; and the expectations excited by the robin and the song sparrow are fully justified. The thrushes have all come; and I sit down upon the first rock, with hands full of the pink azalea, to listen. With me, the cuckoo does not arrive till June; and often the goldfinch, the kingbird, the scarlet tanager delay their coming till then. In the meadows the bobolink is in all his glory; in the high pastures the field sparrow sings his breezy vesper-hymn; and the woods are unfolding to the music of the thrushes.

John Burroughs

John Burroughs was perhaps the best known 19th century nature writer, and despite, or even because of, the rather quaint language, is a delight to read in the 21st century. This quote is from "Return of the Birds," the first chapter of Wake Robin, originally published in 1871 before going through a number of new editions over 30 years. This quote is typical, with its lush language and never-ending enthusiasm for all things in nature.
     Some readers may find the changes in many common names from Burroughs' time to ours irritating and hard to follow. The "field sparrow" of the quote is what we call vesper sparrow, and what we know as field sparrow Burroughs calls "wood or bush sparrow." There are other examples; for me these name games are intriguing and fun.
     In addition to being a master of poetic description, Burroughs was a keen observer of ecological relationships long before the word or the science were coined. He describes in some detail the habitat choices of his beloved birds, including the vireo found where there are "plenty of gnats and mosquitoes," and notes their relationship to the human landscapes changes of his native New England. Most of us, though, will find his comments on the relationship of birds and people far too kind to people, in light of what we now know.
     This spring a wood thrush has been singing on territory at River Trail Nature Center, which delights the staff. I agree wholeheartedly with Burroughs statements: "The wood thrush is worthy of all, and more than all, the praises he has received..." and "the wood thrush, hermit thrush, and the veery thrush stand at the head of our list of songsters." Unfortunately, in Illinois we never hear the hermit thrush sing, but we are blessed, if we seek out their haunts, with the memorable songs of the other two.

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March 2001

A modern tale: while Paddling Upstream was down during February for server change, River Trail Nature Center received a telephone inquiry for a web address. When informed that there currently was not one, the caller inquired, "Well then how am I suppossed to find out what's going on?" I love the internet and all its possibilities, but am a bit disturbed by the notion that its the ONLY way. While the site was down I did not get to a new quote, stay tuned for updates.

John Elliott

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January 2001

Try to describe snow, and immediately there arises a question of context. Shall it be the snow that falls as a veil and gently closes a household in upon itself, or the snow that streaks slantwise past the window and blows along the ground, blurring the surface and obscuring even the most familiar landmarks?

Ruth Kirk

A practical culture wants to know what things are, how they work, even, for almost anything under the sun, "What good is it?" Existence for its own sake - life forms that flow in the beauty of the wind, like a flock of sanderlings - becomes subordinated to labels.

John Hay

Ok, so its a bit out of order to have two quotes of the month, and its partly my indecision about whether to go with something appropriate for the just ended snowiest December ever in Chicago, or something weightier for the start of a new millenium (regardless of the rather obvious truth that all dates are arbitrary and a "new millenium" is not especially significant).
     As I looked at these two quotes there soon developed a very real connection between them. In "The Nature Writer's Dilemma," the introductory essay in The Nature Reader, Daniel Halpern & Dan Frank editors, 1996, John Hay discusses the difficulty in classifying "nature writing," which ranges through a universe of diversity, from the romantic poets to the purely descriptive that borders on dry "science" writing. Ruth Kirk's book, Snow, a detailed homage to the subject, is for the most part factual, with even a fair amount of the "what good is it" thrown in. And yet there, in the very first paragraph, she points out the dilemma of any such descriptions. The question of context is very much what Hay's essay, and the whole of the book in which it is found, is about. There is a great deal of passion, polemic and ethics in The Nature Reader, but as we expect from good nature writing, grounded in observation. There is a great deal of fact and observation in Snow, but always with an eye to beauty - snow almost like a life form that flows in the beauty of the wind.
     Hay follows the statement above with a short, spontaneous Eskimo "poem" that includes the wonderful line "Earth and the great weather move me," which I am tempted to also quote in its entirety, but you, dear reader, will be much better served by reading it in Hay's essay, along with his interpretation. Hay goes on to say, "The earth's great weather is too often put down in terms of climatology, meteorology..." Kirk does a wonderful job of doing climatology and meteorology with regards to snow, while maintaining enough of the mystery and beauty to go beyond science, into interpretation.
     The Nature Reader is very much a late 20th century work - no Wordsworth, Muir or Burroughs, not even Aldo Leopold, here. Some of my favorite authors: Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder, Edward Abbey, and many others, are included. I have the edition of Snow published in 1978, which is now somewhat dated, the sections on climate change particularly, but is still a treasure of fact and lore. The book was reissued in paperback in 1998 and presumably updated, though I haven't seen the new edition. I highly recommend both.

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December 2000

The wind is howling in from the north. It is dark and cold, and tiny snowflakes are swirling through the trees. There is a bite to the air. I sense a storm coming, but I cannot be sure. It is certain, though, that something is afoot, and it animates me like the descending dusk animates the wolves to start the hunt.

Bernd Heinrich

This is the opening paragraph of the entry for December 11 in A Year In The Maine Woods, a conversational sort of book, with few flashy passages that stand out as isolated quotes, but full of wonderful insight into the natural world. The problem I had with selecting a passage was that in the three pages of this entry Heinrich speaks wonderously about wind in two more paragraphs, kinglets - "Are these tiny wraiths still here after the sub-zero temperatures we've had?" - and other birds, the nature of inquiry - "I do not yet want to form a hypothesis to test, because as soon as you make a hypothesis you become prejudiced. Your mind slides into a groove, and once it is in that groove, has difficulty noticing anything outside of it." - and human use of substances to enhance feeling, noting that some Amazonian Indians make themselves feel godlike, with sharpened senses and increased strength, with a magic potion scraped from the skin of a frog. - "I sharpen my own senses and enhance my feeling of well being by imbibing a brown brew ... made from pouring hot water through the ground up seeds of a tropical shrub."
     At the end of this entry Heinrich returns to the wind, contrasting its rhythyms to that of ocean waves - "unlike the surf the rhythym is infinitely varied" - and has gone from being animated by the wind in the morning to soothed by it as he goes to sleep at night. It is this kind of easy continuity that makes the book a delight to read and read again.
     A Year in the Maine Woods was published by Addison-Wesley in 1994. A more recent book by Heinrich that I also treasure is The Trees In My Forest, and I have it on reliable authority, though I have not read it myself, that One Man's Owl is also excellent. Heinrich has written several other books that I have not read. I highly reccomend him.

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November 2000

Water is an agent of distortion and change, forcing a person to see things in new ways. Each turn of the river opens out a new landscape, something no one has ever seen before and will never see again. The landscape reveals itself in glimpses. The river hides itself in motion. It holds layers of meaning, and so it adds mystery to the landscape, a sense of complexity and risk, a sense that the important facts are hidden from view.

Kathleen Dean Moore

This is from The Smoholla River (On a Cloudy Day), the most directly philosophical essay in Riverwalking, Reflections on Moving Water, 1995, a wide ranging collection. Note the similarity to the Aldo Leopold quote from June, but Leopold's essay is concrete in making connections to our environment, while Moore's explores the relationship between philosophical ideas and the reality of life. "Life and ideas are not the same," she quotes a philosophy professor, and goes on to relate how she came to find this notion empty.
     Moore also explores the relationship between the murkiness of poetry and the suppossed clarity of philosophy, and differing meanings of "clarity." To me, as an interpretive naturalist, these different types of clarity, the modern, "free of confusion and doubt," and the ancient, "lustrous, splendid, radiating light," are both essential. One is more scientific, one more poetic, and readers of these quotes will recognize that I find both essential to understanding the natural world and our place in it.
     There is greater similarity here to the quote from Barry
Lopez, July 1999, and the differing ways of learning about the world. Without a solid grounding in "clear" science we leave ourselves open to all manner of illogical ideas, but science alone too often fails to make any emotional connection to the radiance of nature. That is the unique and essential role of the interpreter: to suffuse science with poetry, to encourage both the emotional and logical relationship to nature, fostering in our audience the respect and love of nature, and the scientific understanding needed to care for it.

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October, 2000

In Hardwood Groves

The same leaves over and over again!
They fall from giving shade above,
To make one texture of faded brown
And fit the earth like a leather glove.
 
Before the leaves can mount again
To fill the trees with another shade,
They must go down past things coming up.
They must go down into the dark decayed.
 
They must be pierced by flowers and put
Beneath the feet of dancing flowers.
However it is in some other world
I know that this is the way in ours
Robert Frost

One of a bare handful of poets recognized, at least at some level, by most Americans, Robert Frost had a long, illustrious career. I have enjoyed his well known and not so well known poems, without any pretense of a thorough understanding of his work. Many of the poems are more complex than appears on the surface (The Road Not Taken is a classic example), but to me this one remains a simple celebration of the cycles of nature, and the connection between living things (as the naturalist likes to say, everything is connected to everything else).
     " In Hardwood Groves," quoted here in its entirety, is from Frost's first collection, A Boy's Will, 1913, and is quoted from The Poetry of Robert Frost, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.

 

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September, 2000

O if we knew what we do
           When we delve or hew --
      Hack and rack the growing green!
....
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
     Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
           Strokes of havoc unselve
                      The sweet especial scene,
           Rural scene, a rural scene,
           Sweet especial rural scene.
 
Gerard Manley Hopkins

August, 2000: A few bright, late-summer-yellow goldenrods cling between the road shoulder and destruction. A few stiff goldenrods, broad leaves and flat-topped flower heads recognizable even at 45 mph, alongside common weedy species, hint of what was once. No trace of blazing star, no prairie grasses, once scattered in shrubby old field growth. Beyond this strip clinging along Milwaukee Avenue is a quarter mile of destruction. Where had been a brief respite on my daily drive to work, now dozers, saws and chippers scrape the green from raw earth.
     I never walked this 40 acres or so of greenery, but sometimes idly wondered what other gems might be hidden beyond the weedy roadside. Even after I read that the property was to be "developed," even after the first "clearing" was rudely bulldozed, I did not stop; now....
     This was nobody's "sweet especial rural scene." Sandwiched between a large new hotel and an even larger corporate campus, this island of green was forgotten. Would it have been worthy of an effort to save? Someone should have done something, I think to myself, and then guiltily accept who someone might have been: me.
     So, unlike Hopkins' Binsey Poplars, no one will mourn the passing of this remnant. No one will consider the birds and butterflies, the mice, voles, woodchucks, coyotes, deer and unknown others that called it home. Surrounded by highways and parking lots in the urban wilderness, they must have had little room to run when machines descended upon them. "After-comers cannot guess the beauty been."
     Read the rest of Hopkins' sad eulogy for "Binsey Poplars, felled 1879," in Poetry for the Earth, Sara Dunn and Alan Scholefield editors (Fawcett-Columbine, 1991). How little times change, it sometimes seems.

Postscript, October, 2000: After I wrote this comment I learned that the developer, as part of the permitting process, assisted a public park site across the street in "moving" a portion of the prairie to park district property. I don't yet know exactly how many or what species of plants were moved, or what method was used. Certainly this must be better than complete destruction, but begs the question of the fate of the wildlife that lived there. Net reduction of open space available for wildlife is still the same.

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 August 2000
Stay Home
 
I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass.
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man's life
I am at home. Don't come with me.
You stay home too.
 
I will be standing in the woods
where the old trees
move only with the wind
and then with gravity.
In the stillness of the trees
I am at home. Don't come with me.
You stay home too.

Wendell Berry

I quote here this entire little poem. I have referred to Berry's sense of place several times in these quotes and decided it was about time to include him.
     I like to travel, welcome the exhiliration and inspiration seeing new places and people can inspire, but that isn't the point here about staying home. Staying home means getting to know your place in the world, and caring for it. It doesn't take long reading Berry to understand that "don't come with me" doesn't mean to reject friends either, it simply means that he wants his friends to know and love their place too.
     See the comments in
David Orr and Annie Dillard for more about the sense of place.
     Stay Home was originally published in A Part, 1980, and is quoted here from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, 1998

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July 2000

It is this (poetical sense) which distinguishes the stick of timber of the wood-cutter, from the tree of the poet. The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men's farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

This quote, from Emerson's famous essay Nature, was easy to select but a bit difficult for me to comment on. Frequently excerpted, but I suspect rarely read in its entirety these days, Nature is a complex work in which obtuse passages are sprinkled with gems like this quote. In keeping with my goal of not posting quotes without reexamining them, I first had a bit of struggle finding the complete essay; many anthologys of Emerson's work use selections. To make matters more confusing there are three separate works titled "Nature" in The Library of America edition of Emerson's Essays and Lectures; this is from the first essay, there is a lecture with similar themes, and a "second series" essay, all with the same title. And I have had considerable difficulty reading it end to end.
     Emerson was a Christian man and the essay is subfused with his beliefs about the expression of God and morality in nature. While I agree with Emerson's premise that we have much to learn from nature, I do not agree "that every natural process is a version of a moral sentence." Morality is a human concept, not inherent in nature(See
Whitman and Gould on these pages, for more on this topic.)
     The theme of "unity" runs through the work, and Emerson seems to have been striving for a sort of universal theory of nature, as the chapter titles indicate: Nature, Commodity, Beauty, Language, Discipline, Idealism, Spirit, and Prospects. The chapter Idealism is especially philosphical, and religious ideas are prominent in the concluding chapters.
     There are some very modern ideas included, though; the quote I've used is a direct ancestor of ideas in Barry Commoner's essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, which deals with those aspects of property ownership that are, or should be, held by the community in general, not in "men's warranty-deeds."
    Beyond the often insightful quotes, I think that the work is of more interest to present day naturalists as a historical document, especially for Emerson's influence on the much more accessible Thoreau. For that alone it is worth a look.

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June 2000

Some paintings become famous because, being durable, they are viewed by successive generations, in each of which are likely to be found a few appreciative eyes.
    I know a painting so evanescent that it is seldom viewed at all, except by some wandering deer. It is a river who wields the brush, and it is the same river who, before I can bring my friends to view his work, erases it forever from human view. After that it exists only in my mind's eye.

Aldo Leopold

This passage goes on to describe, in clear, poetically descriptive language, how the river paints, erases and repaints its canvas through the summer. Like all of Aldo Leopold's writing it makes connections, in this case the link between the river and the rest of the environment.
     A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949), is one of those remarkable environmental works that is as relevant today as it was two generations ago, perhaps more so. Required reading - and justly so, everyone with the remotest interest in our environment should read this book - in many environmental studies courses, the small book also contains the essay "Thinking Like A Mountain," the account of Leopold's "conversion" to ecological thinking from a narrower view of wildlife and natural resources triggered by the killing of a wolf. In that essay is the famous line, "a fierce green fire" (in the dying wolf's eyes).
     The final paragraph of this short entry for August begins, "Do not return for a second view of the green pasture, for there is none." That echoes an ancient bit of wisdom: You can never see the same thing twice.
     I can't really add any more to Leopold, you have to read, and re-read, this book!

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May 2000

... it was not speed or ease we were after. We wanted the crossing itself, however we found it at the time of our passage. I've never believed speed and ease are conducive to living fully, becoming aware, or deepening memory, a tripod of urges to stabilize and lend meaning to any life.

William Least Heat-Moon

What do we value? Much has been written about our obsession with speed and convenience - speed and convenience often even to the detriment of ease, much less awareness and meaning. I recently took an all day rail trip home, chosen over air partly for convenience but also for the relaxation it would offer after a rather stressful trip, and I thought about the travel choices I make: usually car, sometimes air, rarely rail. A train is speed and ease, but still not enough for most of us, certainly not enough speed to compete with air, or "convenience" to compete with cars. Trains are comfortable, quick, and convenient to certain destinations at least, and the most environmentally friendly of common modes of distance transport, yet we are in danger of losing this option because not enough of us choose it.

This quote, from River Horse, Houghton Miflin Company.1999, is from a different sort of journey altogether, a months long trip by river across the United States.

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April 2000

Is this the life we long for,
                                           to be at ease in the natural world,
Blue rise of Blue Ridge
Indented and absolute through the January oak limbs,
Turkey buzzard at work on road-kill opossum, up
And flapping each time
A car passes and coming back
                                           huge and unfolded, a black bed sheet,
Crows fierce but out of focus high up in the ash tree,
Afternoon light from stage left
Low and listless, little birds
Darting soundlessly back and forth, hush, hush?
                                           Well, yes, I think so.

Charles Wright

Charles Wright is a prolific poet, with whom I have only just become acquainted. This is the next to last stanza of his 1997 book, Black Zodiac (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). Since my "discovery" of Wright I have read a number of his early works as well as the more recent, and confess to appreciating the recent works a great deal more - they seem more at ease and accessible, though in the later as well as earlier poems there are a number of passages that I don't quite understand. But when the imagery is beautiful, as here, working to achieve understanding is a challenge worth the effort.
      I return again and again to this poem, a philosophy so simply and beautifully stated: Is this the life we long for, to be at ease in the natural world? In my best moments I truly believe so.

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March 2000

(T)here is a myth that the purpose of education is to give students the means for upward mobility and success. .... The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who will live well in their places.

David W. Orr

As a parent of students who attend(ed) highly regarded public schools, I have become more and more disillusioned with what we expect of and reward our children for in formal education. I do not believe it is the job of schools to teach morality or religion, but it should be, as Orr points out, the duty of schools to teach a full range of knowledge about how the earth and its systems work, not just what will be required to be "successful" as defined by present western standards.

Orr refers to Wendell Berry (see comments under Annie Dillard) speaking about decisions far removed from the land and people they effect, and quotes Gary Snyder on the fact that those decision-makers are highly educated, highly "successful" people. As long as success is defined by more acquisitions, more products, more money, and not by living in harmony with the earth and our fellow human beings, environmentalism is doomed.

This quote is in the opening essay, What is Education For, in the collection Earth In Mind, Island Press, 1994.

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February 2000

Nature is amoral - not immoral, but rather constructed without reference to this strictly human concept. Nature, to speak metaphorically, existed for eons before we arrived, didn't know we were coming, and doesn't give a damn about us.

Stephen Jay Gould

I do not fully subscribe to the idea that we have a moral duty to act on behalf of nature. As Gould so succinctly points out, nature doesn't give a damn about us, and we can go on to say that nature will be here eons after we are gone. This is, of course, a dangerous statement that can easily be used to argue that therefore we humans can do whatever we want to the earth, not worrying about endangered species or vanishing wilderness and rain forest, or many other long-term enviornmental issues.

HOWEVER we do have a moral obligation to the health and well being of our own fellow humans now and in the future. And I firmly believe that well-being includes not just breathable air and drinkable water but also natural beauty, opportunities for peace and quiet, and the stimulation of sharing the earth with a wealth of diversity, biological and human. Edward O. Wilson among others has argued persuasively that this "biophilia" is essential to our survival.

In the urban preserves where I work and live - as almost everywhere on earth these days - native species are being challenged and often out-competed or destroyed by non-natives that have been imported through human agency. I like to point out that in the long run this really isn't a problem, nature has time and in a few million years competition, selection, adaptation and speciation will have sorted everything out again and all will be well. Of course the result will be very different than it would have been without us, but nature, again speaking metaphorically, doesn't care. But I care, and I don't plan on being around in a million or two million years to see what the results are. I want to enjoy natural beauty and diversity NOW and I want my children and the rest of humanity to be able to enjoy them too.

Quoted from Rocks of Ages, Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1999

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January 2000

 

Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can't learn why.

Annie Dillard

Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, from which this passage is taken, is very much about discovering the details of the neighborhood, about what others have called "a sense of place" and the connections between ourselves and where we call home. It is also about the ways we see and learn (see also the Barry Lopez quote).

The way you see is not the same as the way I see. Most of us most of the time see similarly enough that we can communicate from common experience, but too often the difference is enough to cause misunderstanding. In a practical sense, as a naturalist it is often hard to direct people's attention to a small - or even sometimes large - observed object or creature, that I see clearly but others have difficulty finding, and vice versa. In law the unreliability of "eyewitness" accounts is notorious. It is no accident that when I come to understand someone else's point of view I say "oh, now I see."

How do we learn where we are? We start by opening up to observation and experience, to a Zen notion of living our whole life in awareness, to be "translucently aware," in the words of poet Jane Hirshfield. Annie Dillard, in the chapter of Tinker Creek titled Seeing, retells a story of a blind from birth girl who was given sight by surgery, and how she described "the tree with the lights in it." If we can maintain awareness, as A. D. recounts, we too may occaisionally see the tree with the lights in it. I have been fortunate enough myself, in a few rare moments, to have that sort of experience, and the feeling is indescribable and unforgettable.

The question of why we are here is best left for philosophy and religion and another forum, but knowing where we are - the sense of place - is critical for the health of our environment. Wendell Berry, among others, has pointed out how so many of the important decisions about our world are made in offices, based on numbers on paper, by people who live many miles from the place affected - all too often to the detriment of the environment and those that actually live in it.

Pilgrim At Tinker Creek is another of the books quoted here that started me on my way to becoming a naturalist. When I recently told colleagues how much I liked it, I thought that after 25 years I should take another look, to see if I still felt the same. I do.

For an exercise in awareness, consider this little puzzle:

In what pattern is this sequence of numbers arranged: 8,5,4,9,1,7,6,3,2?

If you are desperate for an answer email me: jmelliott@upstreaminterp.com

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Send questions or comments to jmelliott@upstreaminterp.com