portion of a pitch letter to The Wilderness Society accompanying a website redesign proposal, written a few weeks after Trump took office (2017)
In light of Trump’s rollbacks the question I’m sure a lot of conservationists are asking themselves right now is whether nature and ‘progress’ can ever coexist in harmony.
Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another.—Aldo Leopold
This at least a three-hundred-year old fight, since deforestation threatened England’s timber supply. This was then, as it remains today, primarily an economic problem and not strictly an aesthetic one, for wood had co-architected much of human history: “We had better be without gold than without timber,” wrote John Evelyn, whose 1664 book, Sylva—A Discourse of Forest Trees, and the Propagation of Timber, encouraged wealthy landowners to replenish the country’s forests after burgeoning industry and the English civil war had laid waste to much of the countryside.
It’s unclear how calculated an effort Evelyn’s Sylva was, if it was indeed motivated by patriotism (he was an officer of the Royal court), or if his love of ‘wildlands’ is what impelled him to take up the pen to save them (he was a gardener and arborist). Whatever the case, the book worked, and through his appeal to British identity, Evelyn helped build the ships that built an empire.
Call to arms
Much of that lumber would later come from the colonies, denuding the eastern seaboard into the Ohio Valley. Invoking Europe in a conversation about American conservationism then may seem a little incongruous to you. But they do deserve some credit, I suppose, however grimly, for our own conservation movement, which began not long ago from some inherited memory of a time before the land was broken and obliterated by the implacable hubris of the frontiersman (to be defined as the attitude, not necessarily the . We longed for an America virgin, untrammelled, pure and plentiful, for an America that was everything that Europe wasn’t: an America no one extant had ever known, yet one many yearned for all the same.
But the memory is fading, replaced by desire, wealth, etc etc. The same great evil fought by Carson, Leopold, Abbey, Roosevelt, Muir, an apocalyptic admixture of avarice and amnesia with no allegiance to anyone, least of all its supporters, seduced by the promise of jobs but who will bear the worst of its effects: the cancers, the chronic coughs, the stinking effluences of industry. Wendell Berry said it best: “There is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused, the other suffers.”
John Evelyn’s call for his countrymen to pick up axe and shovel was for no other reason than England, like most of Europe, had relieved itself of its wilderness, a reality we are drifting closer to by the day, the final distinction As globalization ensures the worldwide assimilation of culture But conservation is an endlessly optimistic preoccupation; we must endure in the face of losses. To borrow again from Aldo Leopold, what we need is:
To see America as history, to conceive of destiny as becoming, to smell a hickory tree through the lapse of ages – all these these things are possible for us, and to achieve them takes only the free sky, and the will to ply our wings.–Aldo Leopold
Photo: Loggers holding a crosscut saw in front of a doomed sequoia, 1917. The sequioa is one of three symbols on the National Park Service logo and an important part of our national identity.