letter to the Walters Art Museum connecting the director’s TED talk (museum as ‘super collider’) with the idea of narrativism
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.
Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another.—Aldo LeopoldThe question I’m sure a lot of conservationists are asking themselves right now, in light of the Trump administration’s rollbacks, is if nature and ‘progress’ can ever coexist in harmony.
These two, though – progress and conservation – have been pitched in a recorded battle for at least three hundred years, after heavy 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 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, so invoking Europe in a conversation about American conservationism may seem a little incongruous to you. But they do deserve some credit, I suppose, however grimly, for our own conservation movement began in the twentienth century out of a sort of inherited memory of a time before the land was broken and obliterated by the implacable hubris of the frontiersman, 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.
And that’s the trouble: that memory is fading. We’re working against a great evil. 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. On the heels of the AHCA retreat, no less. 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. Of all our differences, this is the chief one. We are drifting ever closer to this reality. 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.”