I love the cool blue light of the morning in the summer when the world is sleepy and peaceful – or at least seemingly so. Before the dazzling sun shoots its rays over the horizon and casts everything in golden light the bluish hues make the green of my yard greener, it makes the red of the peaches bundled on the tree deeper, and the colors tug at the lid of my heart, prying open the chamber where hope is found.
A new dew-covered day awaits. Between sips of coffee I inspect the progress that the work of my hands have begun and look for pests trying to undo it. My garden harkens back to memories of my childhood where the garden was a place of wonder my mother invited us in to. The earthy smell, the deep, rich soil, and the sweet flavor of the food our hands helped grow implanted the taste of a kind of pleasure found nowhere else. The sight of small plants pushing through the soil still thrill me and I watch them grow with eager anticipation like a child on Christmas Eve.
I drag a hose across my yard; the zig-zagging pattern that takes me from the garden on one side to the grapes on the other is now set in habit. My feet count out cadence across the cool, wet grass as I inspect the lawn, the sunflowers, the fruit trees, the pumpkin and zucchini, and even the ponderosas. I scan the ground for snails, my tiny nemesis. Only one snail today but its maddening presence sends me into a tizzy. Where do they come from?
I notice, to my chagrin that the weeds are back, springing up as fast as I can pull them and my mind wrestles with the allure of using pesticides. But there is something cathartic in pulling weeds, in feeling the roots struggling to hang on to the soil slowly break free in your fingertips, and know that the precious water and minerals will surely go to the vegetables inching their way toward the sky. The pride and joy that comes from toiling in my garden is a strange thing. It is a fierce protective feeling that translates into a deep love for this little patch of earth I call my own.
My world has been reduced down to a small acre lot that takes constant care and upkeep. It is a full-time job. I think about all the money spent on plants and seeds and water, and all the hours spent watering, fertilizing, and weeding and then marvel at the nagging politicians and citizens calling for less spending on our public lands.
I think of the millions of acres managed by a small cadre of range technicians, soil conservationists, physical scientists, and law enforcement officers, among others, whose thankless job it is to do the job of an army, with the budget of a non-governmental organization. I think about the money I have spent on my one little acre and multiply it by millions and gawk at the pittance national land managers are given to manage the Nation’s gardens. The scale is hard to wrap my head around.
Wendell Berry said of the Peruvian fields tended by Andean peasants in The Gift of Good Land, “It is in lingering over this contrast between the panoramic and the intimate that one begins to see how farming and farmland have survived in the Andes for so long. For those fields hold their soil on those slopes, first of all, by being little. By being little, they protect themselves against erosion, but their smallness also permits attention to be focused accurately and competently on details. This is a way of farming that has obviously had to proceed by small considerations. It has had to consider dirt by the handful. Every seed and stem and stone has been subjected to the consideration of touch – picked up, weighed in the hand, and laid down. The prime characteristic of the native, pre-Spanish agriculture was its concentration on each individual plant, which accounts in large part for the great varietal diversity of the native crops.”
As my mind ping-pongs between the panoramic and intimate my yard lights up with the first touch of the sun, long strands of light stretch across the yard, glowing against the parts still cast in shadow. For one sweet hour nothing existed but my labor, the words I dug out of my limited vocabulary to capture my thoughts, and the solid land under my feet.
These days I measure my life not only with coffee spoons but in cool mornings and sultry evenings with my hands in soft, warm dirt. I measure my life in handfuls. Though I wish my days were filled with travel to exotic places, mountain tops, crags, and beaches, like so many I see, the earth I work anchors me to this place. As much as I long to put my feet on our Nation’s lands and taste again the wild solitude and peace they provoke, the work I do at home translates to an appreciation for the work so needed, done by so few and with such meager resources and support on our public lands.
Wes Jackson said, “…the cause of waste is alienation from the land: where there is alienation, stewardship has no chance.” We love what we invest in, what we pour ourselves into, what we give in time, sweat, and work – whether it is a career, volunteering, parenting, gardening, tending relationships, or investment in the land. When we give in this way our love bubbles over into a fierce, protective love.
As we consider our values and haggle over the economy, we would be wise to remember the origin of the word economy which is the order of households and that economic health should be judged by the health of households, both individual and communal, both on a small scale and a large scale, both personal and national, and that we have a part to play in it. E pluribus unum; out of many, one. By being little and aware of the details of our own individual lives we begin to grasp and understand the complexities of the large-scale and see how our small yet significant place in it, working in concert with our neighbors, communities, and citizenry, intricately shapes the fabric our society.
There is a gross misconception flying around about public land and it is this: that public land equates to ownership, the same way private land is owned. That belief is false. Our public lands, contrary to loud voices like the Bundy’s, are not ours. Public equates to use and access. It is a legal principle stipulating that certain natural and cultural resources are preserved for public use by the government whose job it is to protect and maintain them for that use.
Unlike private property that can be closed off to the public, public lands are owned and held in trust by the government as a guarantee to the citizens of this country, both present and future. The Public Trust Doctrine is the philosophy underpinning and guiding this principle. Though this idea was popularized by President Teddy Roosevelt who believed it was unethical to use up all of the Nation’s land and natural resources by current residents, it has roots in ancient Rome and the Magna Carta, which was carried forth and became a part of common law here in the United States. It is a conservation ethic that is still enforced by land management agencies today, whose job it is to manage those lands with the future in mind.
“No one user has the right to abuse or dispose of the property. Any dealing with the property has to take into account the entitlements of others. Besides, users of common property share rights to the resource and are subject to rules and restrictions governing the use of those resources (1).”
That is why the stunt to wrestle public lands from the Federal Government by Utah and other Western states is so egregious, insidious, and unethical. They are not only trying to steal our access to the land, but the access of future generations. Furthermore, they are trying to destroy a centuries old tradition that has connected public rights to natural resources that include water, air, minerals, animals, and the land. The only way individual western states can manage such huge swaths of land is by selling it to private enterprise and business, and once it is private, that access will be gone.
So no, it is not our land. It is not there for us to use whenever and however we see fit because we pay taxes to the government to manage it. It is there for your use and for the use of your children, their children, and each succeeding generation after them – at least, so long as we do not let greedy politicians steal it from us. This is why it is so imperative that we act as individual stewards of this trust, not only when we use the land, but when we vote and hold our elected officials accountable. If we are not careful, politicians will sell our birthright to corporations.
For an example of what could be in store for us if Utah politicians and others like them get their way, one need only look to Montana. From a New York Time’s news service report in 1993, Montana’s Sky and Its Hopes Are Left Bare After Logging:
“Throughout the 1980’s, the Champion International Corporation went on a tree-cutting spree in Montana, leveling entire forests at a rate that had not been seen since the cut-and-run logging days of the last century.”
“Now the hangover has arrived. After liquidating much of its valuable timber in the Big Sky country, Champion is pulling out of Montana, leaving behind hundreds of unemployed mill workers, towns staggered by despair and more than a thousand square miles of heavily logged land.”
“The deal has revived a century-old complaint about large, distant corporations exploiting Montana for its natural resources and then leaving after the land is exhausted.”
“Champion came in here promising they would be here forever, and then just overcut all the trees and left,” said Dr. Thomas Power, chairman of the economics department at the University of Montana in Missoula. “We are left paying the piper.”
“For Champion to leave has been very difficult, and we are very sympathetic to those people and very sad,” said Tucker Hill, a spokesman for the company. “But I don’t think you can hold a company’s feet to the fire for everything they did over the last 20 years (2).”
And therein lies the problem. Companies cannot really be held accountable. Contrary to popular belief, a company is not a person. Just try getting one sentenced to prison. In response to my suggestion that we err on the side of caution when discussing proposed uranium mining at the Grand Canyon, a county commissioner told me that there were laws in place to make companies clean up or pay for their contamination after they leave. He is right, there is a law, CERCLA, but one needs only look up superfund sites and who is paying to clean them up to see that the law is not working. See the Fox River Litigation, Orphan Mine Grand Canyon, or the Atlas Uranium Mine Moab for some examples. The problem is that most companies either fight paying for it in court or just file bankruptcy. Either way, they leave the bill to the tax payer. So not only do we end up with contaminated and polluted land, we get to pay to restore and heal it too.
As Wendell Berry said, “…the great, centralized economic entities of our time do not come into rural places in order to improve them by creating jobs. They come to take as much of value as they can take, as cheaply and as quickly as they can take it. They are interested in job creation only so long as the jobs can be done more cheaply by humans than by machines. To put the bounty and health of our land, our only commonwealth, into the hands of people who do not live on it and share its fate will always be an error (3).”
So when we talk about “our” public lands, we are referring to the treasure trove of National lands that we have access to, and we are talking about lands held in trust for our children. All the adventures, the memories, the moments of awe, quiet, and stillness, will be preserved in each succeeding generation that enjoys them and who will carry forth the enduring idea that keeping some things open and unfettered has value. We have a vested interest in protecting these lands, caring for them, and ensuring that they remain public – as stewards or trustees, not owners.
In ancient Rome the Roman Emperor Justinian held that the sea, the shores of the sea, the air and running water was common to everyone and could not be appropriated for private use. In England, the Magna Carta made this principle law when nobles made the case that obstructing free access to rivers infringed on their rights. And in the United States the court held that common law public trust doctrine prevented the government from alienating the public right to the lands under navigable waters, or the soil and water, animals and minerals, over those public trust lands. We have a rich legal and ethical tradition of ensuring public rights to our public lands. We should safeguard them as trustees and ensure that their legacy lives on as living proof of one of the greatest ideas implemented by the United States of America.
The most fundamental duty that a trustee has is the duty of loyalty and an obligation
to act solely in the interest of the beneficiaries.
(1) Patricia Kameri-Mbote, Law Environment and Development Journal: http://www.lead-journal.org/content/07195.pdf
(2) Timothy Egan, The New York Times, Archives: http://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/19/us/montana-s-sky-and-its-hopes-are-left-bare-after-logging.html
(3) Wendell Berry, Another Turn of the Crank
In the introduction to Big Rock Candy Mountain, Robert Stone says that a theme in Wallace Stegner’s books is a love for Western land clouded by fearful respect. He qualifies this by stating, “Of course nature – the land itself – was everyone’s enemy as much as everyone’s provider.” It was this dichotomy that led people to try to tame nature, to bend it to their will, to harness and manipulate it to behave orderly – perhaps even predictably; but certainly not naturally. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this thinking. Just look at the fruit this thinking has born: abundant food, modern medicine, heating and air, and water storage, to name just a few.
But if one digs a little deeper, there is something fundamentally wrong with it – at least in modern times. At the core of that mentality is fear. Sure, there are other motivators such as selfishness, greed, or arrogance and opposing values of love, responsibility, or duty. But I believe that today the root is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of the unpredictable, fear of danger. Quite possibly it is a fear of death. While fear is healthy, it is dangerous if it is the only motivator, and it is reckless if it is not checked by wisdom.
Wallace Stegner said that wisdom is knowing what you have to accept. At first glance, that statement seems to be a defeated version of wisdom. But upon closer inspection and a bit of analyzing, one finds that it is a realistic, cleansed by fire kind of statement. Its quality stems from a weathered and worn human being who found it and realized that it was not a lofty ideal, but a real state that comes through trial, error, and humility. Wisdom reveals a person, a community, a culture, who has not only been tamed by life, but has quite possibly tamed him or herself or itself. They have reached a point of acceptance – of people, of nature, of death – of life. It is precisely this quality that we, and when I say we I mean Americans, lack. We think that we can cheat it, control it, or out-smart it – and that is a delusion – a dangerous delusion.
It is dangerous because when our fantasy meets an unmistakable event in reality it leads to cynicism, anger, and disbelief. This can have a good effect in that it can produce a sort of awakening to some, but in others it produces an insistent stubbornness to make the status quo work – regardless of what we know, regardless of the evidence, and often, regardless of the damage. But there is a certain antagonism that exists between us and nature, often split between two beliefs; either that the world is there for our taking and our impacts are just part of the process or that we should leave no trace, no impacts because all we do is tarnish the earth. Both beliefs are not only naïve, but fundamentally flawed because they separate us from the natural world as if we are an alien species here to either plunder or quietly observe.
This thinking presupposes a control we do not have. We think we can protect ourselves from nature while getting what we want from it. Separating ourselves from nature makes us not only other from the natural world; it disallows us to be wild creatures living in it as well. But we are still drawn to the beauty and benefits of the natural world – we want a house in the woods, on the beach, on a cliff – but none of the consequences or dangers such places expose us to. We don’t want to face wild or dangerous animals or have our house crushed by a mudslide or burned in a wildfire and so we try to remove all the dangers, place responsibility on the government or land management agencies, or building inspectors, knowing full well we made the choice to be there.
I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine who happens to be a wildland firefighter. I had expressed to John a fear of fire shelters, that they seemed like body bags and came very close in my mind to being buried alive. He told me how the Missoula Technology and Development Center (MTDC) is working on new fire shelters in the aftermath of the Yarnell Fire that killed 19 firefighters. One of the new designs is heavier. He said he would not want to carry a heavier shelter; he doesn’t even want to carry the one required. His suggestion was to not carry a shelter at all, but stated it is an option that will never be considered. I felt a jolt of panic when he said that and asked why. John told me that if firefighters were given a choice to carry the shelter or not, most he knew would choose not to carry one. “They are too heavy and bulky,” he said, “most firefighters I know would rather be lighter and safer on the front end.” I realized that while I hated the idea of getting into a fire shelter, having one would make me feel safer, even if I didn’t like the idea of getting into one. I asked him if he had ever deployed a shelter. “No,” he said.
After a minute he says, “Do you know that Canadian wildland firefighters don’t carry fire shelters?” I did not know that. “And they have fewer deaths than we do in the U.S.” My mind grappled with that for a minute before I asked the next logical question, “Why? What is Canada doing differently?” He smiled, “They don’t fight fire as aggressively as we do. They let their fires burn and manage them. They don’t risk their lives for houses in the woods. They figure if you didn’t fire safe your house, it’s your responsibility, not the firefighters.” He paused for minute and then said, “Firefighting in the U.S. is political.” Houses in the woods, I thought. Those with the most money, the most clout, and the loudest voices get the most resources sent their way to protect their views and their assets – and guilt-free because the firefighters are equipped with fire shelters as a last defense against getting burned to death.
I did a quick search on the internet to see if I could find some information on Canada and wildfires. I did find that they don’t carry fire shelters; instead they have decided to focus on safety and communications. They just don’t go into dangerous situations and believe that better communications is better at saving lives than fire shelters (1). I also looked at the statistics on fire deaths. According to the records, there have been some 165 reported wildland fire suppression related fatalities in Canada over the past 70 years. This represents an average of at least two fatalities per year. There were no known fatalities reported in 23 of those 70 years. The maximum number of fatalities (16) in any given year occurred in 1955 in British Columbia, which also incurred 45% of the 132 firefighter deaths reported in Canada from 1941 to 1990 (2). In the U.S. the annual death toll for persons who died during wildland fire operations from 1990 to 2006 was 310 total deaths (3). The comparison is staggering. The U.S. has near double the deaths in a quarter of the time as Canada. Why?
One could argue that we are trying to protect our resources, or livelihoods, or communities built in the wildland urban interface, but should we? Perhaps we have created scenarios that put ourselves at unnecessary risk and for unnecessary reasons. “We should manage fire like the Native Americans do,” John had said, “They know the benefits of fire and work with it rather than against it and as a result they have the healthiest forests and the healthiest wildlife. They were the first to discover the benefits of fire, did you know that?” he had asked. I did know that. I knew enough about fire ecology to know the benefits to an ecosystem, that fire is a natural cleansing agent. I also knew that the land management agencies had shifted policies from suppression to management for ecosystem health – but there was still the politics. Something I had read from Wendell Berry came to mind,
“The world of efficiency ignores love because by definition, it must reduce experience to computation. Efficiency, in our present sense of the word, allies itself inevitably with machinery, as Neil Postman demonstrates in his useful book, Technopoly. `Machines, he says, eliminate complexity, doubt, and ambiguity. They work swiftly, they are standardized, and they provide us with numbers that you can see and calculate with.’ To reason, the advantages are obvious, and probably no reasonable person would wish to reject them out of hand.
Logically, in plentitude some things ought to be expendable. Industrial economics has always believed this: abundance justifies waste. This is one of the dominant superstitions of American history – and of the history of colonialism everywhere. Expendability is also an assumption of the world of efficiency, which is why that world deals so compulsively with percentages and safety.
And yet love ostensibly answers that no loved one is standardized. A body, love insists, is neither a spirit nor a machine; it is not a picture, a diagram, a chart, a graph, an anatomy; it is not an explanation; it is not a law. It is precisely and uniquely what it is. It belongs to the world of love, which is a world of living creatures, natural orders and cycles, many small, fragile lights in the dark.
In the world of love, things separated by efficiency and specialization strive to come back together. And yet love must confront death, and accept it, and learn from it. Only in confronting death can earthly love learn its true extent, its immortality. Any definition of health that is not silly must include death. The world of love includes death, suffers it, and triumphs over it. The world of efficiency is defeated by death: at death, all its instruments and procedures stop. The world of love continues, and of this grief is the proof. (4).”
What is it that we value when it comes to human and natural resources? When we look at our lands and all that they hold, do we do so with the requisite humility? Do we see ourselves as a part of it or separate from it? Do we look at it as a commodity with expendable parts where we divvy out worthwhile species, valuable commodities, and accept the loss of less valuable parts in exchange for the valuable ones? Are the lives of firefighters an acceptable loss as long as we equipped them with emergency gear? Is one life worth a house built in the woods? If we break it down to insurance policies, mitigating lawsuits, controlling public perceptions, and spurring a sector of the economy – is their loss acceptable? In weighing the pros and cons, the percentages and statistics, is it mathematical enough to sustain our paradigm without any associated guilt?
Living includes risk. The world we live in is dangerous, unpredictable, and violent – but it is also life giving, stunning, and soul nourishing. We cannot incubate ourselves enough, or control nature enough to live without any threat of danger or death – nor should we. As they say, you cannot reap the benefits without incurring some risk. I am not sure what makes us think we should be immune from tragedy and death. The world owes us nothing. We have no right, as Wendell Berry stated, to ask the world to conform to our desires. Death is a part of life. Tragic, yes, but not unnatural. Firefighters accept the risks inherent in wildand firefighting, but do we have to accept an aggressive level of fighting fire that is less safe but tolerated due to technological advances in fire shelter design? It may excuse us of their deaths when it comes to public perceptions or political fallout – but is it a calculated and acceptable expense? And to what end? Are 300 lives saved by fire shelters enough to assuage our conscience that 300 lives were lost due to aggressive firefighting tactics?
We can ask the same questions about our forests, and we should. What are we managing them for, and to what end, and how long is the timeline? As we should manage our human resources responsibly, so should we manage our natural resources – even if that means managing a fire rather than suppressing it. This is not to say that we can’t use our lands and forests, enjoy them, and try to live in them – but it does mean that we must recognize that our choices have consequences that are often bigger or more important than our individual desires. No one likes to look at burn scars on mountains. They are ugly and replace something that was beautiful, but with that death comes rebirth and a new and healthy forest – in time. Lightning and forest fires have existed long before we ever had firefighters. It is natural. What may not be natural is building communities in the woods and expecting to be exempt from the natural phenomenon that occurs in such places.
Everyone wants to mitigate risk, and we should, but it should be done with humility, respect, and wisdom. When we start to see ourselves as part of the world, it becomes us – our identity – and we treat it as such. When we do that, we learn to engage the world with love clouded by fearful respect. In other words, we join it and engage it as the parts of it it that we are. We may even take responsibility for our place in it. When we operate from that paradigm, it will be the beginning of living from a place of acceptance rather than fear and out of respect rather than cost benefit analysis.
(1) CBS news, Why emergency fire shelters aren’t used in Canada: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/why-emergency-fire-shelters-aren-t-used-in-canada-1.1319366
(2) Martin E. Alexander & Paul Buxton-Carr, Wildland fire suppression related fatalities in Canada, 1941-2010: a preliminary report: http://www.ciffc.ca/images/stories/docs/Alexander_and_Buxton-Carr_%282011%29_Wildland_Fire_Safety_Summit.pdf
(3) National Wildfire Coordinating Group: http://www.nwcg.gov/pms/pubs/pms841/pms841_all-72dpi.pdf
(4) Wendell Berry, Another Turn of the Crank.
The Story of a Flower: From community member, to endangered species, to public enemy – Is it time for a new narrative?
Every spring, as the days begin to grow longer and the weather consistently warms, my eyes start scanning the horizon for very specific plants, vegetative cues that mark the passage of time from one season to another. One of those plants is the Globe Mallow. Their presence marks the transition from spring to summer. Bright orange bushes burst into flame along highways, freeways, and across the desert floor. They are flowers that you must see up close to truly appreciate. The small petals form little bowls, globes, or women’s skirts, that when filled with light, glow softly. Delicate like tissue paper, they are enchantingly beautiful. When they bloom I make a yearly pilgrimage with my boys to explore the changed landscape for the short period that they are blossoming. Though I don’t know much about the niche the Globe Mallow fills, or about the other species connected to or relying on them, they provide aesthetic pleasure, joy, and wellbeing to my life. I enjoy them. They are a part of the community in which I belong. They are a part of my story. If they suddenly disappeared, I would miss them, wonder about them, and seek to discover what had happened to them. They do not provide food or shelter and I’m not sure of their economic value, but they hold value to me. They ground me in time and place.
If the Globe Mallow was facing extinction I would feel an urgency to protect it. I would feel its loss before it was gone and would work to avoid that reality. If, however, a barrier was put around the flower that kept me away in order for the government to protect it, I would feel helpless. It would no longer be a part of the same world as the one I am in; it would be separate, sanctioned off. I would hope that the government would be able to ensure its existence, but I would no longer feel a part of its presence or protection. I could only hope. My interaction with it would be similar to looking at it through protective glass.
Though not all species provide this sort of personal connection to me, all it would take to change that would be intimate knowledge. Kind of the same way a person changes from a stranger to a friend. For example, I know that if I rub creosote leaves between my fingers, it smells like rain. I know that sage provides a pungent fragrance that seems to permeate and rise up out of the earth. I know that right before autumn and a chill can be felt in the air, tarantulas come out. Knowing ones community happens subconsciously and almost intuitively, but turning that knowledge into love usually takes an act of conscious and willful acknowledgment and recognition. Often this is brought about through someone else’s actions, like the demolition of a hill. Sometimes is comes through absence, like when we move away. But without knowing a place, we cannot love it, and if we don’t love it, we won’t protect it, and if we don’t protect it, it will disappear.
“Life is a miracle,” said Wendell Berry, “One kind of evil certainly is the willingness to destroy what we cannot make – life, for instance.” Life, including ours, plants, and animals, but also, the elements that sustain life such as water, soil, nutrients, and sunlight; in other words, the cycle of life and all of its interconnected parts and dependencies, is a miracle. Utter extinction, pollution to the point of poisoning life, annihilation of life giving properties, is unacceptable to us and virtually unfathomable, but it is happening. These changes are on a large and slow enough scale that if we choose not to see it, we won’t. But when we narrow the scope, bring it down to our own backyard, we can’t help but see it and be impacted by it. We need to take our backyard and apply it on a global scale to take what matters to us and expand it to the world; amplify it across borders and landscape to people and communities not so different from ours, and interestingly, not so far removed from ours either.
Robert McKee said, “On one side is the world as we believe it to be, on the other is reality as it actually is. In between is the nexus of story.” This is the story of a flower, a close relative to the Globe Mallow, and some of the people living and working in proximity to it. Living in remote and small sections of the Mojave Desert in Utah and Arizona is the Gierisch Mallow, a rare and largely unknown flower found nowhere else on earth. It grows in a crusted, gypsum soil suitable only for unique species that holds nitrogen, moisture, and stays erosion. The flower is believed to be pollinated by the same bees that pollinate the Desert Globe Mallow, a flower found in much larger numbers throughout the southwest. The bees nest in the ground, within range of the flowers. A combination of evolutionary adaptations have produced a habitat suitable for the flowers to grow and survive in. Without the ability to travel the way we do, we might never have known of their existence.
Last year the Gierisch Mallow was listed as an Endangered Species. Prior to the listing I attended a meeting held by the BLM for stakeholders who would be impacted by the designation. I attended to hear what the local ranchers and miners had to say. Knowing the general disdain for anything environmental in Utah and that the local ranchers and miners held strong beliefs about mankind’s role in it, I wanted to hear how they would articulate it and work within the confines of a government setting. As I watched the two groups, two distinct narratives formed in my mind: one was scientific, the other religious. The ranchers did not want the plant listed, and though the BLM employees were following a process, I presumed they supported the designation. Though the process is meant to be objective, deeply held narratives were driving it. One narrative is the desire to protect life through public policy based on scientific analysis and evidence, the other is the desire to maintain a way of life based on a belief that God gave us dominion over the earth. Though none of this was spoken, it was there under the surface.
While the life of the flower was never directly discussed, and was actually never in question, how to go about protecting it was. The local miners and ranchers did most of the talking. They not only felt betrayed, they were worried about what the listing would mean for their way of life and bottom line. Realizing that the ranchers had been collecting seeds from the Gierisch Mallow and had been providing them to the BLM in an effort to work proactively, their anger and disappointment at an outside group requesting the designation and undermining their efforts was understandable. Though they never spoke of the fragility, beauty, or right of the flower to exist, it was clear that everyone recognized this by their preemptive actions in trying to protect the flower before the listing. At the heart of this meeting was a deep suspicion, based on collective experience, that one, the locals would carelessly trample the flower into extinction, and two, the government would come in and determine that the flower held more weight than the people living there. The locals were certain they could protect the flower that lived among them and pleaded their case. What they got was a bureaucratic answer that they could make comments during the scoping process and possibly sway the decision and course of action. Once the plant was submitted as a candidate, the land management agency was required by law to follow regulations to determine its status.
The Endangered Species Act maintains that our natural heritage, plants and animals, have aesthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value for this country and the people. Those are the values that get analyzed and discussed through the process of a listing. While the language appears to be inclusive, the Act ignores the relationship between people and the species and subsequently, the land. This exclusion of the relationship and personal narratives behind it makes the process sterile and impersonal. It isolates the species from the people, the place, and the ecological community they all belong to and makes it “other.” To compartmentalize the humans, from the species, from the land, is to keep all of the parts of a specific environment separate, and thus work against the end goal of maintaining the ecological health and integrity of the whole. Rather than using the local population to maintain and protect the plant, they are excluded. This segregation reinforces deeply held narratives that people hold to non-human life and to the earth.
The narratives that shape people’s perceptions and attitudes are as varied as the people, but there are extreme ends in the environmental debate. Though there are many shades of grey in beliefs toward the earth, it is the stereotypical types on both ends that get all the attention. The extreme narrative of the bible-based religious demographic is that God gave humans dominance over the earth, that we were made in God’s image and that ultimately, humans take priority over all living and non-living life on earth. The extreme environmental narrative is that all living and non-living, non-human life has intrinsic worth and is equal in value to humans and therefore, should be given equal standing when it comes to decisions affecting it. When a species gets protected and it inhibits human behavior, industry, and livelihood, the two clash and depending on how the decision unfolds, ill feelings and antagonism result. This end result is bad for both sides because instead of finding sensible solutions in the future, the people will simply oppose each other over any policy decision. If these policies keep ignoring the narratives of the local populations affected by them, the deeply held beliefs will be reinforced and progress will face stiffer and stiffer polarization and legal battles.
But when our decisions affect life, even if that life doesn’t seem significant, we need compassionate narratives that work creatively and ethically to protect the web of life, both human and non-human. It is easier to take an issue that obviously needs addressing, such as clean water, and have consensus, but protecting an unknown species can leave much open for debate. This is where policy fails us and story can help. As Robert McKee stated, “Values, the positive and negative charges of life, are at the soul of the art of storytelling. They can shape a perception of what’s worth living for, what’s worth dying for, what’s foolish to pursue, and the meaning of justice and truth.” It is not the worth of the flower or its existence that is at stake; it is the worth of the ones valuing that is at stake. At the core of environmental conflict is the messy relationship between people. Relating and finding common ground is easier done through narrative than policy because narrative allows empathy to surface. The gift of learning someone’s story is that it provides the opportunity to live lives beyond our own, to desire and struggle in a myriad of worlds and times, at all the various depths of our being (McKee, pg. 142). When we do that, we empathize and through empathy, link ourselves to another human being, testing and stretching our own humanity (McKee, 142).
As I sat as an observer at the BLM office listening to the local field office employees and the local people, I wondered about the missing group, the one that had proposed the listing. While I was certain they had good intentions and their mission probably states a desire to protect all species, I couldn’t help wondering: Have they been out here? Have they even seen the flower? How different would it be if they had talked to the people impacted by the designation and had learned their story? I wanted to know if the flower was in danger of extinction due to human impact, or if it was just a rare species with a small population. As I let my imagination go, I imagined the people who live and work out in the Mojave Desert and what their life was like. I am certain they not only have stories, but history there, that is personal and intimate in a way that we can only relate to by comparing it to our own place. I was certain, that like me and the Desert Globe Mallow, the men in the room also know the seasonal cues, love the landscape, and are aware of the nuances of life found there. The plants and species are not just names in a database; In other words, the people living in these remote places are familiar with the species and landscape in a way that only a local could be. While they might shape their narrative along familial and traditional stories, and may even accept and include the growing scientific evidence as guidelines for their behavior, it is their personal story being threatened.
The story of the Gierisch Mallow is not just of the flower and its beauty; it is about the beauty of the flower in context. The story includes the land, the inter-relationships of other species, and of the people who live and work in proximity to it. Depending on the narrative you subscribe to, the listing of the Gierisch Mallow is either beautiful or tragic, or perhaps it is both. In the reality of environmentalism, we are burdened by our heritage, but the story can be changed and rewritten to produce renewal and cleansing through humble, respectful, and well-told stories.
The Gierisch Mallow is just one species of many that have been entered into the narrative of species protection and extinction and the people involved. How will it unfold? Will the locals harbor good or ill will toward it? Will they resent those designating it, despite their good intentions? Will their story be a happy ending or a tragedy? It will be determined through their narrative filter. The story is ultimately one of life and how we value it, both human and non-human.
A flower offers a simple yet powerful metaphor for life. From time immemorial, flowers have been recognized for their beauty in scent, color, and form. In the short timeframe of their life cycle we see the duality of beauty and tragedy, life and death. They remind us of the passage of time. The word beauty originates from the Greek word hora, meaning ‘hour.’ It is associated with “being in one’s hour.” When a flower is in bloom, it is in its hour. The flower’s beauty, delicacy, and moment in bloom elicit an emotional stirring in us because the pinnacle of its beauty is fleeting. Because of the fleeting nature of life and the passing beauty in it, we often try to capture and prolong the essence of it through artistic reproduction, but art only makes static what is transitory.
Like a stunning sunset whose beauty lies in its temporal nature, we relish it because it won’t last, but even if we could stop time, we would not want to live in perpetual dusk. It is the moment between birth and death, the passage of time that captures our imagination. Nothing we can do will prolong the scent of a lilac or the form of a rose indefinitely, but we know the cycle of the plants, we know that after death comes rebirth, and new blooms in time. Life on earth is, if nothing else, time. It is what we do with our time that will impact those after us. Like the flower, we have our hour, our time of beauty and then we too will pass. The question is: what high beauty, laughter and joy, or tragedy will come with our passing through? Will the audience in the future experience catharsis and pleasure when our act is done?
In the drama of life we, humanity, are both the protagonist and the antagonist. We are perpetually in conflict, but history gives us perspective and clarity and helps us see and learn from the past. Through hind-sight we are able to see the comedic and tragic stories of people making decisions in time. We see their hour in history, and through theirs, we try to make sense of our own. Like a perennial flower, humanity continues generation after generation. We will bloom again as time marches on. Therefore, we should weigh our decisions with good humor, knowing that with each solved problem comes a new one, but with it, a new generation for that hour. We must recognize that while we have great technology and minds to innovate, we are not Gods, we are temporary and can only use the tools and information available to us. Perpetually fixing problems that we create is not wise, but operating with humility and wisdom on the front end and using foresight will help us in our struggles to live ethical and responsible lives. Protecting life might be a good place to start; connecting to people and places through story might be another. Whether trying to save the planet or save souls, it is the intricacy of life, the good and the bad, that we are working out.
When it comes to the environmental narrative, the conflict is largely man against man. Our needs and wants conflict with our morals and duty to the greater community in which we belong. An inner story is played out in the heart and mind which shapes worldviews and determines actions. If we do not check our inner story against the larger story of life and look for the humorous, recognizing that true humor is laughter at oneself and true humanity is knowledge of oneself, we will lean toward the tragic and the vicious cycle will begin again. The virtue of humor is that it strikes at self-righteousness and produces humility that opens us up to more faith, and deeper belief and understanding. Humor is a sort of redemption in that we recognize that finality is the only real tragedy, but often what appears to be gone is just transformed into something new. The death of a flower is only a tragedy if it is never reborn, if it is gone forever. But there is a sort of joy that comes with the seasonal death of the flower because it invokes a longing in us as we recall it and know it will return. This awareness of nature results in renewal, restoration, and a sense of being grounded to something real and solid. The same is true of lost technology for new technology, lost employment for new opportunities and the discovery of new ways of life. The transition is often painful, but worth it in the long run. There is a certain hope that comes with the transitory because it alone holds the promise of change, growth, or improvement. The hope comes from knowing that we do not live in a static and unchangeable world. Though we may not think this deeply of the life and death of the flower, we sense it, feel it, and if we do think about it, we see the passing of time and our own life in it. As William Blake might surmise, we experience heaven, or a lifetime, in a flower.
If we can find joy in the death and rebirth of a flower, then we can certainly see the tragedy in the flowers total extinction. While we cling to our own mortality and work it out through our own inner narratives, we must be aware that life continues after us and like ripples in water, our short existence plays out long after we are gone. Like the flower, we too need sunlight, water, nutrients, and the right environment to thrive, but unlike the flower, we are not benign, we have choice and the ability to change and impact our environment. We have changed and manipulated the most intricate details of living things, including flowers, all the way to landscapes and oceans. Our fingerprints are on everything, whether intentional or unintentional. We have been able to breed, cross breed, and graft plants in order to make them common and available, to patent for profit, and to manipulate and change for enhanced genetic traits, but the original is worth much more than any reproduction. We have learned that our tampering has far reaching consequences. Land change brings with it invasive plants that choke out native plants; removing forests changes the microclimate, impacts the animals, the soil, and the air. Through landscape or ecological restoration people are now trying to get back to the original, to the landscape before humans altered it. Brownfields, urban or industrial centers, are being restored to greenfields in an attempt to restore the land. While there is some question as to which point in time to restore a landscape due to the difficulty and uncertainty in identifying the original state, it is an attempt to get back to the original. But for the most part, once an original is gone, it’s gone. Though we are trying to fix what we ruined or changed, there is no creating a species out of thin air. We cannot make a flower ex nihilo, we can only take what already exists and create with it. As manipulators, tinkerers, movers, shapers, destroyers, and storytellers, we have a moral obligation to consider our actions with what we are unable to make: the original.
If science is knowing, and art is doing, as Wendell Berry states, then certainly the process of environmental stewardship done well is the art of science in practice. Weaving many stories into the environmental narrative holds the most promise in ensuring that science is not void of compassion and values, and that people are not void of the knowledge that science provides. Otherwise, the single, narrow story will continue to be held, ensuring that an incomplete view and narrative is maintained. The narratives are what must be examined because they act as a the filter through which we view the world, make decisions, pass judgment, and ultimately, interact with each other. But they also hold possibilities to see new stories and expand our narrative paradigm. We are all human after all. We can relate to others through story, experiences, and values, but not facts. The narratives can act as the bridge between the process of decision making and the reality of those living with the decision.
Though the process of science is supposed to be objective, often the people impacted by it are not and the subjective interpretation is what determines the discourse, compromise, and/or gridlock over such cases. The narratives and philosophies behind the people meeting to shape such environmental decisions lie beneath the surface. The objective analysis the stakeholders are meant to examine and engage in is limiting and will either reinforce or reshape already held narratives through the process. When the process cuts values out of the equation, it removes compassion for the particular creatures, people, and place in question. Without this compassion, the species at hand gets pitted against the people impacted. Because the beliefs, values, and morals are determined by many factors not easily defined or standardized by the government, the decision must be based on evidence and sound arguments that can be applied equitably and broadly. This makes sense from a policy perspective, but not an empathetic or understanding one. Life is complicated and messy, decisions are not easily made, but that is where there needs to be room for the non-scientific, non-economic, or non-concrete. The inherent value of the plant and the inherent value of tradition and way of life, while not openly discussed, are there. Those values should be included in the narrative of environmental stewardship because they are the threads that hold the community together in the first place.
Perhaps we need to get to know our own place and community and weave our own story into it so that we can empathize with other places and people. I know that not everyone loves the desert the way that I do, but I am certain they love some geographical location somewhere in the world to the same degree. Stories of people and place fill volumes of literature that inspire and leave lasting imprints in the minds of people in all walks of life and from all corners of the world. It is time for story, normally relegated to classrooms, bookshelves, and coffee shops, used for study or leisure, to fill in the gaps between science and humanity, policy and citizens, and from person to person.