Saturday, August 2, 2014
Man and Environment
I am a part of my local ecology. That’s hardly surprising, of course, because each of us is a part of our particular local ecologies. The thing is, sometimes it is easier to remember because of the way we experience it.
I missed the first “Earth Day” event. It occurred in the USA on April 22, 1970. Because this was almost exactly one month before I graduated from high school, I was totally caught up in end-of-year and end-of-school activities, including preparations for the annual regional band and music competitions held in my home town of Enid, Oklahoma (Tri-State Music Festival, for those who might recognize the name of the event) which would begin two weeks later. The environmentalist event simply passed me by with absolutely no notice at all. The second year event occurred during my freshman year at Oklahoma State University, and I still remember walking around the campus and browsing the various displays. To this day I have a souvenir from that day stuffed in a box somewhere: a lump of aluminum which was the result of a couple of soft drink cans melted down as a demonstration of recycling. One of my buddies developed a thing about plastic straws that day, and soon I was a convert to straw-less drinks as well. While I eventually returned to using straws, both paper and plastic, for my drinks, I’ve never gotten over the awareness I developed that people must be responsible in their interactions with the environment.
“Responsible,” though, has certain implications. Among them would be a requirement to be thoughtful and informed on the subject of environmentalism. This would include, I should think, including a cost/benefit analysis when potential solutions for identified problems are proposed. For example, the reaction to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring quickly led to a ban on the use of DDT in the US and other nations. Just as one could say that more research should have been done on potential side effects of heavy DDT use before such use became commonplace after WWII, so it appears that more thought should have been given to the proposed solution (the ban) before implementing it. Without DDT as an effective preventative tool, malaria has continued to be an incredibly devastating disease in many parts of the world. Fortunately there has been progress made in finding more effective and less potentially harmful ways of using the chemical in recent years, and its judicious application combined with other effective preventative practices are proving beneficial.
“Responsible environmentalism” must also take into consideration the broadest and most comprehensive understanding possible of the ecological systems at work. This should include understanding the role of humankind as part of those systems. People are a part of the natural order and though we may have the ability to modify our personal environment in many ways we still remain an integral part of the overall ecology of the world. For far too many who regard themselves as environmentalists, though, the participation of humankind in global ecology is viewed solely as a negative factor. Some of the more extreme among them even actively promote the idea that eliminating people is the solution to protecting the environment, although I notice that so far none of them have volunteered to be among the first to be eliminated.
Unless one joins the extremists in viewing mankind as a blight on the environment, one must find a way to see humanity as a vital element within the total picture. For those who are rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, this should not be too difficult. The guiding texts of our faith make it clear that mankind is in the world as the steward of the One who created and thus owns it. This calls us to develop a mindset in which we seek not just to use or even maintain what is here, but to improve and develop it. At the very least it should mean that where we have been should be better for our having been there. Unfortunately, the environmentalists are often standing on strong ground when they point to evidence that the reverse is far too frequently the case.
The case for living in harmony with and improving the natural world has become much harder for people to understand as we have moved from an agrarian society to an urbanized and industrialized one. These days relatively few people plant and tend gardens. Maintaining a lawn is about the limit of horticultural activity for most people in our country. In this modern age the rhythm of the calendar with its ebb and flow of natural seasons gets lost, replaced with school years, sports seasons (increasingly overlapped though they may be), and the commercialized holiday marketing seasons.
Rural living proves to be a blessing in this regard. Through my regular activities I am given the opportunity to see glimpses of my place in the local ecology and to understand that I am a vital part of the environment. Perhaps nothing emphasizes this more to me than mowing the fields. Because our regular employment has us on the road for weeks at a time our spring, summer, and early fall breaks at home are always greeted with an abundance of growth, sometimes as much as four or five feet of grasses waving in the breeze. This requires breaking out the tractor and mower, which I have discovered I really enjoy doing. Mowing has its own rhythm as I pass back and forth over the fields bringing them back into order. I have stirred up field rodents, quail and even fawns from the deep grass on occasion as I work, which reminds me how much closer to nature I live these days.
The greatest indicator that even in my mowing activities I am integrated into the local ecology, though, is the cattle egrets which show up soon after I get started. I sometimes have as many as a dozen or more following the tractor around the field, swooping from one side of me to the other as I pass back and forth. Sometimes they dart right in front of me, taking brief flight at the last possible second. They are chasing the bugs that I am disturbing and revealing by my activity. I watch them enjoy the feast, talking to and laughing at them as they swirl around me. Eventually, though, the tractor will be put away and though the egrets will continue for a while to chase bugs, eventually they will take flight, disappearing back to wherever it is that they came from when I first fired up the tractor. Usually by the time they finish feasting and wing away into the distance I’m comfortably ensconced on my porch with a cold beverage and possibly a cigar where I can gaze out across that portion of my environment to which some small measure of order has been restored. Invariably, I also find in that moment that some small measure of order has been restored to my soul, and I am happy and at peace with myself and the world at large.
There will come a time, of course, when I have to turn the stewardship of this small piece of ground to someone else. When that time arrives, I hope to be able to look back and see not just mowed grass and fattened cattle egrets but an improved place. I’ve planted some trees, and have plans to move and replant others. There are a couple of places I’d like to put in some decorative gardens, and some places prone to erosion that I want to fix. A row of crepe myrtles full of color lining the drive would be nice. The possibilities are endless, I suppose. Whatever I wind up doing, though, I hope will always be determined according to the first principle of stewardship. Let it be better for my having been here.