Swans Commentary » swans.com February 12, 2007  





by Martin Murie





(Swans - February 12, 2007)  Look back to the great rhythms of Homer, the siege of Troy; armored, proud, jealous and arrogant rulers all suited up, ready to defend their honor, their loot, their wives and concubines. Somewhere in those stone or bronze ages, violence in defense of power had arrived.

It was not always so when giants roamed the earth, huge animals with tough hides and big teeth, and spasms of weather that made us cringe, shiver our way into a stoic pose, tough it out. Then fire, the beautiful, beneficent, flickering tongues of warmth. One of the first technologies. Great! We can make reasonable guesses as to the course of our history from Prometheus on, the split into hunter societies and food-growing societies, the rise of hierarchy, new technology and empires and, finally, destruction on a grand scale.

Just as a sea otter learns to carry a stone from the bottom, puts it on her chest, uses it as an anvil for cracking sea shells to get at the good stuff inside, so we too made world-shaking discoveries, finding that a stone thrown can bring down a food animal. Eureka! But somewhere along the line we picked up a devotion to technology as the great emancipator, a sort of auxiliary religion that's played hell with us. Look at the record. Arrival of nuclear power strewn with unanticipated catastrophes, and we are learning that new medicines have "side effects." Yes, even aspirin. Battlefield use of depleted uranium makes people sick, attacks the reproductive systems of soldiers (theirs and ours) and it's out there in the high winds, the scatter of dust around the world. Brand new and inadequately tested chemicals are released into wind, soil, and waters. And so on, and on.

Attitude counts. Attitude is a vital human center where dramatic changes sometimes occur. What we need, urgently, is a wholehearted, personal, emotional shifting of the very compass we measure things by, a turn that is more than a few humility degrees leftward. It would mean stepping down from the makeshift command post, under God, or not, the pose of Us as Master of "resources." It would mean we'd stop talking about natural processes as though they were static items on a shelf in a hardware store; we would talk about them as elements in a vast interplay of energy, molecules, materials, and all-inclusive planetary histories.

Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki we live in the shadow of worldwide derangements that can't be put back in the bottle. Ellen Meloy confronts this without flinching.

I try to live here as if there is no other place and it must last forever. It is the best we can do. Everyone's home is the heartland of consequence. (1)

How much better might life be for us proud creatures if we could (would) adopt a more conservative intervention into the ways of this world of air and fire, rock and dirt and water, floras and faunas. I suspect that more dignity and happiness wait for us along that road. We might learn from the animals, who are generally much better than modern humans at the job of paying attention to each other. Example: animals at a dead elk, deer or cow, coyotes dominant, crows, ravens hopping sidewise, magpies flickering about, sometimes daring to perch on an antler or horn, all waiting their chance, every animal testing the air for scents, for vibrations, paying close attention to every move of each of the others in the congregation. Animal languages, noticing the ways of other species, looking, listening, sniffing, tasting, testing. The world of intense awareness. I can't help remembering such scenes when one of those ubiquitous car ads shows off on TV, the vehicle crushing its way through snow, sand, deep water, high brush as though none of that stuff beyond the windshield mattered. The contrast is maddening. We can do better than that.

Attitude counts. By "conservative" I mean the old-fashioned idea eloquently set forth by Aldo Leopold that saving what exists now instead of making a new world fit only for free enterprise is a good thing to do. (2) The old conservationists had it partly right. The new environmentalists have it partly right. Both made serious mistakes. We do tend to make mistakes.

Attitude counts. We could make a drastic new beginning, using our formidable mental and physical manipulative natures to fit societies into the logic of ecosystems. We would make mistakes in that effort too, but a heartfelt shift in attitude can act as a brake, a reminder, a goad, a caution. That would be better than acting like mindless bulldozers bent on controlling the fine tunings of earthly ecosystems, the planetary sun-center arrangements in which we have our very being.

Have you ever heard of the Grenada dove? Neither had I, until yesterday.

The Grenada dove (Leptotila wellsi) is a critically endangered bird that occurs on only a small portion of the island nation, including the 154-acre Mt. Hartman National Park. The park is also a critical habitat for the very rare Grenada subspecies of hook-billed kite (Chondrohierax uncintatus uncintatus), along with other wildlife of global and local conservation importance. Ignoring this, the Four Seasons corporation -- in which Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has a substantial holding -- along with a developer named Pemberton, plan to build a new Four Seasons Resort, including hotel, conference center, golf course, and scores of luxury villas. The government of Grenada has indicated it will clear an easy path for this massive scheme by simply removing the park's protected status. (3)

How many leftwing activists and intellectuals give a damn about the Granada dove and hook-billed kite and other endangered plants and animals? I think we are missing out on a great chance to send reverberations through all of our discourses, all of our activisms.

Attitude counts. If we show by act or talk or written word that the struggle to save living spaces (habitats) for all -- Grenada dove, Ivory-billed woodpecker, Mexican wolf packs, polar bears in the arctic, penguins of Antarctica, and hundreds of others -- we come in from the cold abstract. We renounce the pathetically simple dogma about Nature and Us. We need a radical, all-inclusive take on the world, a drastic turn from dependence on corporate driven profit at all cost that messes about with dangerous technologies. We get in return a rolling up of shirtsleeves, a refreshing cold shock, a stand-up militant attitude. An injury to one is an injury to all.

This is a step, a big step, beyond the casual mantra that there are chemicals and life forms out there not yet discovered that can cure cancers, rebuild organs, lengthen lifespan for our species. This is the big step: intellectually AND emotionally, recognizing our irreversible membership in the ecosystem of planet Earth, and that such recognition entails a belonging. Belonging is all encompassing, good or delightful, bad or tragic. More Katrinas will come our way: flood, fire, and tsunamis, dangerous water, acid air, depleted soils, unforeseen calamities, one after another, devastated tundras, crumbling glaciers, drought in the earth's grain lands, sudden frosts on fruitlands, and unknown others we yet know not of. Also the grace of animals, sunlight on lakes and waterfalls, wind teasing huge sweeps of sage or grassland, dry snowflakes filtering through trees, beauty of human voices, bodies, gestures. All ours, for better and for worse. A reminder from Jim Stiles:

Doesn't there come a time when we need to acknowledge that being alive carries an element of risk, no matter how hard we try to avoid it? (4)

Our earth. We need to come home and stand up for it.



1.  Ellen Meloy, The Last Cheater's Waltz. Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, U. of Arizona, 1999.  (back)

2.  Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, Oxford, 1949.  (back)

3.  Action Alert from Center for Biological Diversity: bioactivist@biologicaldiversity.org  (back)

4.  Jim Stiles in Canyon Country Zephyr February/March, 2007.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published February 12, 2007