A conservationist reflects on his story
In an essay titled “The Warehouse and the Wilderness,” the Indiana writer Scott Russell Sanders describes the narrative of “The Wilderness” through which, he proposes, the conservationist views the world.
According to this “wilderness” narrative, the conservationist sees the world as a “great community of creatures bound together by a web of relationships.” Humans, as bearers of consciousness, have a responsibility to nurture this web. “Everything we do takes place within the community of living things, and so we can measure the morality of our actions by whether or not they enhance … not merely human life, but the life of all creatures.”
Sanders contrasts this to the “warehouse” narrative, which depicts a less sentient and elegant world. The world was formed randomly, this narrative goes, and the forms within it, including humans, kept evolving randomly. “These humans arrive on the scene with no more purpose, meaning, or mission than any other parcels of matter. They walk around briefly on this minor planet, amid random stuff which they name and manipulate and use as they see fit.”
The implications of these narratives are not hard to figure out, at least according to Sanders’ view. “You see the Warehouse Story revealed in the indiscriminate release of chemicals into the water and soil and air. You see it used to justify the draining of aquifers for desert cities, the damming of rivers, the poisoning of lawns. … It is the one proclaimed by billboards and TV ads: ‘Get More Stuff.’”
The wilderness story, in contrast, “is in the practices of organic farming, and down at the roots of the world’s religions. It has been used to justify the creation of national parks and wildlife refuges, the restoration of wetlands and prairies, and the tearing down of dams so that salmon may spawn.” In the wilderness story, it “is both foolhardy and immoral to engineer new species or to drive existing species to extinction. It is foolhardy and immoral to keep expanding our human population and to keep accelerating our use of Earth’s nonrenewable riches.”
Sanders bias is clear; the warehouse story does not fare well in his reckoning. But this is not a column about the “good” conservationist and the “bad” capitalist … or logger or geneticist. It is a column about narrative, specifically a conservationist’s narrative, my narrative, and here I must admit I can be as wasteful and addicted to “stuff” as anyone. I often leave the water running when I’m washing dishes; sometimes I put those annoying plastic bags from the grocery store in the trash can instead of recycling them. I really want an iPad.
Let’s call my narrative the “reflection story.” It begins in childhood, specifically the first conscious moment we are in nature and experience its wonder. For me this story begins in the woods behind my childhood home, where I explored and played, and continued on the hiking trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the campgrounds of Pisgah National Forest, where my father often took me as a child and a teenager.
It continues today in the too rare moments when I am once more confronted with the beauty and grace of the natural world, when I am struck once again by its wonder and awe, and feel in it a profound connection to the spirit of God.
I have a theory that we all have these profound childhood moments, though in some of us they are nurtured more than others. Many of us move further and further from that connection as we get older and busier, more predisposed to convenience and information and stuff.
Therefore, my role as a conservationist is to conserve land not for its own sake, to tuck it away, safe and sound, if you will, from the “warehousers,” but so that feeling of connection can be nurtured.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes,” writes Sanders’ inspiration, and mine, Walt Whitman. We are all many stories, and perhaps part of our story, the modern story, is both the “warehouse” and the “wilderness.” We contain both … and more. Perhaps this narrative is drawing us away from the natural world even as we lament its loss. Perhaps my story is about the quest to get back.
Andrew Waters is a conservationist who lives in Salisbury. Scott Russell Sanders’ collection of essays titled “A Conservationist Manifesto” is available at the Rowan Public Library.
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