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Earth Day: We’re All Connected to the Earth

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It is my firm belief that we feel so tied to the earth because we evolved from the earth.  We feel it in our heart of hearts; and as E. O. Wilson believes, we are hard wired that way genetically.   However, Wordsworth, the epitome of the nature poet posited in his poem, Ode On Intimations of Immortality that:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting

and cometh from afar

The heart and soul of man therefore complete the perfect whole of our connection to the earth and our spiritual connection to the infinite.  In the final analysis the poet and the scientist are seeking the same truth.

Modern science teaches us that we, through eons of an elegantly beautiful evolutionary process, evolved here; that we sprang from the dust of the earth and that we are genetically bound to the land.

It is no wonder that we cherish this earth and that our collective minds fashioned the notion of conservation.  But it has not always been so.  We have seen vast stretches of the earth denuded of forest; we have witnessed over grazing; we have soiled our own nest by polluting streams and lakes, oceans and rivers; we have filled the sky with soot, and smoke and horrible smog that burned my eyes and lungs as a child growing up in Los Angeles; and we have pushed many of our fellow life forms to the brink of extinction.  And lest any of us become too boastful, too smug in our personal environmentalism, do not forget for a moment that each of us is still contributing in some way, no matter how small, to the negative impacts upon our world.

But somehow, despite all of this, a spirit of wisdom began to spread and it touched men like Marsh, and Billings, and Leopold; and women like Rachel Carson.  Finally it began to touch each of us and we began to see the error of our ways and people looked around saw land being lost to that innate and all too human drive toward what E.O. Wilson called, perpetual expansion.  Human beings are such enigmas on the scene of life.  We have now brought together in our own beings a paradox also described by Wilson this way: Natural philosophy has brought into clear relief the following paradox of human existence.  The drive toward perpetual expansion—or personal freedom—is basic to the human spirit.  But to sustain it we need the most delicate, knowing stewardship of the living world that can be devised.  Expansion and stewardship may appear at first to be conflicting goals, but they are not.  The depth of the conservation ethic will be measured by the extent to which each of the two approaches to nature is used to reshape and reinforce the other.  The paradox can be resolved by changing its premises into forms more suited to ultimate survival, by which I mean protection of the human spirit.

When all is said and done, it is the survival of the Human Spirit that is at stake.  Bio-evolutionists who work at the molecular level speak of survivability of genes; that the whole cavalcade of evolution is about gene survival.  But this is a hollow approach to life, leading to emptiness and meaninglessness.  Genes code for a variety of life, the information they contain is like a recipe leading to the wonders and the horrors that we see everyday.  But of all that we behold, there has been no greater wonder than the Human Spirit.  But the spirit needs an anchor.  Again that  anchor is the land; a deep connection with its origins.  This is the nature of beauty.  If you have ever wondered why we perceive the beauty in nature it is because something in our spirit has an abiding kinship with what it sees.  Upon recognizing this Emerson penned in his immortal poem, Each and All:

Around me stood the oaks and firs;

Pine cones and acorns lay on the ground;

Over me soared the eternal sky,

Full of light and of deity;

Again I saw, again I heard,

The rolling river, the morning bird;

Beauty through my senses stole;

I yielded myself to the perfect whole.

Whether you are a Land Trust protecting a small plot of ground in your local community, or an international NGO preserving thousands of acres of wetlands and forests, you all recognize the inherent beauty in the land that connects you to Emerson’s perfect whole.

And lest some of you think me to esoteric and impractical in all of this talk of beauty and the human spirit; I fully appreciate that the from the land we derive our physical and material sustenance.  Food, shelter, clothing, and clean drinking water all depend on good stewardship of the land.  Protecting land in developing nations is essential for the economic development of those nations.  Conservation of the land must have the interest of the people who live upon the land at its core.  For how can the survival of the human spirit be attained if we kill the body by ignoring the communities who have strong traditions tied to their land?  Tanzania has made this clear by saying, “we don’t do conservation without people”.  Indeed our conservation ethic must lead to a stewardship that is community based with the ultimate goal of balancing the needs of people who depend upon the land, and the need to conserve, which brings us back to Wilson’s paradox.  These too seemingly conflicting notions must inform one another.  They must face each other squarely and recognize that existence is not possible without both; if one goes the other goes.  This recognition leads to an understanding of how survival is maintained.

When we consider that over hundreds of millions of years fully 95% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct, we know that this is not an easy task.  Survival is a risky business out there in the real world.   But take note of what has survived and what we have come to:  human beings are sentient.  We can reflect upon our actions, we can predict outcomes, we can contrive theories to explain the forces behind what we observe, we can question.  All of these human traits that apparently set us apart have evolved from our early connections with the land.  We would not be the species we are if not for our evolutionary history.  But thank God for the poets, they see with their prying eyes where earth bound man cannot and they bring to us songs of yet a higher calling.  They remind us of the communion of our heart and soul.  Heart and soul, expansion and conservation; when they are in harmony and balanced by the same objective, to protect the human spirit then there is a chance to achieve what I like to call that great never ending.

It is a sacred trust to be stewards of the land.  Each and every one of you here this morning represents a pledge in establishing that bond of trust with your fellow human being.  As a park professional, someone who has dedicated his career to conservation of natural resources in city, state and national parks, I must share with you why I believe parks are crucial to the society.

For park professionals the environment we seek to protect and preserve is not only about ecosystems, species protections, or even biodiversity(important though they are); and certainly is not about monetary economic value.  Rather, it is also about the dissemination of information through the often hidden connections we make each time we walk in the woods, listen to a stream, inhale the aroma deep within a redwood forest, or feel the snow upon our brow.  Park professionals are like enzymes in a chemical reaction; serving as the catalyst which connects people and leads to greater discovery.

There is great beauty in this analogy.  For like an enzyme, we do not alter the components of the reaction, or become part of the reaction.  But we serve as a platform for a connection to take place between a human being and their world in a way that generates energy that sustains the universe.  What we do as maintenance workers, resource ecologists, rangers, and interpreters, has implications far beyond what we can perceive in any given moment.

Park professionals and conservationists are in the business of preserving this mysterious process. What is important here is that we recognize the creative force of the universe.  Despite the fact that it is popular today to speak of personal responsibility and assert that nothing in life is free, I submit that the processes that give rise to life and human consciousness should not be subject to the laws of the current economic paradigm.  Rather it is the intrinsic value of connections to the land that should be valued.

How have you grown, and evolved your consciousness?  How have you become who you are?  It is through connections.   You bonded with your parents, your family.  Then with the world around you.  Perhaps it was a camping trip, or a walk in the woods.  You fell in love for the first time.  You felt pain.  You learned through study and an innate sense of wonder.  Parks facilitate this process.

It is not enough to simply say parks are important no matter how eloquently we say it, or no matter how slick the presentation.  We must be able to clearly articulate that we are in the business of providing connections between people and the cosmic forces of the universe so that the creative process can continue.  Human growth and development are dependent upon this process.  It is why we observe the positive results from our programs.

A child will probably not become involved in criminal activity if she understands how she is connected to the world and the universe.  The boxer George Foreman was headed for a life of crime in Houston when at 18 he joined the Job Core.  He was transferred to Grants Pass Oregon.  In an interview on National Public Radio he said,  “I’d never seen streams and all the beautiful tress; it changed my life; and for the first time I saw there was another part of the world.”

The stress of life is easily mitigated by reconnecting with the creative power of the universe that is present in the beauty to be found in our parks and wild areas.  We are not simply facilitating re-creation of the human spirit, it is actually creation of and creation to a higher consciousness that we are facilitating.

Fredrick Law Olmstead had the same idea when he spoke of the beauty of Yosemite in Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report: It therefore results that the enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it, tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system. . . It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character, particularly if this contemplation occurs in connection with relief from ordinary cares, change of air and change of habits, is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect beyond any other conditions which can be offered them, that it not only gives pleasure for the time being but increases the subsequent capacity for happiness and the means of securing happiness.

When we speak of the benefits of parks it is in these terms that we must speak.  It is dangerous to define the importance of parks and conservation only in terms of the monetary economic benefit.  We must not simply try and make the value of parks and conservation fit within the context of a market economy.   We must understand that the benefits of parks and conservation are more than a commodity in the marketplace, rather they are an important part of the creative processes of the universe.

Franklin Roosevelt noted that:

“There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and the wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of the great human principle.”

The great symbolic value of our parks must not be overlooked.  What price could we possibly place on our parks as living symbols of the greatest of all democratic principles?

The value of the biodiversity within our parks speaks to the evolutionary processes of life of which we are all a part.

The spiritual connectedness we feel when we visit a redwood grove is of value because it reminds us of our origins and our responsibility to the earth.

The bonding that takes place when families camp together is of value because healthy families are the foundation of a healthy society.

 Environmental education is of value because knowledge of the conservation ethic will lead to respect for the land and all creatures.

And what about the memories we take with us from those special experiences we have all had in our parks.  They are of value because they remind us of who we are and of our responsibility to be good stewards.

The ultimate value of our parks is that they remain as original sparks of creation.  They contain the essence of the creative process, a process described by Richard Dawkins in his brilliant book, The Blind Watchmaker.  This process, called cumulative selection is nature’s search engine that finds, out of all the infinite possibilities, the living creatures most fit to survive.  Dawkins rightly asserted that this process is indistinguishable from creativity.  I would challenge any economist to put a price on this process.

It has given us the human species, the mighty redwood tree, the dinosaur, the flowering plants, the peregrine falcon, and most importantly the prokaryotes and eukaryotes which came together in only what can be called a spirit of cooperation to form the cells which gave rise to complex life forms.

In many ways you out there in pews of this great church are our latter day prophets.  Your deeds of land conservation predict a future full of hope and optimism that we can leave a better world behind.  You are a rare combination of the poetic and the scientific, guided by the human heart, and the spiritual soul leading humanity to what I call the great never ending.  One of my favorite poets, a New Englander and a prophet in her own right—Edna St. Vincent Milay—left to us a gentle warning in the conclusion of her Masterpiece, Renaissance:

The world stands out on either side

No wider than the heart is wide.

Above the world is stretched the sky

No higher than the soul is high.

The heart can push sea and land

Further away on either hand;

The soul can split the sky in two,

And let the face of God shine through.

But east and west will pinch the heart

That cannot keep them push apart.

And he whose soul is flat

The sky will cave in on him, bye and bye.

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1 reply »

  1. Thank you for your spirit that is rooted in the earth and reaches far beyond! I hope the Bible Through the Seasons blesses you. Nick

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