Friday, November 9, 2012

American Conservation Movement

American Conservation as a result of empathy and pity from personal crisis
by Dorian Curry

This is an essay for a university course I am taking on Sustainability. It is the first of four that I will post here. It is my latest expression of Geographic Empathy.

After the USA presidential election process has finished once again, I am less impressed with my nation state home, the land I was born on. I did not feel strongly for either candidate, mainly for how they both choose political conflict over progressive conversation. I yearn trust a process that mimics this Geographic Empathy in some way really supporting the indeginous cultures of place, both people and other species. 

I am curious as to where following this feeling will take me and how it will change me. Some day I might like to travel my mtDNA Mana Line back to my original beginning the Rift Lake Zone in Africa. (I am Haplo group K) I'm sure that kind of journey would impress on me a true sense of how others live.

Conservation is the effort to maintain an individual identity and a way of life in response to an identity crisis in an effort to prevent further crisis or tragedy. The degree that we understand our interconnected identity is the degree that we effectively conserve our resources. An event on March 6th, 1867, attacked John Muir’s identity and threatened his way of life influencing him to drop a promising career and follow a feeling he had that became the core of his conservation philosophies that would influence the policies of a nation. An event on February 7th, 1894, attacked Gifford Pinchot’s identity and altered his way of life so profoundly it directly influenced and altered his conservation efforts for the policies of a nation. Both of these individuals were passionately involved in wild land recreation as a way of life that contributed to their personal identity. John Muir’s crisis was not an actual tragedy, but Gifford Pinchot’s was. This contrast in particular influenced their difference in philosophies on Nature and the conservation of public land. Their different emotional response to these crisis and thus their response to Nature created a rift that grew into a polarized Conservation Movement.

I rely on the following standard definitions taken from the American Dictionary of
the two main feelings I believe have most greatly affected the Modern American Conservation Movement:

the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

noun ( pl. pities )
1 the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others: her voice was full of pity.

2 [ in sing. ] a cause for regret or disappointment: what a pity we can't be friends.

I also rely on a definition of Nature from E.O. Wilson, world renown conservation
biologist, as published in his book The Creation: 

“Nature is that part of the original environment and its life forms that remains after the human impact. Nature is all on planet Earth that has no need of us and can stand alone.” (Wilson 15) 

Clearly human nature is considered separate from wild nature. The importance of the influence that an individual identity crisis has ultimately finds it’s source in this seperation. As Jared Diamond points our in his book “Collapse”, the crisis of a small society becomes tragic when society becomes global. But if a global society were not so separate from Nature both physically and intellectually, would we still face collapse? A crisis event changes the individual’s self distinction from Nature, suddenly the world seems different. I believe that a crisis creates a differentiation in mindset, and an opportunity to see the self of wild nature next to self of human nature. A crisis event acts in a similar way to the beauty of Nature which allows us to “stand beside our self”. The wild, natural self collides with the domestic, human self regardless of the plans or powers of either side. In doing this we (domestic humans) become wild again, if only for a few moments, days, months, however long each individual experience and emotional wave takes. In becoming wild again, for a moment, we have the chance to see a new self, this is the opportunity to put new energy into a conservation movement.

John Muir was very unique, phenomenal. He was an athletic and curious child. His grandfather took him on naturalist walks in Scotland near Dunbar. His father beat him, in traditional Scots style, hardening his mental stamina and resiliency, while also leaving a marked aversion to agriculture. He persisted and as a young man he took
initiative to educate himself and published a brief article on the discovery of a rare flower. (Worster)

He tells the story of finding a rare orchid, the Calypso Borealis. “It seemed the most spiritual of all the flower people I had ever met. I sat down beside it and fairly cried for joy. It seems wonderful that so frail and lovely a plant has such power over human hearts. This Calypso meeting happened some forty-five years ago, and it was more memorable and impressive than any of my meetings with human beings excepting, perhaps, Emerson and one or two others.” (John Muir “Calypso Borealis”)

Muir realized his feelings were unique. He understood that he had a sense of relatedness to nature that other’s lacked at least in degree. A woman he met and whom offered him shelter could not relate to Muir’s enthusiasm for sharing a moment with a beautiful being, but she could sympathise with Muir and feed and shelter him. Could she not relate to that beauty herself? "Mony a puir body has been lost in that muckle, cauld, dreary bog and never been found." When I told her I had entered it in search of plants and had been in it all day, she wondered how plants could draw me to these awful places, and said, "It's god's mercy ye ever got out."

While he knew his feelings were unique, he didn’t know just how much so. Before the crisis event he was somewhat unsure of his best talents and focus in life, but leaning toward a career as an inventor, “I am determined not to leave [Indianapolis] until I have made my invention mark.” he said in a letter to a friend. (Worster 105) In a case of tragic irony, the invention left it’s mark on him.

On March 6th 1867 John Muir’s personal identity was attacked by a crisis event that threatened his way of life. He was adjusting a belt on a circular saw with a file when
“The file slipped in his hand and flew upward into his right eye, piercing the edge of the cornea... In a few minutes the injured eye turned sightless...within hours the left eye temporarily went dark too... he feared that he had been completely blinded.” (Worster 111) According to the biographer this was a “...pivotal, tragedy in Muir’s factory career.” (Worster 105) And according to the actions and commitments of his life there after, it was the shaping event of his professional life.

John Muir was suicidal with despair. His loss of eye sight was “... a loss darker than any ‘pleasant amusement,’” darker than any loss here to fore in his life. He went blind. His right eye, he mourned would never again look upon “a single flower, no more a lovely scenery, not any more of beauty.” (Worster 111) Jeanne Carr consoled him through the healing process by letters, but “nothing that anyone said could brighten his mood of suicidal despair and discouragement” The family he lived with took care of him for over a month. (Worster 112) After he recovered Muir left all thoughts of engineering and inventing behind when he set out for “A thousand mile walk to the Gulf”. He had previously turned away from agriculture, now he turned from inventing and toward a new self, one with only a good feeling to rely on, albeit a very good feeling as he expresses well in his writing. (Muir Wilderness Discovery Books)

When John Muir’s invention attacked his natural self, his natural self responded and overcame the crisis with Muir’s phenomenal sense of empathy. He seemed to know he was different and yet he acted as if he were just one of the trees climbing up into them to see what it was like in a storm. The event he endured was an important shock, but his crisis was not a tragedy. In this case it was just enough of a boost to get him moving forward. It must have felt tragic at the time, but it cannot quite compare in degree to Gifford Pinchot’s personal crisis event which became fully tragic.

On February 7th, 1894 Gifford Pinchot’s identity was attacked and his way of life taken from him: His romantic partner, Laura Houghteling died of tuberculosis. This was a significant loss of a dear friend whom he hoped would be his wife. “For at least two years he was ‘clad in black from neck to foot,’”(Miller 192) Laura was a significant part of Gifford’s life and she would continue to be long after her death.

They met at the same age of 28 while horse back riding in North Carolina and continued to meet at social gatherings. He wrote, “My feeling for Laura has raised my conception of my life and duty, has made me purer and better, and has brought me very much nearer all the good things and influences that have so far been the best part of my life. I believe just as wholly that my life work will be far better because of her, and my chance to help fellowmen and do God’s work in the world very much wider and
better.” (Miller 189)

The biographer Char Miller relates that Gifford Pinchot and Laura Houghtelling openly shared a unique and inspirational friendship that extended beyond the merely physical relations of some romantic affairs. “they spoke fervently of their dreams and aspirations; they became inseparable.” (Miller 186) The air of tragedy surrounded them, but they hoped for the best, “Gifford knew all about her tuberculosis... Laura’s tragic state was fuel to his devotion, a responsiveness his friends encouraged.” (Miller 186)

He had visions of Laura that he noted in journals occurred while he developed policy on conservation, and cannot be ignored as influencing and guiding his
conservation philosophy especially with the dedication of his book on conservation policy. “My Lady and I are one in the sight of God.” (Miller 193) Muir and others commented on his strange habit of not sleeping round the camp fire on social outings. (Egan) This further distanced him from others and from a sense of relatedness, he felt pity for his loss. This pity expanded and influenced his pity for the forests and for those living and working in forests and for those home-makers struggling against the developers.

Gifford Pinchot’s loss affected his core philosophy of conservation, to protect the home-making family. Five years after Laura’s death he wrote that “The first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives upon.” (Gifford Pinchot National Geographic Oct 1899) Five years after Laura’s death. In 1910 he wrote, “The single object of the Public Land System, as President Roosevelt repeatedly declared, is the making of and maintenance of the prosperous home.” and “Of all forms of conservation there is none more important then holding the public lands for the actual home-maker.” (Pinchot “The Fight...”11)

In direct contrast to Muir, Pinchot expresses a philosophy of dominating Nature, not relating to it. “Next to the earth itself the forest is the most useful servant of man....The object of practical forestry is precisely to make the forest render its best service to man in such a way as to increase rather than to diminish its usefulness in the future.... Under whatever name it may be known, practical forestry means both the use and preservation of the forest.” (Pinchot chapter one line one “A Primer of Forestry”) Even here it is difficult to gather his true feelings as he expresses two opposing points in one sentence. How can we both use and preserve? In my supposedly modern thinking, at least, the line is drawn between use and preservation with the passage of the WIlderness Act in 1964.

Possibly the most telling indicator of the impact that this personal crisis event had on him was his final tribute to Laura, when he dedicated his book “The Fight For Conservation” to her with her initials “L.H.” in gothic script on the dedication page. This was indeed an honor to a dear friend indicating his commitment to the conversations and the dreams they shared. The book was published in 1910, the year he would be fired from his position as Chief Forester due to a controversy over public land use involving R. Ballinger the Secretary of the Dept. of Interior.

This crisis was similar to Muir’s in that it was an identity crisis, but Pinchot permanently lost a part of his identity where as Muir regained his. Pinchot was emotionally devastated and love sick for decades afterward. He lost his identity as a home-maker and would not regain it until he married again over twenty years later. In further contrast to Muir, Pinchot did not react with actions of further relating to nature and his fellow conservationists. He had difficulty relating to others. Was he on a “higher plane” he may have been, but it is apparent that he was experiencing a greater pain than Muir. Muir could relate to the forests, the flowers, the mountains, but even he could not understand this kind of pain that Pinchot was experiencing. They could certainly relate to the medicinal powers of space and exercise outside. Pinchot gradually relaxed his grip on the pain of his loss and in one epic fishing trip off the Catalina Islands, he reeled in a marlin and eventually his efforts to conserve the “public interest”. But the damage of the two different crisis had been done. Two similar passions for Nature and outdoor recreation split into two distinct emotional responses to different crisis.

Who had experienced the tragic loss he had? When camping with Muir and others in the forests, he would go off and sleep by himself, not with the others around the fire. (Egan) It’s not surprising that he would have trouble relating to them. He may have, as the journalist Timothy Egan and others suggest, have been meeting with Laura in spiritual communion. In this desire for spiritual communion with the unseen he was similar to Muir. However, Muir’s was a passion for the living spirit of non-human beings that only empathy could enable. It certainly appeared as a form of pity for his loss to the chaos of Nature.

Empathy for Nature is a mixture of what E.O. Wilson calls biophilia and what Aldo Leopold called the Land Ethic and the compassion Rachel Carson demonstrated by publishing her book “Silent Spring”. I feel it as a desire to know the land and the beings living there and respect the collective and individual unique personality. I will address empathy for the scope of this paper as it is the most positive and powerful energy for happiness tempered with a reasonable pessimism of life as a painful survival of crisis. I will focus on the growth of empathy within John Muir in contrast to but not absent in Gifford Pinchot. I will discuss how they responded to a personal crisis event and how that response influenced two divergent conservation philosophies. As they are not alone in this phenomenon I will briefly reference other individuals who’s personal, emotional reactions to a crisis affected their involvement in the conservation movement. I will briefly suggest how the management of feelings that result from crisis could be better understood and cultured for future land management.

Pinchot expressed feelings of separateness. In the introduction to a book on the development of the Progressive Party, the author describes Pinchot’s absolute focus on
a conservation politics barren of feelings. “It took time for me to appreciate that here were the makings of a new policy...” (Pinchot Breaking New Ground”) (Fausold 18) “And T.R., as I expected, understood, accepted, adopted it without the smallest hesitation. It was clearly inline with everything he has been thinking and doing. It became the head of his administration.” (Pinchot Breaking New Ground 326 ) (Fausold 19) “Pinchot’s book...set forth the conservation of natural resources as the issue regarded as most fundamental to all other government questions.” (Fausold 39) Yet he told his parents in a letter that “My feeling for Laura has raised my conception of my life and duty...” (Miller 189) He was certainly a caring and empathetic person. But his reaction to his crisis in pity limited his feelings of empathy.
As a result, I find it difficult my self to relate to the federal government’s management policies of all federal lands and waters. It is this fundamental lack of feelings and specifically empathy in the formation of policy that disturbs me most. While the foundation of our democracy, the middle class, is toiling and paying taxes, working in the conservation agencies and non-profits and some private groups, the government seems to lack any true feeling. While I depend on careful scientific study based on logic, I also depend on the good will of the emotional content within the searcher. I have to ask myself how is the conservation agency determining “the public interest” and the “greatest good” if they cannot act on the innate feelings of empathy? This is the core of the conservation issue as discussed in an assessment of the first fifty years of conservation since 1908 to 1958 edited by Henry Jarrett published by “Resources for the Future Inc”. Who is the “public interest” really serving?
This merger is the only thing I think John Muir really lacked. In his zealous response to his personal crisis he tabooed technology and invention. It nearly blinded him, so I don’t blame him, of course, but he might have been the original “bioengineer” and expert in “bio-mimicry”. One who could empathize with Nature and progress human industry down a “sustainable” path. Regardless, we have inherited a wealth of expressive, emotional content through his books that have demonstrated the model for a passionate conservation lifestyle.
National Forests should be lands of multiple use, but the use of machinery and motorized access should be more heavily restricted in order to better protect the identity of the places from the dividing and soundscape disruptive effects of mechanized use. The forest is more like the food garden, it can provide our sustenance, but only adequately if we respect it’s identity and needs for personal survival.

National Parks are not being protected adequately because the nature of the boundary system does not mimic the nature of the watershed identity system. Case in point, the Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite and Elwah dam in Olympic are direct violations of the sanctity of the watershed and thus violations of the National Park Organic Act which states that parks shall be “left untrammeled for future generations”. The identity of the parks extends physically beyond the lines we draw and the impacts occurring outside lines that are drawn improperly are negatively affecting the identity of the park and the visitor’s experience of that identity. It is the government’s role to protect identity, but to borrow a favorite conservationist phrase, “it cannot protect what it doesn’t know.” And it cannot know what it does not try to empathize fully with.

National Parks should be more interconnected with forest management, but more
strictly reserved as sacred glades within the larger forest. The initiative currently ongoing in Olympic National Park to establish all of the rivers there as Wild and Scenic Rivers is a great initiative towards this goal by protecting intact watershed systems that cross agency boundaries. Human induced boundaries are meaningless to the life systems that both humans and wild life depend upon. Parks should be reserved as sacred for both humans and wildlife. They can do this only if they embrace the highest land ethics of systems thinking. The methods of empathy that Muir demonstrated, if translated into policy language could help this progress.

All National Wildlife Refuges, regardless of mineral resources must be sanctuaries first and foremost for wildlife to rest, recover, reproduce, feed. !It must be preserved untrammeled or mined for three main reasons outside of an over arcing empathy that establishes it’s right to exist for it’s own being. It should serve as a place for international political peace negotiations and cooperative scientific study without the distractions of commercial use. It should be an international park. It must not be disturbed in an effort to decrease climate change by limiting the release of methane as permafrost melts.

The arctic national wildlife refuge is an especially unique reflection of intact biologic identity and because of this must be protected to keep it intact without compromise, because to break into it and further disrupt it would be to further break our selves. The greater arctic NWR and “...the coastal plain symbolizes the fight to save for future generations what they see as the nation’s last intact arctic ecosystem and one of America’s greatest wildernesses.” (Alaska 70) The arctic is sacred to more than one political nation or indigenous nation. This sacredness is symbolic of the sacredness of the cellular nature of all life connected by the global water cycle. It is possibly the most direct analogy of the human as a microcosm of the earth in that it relates the land directly to individual identity through water. Going further we can see a correlation between the emotional concept of empathy and the physical and chemical properties of water. In this way it is even more important to protect it from any forms of development. ! To break the arctic is to break into the heart of the human Identity as a member of all life connected by the global water cycle. The attack on the arctic for mineral mining is yet another identity crisis., one that could become tragic due to the global consequences of rapid sea level rising without our ability to adjust. Protecting it is a means of expressing our national empathy for the interconnection of global life regardless of political opinions and methods. If we hold to our leadership role of protecting wilderness with National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, and Wilderness Areas, we can improve our relationship in the global economy and assert the inherent connection of personal and national identity to the intact health of wild lands and wildlife. The arctic is extremely important for both symbolic and physical consequences.

Effective conservation is that effort that maintains an identity and the ways of life connected to it after identity crisis. The earth has gone through many identity crisis since it’s formation in the cosmos and the Milky Way galaxy. To save earth from human invention we should just leave. Hop on the fastest space train and get off the planet. Would we then take an economy of pity and separateness to other planets? Would we mine and destroy identities without feeling? The key to conservation is the key to human consciousness and lies within the fact that empathy is an innate biologic feeling. It alone can enable the mind through the powers of imagination and curiosity to expand through space and time and get us a better feel of what is really happening.

A recently published study of neuroscience by the University of Chicago on their website demonstrated empathy in rats and further reveals the importance of choosing this innate feeling over other feelings. This article emphasized that feelings are both a choice and an innate survival function. The study builds on others, but suggests a deeper source of a universality of this feeling that provides epic potential when matched with the modern, electronic social behaviors of humans. "On its face, this is more than empathy, this is pro-social behavior," said Mogil, who was not involved in the study. "It's more than has been shown before by a long shot, and that's very impressive, especially since there's no advanced technology here." "When we act without empathy we are acting against our biological inheritance," Mason said. "If humans would listen and act on their biological inheritance more often, we'd be better off." The potential to follow the enigmatic Muir’s lead, as it turns out, is to follow our own lead. The middle class is the powerful empathetic class.

In conclusion, John Muir demonstrated that a human being can recreate in wilderness seeking a relationship with Nature and come out a better, more empathetic being able to express his feelings for others, in a self sacrificing way, to protect the identity and way of life of others. In the greatest contrast to Gifford Pinchot he demonstrated how the world responds to empathy more than pity. Muir became a legend because he chose to deny much if not all of the luxuries of industrial society. In doing so, however great, he also created a polarity, albeit unintended, between the feelings that resulted of Gifford Pinchot’s personal crisis. Pinchot demonstrated how a commitment to a profession can inspire respect and authority. However, he also demonstrated how all consuming a personal crisis can become if supported by pity rather than aided and essentially rescued by empathy. Pinchot was essentially love sick and mentally distressed at the loss of his identity as a result of the loss of Laura Houghtelling. 

Without empathy, other beings trying to help and understand the crisis and thereby avert a final tragedy, how can any being survive? Of these two outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists, Muir has the more enduring and enriching legacy, because his feelings in reaction to his crisis are more easily related to. He demonstrated how empathy through artistic communication skills could inspire many generations and many different cultures. He demonstrated how universal the language of emotional content in art can be. He had as Richard Feynman expressed “the joy of finding things out” a combination of science and art and he shared it with us all. He demonstrated the initial model of how empathy for nature expressed through art can lead people toward a higher awareness of their self and their relationship to Nature. Most importantly he demonstrated that the middle class holds the most power for conservation effort because of the potential energy that is stored up in the emotional content of empathy. Empathy, as a type of love, possibly the fifth love, is a far greater force than pity as empathy inspires genuine, passionate action. The future of conservation will depend on intentionally growing this feeling of empathy and growing an awareness of the human as an interconnected being empathizing with all life.

 Works Cited:

  1. Alaska Geographic. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Anchorage: Hart Press, 1996 Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking Penguin, 2005 
  2. Eagan, Timothy. The Big Burn. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., 2009 Fausold, Martin L. Gifford Pinchot Bull Moose Progressive. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1961 
  3. Miller, Char. Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism. Washington: Island Press 2001 
  4. Muir, John. Our National Parks. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1901 
  5. Muir, John. “The Calypso Borealis”, The Life and Letters of John Muir edited by William Frederic Badè (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924). 
  6. Pinchot, Gifford. The Fight For Conservation. New York: Double Day Page and Co., 1910 Pinchot, Gifford. A Primer of Forestry. Publications/primer_of_forestry/chap1-2.html
  7. Sierra Club. 
  8. www.usda/
  10. Worster, Donald. A Passion For Nature: The Life of John Muir. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008
  11. Wilson, E.O. The Creation: An Appeal To Save Life On Earth. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006

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