Earth Day musings

It wasn't long after the revival of Earth Day in 1990 that the bumper stickers started appearing: "For a Farmer, Every Day is Earth Day."

A series of similar slogans ensued, in which a variety of professions tried to hijack the environmental bandwagon: For a Rancher, For a Forester, For a Logger.

I've been dreading the inevitable sequels, "For Mining Engineers Who Want to Drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Every Day is Earth Day," and perhaps also "For CEOs of Multinational Corporations That Are Developing Genetically Modified Organisms, Every Day ... " etc.

These claims would be too long to fit legibly on most bumpers, and thus we have been spared assertions that would provoke road rage in a certain percentage of fellow motorists.

All cynicism aside, it took me a decade or so to get past the self-serving quality of these "sound bites." To the urban environmentalist I was then, it seemed that such facile lines were an attempt to dodge responsibility for the environmental disasters they'd perpetrated, from clearcut logging to toxic agricultural runoff.

There's an element of reality to that, but the truth seems more complex to me as I approach Earth Day 2001, this Sunday. Along with a passel of my eco-comrades in the big city, I was ignoring that it's our nature as human beings to have an impact. Want another serving of that brown rice with your stir-fried veggies? No problem, we'll divert some more water from the Sacramento River. Sorry, can't let the bison range across the Great Plains, gotta grow the soybeans for your tofu.

These blind spots came home to me in the late '80s, when I was covering the conflict over the siting of a wind farm in Altamont Pass, east of San Francisco.

Two former allies who had fought nuclear power found themselves on opposite sides of this battle: One was working for the wind company, and the other had joined an open-space group that considered wind turbines a blight on the landscape. I asked the anti-wind guy, If you don't want wind power, and you don't want nuclear power, what do you want? That's not our problem, he replied. We're an open-space organization, not an energy group.

It's harder to create false distinctions like that when you spend time in a landscape whose plants, animals, and clean water sustain you from day to day. Every molecule of food we consume originated in another living being that was full of unfathomable mysteries. Even the most domesticated cow harbors a core of wildness in her stomachs, where bacteria turn cellulose to sugars. That truth is harder to ignore in the middle of a ranch than in an urban bistro.

Not only are we made of the living creatures around us, but we in turn shape the rest of the ecosystem. This phenomenon isn't new to the industrial age: What the first European explorers perceived as untracked wilderness was actually the result of millenniums of modification by indigenous peoples, who used fire and other means to mold the land respectfully to their needs.

We can learn from farmers, ranchers, and indigenous people to anchor our love for the earth not just in aesthetic enjoyment or spiritual connection, but also in the recognition that we are inextricably bound up with the rest of the natural world.

The earth is life for all of us, not just the ranchers and loggers who trumpet that fact on their bumpers. You don't have to move to a ranch or topple a 200-foot-tall cedar to share viscerally in that experience. For the enthusiast who can engage hands-on only some of the time, it's available in a variety of forms from uprooting invasive species to catching salmon (from a nonendangered run), from foraging for mushrooms to turning a few shovelfuls of garden soil for a pea patch.

And best of all, these pursuits aren't available only on Earth Day. Better to connect with the wild on a regular basis than to have to contend that "For Software Engineers Who Belong to the Sierra Club and Head for the Mountains Once a Year, Every Day is Earth Day."

Seth Zuckerman writes on natural resource issues, and tends a small organic apple and pear orchard in northern California.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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