Talk about the environment is full of apocalyptic disasters – giant problems like the Gulf Coast oil spill or the scariest of them all: global warming.
Nature writer David Gessner wants to keep his manifesto for the environment modest, simple – and local. “Maybe the most important wilderness is the one closest to home,” he says.
While academic research is important, more support for environmental causes will be won by getting people out to actually experience nature than in all the charts, graphs, and position papers in the world, he argues.
“Don’t throw out the contact with the animals and the places. Because for many of us that’s where it starts. We wouldn’t be in this battle at all if we didn’t have that,” he said in a visit to the Monitor newsroom last month.
In a journey by canoe down the Charles River, which begins in central Massachusetts and twists its way through leafy suburbs into the city of Boston and finally Boston Harbor, Gessner found a watery world since filled with beauty, even if the hand of man is nearly omnipresent.
“[T]he world is still lovely, even when it is limited and somewhat un-wild. In other words, for all of environmentalism’s cries of doom, there are still places like this river, teeming with life and flowing right through our backyards,” he writes in “My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism.”
He was amazed on the first day of his journey to find just how wild the Charles could be near its headwaters.
“There were moments where I could close my eyes and ... [have] been in Belize,” he says. As the human population increased, he saw backyards with canoes and rope swings over the water. He thought how each of these ordinary suburban houses, at least as seen from the street side, held a “watery secret” in its backyard.
Farther in, humankind's hand was even more evident. “You see the Coors Light cans floating and the old shopping carts," Gessner says. But he was amazed at the abundance of nature also around him as he rousted a great blue heron from its perch into elegant flight or watched as a sharp-shinned hawk swooped low across the water.
"I still have euphoric moments out there, great moments even with those [urban] things, and I know that other people do,” Gessner says. “All I’m saying is ‘why shouldn’t this be part of our lives?' For eons, for millennium, the nature world was part of our lives. So it’s pretty amazing that in a city this large you still can have it. Then [if you're able to] go off to Alaska, or you go off to Maine, you can have your big, glorious time too.”
People shouldn't think they're hypocrites if they try to fight for nature just because they still drive around in cars and ride in airplanes, he says.
"We need more hypocrites that fight. We need to admit that we’re hypocrites and then fight the cause anyway," Gessner says. "You don’t have to be this pure, perfect person to fight.”
He sees taking a hopeful approach as the only alternative. “Things are going in a pretty bad direction. But what am I going to do with that? Am I going to despair only?” Gessner says. “When I look at the big picture of gloom, I end up getting paralyzed by it. I curl into a mental fetal position.”
Better, then, to first fall in love with nature, with some part of it that is near and dear to you. Then your heart will tell you what to do from there.
Gessner's latest book, “The Tarball Chronicles: A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and Into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill,” will be published in September. In it he plunges deeper than the headlines of the Gulf oil spill to talk with the people involved and takes a look for himself at the state of the region's birds, marine life, and ecosystem.
“I wanted to find out the story," Gessner says.
After he arrived, "I was so energized I wasn’t sleeping much.... It was so bizarre to be down there. You felt you were in this corporate kingdom where BP was the ruler.... It was a very strange experience.”
Discovering that oil was a great fuel was "one of the most amazing inventions of all time, and it worked well and cheaply for many years," he concedes. "We didn’t know we were destroying the world in 1945 or 1955..." at the height of our oil-based economy.
But seeing the tarballs on the beaches, and learning from fishermen how their lives had been changed, helped him see the true cost. “This is the bill, this is what we’re paying” for an oil-based economy, he says.