When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

    I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

                                                                                       Wendell Berry

 

The peace of wild things…

A peace that pulls me in, enfolds me. gives me joy and comfort; stirring the senses and staying my soul.

Aren’t we all wild things? You and I? Evolving from the same ancestors as our furry and feathered and scaly friends?

On my recent tour of the Grand Rapids Public Museums’ archives to chose something to write about for the Artifact Project, I hadn’t taken twenty steps into the first large, windowless room when I saw my subject staring me in the face. With large deep brown eyes, it was the Bison from the old diorama. It’s hard to describe the physical reaction I had – overcome by the remnants of a cool brute intensity, a fearsome wildness, possibly speaking to my own? It touched something deep inside me.  As I continued the tour, my Bison followed me; through aisle upon aisle of human creations: historical displays of inventiveness, craftsmanship, curiosity, greed, playfulness, vanity, extravagance, sense of adventure.

I was struck by the profound contrast. On display were both our capacities to envision and create and to delude and destroy. I was seeing it all through the eyes of the bison, standing there, stuffed, by the door.  This keystone species of the western plains, whose role in their ecosystem impacted the health and survival of the plant and animal life around them. And we took them to the brink of extinction, diminishing their population from 30 million to just over 1,000 by 1890, altering the entire landscape.  He was speaking to me. Not just of despair but of hope – that we can pull back from the brink of our own destructiveness.

But in order to create solutions, we must have a profound understanding of the problems – which are now of global proportions – and of ourselves.

As we dry up our rivers, we guarantee our thirst.

As we level the mountaintops, we pollute our valleys.

As we create chemicals in our labs, we accumulate toxins in our tissues.

As we overfish and overfertilize and overgraze, we assure our grandchildren’s hunger.

As we pave and dredge and invade unspoiled ecosystems, we hasten mass extinctions, ignorant of what we’ve lost.

As we drill, frack, and burn; fell rainforests and bleach coral reefs; as we purchase and discard our plastic water bottles; we are changing the character of our oceans, their water levels, temperature, biological and chemical make-up, even the depth and direction of their currents.  A system so vast, it was thought to be safe from our reckless reach…

July 6 was the anniversary of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s visionary book on the dangers of pesticide use. Hers is a remarkable story of what one brave and determined person can do. Through scrupulous scientific research, reason, and a large dose of courage, she confronted the giant chemistry industry and succeeded in spurring a reversal in national policy, leading to a ban on DDT and other pesticides. Further, her victory inspired a whole grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But arguably, her greatest gift to us was her scientific and poetic ability to share her own child-like sense of wonder.  She introduced people around the globe to the fantastical mysteries of the natural world; explaining complex biological and chemical processes, concepts of ecology and conservation – warning of the human forces of destruction that threaten them.

She wrote, “We stand now where two roads diverge.  But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s poem, they are not equally fair.  The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.  The other fork of the road – the one ‘less traveled by’ – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

We have proven our unlimited capacity to do harm to the planet and everything on it. We are becoming the ultimate invasive species, with the ultimate victim being ourselves. In the last few years, we’ve seen widespread organizing of garlic mustard pulls. But who or what will pluck us from those roads on which we don’t belong, stop us from further upsetting the balance of nature?  The thing about invasive species we tend to forget, is that they do belong somewhere.  They have their niche in the natural order where they contribute to the balance of nature, and they thrive.

We need to find those places, figuratively and literally. We need to understand our boundaries. And we need to do it quickly – individually and collectively.

Is there hope? Yes, there is hope. But that hope depends on each and every one of us and all the passion and the action and the protest we can muster.

There is so much more we can do; through our choices about the food we eat, the purchases we make, the energy we use, the water we waste.  Learning from our creature friends who survive on renewable resources and produce no damaging wastes. We underestimate their remarkable ingenuity…and our own.

And when despair for the world grows in you…come into the peace of wild things. “Lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty.”  “Watch the black ants bore deep and mysterious holes in the peonies.”  “Marvel at the grasshopper with her enormous and complicated eyes.”  Patiently observe the making of Earth. Look deep into the eyes of a child, of a whale, of a bison. Let them know who we really are.  They are counting on us…

 

Lisa has worked in the area of environment and sustainability for the past 12 years. This has both fueled her sense of wonder and delight in the natural world and installed a deep sense of personal responsibility.