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All The Days Of The Earth

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Why protecting the environment means saving ourselves

French farmers staged a dramatic protest against the European Union a few years ago by hauling sections of wheatfields that had been unrooted, and cattle and sheep, to the center of the Champs Elysees. The police rushed to surround this sudden imposition of the countryside on the city, which disrupted business and trafic, and they braced themselves for fistfights between the citizens and the farmers. When the Parisians caught sight of the wheat and the animals, however, instead of reacting angrily, they ran toward them and began to stroll in the fields - lawyers, lovers, farmers, cops - dreamily together. For a few hours on that day, before they remembered who and where they were, all were happily back in the country.

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Two conclusions may be drawn from this story, and both are correct. The firlds of asphalt that ordinarily occupy the center of Paris may be called Elysian, but the name is simply a gloss, or an apology, applied to something that is nothing like Eden. Cities tend to create such places (find the tulips in New York City's Madison Square Garden) as a sort of nostalgic glance at the rural world they supplanted. If the farmers had not carted their bucolic protest to Paris on that day, the citizens there, like people in cities everywhere else, would have continued to conduct their life disconnected from anything in nature, much less paradise.

Yet the appearance of the instant countryside clearly and immediately reconnected them with a submerged world of sympathy long forgotten or ignored. This depth of feeling runs counter to the civilized, industrialized impulses of what Worldsworth called "getting and spending," and the tension between the two impulses characterizes most lives. In the new century, this is where we are - running hard to catch up with our heady commercial present and our future in cyberspace and at the same time capable of being called back, at the drop of a wheatfield, to a life that connects us with all life.

However frenetically we get and spend, an attachment to the natural life of the planet remains fixed in our system. Environmentalists sometimes complain that the memory of this attachment is buried too deep, though it continually surfaces, not only in names of places but also in turns of language that have no meaning in modern experience but are kept alive, nonetheless, like verbal souvenirs - horsepower, stream of consciousness, it's a jungle out there. One cannot think of a single composer, painter or writer who has not tracked at least one major inspiration to a bird, a tree, a rose. People automatically lose themselves in wordless reverence at the sight of a curlew or a silver cloud of anchovies or at the mournful wail of howler monkeys. Or they stare dumbly out at oceans, as if longing for their microbial past.

Everything connects: the hard animals with the soft; the tigers with the jellies; the fly with the cutthroat trout with the fisherman. In the rain forest, the understory palm trees use branches growing out of their trunks to make baskets that become compost machines for falling leaves, which keep the trees alive. In the ecosystems of the tropics, termites eat and digest cellulose, a major component of plant tissue; without the decay of cellulose, the system would die trapped in dead wood and stems. Hidden worlds connect to the things that hide them; within the bark of a redwood lies moss under which are toads and insects. Tide pools connect with unfathomable seas, which connect with our chromosomes.

There is no concern these days more important than the environment - not gun conrol, violence in the media, campaign-finance reform, not even poverty, war, refugees or the curing of fatal diseases. Fewer than 2 million species of animals, plants and microorganisms have been identified. Yet tens of millions may exist -in oceans, rain forests and everybody's gardens. The benthic, or bottom-dwelling, plants and animals in the oceans represent the least-known ecosystem on Earth.

The real difficulty with sustaining a useful connection with nature, though, comes from the fact that nature does not seek to make a connection with us. It is a hard truth to swallow, but nature does not care if we live or die. We cannot survive without te oceans, for example, but they can do just fine without us. One might surmise that the natural world exists to test our capacity to care or to preserve ourselves, but even that little fancy is man-made. Nature goes its own way, headless and heartless, and one either responds to it or does not. The incentive to do one or the other is wholly self-generated: information is gathered, proposals are put forward, solutions are devised, Earth Days come and go.

All the while, nature in its monumental autonomy throws us back upon ourselves - not merely our inventive but our moral selves. Humans are the only species able to go everywhere in the world, which also means that we have the capacity to do good or ill everywhere. The hardest case to make for acting on an environmental conscience is that it is the right thing to do. Yet, in the end, it may be on the only case worth making. If we do not respect nature, we do not respect ourselves. We tend to forget that except at those moments when the story of who we are and where we come from rises into our life like a field of wheat and tells itself again.


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