I have just spent several weeks in the company of a remarkable group of people. What impressed me most was not their celebrity (though there were more than a few famous names among them), nor their achievements (immense), but the depth and originality of their thinking. They do not take the world as they find it, but rather dare to imagine the way it should be. Taken together, they are the least conventional collection of men and women I have ever encountered.
The central environmental conundrum -- how to satisfy our needs as humans without sacrificing our home on earth -- is a problem that animated them all, and the things they had to say on the subject were startling. One man, a judge, argued that a meadow or river ought to have "standing" to sue for protection in court -- as in "Hudson River v. General Electric." Another, who worked for the Forest Service, spoke of the need for a new ethic akin to the Mosaic Code that would specify right and wrong behavior toward the land. A farmer called for a "loving economy" that would factor affection into the value of things, both manufactured and natural.
These are radical thoughts, are they not? Yet interestingly, the thinkers, themselves, are not from the fringe. The judge was Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas; the forester was Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac; and the farmer was that prolific man of letters, Wendell Berry. As two are dead and all outside my sphere, I did not have the luck to meet them in person. However, I did make their acquaintance on the printed page, where their gift for language probably shone the brighter, in a new anthology called American Earth that is edited by Bill McKibben.
The book, which I cannot recommend highly enough, features excerpts and short pieces by more than a hundred writers, beginning with the granddaddy of environmental writing, Henry David Thoreau. If you have never read Thoreau before, you will be amazed. His work, as McKibben points out in an incisive introduction (there is one for every author), is as rich and quotable as Scripture.
And talk about unconventional! A century and a half ago, when life moved at a snail's pace compared to our 24/7 age, Thoreau asked: why this obsession with the latest and the best, with news and speed and money-making? "Our life is frittered away by detail," he said, and moved to the woods by Walden Pond to see if by stripping away the inessentials, he could find out what real life was about:
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience
His marvelous account of his experiment in simple living is part journal, part screed and part spiritual journey, establishing the template many later environmentalists would follow. You can sample it here, along with other of his writings, all equally rich.
But I go on too much about one man. As already mentioned, there is Aldo Leopold, another giant of environmentalism, who advised us to "think like a mountain" -- with a geologic frame of reference. Then we would see that eliminating such "dangers" as the wolf, to improve our safety and livelihood, ultimately leads to the proliferation of deer, disappearance of grass and erosion of the mountain on which we all depend.
Among the other big names in the anthology is John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club and was instrumental in preserving Yosemite as a National Park. He was a great lover of wilderness, and wrote inspiringly about its glories. Though his language is sometimes a bit over the top for my tastes, it is quite fine when he grounds it in the particularities of the Sierra landscape that he knew so intimately. His comparison of Hetch Hetchy Valley to a cathedral, for instance, seemed overblown to me until I saw a photo of the sheer granite mountainsides reaching skyward. Then, I realized how apt his metaphor was.
Like Muir, a number of environmentalists represented in American Earth are moved by a specific landscape -- the Catskills for John Burroughs, the Everglades for Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the northern lake country for Sigurd Olson. To read them is to take a tour by expert guides of our national heritage.
Rachel Carson is also present, with her own powerful metaphor of a silent spring without birdsong, which alerted America to the chemical threat and brought about the ban on DDT.
But American Earth isn't simply a hit parade of famous environmentalists. There are also fascinating pieces by lesser-known figures -- and by people better known for their work in other fields. Of these, I particularly enjoyed the essays on suburbia by the urbanist, Jane Jacobs; the food chain by the ecologist, Sandra Steingraber; and stewardship by the scientist and evangelical leader, Calvin DeWitt. I also loved the piece by the wilderness trekker, Jack Turner, on why the white pelican sings. If I only had space, I could name a dozen more.
This wonderful book leads me to believe that environmentalism is really just another word for philosophy -- or maybe even religion of the ecumenical sort. What does life mean? How should we live? These are its questions. Or as the poet Mary Oliver puts it, more personally, in "The Summer Day" (also included):
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), wherealong with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Petershe tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.
Those remarkable people -- or at least a few of them -- from top to bottom: Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson and the editor of American Earth and author of The End of Nature, among other works, Bill McKibben.
Environmental watering hole: Would you like to keep up with today's environmental thinkers? Try Orion Magazine, where many of the contemporary authors featured in American Earth are published.
--------------------------------- Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (http://www.mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.