Saturday, September 4, 2010

Return to the Garden

I can't seem to shake the idea, voiced by philosopher Slavoj Zizek, that the "universe is stupid".  Somehow it rings true.  The universe is cruel and harsh and unloving. If any of us really walked in truth, lived in the universe as it really is, we would probably go insane. Truth is no place for human beings. We feed on stories, myths, and traditions that create meaning from the barrage of symbols and raw data we glean from our environment, our culture, and the architecture of our impossibly complex brains. Our stories require that other human beings love us, not for who we really are (reality, after all, is stupid), but for our shared stories (you are my wife, I am your husband/lover). Like any story, we need a central cast of characters, a main purpose, side-stories, adventures, dramas, villains and heroes. The wonderful part of living is that we have some control over our own story. We can create ourselves from meaningless ashes out of the mysteries of our imagination. All of this isn't to say that reality doesn’t matter, exactly. We need to eat real food with real calories. We need to excrete waste matter, we need to keep ourselves warm and dry. Sure we all live in reality, and to this extent we are machines that consume energy and release waste energy. To the extent that we are base and uninteresting, we live in reality. But to the extent that we are more than base machines, we must go beyond simple reality.

As conservationists, what are we really saving then? If the universe is uninteresting with a heart that is incomprehensible and unloving, why do we care about Mother Nature at all? Why do we care, besides the role she plays in providing land and climate to grow food, materials with which to build, processes to clean and rid our wastes? Why do we care about wilderness, besides the base “ecological service” roles it may play in cleaning our own industrial pollutants etc.? The only reason that I can come up with, the only reason that rings true for me right now, is that Mother Nature and her wilderness matter to the extent that we make wilderness and non-human nature a part of our own private narratives. If we care about places that are landscaped by the life-giving force of planet earth, then these places matter. Really we are no different than gardeners, tending to our little pieces of the Earth. We conservationist-gardeners don’t often plant our gardens (although mangement plans may include translocation or introduction of desirable species), but we tend them just the same- by protecting them, by managing them, by eradicating alien invasive species (weeding), or just by imparting our own irrational love upon them (love is irrational, by definition).

Does this mean that industrial miners, farmers, and foresters are fundamentally no different from conservationists? I have a hard time calling an industrial farm or forestry/mining operation a garden, even though these operations represent plots of land that give humans something in return. There is a world of difference between "extracting" and "tending-to".  Gardens must be tended-to, watered with loving intent by human hands. Gardens are plots that give us something beautiful in return for our love: color, light, places of reflection, a sense of purpose, a sense of self. With a garden, it's the totality of place that is the object of love -- the air, the sky, the smells, the sounds -- and not just the resource that is extracted.  Everyone that holds a plot of land in his heart is a gardener.

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