[The 49th annual Earth Day is April 22nd, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of environmental stories and histories. Share yours in comments to help us celebrate this wonderful and all too often underappreciated home of ours!]
On how a few important and inspiring historical AmericanStudiers would suggest we respond to the most long-term yet most pressing world crisis.
“Simplify, simplify.” Those words and that message are at the heart of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854)—of Chapter 2, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”; and of the purpose and message of Thoreau’s time at the pond and book about the experience. It’s true that Thoreau wasn’t nearly as alone in his cabin as his book sometimes suggests—that he went to town and received visitors from there, that he depended on some help from his parents, that he was social as well as solitary during his Transcendental sojourn. But far from making Thoreau or the book hypocritical, as has sometimes been suggested, those facts make him and it more human and genuine and inspiring—represent his lived experience and demonstrate his attempt to wed that experience to ideals of simplicity and reconnection with the natural world. If we’re going to change the way we live in this 21st century moment, Thoreau would argue, it’s going to have to start with simplifying and reconnecting for sure.
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” So pioneering naturalist, conservationist, and author John Muir once noted in his journals (collected in this wonderful 1938 book, John of the Mountains). Muir is often described as a founding father of the National Park movement—or at least as sharing that honor with Teddy Roosevelt, since Muir died before the National Park Service was created—and there’s a good deal of truth to that designation. But even truer would be the recognition that for Muir, there’s no meaningful individual life, no communal American identity, and perhaps no world period that doesn’t include engagement with, respect for, and preservation of our natural spaces. Preserving, appreciating, and venturing into the wilderness isn’t, by itself, nearly enough to reverse or even impact climate change, of course. But the more we move into the wilderness in our individual lives—and the more we allow it to move into all of our perspectives—the more, Muir would argue, we can connect to the most universal and crucial human questions.
“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.” So wrote environmental activist, scientist, and author Rachel Carson in Silent Spring (1962), one of the 20th century’s and America’s most prescient and salient works. Carson’s specific attention to the dangers of pesticides, and similar environmental hazards, had in her era and have continued to have significant, lasting, and very beneficial effects. But when it comes to her most overarching message, her concerns over the path of progress and where it is taking us, we have been far less able to hear and respond. Doing so won’t be easy, not only because of inertia and momentum, but also because progress and development most certainly have their own positive and beneficial impacts on the world and those who live in it. But at the very least, Carson would insist, we must examine every aspect of our world, and recognize that in a significant number of cases we will have to move away from easy or attractive ideas (see: fracking) in order to travel on the harder but more sustainable road.
Next Earth Day post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Earth Day stories or histories you’d highlight?
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