Our demands upon the earth are determined by our ways of living with one another; our regard for one another is brought to light in our ways of using the earth.
— Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America
ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 14, we met to discuss the final layouts of this issue of Orion. Virtually the entire magazine was complete at that point, with only this page and a few others still lacking text. With the pages spread on the floor before us, we sought to resolve some problems: the order of the photographs from Hawai‘i, whether we would modify the design of the poetry pages, where a sidebar would fall. A week earlier these questions had mattered, but after the events that had taken place three days before, they seemed unfathomably unimportant. We made our way through the layouts with disinterest. “Why Natural History?” asked the mock layout of the issue’s cover. Indeed — why natural history? Why the sugar maple leaves turning orange on the tree outside the window? Why the blue sky? Why anything?
Weeks later, the introspection that was forced on us that Tuesday morning continues — continues here at Orion, and continues for all of us, everywhere. The most basic assumptions, the simplest terms, the most familiar ideas, are suddenly open to interpretation. Everything seems different, including questions about people and nature and how they co-exist.
In this magazine, those questions have focused on the relationship between humanity and nature as the foundation of culture. The hole in the New York City skyline and the thousands of lives lost there are testimony to the tragic fact that these relations can fuel terrible conflicts, with consequences extending across the globe. There is no avoiding the stunning correspondence between how, as citizens of the world, we treat one another and how we use the earth.
We live in a world in which one billion of us live in absolute poverty, three billion of us do not have enough to eat, and sixty million die of hunger every year. These statistics are not improving. Incredibly, poverty and hunger increases in direct proportion to the rate at which we devour the earth’s resources. So does the amount of waste with which we burden the biosphere. Is it any wonder that a world so unjust and extravagant fosters enough misery and despair to produce the small but sufficient number of terrorists to guarantee an ongoing replenishment of hate?
There will be peace on earth only when we rectify the dramatic discrepancy in the way the earth’s resources are divided among its people. Until that time, there will always be one group of extremists or another willing to die in the name of “justice.” Until that time, nothing — no nation, no people, no species, no wilderness, no ecosystem, no place — will be safe.
The writers who have contributed to this magazine for nearly two decades have also insisted on another idea: that the crisis between people and nature is a spiritual crisis, and that we will not care for the earth until we better understand our purpose for being here. Today we hear words like “holy” and “crusade” being embraced, suggesting that some people think they do understand why we are here. But the only definition of “holy” that can be true for all people is one that honors the universal human spirit.
A genuine holy war can only be fought — and only won — within ourselves. This is a war for compassion and the protection of freedom, and against materialism and all that leads to self-serving deeds and disregard for suffering. It is a war that can only be won by identifying what unites us. In such a war, the love for nature and the recognition of the bonds we share with all living things can be our greatest strength.