A Conservationist Manifesto

FULL DISCLOSURE: the author of the book I am about to review is a dear friend of mine and one of my favorite writers.

I almost felt I shouldn’t review a book of his — but not quite. First, I knew it would be a good read. Second, I inclined toward the book because it uses “conservationist” — a word I love, and the third “-ist” I ever called myself, at about age fifteen, after “conchologist” at seven and “lepidopterist” at eleven. Then I noticed that Sanders treats human overpopulation in earnest right from the start — an essential for me. Finally, sheer curiosity won me over. What could a Scott Russell Sanders book say that so many before it — Aldo’s Almanac, John Hay’s In Defense of Nature, any number of modern eco-shrieks — have not already said? Would there, could there be anything new here?

Sanders begins with a compelling story: the spirited local defense of a threatened woodland in his town. This way, as in all his books, he draws the reader right in there with him. The fact that the story is ultimately a downer just reinforces his premise, which does not vary throughout the book: “Ultimately, there will be no security for life on Earth unless we see the whole planet as an ark,” one on which “we are common passengers.” In “Building Arks,” he gives as good an accounting of the current predicament and the resistance to it as I have read. Here, and all the way through, he delivers the precise and elegant writing I expected: “As I walk, spider webs catch on my forehead like stray thoughts.” Scott Sanders is simply a virtuoso among essayists. As for the part about being a good read, you’ll be no more disappointed than I was.

The book is organized into three parts: “Caring for Earth,” “Caring for Home Ground,” and “Caring for Generations to Come,” each containing five essays. These range from heartfelt lamentations of loss to spirited cheers for good work being done in a multiplicity of small and quiet places, as well as for large gestures and big-acre projects. One of the most intriguing chapters, “A Few Earthy Words,” deals with the history, etymology, and creative application of a number of common terms pertaining to conservation. While his litanies of loss, indictments of evils, and prescriptions for humble and large change all scan, the most compelling sections for me are the personal bits drawn from Sanders’s own life. Much of the action takes place in and around his long-ago adopted hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, reprising and fleshing out stories introduced in his much-loved book, Staying Put. The most valuable chapter for most of us may be “Stillness,” in which he confronts and wrestles down the frenetic demons of modern life, guilt born of impossible duty, and shrill offenses to personal peace, during one late summer afternoon in his just-completed writing hut. After all the necessary but bitter pills he delivers, Scott’s final meditation, “For the Children,” feels just like what he wishes for them: that “the breeze will be sweet in your lungs and the rain will be innocent.”

On the whole, this is a beautiful, right-minded, and reinforcing book for all who would be conservationists. But is there, after all, anything new in it? Not really. How could there be? This is how things are, this is how they ought to be, here’s how we should behave to make them right — there are only so many ways to say it. Scott’s actual manifesto, a list of oughtta’s driven by phrases like “Should make every effort,” “should aim,” “require us to provide/preserve/pass along,” “must insure/resist/engage,” reminds me of the wish list of the Earth Charter, only better written. The ideas are right. But barring magic, omnipotent aliens, or an enlightened world dictator, there doesn’t seem to be a way to make all this happen.

So it’s not the author’s fault that he couldn’t conjure a fresh fix. Yet Scott Sanders gives us one of the most graceful tellings of our plight, with many heartfelt examples of people protecting or restoring what counts. He invokes the very real “prospect of global devastation brought on by human action,” but also that of the “ark-builders” working to save what we will need “to replenish the Earth after the flood recedes.” They give him faith — how I wish I could share it! — that things can still be turned around. We’ve never been more keenly in need of his loving manual for conserving what he calls “the basic grammar of life.” Because, who knows? He could be right.

Robert Michael Pyle, former “Tangled Bank” columnist, recently completed a cross-country year on the road and in the field, meeting more than half the U.S. butterfly fauna on its own home ground.