Sagebrush, Ponderosa Pine, Juniper Trees, and Piñón Pine are important flora in the western United States. Juniper can live more than 1,000 years, as can some Piñón. Ponderosa live up to 400 years. Sagebrush is a perennial and can survive for 100 years. All have been and are used for a variety of purposes by native peoples. They are also integral parts of what were once vibrant ecosystems in some of the most beautiful and astonishing parts of the United States. The ways in which plants, grasses, trees, and wildlife interreacted, in what are harsh environments, was remarkable. Not only could we learn much from studying these ecosystems, but their sheer beauty made them places worthy of contemplation and awe. We know that biodiversity is essential to any efforts to limit global warming, to avoid devastating fires, to, in a word, the maintenance of a healthy, habitable earth. Where a part of the planet is healthy, it should not be made unhealthy. John Donne said, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” But then he wrote, “if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were.” That is, the human and the non-human world are intimately connected, in ways increasingly known by scientists but little understood by most of us, to our detriment.
Unfortunately, the integrity of the earth has been constantly ripped apart by the incessant drive for cash benefit. In the Intermountain West, that space between the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Cascade Range and the Sierra Nevada to the west, government agencies, in league with powerful economic interests and even environmental groups, have joined together to utterly devastate the land. The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and numerous state agencies, routinely poison and otherwise kill wolves, mountain lions, grizzlies, and coyotes; effectively privatize public lands; and apply pesticides to, chainsaw, and otherwise rip apart sagebrush, Ponderosa, Piñón, and Juniper. While pseudoscientific justifications are sometimes offered to the gullible, the goal is to free public lands for mining, drilling, logging, jeep and ATV tourism, and worst of all, cattle grazing. The results have been predictable: invasive species, ruined ecosystems, species on the verge of extinction, repulsive animal cruelty, and the diminution of public property. Further, the more this is done, the more it will continue to be done, as the public comes to think of that which is now is normal, if they think at all.
Here is a something to consider. For our lands to be protected, we must love them. We must feel something special, awestruck even, when we are in places not yet destroyed. We must believe that we are, in some sense at least, kindred spirits with animals, trees, flowers, bushes, even rocks and soil. Otherwise nature will seem something alien from us, and there will be limits to our opposition to the ravages Earth is now suffering. We may not be able to say that we love the land the way the elders protesting the construction of a gigantic telescope on Mauna Kea do. Or the worship the Apache feel for the sacred Oak Flat area east of Phoenix, which is now scheduled to be blasted away by the Resolution Copper Company. Or the devotion artist Val Robbins, in whose studio we once lived, had for his land. But we cringe when we think of cutting down a Juniper that was here when Columbus landed in 1492. When we see bullet holes in ancient petroglyphs and pictographs. When we smell the vanilla scent of Ponderosa bark and imagine the wrecking balls that might soon be coming. When we see mountain lion tracks and realize that their deaths are the dreams of the state-sanctioned killers in our midst. Recently, we watched in horror and disgust as middle-aged men ran amok in their ATVs, speeding through large puddles of water, on public lands, with no concern whatever for the earth they were obliterating, the animals they were frightening, or the air they were polluting.
We hear much about a Green New Deal, how so many people seeking public office proclaim their desire to wage war against global warming. But we have to wonder: do these champions of change love the land? Does Bernie Sanders know about the trees and sagebrush? How aware are Ocasio-Cortez and her champion Naomi Klein of the government agencies and environmental groups plotting the ruination of the peoples’ property? When do you think they last saw a petroglyph shot up with bullets? Walked the deserts where those solar panels are to be stored? Asked what are the social costs of the gigantic windmill blades sitting on a trailer-truck bed lumbering down a beat-up two-lane highway?
Before the Earth can be saved or at least salvaged, a transformation, a metamorphosis, in our social relationships—economic, political, cultural—and in our connection to nature must take place. Only this can alter our understanding of who and what we are. We are especially conscious beings, capable of killing one another by the hundreds of millions, the annihilation of flora and fauna, and the desolation of soil, water, and air. However, we also have the capacity for extraordinary inventiveness, resilience, kindness, love, and solidarity. We existed for more than 150,000 without threatening to fatally disrupt the human-nature metabolism, without the multiple alienations now confronting us, and with a degree of material equality hard to imagine now.
Which of our human capabilities will we choose to utilize? We live within a system, capitalism, that demands we nurture our basest behaviors. If we continue to follow its dictates, we will rush headlong to disaster. Even if we collectively place constraints on these injunctions, a la the social democracy that is now the best much of the U.S. left can offer, this just delays catastrophe. Only if we uproot the system, destroying it root and branch, rejecting every one of its institutions, and reconstruct society on a radically different basis, do we have any chance of living as full, free, human beings. And only if we begin to live in a new world, will we have any chance to come to love the land and save it. Nothing less will do.