Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Commonplace River

Samuel Clemens (a/k/a Mark Twain) begins his book "Life on the Mississippi" by noting, with Clemens' typical gift for understatement, that the Mississippi River is "not a commonplace river." While certainly true in many respects, I would beg to differ from one particular perspective. The River and its rich heritage of resources, both natural and cultural, are the very essence of commonplace - reflecting the very heart of America.

We’ve been extremely lucky in that heartland. In the valleys cut by the Mississippi, by its major tributaries, like the Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and others, and by the hundreds of smaller streams that ultimately feed the mighty waterway, we’ve been handed a unique treasure. Those streams in so many ways tie the central region of the Nation together into the diverse natural, historical and cultural quilt that is our common heritage. They are streams that have literally sustained the region's economy and ecology. The Native Americans who lived along these waters and the first Europeans to settle in these valleys understood that relationship – the connection of their lives to the land and the water . . . the connection of economy to ecology. And the today's rural neighbors in the basin's farm-filled valleys and its small towns largely understand those connections still.

The mode of conservation that works in this type of landscape has to similarly recognize and build upon those connections. It has to recognize that all things in a watershed are connected. The language that we use to solve problems and address issues together has to acknowledge that everything is connected. The paths toward conservation that we follow have to recognize that there are connections everywhere.

It’s ironic that the Native Americans and early settlers recognized those connections, and that today's rural communities live out those connections on a daily basis. Ironic because all too often discussions about ecology and economy boil down to a debate over choices and concessions, and over primacy and control of one perceived sphere of influence over the other, as if one or the other - the economy or conservation - has to predominate.

It’s especially odd since ecology and economy both at their core relate to the heart of our very existence. Both words arise from the same ancient Greek word for home - “oikos.” Ecology literally means to study or to know our home. And economy literally means to manage our home.

So, rather than being at conflict, what the Greeks knew intuitively when the words formed so naturally out of their daily lives over 3000 years ago is that ecology and economy are joined - one to the other. The Greeks understood - doubtless because they lived much closer to nature than most of us do today - is that we need to know our home in order to manage it wisely.

But over time as an increasingly urbanized America has separated itself from our natural roots, we’ve forgotten what the Greeks and Native peoples and early settlers tried to teach us in their words and actions. We’ve forgotten what rural America still knows - that our economy and ecology, rather than being opposed and at odds, are inescapably linked.

It is in the commonplace, in the farms and small villages and the back roads and pastures and woodlands and people in the great Mississippi valley where day-to-day life practically oozes the unspoken message of conservation – the message that these people connect with and hold the land dearly to their hearts, and that they want so much to be able to pass those lands and waters and natural areas and way of life on to their children and children's children. If we listen closely, we will hear that landscape and those people silently screaming out the message of connections . . . connections with the land and water, connections in this time and place with each other, and connections through time with both past and future generations.

Once upon a time, the story goes, a disciple asked the elder, “How am I to listen?” And the elder responded, “Become an ear that pays attention to every single thing the universe is saying. The moment you hear something you yourself are saying, stop.”

All too often we miss the commonplace message from the nation's heartland that speaks so loudly of conservation and of connections, as we are busy writing and typing and speaking and instant messaging. Trying to explain ourselves. Not listening at all. It’s time, I would offer, that we stop to listen carefully to the echoes from the voices of our early ancestors and Native peoples, which speak of connections and responsibility and accountability. It’s time that we listen attentively to our rural neighbors whose lives convey a message of care for the common wealth. And it’s well beyond time that we attend to the whispers of those generations yet to come, which ask simply that their dreams may be fulfilled, their hopes realized and their opportunities achieved. Because if we do that - if we stop in our frenetic rush toward who knows where - to listen . . . we will hear those calls demanding that we have the vision to create a radically new and innovative way of doing things and solving problems and moving together into a very commonplace - yet very rich - future. - Mark Gorman

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