Monday, September 26, 2011

Love, Life, and Work by Moderator Robert Michael Pyle

Discussion Topic: The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland

When we fall in love with place, engage deeply, and watch it change, it alters who we are and what we do.  How can passion for the land influence our lives and livelihood?

No matter what we may say to the contrary, I suspect that the subject that most concerns most of us most of the time (apart from our essential physical well-being) is this: How shall I spend my allotted time?   Historically, the great majority of people have devoted most of their waking hours to making a livelihood, and not so often (one supposes) exactly as they might have chosen.  To be occupied by that which you love, or at least enjoy, or at the very least tolerate with some modicum of interest and humor, and still make a living at it, has likely been an uncommon condition throughout the industrial epoch.

A future conservationist.
Photograph by Heather Doolittle
Some have always indulged their true passions outside their labors, including many amateur naturalists (such as my friend the truck driver who is also the essential Northwest lepidopterist; remember, "amateur" means "one who loves").   Whether by profession or avocation, those who manage to indulge their personal vision of time well-spent over a substantial number of their days have been the lucky ones among us.  The deep desire to do so remains, I believe, one of our strongest abiding ideals.

One problem with this state of affairs, if real, is that fewer and fewer young people seem to emerge from school or college with any strong sense of what they would really like to do, beyond being well paid for it, whatever it is.  This owes partly, I feel, to changes in the "smorgasbord"  system that used to reign in higher education: by casting about a broad catalogue with many electives to fill, students used to have a fair crack at coming across some subject that truly turned them on.  With the present, narrowed emphasis on "good jobs" and testing results, fewer searchers have a chance to make that exciting finding at school.

When it comes to lives and livelihoods that center on the land, I doubt that the connection that counts most is usually found in the classroom anyway.  At least since the banishment of Nature Study from most classrooms half a century and more ago, it's been the rare--and lucky--student who got that critical introduction to the real world from a classroom.  In my case, my biology teacher was more interested in coaching football and dry cleaning (to which he retired) than in biology.  Thank Pan, two of his colleagues ran an ecology club after school that probably saved me from a desultory, and maybe disastrous, wrong turn.  And while they were important themselves as mentors, it was their field trips that really did it for me--along with my own lone wild rambles along the High Line Canal, which make up the core of The Thunder Tree.

As I wrote in "The Extinction of Experience,"  "Had it not been for the High Line Canal, the vacant lots I knew, the scruffy park, I'm not at all certain I would have been a biologist...It was the place that made me."  I doubt if I ever returned from a ramble on the canal unaccompanied by the powerful feeling that I wanted to grow up to do something that would get me out like that, doing things like that, always. Well, after a fashion and in a motley manner, I have; and for that, I directly credit that old Denver ditch and its critters, plants, and waters.

In a response to my first posting, Cristina Eisenberg wrote:  "I used to run to the creek after school and watch butterflies and frogs and birds and follow the arc of the seasons across the year...Today I am a conservation biologist who specializes in wolves...An early connection with my childhood landscape..had a profound influence on my work as an adult." We hear such tales of direct circuits between beloved places and well-lived lives again and again.  To evoke Nabokov once more, read, for example, Chapter Six of Speak, Memory, the butterfly section of his magical memoir, and see how the bogs and forests of Vyra and beyond made him who he became, both as lepidopterist and novelist.  Or the autobiographies of any of those near-sainted ones for whom the lodges at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) are named: Rachel Carson, Also Leopold, Ding Darling, Olaus and Mardy Murie (yes, the same Olaus whom Cristina wonderfully evoked in her recent comment on my second posting).  Every one of them details profound early contacts with lands and waters that steered them toward the momentous--and eminently satisfying--lives they lived in conservation. 

Giant Panda tracker Rolf and ecotourism guide Zoe
 (English names) at Foping Panda
Reserve in the QinLing Mountains of China,
May 2011: environmental workers inspired
by their youthful experiences outdoors.
  Photograph by Janet Chu
Or speak to any resource professional in any of the government agencies that minister to our public lands on our behalf--National Park Service, US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Service formerly the Soil Conservation Service, state parks, state natural resource agencies, natural history surveys, all water, ag, and air authorities, hydrologists and mineralogists and cartographers and ecologists and on and on and on--and you will hear love stories with particular places that these workers may bless for their good days at work and blame for the bad ones: the places that made them who they are and inspired them to do what they do.  Where they walked, hunted, hid, discovered, dammed, crept, caught, played, camped, acted, and explored; where they dreamed.  (I've found this to be true around the world--as much so in China as here [see accompanying photograph]--in spite of strong school and social pressure toward employment choice.)

This is no how-to column about getting a job or making an independent living in natural history or environmental work.  It's never easy, especially at such a time as this when fiscal stringencies and stinginess are hobbling agencies, public efforts, and private giving to non-profits; when traditional systematic biology, never more needed, is almost absent of institutional support or training; and when book-publishing is retrenching by the day before new electronic realities.  But the need for  all of these, indeed for every profession or private devotion linked to the land and its well-being, have never been greater.  And ways will continue to be found to do the work that needs to be done: every time I meet a new young staffer for the Xerces Society, working an exciting and satisfying job devoted to conservation of invertebrates, I am stunned to think back to the early all-volunteer years of the organization, now in its 40th year.   In fact, it is often the volunteer or amateur route that eventually leads to employment in the field or the trenches of conservation.  Not everyone will be crawling into wolf dens like Cristina, but most of the young people I've known who truly wish to make a life (and if possible, a livelihood) at least partly willed to the wild, have managed to do so, through patience, perseverance, and sheer desire.

And where does such a desire come from?  More often than not, from the land itself: from the same places we hope to give back to, for the pleasure, peace, excitement, inspiration, and hope; the rage over loss and the betrayal of needless change, and resolve to prevent more of the same; and yes, ultimately, the salvation, that these beloved places have given us.

Some questions to consider:

--Does your work, volunteer, or leisure time satisfy some long-held desire to connect to the land?
--How so?
--How did you get there, and can you identify experiences out-of-doors that pointed you there?
--With growing constraints such as reduced funding, parental expectations, and population pressure, does it make humane sense to urge the young in this direction; or are we trading in false hopes, both for getting the work in the first place, and for its ultimate prospects of success?


Bill Sherwonit said...

As someone who ekes out a living as a nature writer and who spends much of his "free" time exploring wildlands and observing/studying wildlife -- and also advocating for their protection -- I have no doubt that my writer/activist life is directly linked to boyhood explorations of, and enchantments with, "the wild," from The Woods and The Swamp to snakes and frogs and other exotic critters that inhabit Connecticut. Curiously, I lost -- or misplaced -- much of my early enchantment while enduring high school and then later going off to college and graduate school, but I later rediscovered (or reclaimed) it in Alaska, while working first as a geologist and later a journalist/essayist/author. I'll discuss this in more detail when it's my turn to do some Wild Read blogging, but I couldn't pass up this opportunity to share a few words and express my appreciation for Bob Pyle's provocative musings. I'm new to the Wild Read community and look forward to catching up on postings by other wild writers and readers.

As for Bob's question about whether it makes "humane sense to urge the young in this direction" (i.e., a direction in which 'lives and livelihoods center on the land" -- or more generally, wild nature), I would say, "Heck, yes." To quote Joseph Campbell's oft-repeated phrase, I would urge any person who loves nature to "follow your bliss" whether as vocation or avocation. Speaking directly to careers, success is measured in many ways and there are all sorts of fringe benefits to be gained even in jobs that don't pay a lot or which have their share of heartache (the latter a sometimes grim reality of being either professional or amateur activist who works on behalf of wildlands -- or waters -- and wildlife). I sometimes like to joke that, as a freelance nature writer, I joined the "simplicity movement" long before it existed. But there have been immeasurable benefits to "the writing life" I've chosen. Of course the writing profession, like so much else, is being transformed by modern culture and technology and the future sometimes appears bleak. And still I believe there's a place, and hope, for writers and others who work for the greater, wilder good.

Bob Pyle said...

Well said, Bill! I look forward to your entries.

Mark LaRoux said...

Is there some mystical irony in the fact that writing is becoming more and more a 'volunteer' endeavor while conservationists that (honestly) would have volunteered years ago for a job are now getting paid for their time? Indeed, "How shall I spend my allotted time?"...I really like that question. You never know where you will end up, or if you are even 'there' yet...but not going is a gutless option so you gotta go. Cat Stevens put it this way:
"You're only dancin' on this earth for a short while
And though your dreams may toss and turn you now
They will vanish away like your daddy's best jeans
Denim blue, fading up to the sky" It's almost like once the seeds of a dream are set, they will eventually bloom (sometimes, even generations later) and need tending, just like a garden. They are most vulnerable when they are new and 'unweathered' by life. So watch the weeds and remember to water.

Bob Pyle said...

Mark, I posted a reply to this earlier today, and it apparently didn't "take"...irritating, as of course I can't get it just the same again. But in essence I said I enjoyed your comment, especially the Cat Stevens quote. It's remarkable how often a rock lyric gets it just right, like Bob Seger's "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then."

And I agreed that "nature writing" (which = "writing," since I know of nothing else to write about than nature, sensu lato) has become more and more of a volunteer activity. I recall the great nature writer Edwin Way Teale advising me not to go freelance until my career justified it. I flagrantly disregarded his advice, but at least it meant something then. Teale told me he finally had the confidence to go freelance when he had nine or so books out, each bringing in something of a royalty. That's a vanished dream now, like faded denim on the line, with book culture taking it in the shorts day by day, and royalties a figment of yore.

But we write ultimately because we love what we write about, and that's the same for volunteers and for all those doing paid (but often thankless and difficult) jobs in conservation. In the end, you're quite right that you gotta go, gotta dance, while the sun shines, and remember to water the growing things, weeds and all. Good ol' Cat, and a short while it is. Carry on!

Ken Voorhis said...

I grew up in the suburbs of Dayton Ohio, but had a bike and lots of "rough places", as you so aptly call them, all around and buddies who went snake hunting with me. Scouts, camping with my family, and beating around in cool natural and wild places were the foundations that led me to a career helping people connect with the natural world through in-depth educational experiences for 30+ years, the majority of those in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So yes, I have been blessed by being able to center both my work, and leisure around that early begun desire to connect with, explore and discover the wonder of the natural world.

Should we encourage young folks to pursue such foolishness? YES! We need them now more than ever. We need a new generation of naturalists, environmental educators, tree-huggers, lovers of the wild places, and thinkers who challenge others to consider their own sense of place and how it intersects with a changing climate. (climate being understood both physically, socially, and politically) We need those young people to help us adapt, to use technology appropriately to enhance our experience with nature not replace it. I have had the opportunity to work with hundreds of passionate young people who ARE making a difference. They are doing so while engaging with the natural world and making a career of it even though it is often with non-profits or government agencies whose funding is challenged. It is because of the passion, sense of place, and commitment, of such individuals that those organizations have remained alive in spite of budget cuts and hard times. From my perspective such career is well worth it. I couldn't think of a better way to be spending each day. Please, we need the young to carry on.

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