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
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
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 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?