In the summer of 2004 I met a man and woman who had just come back from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. They were making a documentary that sought to show the beauty of the place at a time when it was proposed that the oil and gas industry be allowed to drill within the refuge. I asked this couple, who would look at home on the streets of Point Reyes Station—older, white, with hints of the professorial or a recent binge at REI —“Where are we going to get oil, then?” “From the Middle East, where we always have!” the woman shot back at me.
This particularly unreflective statement struck me as depraved in the context of the Iraq War. It was just one year old at the time, but for a century the British, French and Americans had been in a more or less constant battle to control the Middle East, with the British first fire bombing Iraqi villages in the early 1920s. As a child, I watched the nightly footage of American bombings, with the waving strands of green Christmas lights—Iraqi anti-aircraft fire—being thrown up in a vain attempt to prevent another apartment block from being leveled. The country that had been so riveted by the advent of the nightly news decades earlier, that had been horrified by images of Vietnam and Biafra, was now desensitized. War was entertainment, virtually indistinguishable from the Hollywood movie on the next station.
That virtual world is what the masses know. But rich people not only rarely have sons or daughters who die in war, they don’t watch so much T.V. They prefer to visit national parks and climb around. While they achieve a sensory escape from our wars, those well-bred hikers, who drove or flew, or drove then flew then drove to a park to ride a bicycle or climb a rock, haven’t gotten very far. The biggest driver of climate change in the United States is transportation—mostly cars and planes, which move in gigantic elaborate networks that bring things like food from distant valleys over hundreds and thousands of miles to the places where they will be consumed. We are a part of these supply chains, global in scale, no matter how apparently untouched the park we are visiting appears to be. And these networks require fuel to function—oil, as it happens.
The destruction caused by this physical separation of production and consumption, of who we are and who we want to believe ourselves to be, is the defining phenomenon of our age.
One meaningful way to undermine these networks is to collapse the space between the things we need in order to survive and the places we live in. To that end, agriculture in the Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area represents a mature response to war and climate change. These are practices we should be expanding, not shrinking. Let them be sustainable, organic, G.M.O. free—local growers have all the ability required for this task. The harmonization of human productive activity, like growing our food alongside wildlife, is the best hope for the local and global crises we face. The veggies and the egrets must stand together, or fall separately.
Of course the idea of pristine nature was always based on a fable: it is an ancient religious concept that arose in the Middle East. The metaphor of Eden is a story about how a naughty Adam and Eve get the boot, and have to live in the real world. The fantasists among us, when they stand in places of great beauty, seem to think they’ve gotten back into that mythic garden. Some of us further distort reality by turning the fable into a lie: think of Ansel Adams shooing natives out of the frame of his pictures for a view of an empty Yosemite. This worship of a con-job nature, which does not consider the cost of getting to the park, which sees agriculture but not roads and planes as unnatural, has to end.
Though we privileged can afford not to see the wars conducted by our government, we cannot escape the crises caused by our need for oil. Climate change is finding us all out. Even those who can retreat to nice houses on hillsides must see that they are only hiding from the reality that our unabated destruction of the atmosphere will hold “illimitable dominion over all.”
The sublime beauty of great vistas must be the thing that gives us the strength to take on the tasks of a new century, not an end in itself. Remember that beauty has no moral or ethical content. It can inspire, but it gives no moral or ethic direction to your life. After a long day of planning the Holocaust, the famous Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, a musician since childhood, would retire with his SS colleagues to perform the late Beethoven string quartets, some of the most beautiful music in the Western canon. So we can say that nature is our inspiration, but it can be mere therapy for people who do bad things and feel guilty, but who don’t want to change. Beauty has the dangerous power of taking us out of historical time—who we are, where we come from, what we’re doing—and into the sublime, that frightening and addictive magic of suspended time.
Finally, to the sensualists, the nature groovies eager to hike without care: believe me, I feel your pleasure. And I offer you this. When I worked on an organic farm, I realized how delicious a locally grown tomato could be—better than anything you could buy—and I got in very good shape. I didn’t even need a bicycle.
Charles Schultz, an occasional host of KWMR’s Classical Friday, lives in Marshall.