Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Wandering Around the Block: Thoughts on Bill McKibben’s Wandering Home

While I was taking my morning walk, I wondered if I shouldn’t be writing a book about it, given the literary trend these days. Walk the Appalachian Trail?  Write a book.  Walk the Pacific Crest Trail? Write a different book. Take a couple of weeks to walk from your home in Vermont to your home across Lake Champlain in NY?  Well, naturally write a book and this is what Bill McKibben did while contemplating the land-use in a countryside he knows very well.  There is something about walking, especially for large amounts of time alone that lends itself to revelation and deep thoughts.  Jesus, Gandhi, and Thoreau all had some pretty radical ideas—and they are well known for their dusty feet, which is perhaps no coincidence.

One of McKibben’s thoughts that struck me was about blurring the line between areas dominated by humans and other organisms of the earth. His book is full of examples of people in VT and NY experimenting with sustainable ways to raise food and wine, to generate an income from the land while not sucking it dry or homogenizing it to the point that is useful to neither human nor beast. Blurring the line.  It’s what we try to do when we plant native flower gardens or xeriscaping in areas where traditional lawns are in complete opposition to the local ecology.  Blurring the line between natural areas and human-dominated landscapes may be a compromise where nobody has a complete victory, but in a world of more than 7 billion people, perhaps it is going to be the realistic solution, embracing the patchwork with patches that have minimal ecological costs while still providing natural services to all organisms. 

The human-dominated world is complicated, even in its (relative) biological simplicity.  We fight wars over the resource of land--the riches we hope to gain from it and the nests we hope to build there—and the natural resources we need to survive or simply want. Yet, in doing so, we destroy, at least in the short-term, what we fight for.

The contemplative long walk (or even short walk for that matter) may offer a potential solution to the disconnection of people from their ecosystem and a chance to see the value of the natural world in which we have evolved. A chance to value what we may now have—in Ohio that was historically forest—over what someone may envision:  a new neighborhood, a strip mall, another Walmart. One of the striking things about returning to my childhood home outside of Charleston, SC is the conversion of the pine forests (many of them, granted, are pine plantations) and swamps into a landscape that leaves little trace of a natural ecosystem.  It is perhaps only if we all walk within or beside these forests and hear the call of birds from branch to branch during the day or the persistent calls of frogs at night that we individually realize what will be lost. Realizing what will be lost—that is key to having any desire to prevent loss. 

Maybe we could find a better way if there were more of us putting one foot in front of the other across the landscape, living in the shelter of its trees and besides its rivers, if only for a few days.  Maybe it is a thing so rare in the 21st century that to do so necessitates writing a book.