November 10, 2013

HENRIE: Over the Sound of Traffic

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There were many evenings back home when I walked through a patch of tall trees — incongruously placed in the midst of a city — and heard, over the thunder of traffic on a nearby highway, the soft liquid notes of a wood thrush, harmonizing with itself.

This little swath of forest in Rochester, NY, the city where I went to high school, is called Washington Grove. I know nothing about why it is there. It is part of Cobb’s Hill Park, one of a line of hills that runs through Rochester (glacial in origin, like many landforms in upstate New York), nestled beside the hill, butting up against the backyards of one of the nicer neighborhoods in Rochester. It’s quite small, only a few acres, but somehow it has survived the march of development through what is now Monroe County.

Washington Grove is not what most people would call a wilderness.  It has the pit and mound topography of a forest that has never been plowed or put to pasture, but it has certainly been impacted by humans. Invasive Norway Maples grow there among the oaks and tulip poplars, and there is a particularly large non-native cherry growing there as well.  Paths for jogging and dog-walking run through it.  The sound of traffic is pervasive, absent only when it is raining quite hard.  Wilderness doesn’t really exist anymore; not a square inch of the earth goes untroubled by mankind, so why worry?  What is the difference between natural and unnatural?  Who cares?  Why is it so damn important that we protect nature, if we don’t even know what it is?  It’s a question I wish didn’t have to be asked, but there is still a great deal of apathy in the greater community, at Cornell and certainly in the world. People are the most difficult element in any plan for sustainability, so how do you get people to care?

I could quote the study published in Nature magazine years ago, which stated that a minimum estimate for the dollar value of “ecosystem services” worldwide was 33 trillion U.S. dollars per year. Global GDP at the time was 18 trillion. Clearly “nature” is a good long term investment.  Our lives rely on functioning, stable ecosystems — much research attests to that. But, why are so many people still convinced that nature plays second fiddle to the economy, to their car?

I don’t think this line of argument is as effective as some might hope, because I suspect that most people don’t really believe any of that (in the sense that picturing things on a global scale is too difficult, that attaching numbers to anything is usually secondary to how we feel about something). Activists for wildlife or old growth forest preservation produce such numbers only when forced into corners; they fight first and foremost for the love they bear for “nature.”  I am speaking to those readers who do not think that nature has intrinsic value, or at least not a very great one: What can I do to convince you to feel what I feel? I suppose I could try to quote some more at you.  elevant passages from the various religious texts of the world, perhaps?  Shall I read aloud on the street from Thoreau? Proselytizing does no good.  Anyone who didn’t already agree with my basic premise — and even some who did — wouldn’t be able to see past the pretension (Ah, another college-age environmentalist who reads Thoreau, how original…).  Repeating what other people have already said obviously won’t work

No, it’s something more personal, spiritual, an aesthetic judgment. I would never try to claim that such a judgment is more important than food or water or housing, but I do think it can be more important than the consumerism that this nation is infamous for, more meaningful than convenience or speed. I can’t convince you, though.  I am writing this in part to express that frustration felt by activists who just don’t get why other people don’t get it, but also hoping that someday those people will.

All of the tools I have at my disposal do not have the power to say what it is that I want to say. The only thing that I could really do would be to take people into the woods, to stop the joggers on the paths and pull off their headphones, and to ask everyone to pause for just a few seconds and really listen — over the sound of traffic — to that wood thrush.