People and the Environment Around Them

by Kaci Jones

The debate over responsible environmental practices is not a new subject, but one that has been the topic of many authors over many years. The editor of the book American Earth says that environmental writing, “takes as its subject the collision between people and the rest of the world.” Analyzing past views of the land compared to the present flaws, then applying the results to the future of our Earth that we call home, a more in depth understanding of the importance of conservation can be seen. But first I want to start off with a quote to think about as we discuss what some environmental writers have said. N. Scott Momaday wrote the quote, “We are what we imagine ourselves to be.” Keeping this quote in mind will keep you in an open mind set to really absorb what the writers had to say about the environment and the people that live in the environment.

When debating the importance of conservation practices, an applicable way to show the result from conservation is by looking at times in our history when it was imperative to conserve the land for future resources. “A First American Views His Land” by N. Scott Momaday is about the views of people who lived off the land before modernization and how people live off the land now. The story talks about how the Indians, before Columbus ever came to America, lived off the land. Momaday states that while they did take from the land, they only took what was needed; they didn’t take what wasn’t needed. The way the Indians thought of the land was more moving than anything: “the earth’s our mother and the sky is our father (570-581).” The land is their family; it’s what they’re closes to. The Native Americans celebrated the beauty of the natural world. Yet when modernization hit America, the people didn’t hunt for need. Settlers started hunting solely because they had the means to do so. They thought of the land as a “lifeless medium of exchange.” They stated that “ownership implied use, and use implies consumption,” and that’s still how most people view their land today (Momaday 570-581).

Another selection that deals with our past is “Man and Nature” by George Perkins Marsh. In this story Marsh talks about how man is affecting nature and then how nature will eventually affect man. Marsh states that, “man has to long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption.” This is something that is commonly forgotten when over using resources that may or may not be there in 15 to 20 years. Marsh puts things in perspective instead of saying that they will be gone. He uses examples saying that if we don’t conserve the “well-wooded and humid hills are turned to ridges of dry rock” and that’s when people are going to start realizing that things need to change, but by that time it will be too late (Marsh 71-80). Going off what Marsh says, P.T. Barnum then gives the analogy in “The Humbugs of the World,” to think of the land like your beautiful wife or daughter. Then think of them getting hurt in some way, he uses the example of getting cut across the face. This poses the question why cut into the earth to forever scar it if the use is for pleasure and not needs (Barnum 81-83).

Although Morton lived in the 19th century, his environmental theories still apply to the present day. For example, in “About Trees,” J. Sterling Morton stated that, “…man has cut down and consumed, but seldom restored or planted, the forests (Morton 126-128).” When applying this quote, some of the easiest ways to give back have been neglected such as replanting after clear cutting forests. It’s like Marvin Gaye says in his song “Mercy Mercy Me (491-492),” that things aren’t how they use to be. He goes into talking about the oil spills and how there is now mercury in the fish and the radiation underground and in the sky. Gaye ends the song with “how much more abuse from man can she stand?” I think that stands for itself for what our future is going to hold for us (Gaye 491-492). A good example of an environmental writers view on the land is the song “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell. Mitchell went on vacation to Hawaii to see all the natural beauty of the area and when she got to her hotel and looked out the window all she saw was a parking lot “with a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot.” In the song she sings, “That you don’t always know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” and that’s becoming more and more true with the depletion of wildlife or extinction of animals (Mitchell 489-491). Conservation is something that we need to start before there isn’t anything else to conserve. We need to remember to “handle it so that your children’s children will get the benefit of it” (Roosevelt 132-133).

While the conservation of land is essential to the longevity of our Earth, stewardship also calls for the conservation of animals that inhabit the land. J. N. “Ding” Darling’s illustration called “What a few more duck seasons will do to the duck” shows a picture of a hunter in a boat in 1920 trying to scope out where are good spots to go duck hunting. Then by 1930, the spot has been taken over by many men, who are shooting as much as they can to kill all the ducks they see. The last illustration shows the duck in 1940. In this picture the wild duck is in a museum along with the buffalo and the dodo bird in an exhibit that says “Extinct American Species.” This is a good example of what could happen in the future if the amount of killing isn’t regulated correctly (Darling 224). Gifford Pinchot finds a similar theme in “Prosperity”. Within this story Pinchot asks, “What will happen when the forests fail?” It’s not if the forest fails; it’s when they fail. Next he starts talking about all the industries that this will have an effect on and the assembly line of industries failing after the one before it fails. He starts off by saying that first the lumbering industry would disappear. After that the mining industry would increase prices because it would have to “follow a corresponding rise in the prices of coal, iron, and other minerals.” After that the railroading industry will take a hit because it’ll be so expensive to travel by train to accommodate for the cost of upkeep. Which then the transportation industry will suffer a huge increase in demand and on top of that the “movement of freight and passengers by inland waterways” will be more effected than railroads. Next the cost of agriculture tools will increase, which will effect agriculture irrigation directly, Which then will increase the price of producing food and the cost of food will rise also (Pinchot 172-180). It’s the small things that will add up to causing a world of hurt if preventatives don’t start being put in place.

Many authors and environmentalists throughout the years have given their testimonies on the effects caused by irresponsible anthropogenic practices. When drawing conclusions from these testimonies, keeping Calvin B DeWitt’s story called “Inspiration for Sustaining Life on Earth” in mind is an effective piece of work that brings the thoughts of many different authors together. DeWitt states that the land and we have to be a back-and-forth relationship. In other words, that if humans service to the gardens, the gardens will then service us. This isn’t only a measure that half the people need to take and half don’t. DeWitt says that, “We and people everywhere and all times must work to keep the earth (DeWitt 919-928).” The importance of conservation has seemed to become lost with everyday life becoming easier and easier. This is ever-present with the industrialization era compared to when the American Indians were living off the land. Diffusion of responsibility placed on the general public when taking care of the land has become an essential problem for conservationist. I believe that is what these authors try to address with their works, the importance of each person doing their part to take care of what provides us our resources. The argument of whether or not it is important to practice conservation has an obvious answer of yes, and while few may suggest other wise, I believe the efforts of teaching stewardship in all aspects of society is greatly undervalued.

Works Cited

Barnum, P. T. “The Humbugs of the World.” McKibben, Bill. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. New York City: Literary Classics of the United States, 2008. 81-83.

Darling, J. N. “Ding”. “What a few more duck seasons will do to the duck.” McKibben, Bill. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. New York City: Literary Classics in the United States, 2008. 224.

DeWitt, Calvin. “Inspiration for Sustaining Life on Earth.” McKibben, Bill. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. New York City: Literary Classics in the United States, 2008. 919-928.

Gaye, Marvin. “Mercy Mercy Me.” McKibben, Bill. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. New York City: Literary Classics in the United States, 2008. 491-492.

Marsh, George Perkins. “Man and Nature.” McKibben, Bill. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. New York City: Liberty Classics of the United States, 2008. 71-80.

Mitchell, Joni. “Big Yellow Taxi.” McKibben, Bill. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. New York City: Literary Classics in the United States, 2008. 489-491.

Momaday, N. Scott. “A First American Views His Land.” McKibben, Bill. American Earth: Environmental Writting Since Thoreau. New York City: Literary Classics of the United States, 2008. 570-581.

Morton, J. Sterling. “About Trees.” McKibben, Bill. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. New York City: Literary Classics in the United States, 2008. 126-128.

Pinchot, Gifford. “Prosperity.” McKibben, Bill. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. New York City: Literary Classics in the United States, 2008. 172-180.

Roosevelt, Theodore. “Speech at Grand Canyon, Arizona, May 6, 1903.” McKibben, Bill. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. New York City: Literary Classics in the United States, 2008. 132-133.

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