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John Fowles
December 21, 1970
The celebrated author of 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' takes a far-from-fictional look at the dour role of man in nature, argues on behalf of backyard laziness and places the fate of God's world in hands that want it least—our own
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December 21, 1970

Weeds, Bugs, Americans

The celebrated author of 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' takes a far-from-fictional look at the dour role of man in nature, argues on behalf of backyard laziness and places the fate of God's world in hands that want it least—our own

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One thing I like about Zen philosophy its mean attitude to words. It doesn't trust them. As soon as we have a thing named, says Zen we start forgetting about its real nature. So labels, especially labels for very common human problems, tend to become convenient excuses for letting the problems take care of themselves. The particular stinking corpse buried beneath a word that I have in mind here is conservation.

No public figure today would dare state that he thinks humanity can support the continued cost of pollution and dying nature. Never mind what the public figure may do in private practice, he won't deny the most fashionable solicitude of our time. We all agree we need conservation. It is national policy, state policy, local policy, everybody's policy. And with all that interest and public concern it's very clear that you and I don't have to do a thing about it—except pay lip service to the general principle. Very much the same self-excusing process has overtaken charity. A hundred years ago charity was still mainly a private matter. Now has become a function and very often a cautious diplomatic calculation—of elected government. The actual experience of direct charity, the reality of giving to a stranger in need, has been lost. The charitably inclined private citizen finds himself faced with just one more of those countless pressing invitations to do nothing that our century has been so fertile in devising.

There is a story about Samuel Rogers, the British poet who was a contemporary of Byron and Shelley. At one of his literary dinners a group of friends were holding forth on the iniquities of slavery. For hours they poured out their fine liberal sentiments. Then one of them turned to their silent host.

"And what's your opinion of all this, Rogers? I am sure you are as deeply sorry as we for the persecuted blacks."

Rogers thought a few moments. Then he reached in his pocket, placed a banknote on the table in front of him, and came out with one of the most curtly effective clotures on action-delaying filibuster ever recorded.

"I'm five pounds sorry," he said.

My belief is that it is high time each one of us started deciding how sorry he or she is—in terms of Rogers' bluff-calling interpretation of the word—over the contemporary rape of nature. In this case, however, the currency of sorrow needs to be expressed much more in action and changed attitude than in money. And the thing that ought to make us all feel "rich" enough to pay is the very simple fact that in most places nature is going to be saved not by official bodies but by the community at large. If we don't help, if the whole social climate isn't one of active participation, right down to the personal and household level, then all ordinary wildlife is doomed. The plastic garden, the steel city, the chemical countryside will take over. The government-run parks and national reserves may still survive; but nature in ordinary life is in the hands of people in ordinary life.

I still live in a country (England) that has managed to maintain a comparatively healthy relationship with this ordinary nature as distinct from special-preserve nature. And though I certainly don't intend to make a black and white contrast between a holier-than-thou Britain and an unholier-than-I America, I suspect one major difference between the two cultures is in the average person's attitude to the familiar nature around him. In terms of a bad relationship, being sorry means being aware of being wrong. It is an unawareness of being personally wrong (shown both in the negative tendency to blame everything on corporate greed and in certain wrong emphases in current conservation work) that seems to me the weak spot in the United States. This fundamental, personal and private relationship to ordinary nature is primarily what I want to discuss here, and in two or three rather different areas. I hope also to suggest one place, very close to home, where something can be done about the problem.

But first of all I must make one or two painful historical observations.

Why can Britain show a good deal more common wildlife in its cities, towns, suburbs and surrounding countryside than the United States? A great deal of our happier situation is certainly due to completely fortuitous circumstances and not at all to a greater conservation conscience in the British.

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