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
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
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.
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.
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.