Anthology – Peoples’ Plan for Life, Now and Forever …
“I like that phrase ‘enlargement of the boundaries.’ It’s the pattern of all human progress. Later in his book, he says, ‘the most insignificant insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have much more influence in the Economy of nature, than the incurious are aware of and are mighty in their effect, from their minuteness, which renders them less an object of attention and from their numbers and fecundity. Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. For, to say nothing of half the birds, and some quadrupeds, which are almost entirely supported by them, worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them, by boring, perorating, and loosening the soil, and rendering it pervious to rains and the fibres of plants, by drawing straws and stalks of leaves and twigs into it; and most of all, by throwing up their excrement, is a fine manure for grain and grass. Worms probably provide new soil for hills and slopes where the rain washes the earth away.’
“At that time, earthworms were believed to be pests, so his observations required the courage of the original eye. ‘Gardeners and farmers express their detestation of worms the former because they render their walks unsightly…and the latter because, as they think, worms eat their green corn. But these men would find that the earth without worms would soon become cold, hard-bound, and void of fermentation; and consequently sterile.’
“David Hume, also in the 1700s, saw sympathy as fundamental to humanity. For him this feeling for the other is central to the origin of ethics. He clearly distinguished between what is and what ought to be. Rousseau saw our human self as ‘true’ in a state of nature, but by society corrupted. ‘Man is born free,’ he wrote in 1762, ‘and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more a slave than they.’
“Wordsworth and the Romantic poets elevated love of nature:
‘One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.’
– ‘The Tables Turned,’ 1798
“So did New England’s Transcendentalists of the 1800s, principally Emerson and Thoreau. Said the observant Emerson, ‘To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun.’ ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world,’ Thoreau howled to the sky. Thoreau’s prescient dictum has resonated truer and truer over the last century and a half as we’ve learned the price of losing what’s wild, the vulnerabilities of small populations, and the miseries of people in degraded landscapes.
“Charles Darwin’s great incendiary insight blasted a crater in the philosophers’ firewall between humans and nature, with his articulate realization that all the world is kin. ‘There is grandeur in this view of life, he wrote famously in 1859, ‘with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’ Darwin’s insights blurred lines and blended borders, placing us on a continuum of lineage and time, in an organic tree of life. Again, here was a genius realizing we’re not the center of the circle, and pushing the borders outward.
“Industrial pollution and the wholesale destruction of wild lands during the latter half of the 1800s prompted early perspectives on nature conservation. George Perkins Marsh, a Yankee intellect who had been a farmer, lawyer, teacher, businessman, scientist, congressman, linguist, and foreign ambassador, made the first systematic assessment of damage to the natural world. He’d observed degraded landscapes in Europe and the Middle East, where logging and farming had ruined soils. He saw that crops were most plagued by pests where people killed the birds that ate them; thus the farmer was ‘not only depriving his groves and his fields of their fairest ornament, but he is waging a treacherous warfare on his natural allies.’