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What is Worth Saving?

By Amanda Vogel, Farm Fellow

One of the most compelling possibilities that guided me toward AMI was the chance to learn how to save nature.

I am aware that this is a grandiose and naive sentiment. Not a single choice that any individual makes will save a species, an ecosystem, or a planet. And the fact remains, the changes which would avert climate catastrophe lie squarely under the command of huge, inert corporate and government entities. Most of their choices are not made by any single individual, either. Holding those entities to account is one means by which a collective of less powerful individuals might begin to save nature. Though I am someone who continues to believe in the potential of political action, this blog isn’t about that method of change-making. This blog is about an individual change, which has the potential to restore a vital, resilient, and intimate kind of nature.

The shift within reach of individuals—what do we even recognize as “nature”? Colonialist Western powers repeatedly strove to depersonalize nature, to keep it at arm’s length as that phenomenon, that frontier, that beast out there. The literal and figurative conquest of nature’s bewildering dangers and dense complexities is one of colonialism’s greatest triumphs. But that project of delineating between civilization and wilderness only really ever served the extractive, destructive interests of a few. A first step in saving nature is finally acknowledging that we are a very small part of it, we only exist within it, and that nature is an entirely necessary force which is always all around us.

Second-wave feminists used to say, “the personal is political.” Roughly speaking, this means that a person’s lived experience is directly tied to their political position and power in society, or lack thereof. In the case of nature, a culture of widespread indifference and hostility toward it creates the conditions for everyday mistreatment of it.

In another framing of this construct, “the personal is political” because we have the greatest political stake in what we know intimately, what we value personally. Douglas Tallamy makes this argument very persuasively in his book Nature’s Best Hope. As “we have carved the natural world into tiny remnants,” such as national parks and other dedicated wildernesses, “our ignorance of nature has led to a dangerous indifference about its fate…we cannot imagine why [it is] important to us.”

We generally conceive of nature as thriving and mattering in the places that only David Attenborough or Jane Goodall have the privilege to know intimately, the mere 17% of earth now strictly preserved. Tallamy warns, we are mistaken in believing that those pristine pockets are enough “to support the variety of species required to sustain the ecosystems that support us.” He further admonishes:

“We cling to the notion that nature should be saved where nature remains, not where humans work, live, farm, or play…[However] with more than 83% of the United States privately owned…if conservation is to happen, it must happen largely on private property…it must include all types of private property, from the smallest city lot to the largest corporate landscape.”

What would happen if we reacquainted ourselves with nature as it persists in street medians, on playgrounds and farms, in our gardens and lawns? What communal, societal benefit lies in reigniting our reverence for backyard visitors and “pests”? Try as some have, we were never able to completely banish nature. We only ever succeeded at impoverishing it, and in doing so, ourselves.

Individuals with access to or influence over any natural space, however small or neglected, can begin to reverse our toxic cultural relationship with nature. For me, it always starts with observation. Where is the nearest patch of grass? What other plants grow there? What grew there before? Which bugs and animals live there? Do I know them? If not, how might I introduce myself? What can I learn about them, to better appreciate their work and contributions? How can I minimize harm here? What can I offer to further support the vitality of this natural community?

Tallamy states, “I have claimed for some time that knowledge generates interest, and interest generates compassion.” Next time you go outside, try them on for size—awareness and reciprocity toward nature. Begin to contemplate if it isn’t all worth saving, or at least owed our deepest gratitude and sincerest care.

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