Today, Americans remember the many men and women who have died as part of their service to our country in the military. With fireworks and barbecues, memorial services and quiet reflection, we pause from the normal weekly grind to honor those who helped give us all that we cherish today.
In this period of remembrance, I also think that environmentalists can and should pause to reflect upon why it is they love, fight for, and, yes, fear for nature in all its many manifestations. Why, that is, they even bother to get active for, to serve the Earth.
Let me begin by asking a question: Has anyone ever saved your life?
Yes or no, I am sure you can imagine how grateful you would feel towards the person, as well as how much you would want to repay that great deed by helping ensure his or her welfare.
Well, nature literally saved my life. It was during a time of very deep depression, when health problems (physical and mental/emotional) exacerbated serious discontent with my academic work and with life in general, that I was saved by nature. Sparing you details, I can at least say that “saved my life” is no exaggeration. For I often felt like Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost: “And in the lowest deep a lower deep / Still threatening to devour me opens wide, / To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.”1
But then while I drowned in that darkness, suddenly my lifelong love of animals flickered like a faint, weak flame, and I looked into volunteering at the local SPCA. Working with the homeless animals, I felt my heart start to lighten and open up, for I was focusing on the well-being of needy animals instead of my own problems. I also quickly became a devoted bird watcher. I remember once when I was meditating I envisioned a blue jay hopping around my feeder–and suddenly, from my bottom on the cushion and up to my head, a tremendous wave of joy washed over and through me…and I broke into a huge grin. So much for “detachment” and serenity!
From these experiences, and so many more, I soon became more sensitive to–and appreciative of–all of the wonders that nature seemed literally to be offering to me, to be waving in front of my eyes calling out for my attention. That is, I got beyond my Self and looked outward. And then once I recognized the glory of nature, I soon also recognized the joy and life in nature.
As a result, I was able to get beyond the darkness and bask in the sunny light of life, enjoying the nature around me and feeling nurtured by the knowledge that that same joy and life were in me, that I was a living part of the greater living “body” of nature.
And the wonders never cease. Birds in particular have become, for me, the perfect encapsulation of Life; they seem to be joy in motion, everything they do an act of perfect self-expression. I get similar waves of joy like the one during my meditation on the blue jay every time I see a cardinal fly by my window, a chickadee pirouetting on a branch, a bluebird bathing in my birdbath…or when I walk beside the Rivanna River or watch the morning sun set the Blue Ridge Mountains on fire.
But I did not, and have not, stopped simply at enjoying and feeding off of nature. I know full well that nature saved my life, and that is why I have devoted myself to helping protect nature in every way I can. My effort and commitment are not due solely to gratitude or indebtedness, nor to a desire to keep those same natural wonders available for my continued personal support.
No, I want to protect nature because I want other individuals to be able to experience that priceless, saving power of nature. I know that many others might be in my situation at some point, and so I want nature to be in its full splendor in order to help restore them to true health–to make them aware of the life within them, flowing through them.
So that is why I am an environmentalist. Because I feel gratitude for and indebted to the entirety of nature. Now, I want to give back to all of the sacred beings, sacred places, sacred things that helped open my eyes and my heart to life, to bring me back to life.
I want to protect their well-being and the well-being of all nature–for myself and for every other living being, now and in the world to come.
So on this day, I pause and say thank you.
I thank all of my family members who kicked me out of the house when I was a kid and would rather have been playing video games.
I thank all of those dedicated people who inspired me to love nature and to serve my fellow beings: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Henry David Thoreau, William Wordsworth, Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold….
I thank all of the animals that have lived and died throughout history for always providing me with joy, amazement, inspiration, and signs that rationality is not a guarantee of true life.
I thank the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees…and I also honor and apologize to the many species that have been extinguished at the hands of my fellow humans.
I thank all my fellow environmentalists who are cultivating a dedication to the Earth, to protecting the environment for us all and for those who will follow.
I thank anyone and everyone who is able to perceive the truly meaningful elements in life even while we have things flashing in our eyes and buzzing in our ears, while we have endless To-Do lists at work and at home, while we have more and more stuff telling us that happiness comes only through acquiring more and more stuff…
Today, Memorial Day, I pause and thank everything that makes life on Earth what it is. I thank the Earth for what it is, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death makes us one flesh and blood again by mingling my flesh and blood with the soil.
I am grateful to nature, to the living Earth.
And that is why I am an environmentalist.