[ by Carl Safina ]
Early that morning there was blue sky. No smoke, no hijacked planes. Rivers of migrating swallows flowed over the marshes, and flocks of terns formed and broke and formed again over a calm ocean, chasing migrating bluefish for the anchovies they were pushing up.
I was driving along the shores and marshes of Napeague State Park on Long Island, New York, savoring the oasis within and along its broad borders. I had just bought a small house nearby as a place for writing, a place to retreat to when civilization's thorns seemed to outnumber its roses. I thought my best work might be prompted by the air and sky, the shoreline, the egrets in the marshes, the darkness of the night sky, and the brightness of the moon and stars there. Then, as I was driving, came the awful news: the attacks, the confusion. All the planes were grounded. And suddenly the skies held only birds.
The bell-clear air hinted "autumn." Autumn has come here each year at this time for at least 10,000 years. Before that, as earth's climate slowly changed and ice ages came and went, the arrival of autumn slowly, slowly shifted up and down the slowly changing coastlines. For millions of years these same species of animals have been filling the skies and waters, responding to the changing world, propelled by the energies of their annual migrations.
Nature is, by definition, wild and uncivilized. But it is not the world's most savage aspect. The worst nature has ever done is to kill us young. Totalitarians, racists, Nazis, militias, terrorists, pro-government forces, anti-government forces, religious fanatics, and other malignant outgrowths of civilization have also killed us young. But they have added elements of torment and torture utterly unknown in the nonhuman world. In the past century alone, civilized people have killed millions of other civilized people, and they have utterly obliterated hundreds of traditional human cultures.
I am drawn to the wild not because it is wild but because it is sensible, logical, ordered, stable, resilient. Wild nature is everything we're struggling to regain in the grief, rage, fear, and deep sadness following the attacks. In the shock of calamity, the ordinariness of nature is what proves most resolutely comforting.
Protected areas are a civilized society's strongest signs of prosperity, farsightedness, and greatness of spirit. Yet in the wake of the attacks some see nature conservation as an inappropriate luxury. Even thoughtful conservationists have wondered whether their concerns are now important enough to command attention in such troubled times. Some politicians seek relaxation of protections for places like our Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But pushing aside conservation in time of crisis would be a turning aside of wisdom, a decivilizing step. Any new assault on nature would compound the terrorist attacks, extending the damage to larger landscapes, extending the terror to other species. It would erode precisely those places we turn to for our own refuge, inspiration, and spiritual renewal.
In the stunned days following the horror, I returned often to those protected areas that form the center of gravity of my own life on Long Island--the coastal state parks and the nearby national seashore. With New York City smoldering just over the horizon, I sought to reassure myself that there was sanity and stability far outside the fits of politics and fanaticism, far beyond the timescale of human civilization. I looked for evidence as trivial, as subtle, as magnificent as a monarch butterfly fluttering toward Mexico, or a streaking merlin deftly plucking a zigzagging dragonfly from over the dunes.
Does nature matter in time of crisis? More than ever.
Carl Safina is the founder of Audubon's Living Oceans Program. Last year he won a MacArthur Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award for nonfiction.
© 2002 NASI
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