Years ago, I was reading J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer and read a passage that contrasts with our own modern values about the preservation of nature. Crevecoeur was writing about his meeting with John Bartram, father of the famous botanist and natural history writer, William Bartram. The Bartrams were probably state of the art as far as colonial botany and gardening were concerned. Here’s the quote (in conversational form) —
(Crevecoeur) “Pray, Mr. Bertram, what banks are those which you are making; to what purpose is so much expense and so much labour bestowed?”
(Bartram) “Friend, Iwan, no branch of industry was ever more profitable to any country, as well as to the proprietors; the Schuylkill [river in Pennsylvania near Philadelphia] in its many windings once covered a great extent of ground, though its waters were but shallow even in our highest tides [water levels]; and though some parts were always dry, yet the whole of this great track presented to the eye nothing but a putrid swampy soil, useless either for the plough or for the
In other words, these were wetlands that couldn’t be farmed or used for grazing or hay. Bartram filled in such areas and drained them, as did most of our forefathers, whenever they found land in similar circumstances here in North America.
Today, we value wetlands in a different way than Bartram did in colonial times. The environmental movement has taught us at least something about them. Wetlands help prevent floods. They help to purify the water that runs through them. And wetlands are habitat for a wide array of plants and animals.
The question I’d like to ask, though, which may also be a bit of a simplification, is this: Is there a conflict here between the preservation of nature and the transformation of nature to human use? It is a simplification, but it is also a philosophical question. And it’s a question we are running into more and more. We run into it with genetically modified crops which can escape the farmers’ fields and grow wild or “pollute” other farmers’ fields. There is a case now in the Chesapeake Bay where a native clam is not doing so well – (because of pollution) – Should they introduce a more hearty non-native clam species even though it is certain the native clam species will lose out? This would please the fishermen.
Clearly, we need some kind of priorities. But would it be right, therefore, to arbitrarily decide that preservation should always take precedence over transformation? And can we manage the process, as we are now finding out we have to, of doing both – of transforming nature to suit our needs while trying to preserve nature in its native state as well? Is it possible, we have to ask ourselves – because with growing populations and economies, with all the pressures on the land and on preserves – Is it possible for us to do both?
When I began reading the Bible as an adult I used to dream of a world which was transformed into one huge, beautiful garden. But there are questions with that, as well. Do we want a world where every living thing is somehow allied with us – dependent on us, or adapted to us? And would that really be preservation as we think of it today?
So what are the limits on transformation, and what will be possible for us in terms of preservation in the times ahead? And will we find the answers in time to do anything about them?