Today is the official publication date of my new book. Examining my first hard copy of it, my 12-year old son said, “Mom, you didn’t dedicate this to anyone!” And in fact I completely neglected to include an introductory arrow aiming the intentions and hopes for the pages therein at a particular heart.
The Spine of the Continent is a history of the science that tells us how to preserve nature, which we are otherwise losing way too fast. It is also an update on the doings of inspiring and often amusing people — hunters and ranchers, hairdressers and waitresses — who are doing their part to keep nature going.
Because I started out as a book review and travel editor, and am pretty much a standard literary type, friends often ask me how I turned so green. One answer is that all creative human endeavor, including literature but also painting, dance, and music, has its origins in nature. The sixth mass extinction event is taking out plants and animals we depend on for ecological functioning; we also depend on their ancient expressions of life to inform our own emotional and cultural experiences. I’ve not so much gone in a new direction as headed farther into an old one.
William James described two kinds of “conversion” experiences, basically, fast and slow. He wrote that they are essentially the same thing; the fast conversion seems to come out of the blue, but in fact it doesn’t, the incremental promptings towards eureka are just more hidden from awareness. Certainly my own green conversion has been slow, and I put the marker for its inception back 15 years, to when Milton Marks III, then executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest, hired me to produce his 12-page newsletter, Treescapes. I wrote about how trees hold soil in place so other stuff can grow in it and so that it doesn’t get washed away; how trees moderate temperatures and storm water runoff, cleaning the air and producing oxygen, and how they increase property values. Rooted in the earth and reaching to they sky they integrate geological and atmospheric processes. Every major religion reveres a tree. Milton was ardent about social and environmental justice. Guess what, trees make life more fair. And they are beautiful. It is a fairly short message I enumerated a thousand ways, until one day I was struck: TREES ARE EVERYTHING! I declared this to Milton. Milton was born an old man and I startled him. Then he laughed.
One of nature’s cosmic feints is the way foreground and background shift according to day, time, place, species interaction. One of the most central points where the story turns is death. To research The Spine of the Continent I did a fair amount of traipsing in wilderness. You can tell a healthy ecosystem by signs of death: bones, fur, disturbed ground. There is life here because there was death here. Species train much of the fruits of their evolution on downing dinner – the jaguar, for example, perhaps the most physically evolved predator, uses powers of sight, smell, hearing, and movement all coordinated in a surgical strike that often kills instantly. Actually a beautiful thing.
Most of the time, we don’t like death. In our human calculus there is no direct trade off between the loss of life and a gain for anything at all. My green mentor Milton died this past August of brain cancer, at age 53. What is the point of that? When the jaguar kills it helps maintain a flow of energy and a chain of interaction that reverberates all the way down to the health of the dirt under its silent feet. The death of a friend has a different ecology. There’s a dark, empty echo at its base. To fill that space I invoke everything this man stood for, the way he did good not part-time but all the time, as if he knew it was running out. I remember his sensitivity and I can hear his chuckle. The qualities of friendship feed the soul if not the soil. Books are born and live in this ground of association, reflection, affection. Ergo, to you Milton Marks III, I dedicate The Spine of the Continent. I just wish you could read it.