The first springlike days are visceral reminders of how important nature is to us. Feb. 22, George Washington’s Birthday, was such a day: sunny, high blue skies, 60 degrees. Walking along the South Branch of the Potomac, I could smell the new grass poking through the soil. And some invisible new green life was poking through the winter in me, too. The birds were singing spring songs, and the bloom of the ground flowers was only a few days away, then the flowering bushes: mountain laurel, forsythia, redbud and fire-in-the-bush lighting up the West Virginia yards and mountainsides.
In spring especially I am grateful to be living in a part of the country where there is a strong sense of country left; to be living where I can still walk or drive alongside a clean river with the morning sun gleaming off its surface. In West Virginia we have an abundance of such rivers, compared to almost anywhere else in the world. How blessed we are, because refreshment can only be derived through a genuinely fresh nature.
Contrarily, if we live near a dirty river, drive to work in the morning along a polluted stream, we become in some small measure a little dirtied. Our imaginations, for one thing, are adversely affected. Great hymns of praise have been sung to living rural rivers by poets of all nations. Clean moving water has been forever a symbol for spiritual and emotional renewal. But when we know, or sense, that a waterway has become polluted, all such hymns cease. Our eyes are offended at what once would have filled us with delight.
So my sense of nature’s blessing also has a shadow side to it. I am increasingly aware that our natural riches are not valued enough to be protected and preserved as a most important legacy that we hand down to our children and grandchildren. Short-term profits, jobs, expansion, superhighways, lumber, construction always come first, in the illusion of progress. Rivers will take only so much building upon, cutting around, dumping into, and activity in general before they start to deteriorate and, in time, become unfit, unclean, with warning signs: Do Not Swim Here; Do Not Fish Here; Water Is Contaminated.
As I observe the attitudes of my fellow West Virginians, what I discover is that we care about the recreational and spiritual qualities of our natural resources, but not enough to ever make personal sacrifices in “standard of living” to save these resources for the future. Our leadership, the people with power and money, want the other kind of progress, and, of course, the followers follow. Thus nature is doomed here, as elsewhere, to become a facade, similar to what is happening out West in Oregon, where an acre or two of first-growth trees are kept along the highways, giving the illusion of a grand nature while obstructing the view of the dreary wasteland developing behind the facade.
I always think of Oregon as our sister state in the West, for she too has had her fighters against
unbridled “progress.” But now the lumber industry, and its representatives in politics, seems determined to cut down the few remaining stands of ancient first growth trees, arguing that conservation “radicals” are trying to stand in the way of a man making a living for his family.
And, true, maybe the go-ahead will provide as much as one more decade of employment for these lumberjacks and their bosses (mostly now Japanese). But then won’t Oregon, and America, still have to face the same question, only without these magnificent, irreplaceable trees? Henceforth they will be something our children can read about in textbooks, see replicas if in natural history museums, as today we look at the reconstructed bones of dinosaurs.
Earlier in our century, when technology was younger and its powers less extensive, maybe development at the cost of other considerations made sense. But in a time when a mountain can be denuded in an afternoon, or a river destroyed of all life by one industrial spill, such thinking is fatal.
I stop and sit along the banks of the South Branch, letting the welcome spring sun fall on my face. I think again of George Washington, who loved these outreaches in then-remote Virginia. At the time of his death he was one of the biggest landholders in America, and, in a way, we have him to thank for much of the original beauty that has been preserved in our state, such as the George Washington National Forest.
If he could come back for a day, what would he see? What would be think? I believe he would appeal to us, in the most patriotic language be could muster, to preserve our natural resources at all costs. I imagine him saying: “My people, the time has come to protect it. Your land. Your water. Your natural beauty. Protect it as if your very life depended on it.” For it does.