Progress Makes a Mess of Nature

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.

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