Commiseration Over Nature

by Grey Gingrow, SUNY Cortland, May 20, 2008

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Dear future of Humanity,

I don’t know how long into the future human beings will read this account of a weekend in Nature. There may come a day when the experiences I share only exist in the abstract—only in this recollection of meaning I’ve derived from them. I drove my fuel-efficient coup nearly 500 miles this past weekend, in order to visit my girlfriend and some other various acquaintances in order to relieve myself from the monotony of my schoolwork. Springtime awakens wanderlust within me, every year, without fail. I had to see what I could see in the natural world around me.

Friday, after school, I drove my automobile thirty miles northbound. That’s $3.00 dollars worth of gasoline burned in my four-cylinder engine. The first stop in my journey was home, where my girlfriend met me. (Another $3.00) That night, in my tree house, we inebriated ourselves with beer and watched the sunset. Beads of light leaped from the wind-shattered surface of the pond into our eyes. When twilight arrived, we lit a citronella candle and a tike torch to feel more comfortable in the natural darkness around us. I saw the windswept flame attract and then consume a moth. I heard the swansong crackle of insect wings, a quick pop, and then the roaring of the flame.

“Cool,” Leah said.

“Agreed,” I replied. I pondered the self-destructive instincts of nocturnal insects. Why do they fly so blatantly to their demise?

“Why do they do that?” I asked aloud.

“What, fly into the fire like that? I heard they’re attracted to moonlight…they use it to orient themselves at night or something.” said Leah. The more I thought about her response, the more parallels I saw to humanity’s thirst to acquire and utilize knowledge for gain. The moth flying into the flame is like Iccarus flying too close to the sun. Both examples amounted to overzealous attempts to escape peril, and both resulted in death. Surely, if Mankind continues to utilize Nature at his current rate of consumption, he’ll become the architect of his own demise. Unfortunately, American cultural values clash with environmental health, and we pollute and destroy the same Earth who spawned us.

That weekend, we reveled in Nature’s splendor intermittently; mankind’s destructive force often stood ominous around us. The exchange of manmade infrastructure (roads, bridges, buildings, telephone poles), with Nature’s complex beauty, forced my thinking toward Man’s past relationship with nature, our current relationship, and our prospective relationship. We’ve been industrializing at an exponential rate for more than a hundred years, harnessing Nature for our own gain without thinking of the consequence. The 1960’s sparked initial public environmental consciousness on a grand scale, but America’s unbridled petroleum production in the ‘70’s engrained within our culture a permanent dependence on fossil fuel for transportation. The ‘80’s and ‘90’s brought economic prosperity with which we chose to indulge our desires at Nature’s expense. Today in 2008, there are more automobiles on America’s roads than ever.

Leah and I drove across town to Glen Cliff on Saturday. We hiked for miles atop smooth rock previously submerged by roaring waters. Now they were left desolate and sun-baked. The waters used to flow from the melting glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age, an event that took place thousands of years ago. They’d long ago deserted these rocks, literally leaving them high and dry. My friends and I sat perched upon the precipice of the once thunderous waterfall, now sad and silent. We smoked our cigarettes (how self-destructive we are!), and sipped the fragrant woodland air. High noon was fast approaching, and we had yet to reach our destination, the minuscule remains of the river that once reigned.

The insects became increasingly bothersome as the day wore on; I’ve still got the itchy sores to prove it. The mosquitoes were especially vicious. These parasites assailed me from all angles, desperately tearing into my flesh with their proboscis’ to feed and propagate their species. Their will to survive drives an instinct to make vital use of their surroundings—as is true of all living beings. Mosquitoes find a host and feed, harming the host in the process, however. One or two mosquito bites will not devastate the host’s health, but hundreds of bites all over the body would be detrimental to a human being’s body. If enough insects feed on one host, said host will most likely expire from fever. The insects then must search for a new source of sustenance.
Humans have only one Earth on which to feed—only one host. Mankind has been generating electricity as far back as 1881, and has since mined the Earth of its fossil fuels to do it. As we deplete this nonrenewable resource, we simultaneously destroy our ozone layer with greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burn-off. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Man can destroy it, but cannot replenish it. (Just like fossil fuels.) The full brunt of ultra-violet radiation will penetrate Earth’s biosphere, riddling mankind with every skin cancer under the sun. Eventually, unless we become technologically capable of searching out another planet, we will cease to live upon this one.

We are, however, becoming more conscious of our negative impact on the environment. The key to our survival lies in renewable green energy—wind energy, hydroelectric energy, and solar energy.

Green minded and curious, Leah and I ventured to the windmill fields nearby her house. We drove twenty minutes into the farmland, where these giant flowers with three spinning petals truly seemed to have sprung from the ground. The windmill blade’s arch reached 326 feet at the pinnacle of rotation. The transformer on which the propeller was mounted proved bigger than Leah’s house after close examination. To gauge its size, I eyeballed the bottom of the windmill’s 200-foot stalk, and estimated the transformer’s size on the top. A tremendous whoosh, whoosh, whoosh pulsed like an amplified heartbeat—with rhythm and life giving purpose.

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Next to one of the windmills sat a dismembered blade, like a petal plucked from a flower. It stretched on nearly 100 feet long and four feet wide. I could see long, aerodynamic curves on one side provided the effect of angular resistance to the wind, resulting in rotation when properly assembled.

I felt at peace in amidst these white giants in the countryside. I thought at least some of us humans had the right idea. At least some of us were conscious of our environment. The engineering of these devices was beautifully executed and resulted in a more organic means of electricity production. Wind energy is a great example of true human ingenuity; we have designed and built the means by which we will save the planet. I see fields of these machines in our near future, precisely aligned like crosses in Arlington. They will stand as a living testimony to our existence as an intelligent and creative species of people.

We’ve been using hydroelectric energy for years, and already knew its effectiveness (Las Vegas powered by Hoover Dam), but harnessing wind energy on a grand scale is a fairly recent human endeavor, beginning only in 1992. In coordination with solar energy technology like photovoltaic roof tiles and siding, hydro energy and wind energy will power the future societies of mankind—or possibly not.

We may self-destruct because of our addiction to crude oil and its derivative, gasoline. I drove 500 miles last weekend. That’s roughly $50.00 worth of gasoline. With costs quickly approaching $4.00 per gallon, our nation feels the pinch in our pockets. Yet, we still concede to buy the gasoline because it’s an inelastic commodity, meaning no matter how much the cost increases, the consumer maintains a more or less constant level of demand. It’s no secret the U.S. led invasion of Iraq was at least in part directed toward U.S. control of the oilfields of that region. The oil markets are telling us our global oil production is peaking. We can no longer look to the markets for a solution to our energy crisis. Only recently, because of this economic pinch, have we had the incentive to explore alternate means of energy. But who knows? Maybe time has already run out. Hopefully though, we’ve bought ourselves enough time to redesign our means of energy production and use. However, the future of western society ought not to hang upon a phrase like “Maybe”.

Unfortunately, Americans don’t want to give up their current way of life. In the 70’s when OPEC drove oil prices in America through the roof, some consumers bought Honda’s gimmick that their cars only sip fuel. Today, more and more consumers buy Hummers, trucks, and sport utility vehicles—the fuel chuggers. Energy consumption has become a cultural value, as our conservative Republican Party delegates have proven through their actions. Our thirst for oil has even mobilized our war machine in the Middle East. We’ve spilt red blood to tap black crude. This violence will continue as long as our current infrastructure demands such large quantities of fossil fuels.

My experiences in Nature last weekend also directed my attention to the negative impacts we humans have on wildlife. The Judeo-Christian morality upon which our country was founded states that Man should “subdue” the earth. The more conservative explication of this word’s meaning suggests utter domination of wilderness for the benefit of Man. However, I believe this word, “subdue,” simply means cultivate. Humans should act like respectable stewards of this magnificent planet Earth.
We don’t though.

We currently deforest 100 square yards of tropical rainforest a day. More than half of the Earth’s species inhabit this relatively narrow equatorial strip of land, and we clear it to cultivate palm oil. Orangutans, some of our closest genetic relatives in Borneo, have their homes clear-cut every day. Why are we so relentless, and will our policy of destruction only cease after we’ve annihilated ourselves?

Leah and I drove to her house to get her dog and bring him for a walk at the reservoir at the edge of town. Max is a beautiful animal—a yellow Labrador retriever equipped with soft jaws and hip dysplasia. This breed was designed—genetically engineered to carry out some minuscule function for the benefit of Man. I threw a stick deep into the reservoir. Max took to the water with a tremendous splash only surpassed in intensity by his ambition. Our current energy policy suggests we humans think we can jump into the water without making any splash.

“Look how fast he swims, Leah.” I said.

“His hip will bother him afterwards.” She replied. Max had the stick in his mouth and had turned back toward shore. He was having difficulty keeping his mouth above of the water as he swam and would occasionally cough. I looked at his mouth.

“Did you know humans have stronger jaws than Labrador retrievers?” I asked.

“Really?”

“Yeah, they were bred that way so as not to mangle the fowl upon return. I bet Max’s hip problems are genetic, too. Some breeds have blemishes in their engineering, because of centuries of inbreeding.”

Sure enough, when Max had finished swimming, he limped out of the water, as exhausted as his genetic makeup.


We had switched automobiles to pick up Max. Now Leah was driving an old Dodge Dakota stick-shift her family had dubbed, “The Red Rocket”. By now, she and I had collectively driven about 100 miles. We had yet to drive through the Adirondacks, though. The bulk of our gas expenditures were put to use for that trip. Although we burned the most fuel in this endeavor, we also experienced Nature at her finest. How like Men to set their own desires at the top of their list of priorities.

Tom Blaho, a good friend of mine, accompanied Leah and me on our journey through the Adirondacks. We traveled on well-worn highway, gawking at the massive granite faces on either side of the road.

“They blasted the shit out of that,” said Tom.

“First they deface the land, then we all contribute to air pollution simply by traveling on the road. It’s brilliant.” I replied.

“Mother Nature’s Son,” by The Beatles began to play, and Tom said,
“My father almost named me Lennon, but my mother wouldn’t have it.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because she thinks John Lennon did some terrible things in his life. He was a raging alcoholic and emotional basket case. He didn’t treat his friends, family, or himself with the respect they deserved.”

“But, he made amazing music,” I countered. “Surely that’s why you father wanted to name you Lennon.”

“That’s just the point,” said Tom, matter-of-factly, “Even the best of us…we’re all brilliantly flawed!”

“Lennon Gingrow,” I tried on for size. “That doesn’t sound half bad for a boy.”

The wilderness of the Adirondacks reminded me how small the individual Man really is, and what a significant environmental impact we have collectively. This vast array of land had been set aside, apart from development, but ironically for our own recreational purpose and peace of mind. We treat the “natural wilderness” as our personal playground too often. I say “we” because I am guilty of the same offense. I drove through the mountains specifically to escape the confines of my everyday human experience. Man instinctively wants Nature to exist so he may occasionally return to it. That’s why we go to such great lengths to sanction parcels of land specifically for that purpose.

Sometimes, however, humans confuse the meanings of “price” and “value”. I saw a timber truck in the Adirondacks, with rough-hewn logs stacked upon one another in a metal crate. More than likely, they were harvested locally. Here’s the dilemma: how do we set the price on timber so that the Adirondacks retain their recreational value? Maybe we should reevaluate our relationship to the Adirondacks without translating their value into price.

On the trip back to Leah’s house, I read a sign for “Leatherstocking National Park”. Immediately I recognized the name as belonging to the central protagonist from chapter three of James Fenimore Cooper’s, “The Pioneers.”

Passenger pigeons were at one time so numerous that a flock of them could blot out the sun. Their overabundance enticed men to hunt them. In the story, Leather-stocking warns others not to hunt the passenger pigeons to extinction. He is a skilled hunter with respect and integrity, a soothsayer and a voice of reason. Unfortunately, in reality, Mankind drove the passenger pigeon to extinction in one of his finest displays of meaningless destruction. One stone cast into a dense flock would kill several. Men could swat them down with long poles, killing them in mid-air. The sport gained popularity, and killing passenger pigeons became as American as baseball. By 1914, every single passenger pigeon had been destroyed. I’ve seen the second-to-last passenger pigeon ever known to exist: he’s stuffed, sitting in a display case in Bowers Hall of SUNY Cortland.

Today, Leatherstocking National Park is a wildlife refuge, undoubtedly named in Cooper’s honor. The author brought environmental awareness to an entire American culture before the term “environmentalist” even existed. His work identifies a major environmental problem of the times and suggests a bit of common sense may be the solution. Unfortunately, as my grandmother always used to say, “Common sense is uncommon.”

We plunder from the Earth her natural resources and inch toward our demise. Sure, Earth might be hit by a rogue asteroid or comet, but I see the end of humanity resulting from none other than human error. Nuclear holocaust, global warming, or ozone depletion will likely precede the end of days.

“We need to be a two planet species,” says physicist and Cambridge Professor Stephen Hawking. Before this weekend in Nature, I would have agreed. In retrospect of these collected experiences however, I see now there is no need. Either Man will adapt to his self-inflicted environmental catastrophe, or he will not. In the case of the latter, Life, undaunted by Mankind’s dismissal from existence, will likely persevere without him.

Photo Credit: Robert Stiene rstiene@riger.com

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