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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Conservationists' Memorial

Today would be the 107th birthday of the American naturalist Rachel Carson.  Carson is best known for her 1962 book Silent Spring, an expose of the impact of pesticide use on the environment.  She is credited with helping to call attention to the disappearance of many bird species across the country, resulting in the ban of the pesticide DDT.  She's easily one of the most famous environmentalists of all time.

I found out it was her birthday through a Google doodle - pure chance.  I wonder how many people will go to Google today, curiously scroll their mouse over the doodle, and say "Rachel who?"

It's a sad fact, but we typically don't appreciate conservationists in this country.  Anyone who shows what is perceived to be excessive interest in conservation of the natural world is derided as a tree-hugger or an anti-business, out-of-touch whack-job, likely with communist inclinations.  That there is something vaguely sinister about wanting to protect nature.

It's not just that some people don't want to support environmental causes.  It's that they don't want anyone to.  Example? Sure...

I was trying to raise money for a conservation project a year or so ago; to that end, we were selling some merchandise in our gift shop that was ear-marked, with the proceeds going to conservation projects in South America.  A visitor was looking at one of those items with some interest, but when I mentioned what the money would be going towards (I never thought of saving the Amazon as controversial), she was disgusted.

Why spend money abroad when it could be used here?  Well, I told her that she had a point, and rattled off a few local environmental causes she could support if she wanted.  What, and give money for animals when actual human beings were impoverished and sick and needy?  Well, that's good point, I replied, there are always food banks and soup kitchens that need support.  She looked at me like I was crazy.  What, give my hard-earned money to slackers and bums?

The conversation ended at this point...

The moral of the story: people who lack empathy for the environment tend to lack empathy for people as well.  End of tangent...

I spend a lot of time in Washington, DC, and a major part of any visit to the District is seeing the monuments.  I'm not just talking about the Lincoln and the Jefferson and the other giant memorials - I mean the hundreds of small statues and plaques tucked into parks and squares, hidden behind buildings or guarding a courtyard. It seems like every time I visit, I see a new statue that I have to go over and examine, then go home and Wikipedia to figure out who the heck that was I saw, and why they needed a statue (in case you were wondering, Samuel Hahnemann originated the medical school of homeopathy).  There are statues to generals and politicians and human rights activists galore, as well as to some folks who I'm still not quite sure of.

I don't think there is a single monument dedicated to a conservationist (unless you count Teddy Roosevelt... and that's not really why he got one).  I'd love to change that - maybe a Rachel Carson Memorial, somewhere where wild birds abound, or a William T. Hornaday Memorial, in Rock Creek Park, near the zoo that he founded.  There are a lot of heroes of American conservation.  It would be wonderful to share their stories with the world.

Ideally, an interest in the past breeds action for the future.  There are plenty of great conservationists active in the field, the lecture hall, or the laboratory today, people who are working to save wild animals and the habitats the support them around the world.  There are great role models ready to inspire the next generation to action.  There are already plenty of terrible role models out there today.  It wouldn't hurt to steer kids towards someone whose goal in life wasn't to get famous or make a boatload of money, but someone who actually wanted to save the world.

As far as I know, there is no Hornaday Memorial - at least not one in granite or marble.  Instead, his memorials are the herds of bison that still roam the western US and Canada.  Likewise, I suppose the Rachel Carson Memorial is the one that you hear outside your window every spring day - the song of birds that are still with us because someone decided that they were worth saving.

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