Conservation... “a careful preservation and protection of something” Merriam-Webster
In the world of environmental protection, the word conservation is often stirred into the ecological soup. If we look at its very basic definition, it is "a careful preservation and protection of something." Our extractive economy seems to have added a few qualifying words, however: a careful preservation and protection of something that is of value to humans, often at the expense of sacrificing something else.
The conservationist and ecologist Aldo Leopold spent nearly 20 years working in the US Forestry Service. During that time, Leopold viewed the land he managed as a resource, preserving some of it but leasing a lot of it for timber, mining, grazing and hunting, at times to the ultimate devastation of that land and its natural inhabitants. But during his career, Leopold grew to change his views on land management, as well as his view of his—and our—true relationship to the land. He developed the concept of A Land Ethic.
In a society built on a Land Ethic, the roles of humans and all other life on Earth shift: “The land ethic...enlarges the boundaries of the community to include the soils, waters, plants, and animals...[in other words] the land itself.” A land ethic recognizes a reciprocal relationship in which people and the land exchange their gifts, rather than one in which humans consider the land only as property to be bought, sold and even squandered without discretion.
Flood plains, for example, gather rainwater into their bowels—ground water, drinking water, life force. This land mitigates flooding, as her name implies. She stops the loss of precious topsoil, which, according to a Feb. 2021 report by NPR, has all but disappeared from more than one-third of Illinois land. This flood plain stops erosion, lessening pollution runoff that would flow off the disrupted developed land on downstream to the ever-expanding Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
According to our government’s Federal Emergency Management Agency: “Surface water, ground water, floodplains, wetlands...do not function as separate and isolated components of the watershed, but rather as a single, integrated natural system. Disruption of any one part of this system can have long-term and far-reaching consequences on the functioning of the entire system.” It is worth noting that in 2019, every county in Illinois was declared an agricultural disaster area because of unprecedented flooding that was most likely due to human-induced climate change.
Allowed to flourish as a home for vegetation, groundcovers and trees, our Mother Earth sinks carbon dioxide into the soil, trapping it naturally, mitigating climate change naturally, cleaning our air, cooling our community, offering a free solution against an existential environmental threat.
This land bears service to our indigenous ancestors, too, honoring the past and promising the future to the seven generations beyond. So, in a reciprocal relationship—based on a Land Ethic—conservation comes back to its true core; Mother Earth asks us to see the impact of what happens on the land as more than the result of a contract and deed for riches in the present moment. Conservation, she says, is never-ending, a repeated loop of preservation and protection, of gift and gratitude. For if the loop is irrevocably broken—say at 2.5 degrees celsius—the gifts will end.
And let’s remember, during the last lonely, isolated years of a global pandemic, how many of us have looked to the land—to the expanse of fields at dawn or sunset—for hope? How many of us have sat weary beneath the shade of trees and felt rejuvenated with peace by a friendly breeze? How many times did you go for a walk on the land to quiet your worried mind or find a repository for your helpless tears? The land was there for us, was she not?
And so the question now is, will we be here in this relationship for her. Will we be here not to broker bad deals that only take from the land but offer nothing in return? Or will we reciprocate in thoughtful and responsible decision making? Will we see the Earth, our Mother, as commodity or friend, as a parcel to be divided and destroyed or a part of our community—of us?