By Jonathan Hicks
For me, one of the nicest benefits of this column is having the ability to tell stories. Though I do not repeat them directly, my stories tend to have similar themes.
I have already spent three weeks this year documenting a recent trip into the American West. I wrote of journeying to Arches National Park, the backdrop of Edward Abbey’s seminal book Desert Solitaire. In the more than four decades that elapsed between Abbey’s composition and my own, Arches transformed from a hostile wilderness to a tourist-friendly oasis. Back then, Abbey warned of the danger of adding a paved road. By the time of my recent visit, not only was the road paved, but many of the arches had stairs leading directly to them. If we were discussing cinema, this would be the equivalent of taking a Kubrick film and turning it over to Disney. All that was missing was a talking mouse.
So maybe Arches is not what it once was; maybe the Wild West has turned into the Mild West. Beyond that, maybe the story of my travels is simple repetition of old ideas. However, I would argue that retelling stories helps bring characters and places back to life, making them dynamic, if only within our minds. The pavement-free wilderness Abbey described in the 1960s was no more significant to him than the tourist attraction I described in 2010. Through our stories, both his memories and my own remain alive.
So often, as we tell stories that advocate for the natural world, we return to the theme of balance. Though I am an environmental advocate, to suggest that I am a preservationist would not be entirely accurate. While I believe we need to protect wild lands, I also firmly believe people must first experience natural wonder before they can ever worry about protecting it. Further, as we search for an ideal balance, to say this is simply a matter of conservation versus access would be reductionist. Without question, as environmental consumers, each of us is in the middle of telling a story about the natural world. It seems simple, but to allow others to best understand the beauty around us, we must show it to them. However, we are also responsible to ensure the protection of the waterfalls, canyons and other places we hold so dear.
Where is that balance? As nature-enthusiasts, we speak so often of balance, yet we so rarely achieve it. Despite how this may sound, I am not repeating the clichéd rallying cry that “the time is now.” Indeed, the time for dialogue is now, but it was also yesterday, and I’m willing to bet it will be tomorrow, too.
So let’s talk. Let’s tell stories. Let’s find balance. I get to tell my stories virtually any time I desire in this publication. For that, I am uniquely fortunate. In the last several years, I have told stories about the world around us: stepping on leaves frozen in the flooded banks of the Kishwaukee River; banding goldfinches at Sand Bluff Bird Observatory; identifying prairie plants at the Nygren Wetland Preserve. These places are our Arches. These places are our wilderness. Take people there. Show them the beauty. Tell them stories about why these places mean the world to you. But also tell them that if we don’t tread lightly on these sacred places, we may lose them. Abbey would have had his heart—if not his spirit—broken by the current state of the western wilderness. While Illinois landscapes are very different than those of the West, I suspect you and I would feel the same if we had to see our favorite places for hiking, canoeing and bird watching get beaten up and degraded. It is not enough just to protect Illinois’ green spaces; we must also allow them to keep the integrity that inspired us to save them in the first place.
Ironically, I suspect many of you are thinking that this is a story you have heard before. Considering how many authors have argued for preservation in the last century, on some levels you are correct…but considering how many people still haven’t heard it yet, don’t you think this story is one that bears retelling?
From the March 17-23, 2010 issue