The Loss of Brown’s Woods: A Letter to Scott Russell Sanders

Review of A Conservationist Manifesto, by Scott Russell Sanders (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009).

A version of this review first appeared in print in The Common Review 8, no. 3 (Winter 2010): 42-44. (TCR unfortunately does not make its content available online).

See below for a letter to the editor taking issue with this review, and my response.

≈ ≈ ≈

Dear Professor Sanders —

We haven’t ever met, so far as I know (though I have spent some time in your beloved hometown of Bloomington, Indiana). Nor can I claim to be a follower of your writings, not having read anything before your recent collection of essays, A Conservationist Manifesto. But like you, I am a Midwesterner, a lover of the Creator, a believer in the imperative of environmental stewardship, and a student of the humanities. So I hope I may be bold enough to address you directly with some thoughts about your book.

I’m afraid I’m in trouble right from the beginning. Your book starts with what might be a stirring tale of environmental vision and action, but isn’t. The opening words are dramatic: “In muggy July, police showed up at dawn with bullhorns, bulldozers, chainsaws, and guns…” (5). They arrive, as you know, to disperse that band of protesters who had taken to the trees, attempting to save from commercial development the small patch called Brown’s Woods in your hometown. You go on to thump out the story with righteous indignation and an old-time preacher’s cadence:

The protesters set against that power their unarmed bodies and their unfashionable convictions. They believe there are values more important than money. They believe that red oaks and red foxes and all the creatures of the woods deserve a home. They believe that a civilized community must show restraint by leaving some land alone, to remind us of the wild world on which our lives depend and to keep us humble and sane (5).

I hesitate to start listing the qualms raised in even these few sentences. (“Unfashionable convictions”? Really? Not for decades has environmentalism been unfashionable.) But most disturbing is what the protesters’ efforts amount to: nothing.

You expand on the Brown’s Woods incident through the length of this opening essay, “Building Arks,” framing these particular protesters as exemplars of all those who gather the wild things two-by-two, as did Noah, to preserve them from destruction. What you leave unremarked upon, however, is that the protesters failed. Brown’s Woods was bulldozed that day. They did not accomplish their aim. This is as if Genesis 6–8 contained the story of a man who built a big boat that sank in a flood, drowning himself, the entire remnant of humankind, and all the assembled biodiversity of the Earth. It seems to me that what environmentalism needs is less noble futility and more warm-hearted but clear-headed folks who can get the job done.

Here in this opening episode and at other points in the book, I’d say there is some risk that you’re enamored with the romance of long odds. Conservation appears in these pages as something of a lost cause (as, for instance, when you say “we can’t live without doing harm” [191]) — and it makes me squirm to notice that you might sadly relish that somehow. If one must fight a lost cause, I agree that it’s best to lose on the moral high ground. But I assume you’d agree it would be better still if creation care were a cause we won. It troubles me, then, that you valorize a failed protest like the one at Brown’s Woods.

You may say that those protesters did accomplish something. To the extent that speaking up, relating compelling stories of the wholeness of nature, and “imagining” (as you say) a healthier relationship of humanity with creation are all necessary components of our stewardship in nature, I agree. But imagination is not enough. As you quote Thoreau, “To be a philosopher…is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically” (190).

I’m sure many of us welcome your call for imagination among conservationists. Your essay, “The Warehouse and the Wilderness,” devoted to the importance of stories, holds much wisdom. (Here’s one powerful passage I appreciate: “By linking events, a story binds together a stretch of time and a portion of the world, something tidy enough to carry in the mind. It is a form of stored energy, like the sunlight captured in a chunk of coal, but unlike coal, which disappears in the burning, stories retain their heat and light as long as there are minds capable of understanding them” [85].) But I must confess my impatience with your epigrammatic quotation of Muriel Rukheyser, “The world is made, not of atoms, but of stories” (69). No. The world is made of atoms. I hope you haven’t forgotten that the most powerful stories — perhaps especially the ones about creation — have to be true, made real in the world, not just buzzing in the brain. We’d much rather the trees of Brown’s Woods still stood, right? Not just your praise of their felling’s noble protest?

I must say, the warning bells sounded even earlier for me, from the word manifesto on your cover. The rhetorical specter of Marx and Engels haunting the title is hardly an asset. Shouldn’t we ask more of our efforts to save the planet than a century and a half of communism has been able to deliver for the working class? Even without that particular allusion in the term, is a manifesto really what conservation needs? It’s only a small step from manifesto to rant. What we need most is the giant step to practice.

Speaking of practical matters, I commend to your attention a particular group of people who are adept at getting things done: businesspeople. I may be howling at the moon here, because your pungent disdain for the world of business pervades your book, so I fear my advice may fall on deaf ears. But that’s just my point: it seems that you may never have truly heard businesspeople talking about what they do, about what their aims are, and about what good they’ve accomplished.

I’m not talking about every businessperson here, of course. Are there plenty of sleazy ones? Absolutely, probably in about the same proportion as there are sleazy English professors. But when you call them all “merchants” (in that Shakespearean way you do), or when you talk about business aiming only “to separate [people] from their money” (102), I can draw just one conclusion: you must never have had much real conversation with businesspeople. And that’s sad, because if you could find some smart, committed business leaders to talk with — and if you could listen to them as carefully as you would wish them to listen to you — I’d bet that together you could be a potent force for conservation there in Bloomington, if not even more widely.

People successful in business often have precisely the skill set that your kind of conservation needs: intelligence in assessing situations and marshalling resources, creativity in communication, willingness to take on personal risk for a worthy goal, and above all, know how. One instance of business and government’s ability to achieve a big win for the environment was the Montreal Protocol, the 1989 international agreement that banned ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons. Oddly, you seem to regard ozone as a defeat we’re still losing, with at least seven references to it in your lists of nature’s woes, even once wrongly attributing ozone depletion to “jet travel” (174). Brush up! This historic success might encourage you — and convince you of the power of business and government for good. I’ll be hoping that your Manifesto won’t prevent gifted and environmentally aware business leaders from making an effort to engage you in conversation about shared passions and objectives.

Dialogue, in fact, is what I liked most about your book, in the places where you relate personal conversations with people who are getting things done in the world of conservation. Your essay, “Limberlost,” is a stand-out in this volume, where your conversation with people you clearly respect stands at the center. The wetland activists (and now, thankfully, caretakers) Ken Brunswick and Marla Freeman have voices that you’ve allowed to come through, as does the century-old influence of Gene Stratton-Porter, whose novels set in Loblolly Marsh have been so influential in the marsh’s restoration. It’s good to meet people like these in your book.

Particular people, you seem to like well enough, but in general we look like a problem to you. May I ask, do you consider yourself a misanthrope? You make numerous references to curbing the growth of the human population, and at one point even say “we should…reduce our population” (187). I realize this is a tactic debated by some in environmentalist circles, but you seem to take it for granted as if it weren’t even controversial. Surely you’re aware of the problematic legacy of eugenics and the unsavory whiff it can bring with recommendations of population control. Your book would be stronger either showing us how you have thought carefully through this issue or staying silent on it.

Please allow me to wish all the best, for you and your family (whom it’s been a pleasure to meet in this book), for your southern Indiana hills, and for this wonderful planet we’re stewards of. Though Brown’s Woods is gone, there’s plenty left to cherish and defend.

Yours — Jon

≈ ≈ ≈

Letter to the Editor

A letter to the editor appeared in the following issue of The Common Review 8, no. 4 (Spring 2010), with my reply, as follows:

Misanthropic Mistake

Jonathan Boyd errs dangerously when he calls author and environmentalist Sanders a “misanthrope” for addressing human overpopulation in A Conservationist Manifesto. There is no scientific debate of the fact that our population explosion is an ecological disaster. Bloated human numbers are directly responsible for deadly pollution of our air and water, widespread starvation, deforestation, desertification, soil depletion, and the worst species extinctions since the dinosaurs.

No one questions that we are overcrowded. By one estimate, from the University College, London, humans are 10,000 times more common than we should be. No one questions that we are running out of resources. The only debate is how rapidly the situation deteriorates. Does any lover of humanity really want us to reduce this sweet green earth to a place where only we — and our parasites — survive? What is misanthropic is ignoring this disaster in progress — or passing it off as an overzealous environmentalist’s imagining.

Sy Montgomery
Hancock, New Hampshire

Jonathan Boyd Responds

I hope there’s a difference between calling someone a misanthrope and asking whether he considers himself one. Asking is what I did to Scott Russell Sanders, not calling. In fact, “asking” is what we need lots more of when it comes to human population control, and it is for his dearth of questions on this subject that I criticized Sanders.

For instance:

  • Which people, which particular people, would be culled from the population in order to reduce it? (That’s where population control and eugenics have historically tripped up — right there.)
  • Can humans be faulted — yes, morally — for multiplying as all other creatures do?
  • Would it be possible to persuade humans to depopulate, or can only natural forces do that?

Let me emphasize, I don’t pose these rhetorically, with answers I regard as obvious. They are real questions. I’m afraid that rhetorical questions have occasionally overrun environmentalist discourse to the point that real ones aren’t always recognized for what they are: actual uncertainties. My disappointment with Sanders is keenest when he treats open questions as closed — or doesn’t even raise them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *