The topic of the 2001 proceedings of the Texas Philosophical Society was “The Land.” Speakers were selected to address various issues related to the land. Inspired by the familiar saying that “Texans love their land,” I asked keynote speaker Laura Jackson to address the question “What does it mean to love the land?”
During the Sunday summary session I asked our panel of speakers and audience members to address an additional question: What key cultural changes—if any—are needed if we are to love our land in a way that restores rather than diminishes its health and beauty as well as its ecological well-being? What follows is a synthesis of comments from that session and my own closing comments on these two questions.
At the start of the summary discussions, speaker Bill Jordan spoke to the issue of cultural changes that could benefit the land. In considering what it means to be, in Aldo Leopold’s words, “a plain citizen of the land community,”
I would contend that within such a concept of beauty lies an understanding that the many features and forces of the natural landscape—rock, soils, water, plants, animals, precipitation, fires, floods, and predation—relate to each other as a functional whole. These forces of nature can be harsh, even deadly, but at the same time beautiful in that each plays a part in the whole of creation. This leads to the deeper understanding that what affects one aspect of nature also affects the whole.
In turn this deeper understanding suggests that our culture must learn to value the rest of nature as much as we value ourselves. A cultural change in how we define “community” is needed. We must extend the notion of community to include all life forms that live in the place we inhabit. For if we persist in defining community as only our human community, we will continue to destroy the rest of creation around us—and ultimately threaten our own existence.
Keynote speaker Laura Jackson, in her remarks during the summary discussions, stressed that we must assess the environmental costs of our technologies, including those of food production, mobility, and connectivity.
During the discussion session member Jerry Supple suggested that ethical investing is yet another required cultural change needed for the preservation of land. We as stockholders are demanding profits at the expense of the environment, Supple pointed out, and until we recognize and correct this, we are contributing to the degradation of our land and environment.
Speaker Parmesan and member Lloyd Lochridge each suggested that our culture should replace an era of conflict between environmentalists and developers with one of communication and compromise. In this shift, those who seek to protect and conserve the land would form relationships and alliances with those who seek to develop it. In this new era, both sides would seek a better understanding of the other’s perspectives and concerns: developers would realize that good environmental policies can be good business, and environmentalists would realize that land preservation becomes more feasible in a strong economy.
The summary discussion session entailed lively comment about the need for public access to natural land and about stewardship of land in public versus private hands.
Speakers Parmesan and Sansom agreed with Katherine Smith, Jerry Supple, and others in the audience that land is not necessarily better cared for when it is in the public domain. Some private landholders have proven to be excellent stewards of the land. However, there was a general consensus that public access to natural areas for coming generations will be key to the preservation of a land ethic. Terry Hershey expressed a concern that
To ensure a future in which every Texan will have the opportunity to form a meaningful relationship with the land may require some deep changes in our thinking about settlement patterns, perhaps even a new “American Dream.” Would it be possible for our culture to move from the American Dream of home ownership on a sizeable plot of land to a new concept that is sometimes referred to as “clustering”? This concept embraces more compact living patterns in exchange for the preservation of a healthy natural landscape with public access to natural areas.
Perhaps the biggest cultural change needed is the simple recognition that we are not in control of nature. While we have exerted great influences upon the forces and cycles of nature, we can now see that we are not in control of the consequences of this influence. For example, widespread use of DDT in the 1950s and 1960s led to one of the first realizations of this fact and nearly cost the extinction of many bird species, including the American bald eagle. More recently, air and thermal pollution are understood to be responsible for a global warming pattern that is predicted to erode biodiversity, diminish crop yields, flood shorelines, and bring about other undesirable outcomes long into the future.
We need to recognize our dependence on a healthy landscape that is ecologically whole. And we need to learn to work with nature rather than in opposition to nature to maintain a healthy landscape. Such a landscape will be diverse, containing the full spectrum of plant and animal species representative of its region. Such a landscape will function to provide clean water, clean air, and the continued accumulation of fertile soil needed for both wildlife and human populations.
The proceedings were marked by a general consensus that the education of children will be key to any cultural changes we desire to effect in support of a genuine love of the land. Children need to learn about place in a very deep way—through a kind of learning that isn’t happening today. Just as children learn all the other essential survival skills, such as reading, math, science, and social skills, so too is knowledge of one’s own place on earth an essential skill—to know the landscape, its watershed, soils, plants, animals, and the relationships among all these things. For example, because plants form the foundation of life for animals and people, our culture needs to educate our children and all of our citizens about the unique plant heritage of each and every place. It is best to learn these things firsthand, through direct experience. Future generations of Texans, if the current trend of estrangement from the land persists, will have no concept of what a natural landscape is about.
In summary, loving the land is not solely about valuing the land as an economic resource, though that is of course part of why we value it. Those of us who make our living by farming and ranching or in forestry, mining, and other activities may especially value land for its economic benefits. Beyond this, there is an emotional attachment to the land that leads to a deep concern for its future, for its character, its soil, its water, and all the things that live upon it. This kind of love is rooted in a deep connection to the land, in an intimate knowledge of the land.
How will Texans of the future be able to love the land if it is a land they don’t see and have access to, a land they don’t walk upon? If we want future generations to love the land as our ancestors did, we will have to take an approach to education and cultural experience that is different from the one our culture is taking today. We will have to find a way to re-instill in ourselves and our children a deep understanding similar to that known to people who lived directly off the land, but also informed by our increased understanding of the biological sciences and ecology.
At the end of the day we must ask ourselves: Can a Texan be a Texan if he or she does not know the land and love the land? It is a proposition for all Texans to ponder.