I had the honor of attending a talk today by naturalist David Sibley, who is the author of the famous Sibley Guide to Birds. He’s made his life observing birds and spoke about the timeless nature of such an activity — birds today are largely the same way they were 1,000 years ago. They regularly travel great distances without regard for national boundaries.
Yet our environmental efforts these days — preserving a natural habitat here or there for X species — is a patchwork quilt that doesn’t stop the underlying impetus for the need for these efforts. That impetus? Unsustainable worldwide growth; we are simply on an unsustainable environmental path for the natural resources of our planet. Earth simply cannot sustain 3 or 4 United States of Americas, and yet more (e.g., China, India, EU, etc.) are in the works.
Sibley quoted Henry David Thoreau aptly here, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil, to one who is striking at the root.” So while we have the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy and a dozen other organizations all working on the branches, nobody is facing the root.
Which brings me to the Irish.
I only spent a short week over in Ireland earlier this month, and yet I still stand amazed at my trip. I didn’t travel to Ireland’s big cities of Dublin or Belfast, instead sticking to the southwest and south central areas of the country, areas characterized by their simple rural and agricultural nature and small towns. But unlike America’s midwest — ruled by and large by huge corporate farming operations outsourced to the only remaining farmers left — the vast majority of Ireland’s land is owned and farmed by small family farmers raising milk cows, cattle, sheep, and assorted livestock. This is the way it’s largely been for hundreds of years, and it remains unchanged in the 21st century.
Sure, sure, there are more housing developments here and there, and the Irish will happily tell you tales about Germans who try and live in Ireland, only to move away after a year or two because they can’t stand the laid-back, slower (and less regimented) way of life there. But by and large, Ireland (the vast majority of the land anyway) is virtually the same way it was 100 years ago. The roads are tiny, the hedgerows are everywhere, and the farm fields dot the landscape as far as the eye can see (even up steep mountainous angles).
The Irish I met in the west and southwest are simple, real people. The pubs are equivalent to America’s donut shops, except they come with alcohol (and our donut shops only come with cholesterol). But unlike our local donut shops, many people in an Irish pub will gladly engage you in a conversation without knowing a thing about you. I can’t tell you how many times we chatted with people about all sorts of topics, it just seemed like they were social and didn’t mind chatting up strangers. Maybe that’s how they pass their days, I don’t know. But I found it refreshing and telling.
I feel stifled in America sometimes. I’m in the middle of reading an in-depth history of the American Revolution, and even just 220 years ago, America was a very, very different place than it is today. The Industrial Revolution in America (in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s) changed much of the fabric of America, and the return of WWII veterans changed the rest of it. The family farm went the way of the Dodo Bird, and living in suburbia became the new American Dream. Today it means double-income families living in a nameless development, pursing a career working for a nameless corporation in order to make even more profits for nameless shareholders whose only interest is maximizing said profits above all.
Something was lost in the revolution of America, in the emphasis on technology and modernization and interstate highways that criss-cross our great nation. We lost the ability to relate to our fellow human beings, especially those we don’t know personally. We lost the ability to express simple everyday emotions, repressing them behind a facade of social faces we put on for work, school, parties, and even our friends and significant others. We too often place more value on things (e.g., “Did you get the new BMW or Coach bag?”) over people. And the people we value in America beyond our own family and friends (if you’re lucky, as too many of us simply discount our family and friends) are stranger celebrities who neither need nor deserve it.
Sometimes I feel lost in the society I live in, the good U.S. citizen that I’m supposed to be. I feel at more home in strange countries like Ireland, because the Irish don’t seem to have lost their connection to life itself — not simply to their loved ones, but to the others in their community, to the land they live from, and to their connection with nature.
If we can learn anything from Sibley, Thoreau, and the Irish, it’s that we can’t simply take for granted our connections with our environment. Our life is directly connected to the land we live off of, and the sooner we learn and accept that lesson, the closer we’ll be to living a fuller and more synchronous life.