Guest Commentary: What good is it? Finding the will to care

Published 6:30 am Wednesday, September 16, 2020

By Larry Dolphin

Former director/naturalist of the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center

Nearly 40 years ago, I was working as a young naturalist for the Clinton County Conservation Board in Iowa.  In the winter I would often go into the schools and teach about nature.   At the conclusion of one of my teaching days, I had begun to haul my resources back to the van when I met a bus driver in the hallway.  He looked at me and, seeing the taxidermied red tailed hawk that I was carrying out to the van, asked, “What good is it?”

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He didn’t say it with an inquisitive kindly tone.  He said it with a great deal of sarcasm.   I turned to him and my response was immediate. I gave him a steely look similar to what I would give a misbehaving child and said,” What good are you?”  Our conversation, if you can call it that, ended abruptly.

In retrospect, this was a teachable moment that was missed.  I should have asked, “Why would you say that?”  His comment, “What good is it?” cut to the very core of my strong conviction that we are part of, not separate from, the wild things with which we share this planet.   I internalized this belief very early in my life thanks to parents, friends  and teachers.

In the Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, father of wildlife ecology, states that:

The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant:  “What Good Is It?  If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not.”

John Muir in his book “My First Summer in the Sierra,” written in 1911, said “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Over the last 170 years, our resource extraction has been on an unprecedented speed dial.  There were one billion people on this planet in the early 1800s. Now there are over 7 billion.  The buffalo numbered in the tens of millions in the early 1800s. The passenger pigeons that once  blanketed the skies are now extinct.  We knew DDT killed mosquitoes, but we had very little idea how it would impact everything else on this planet. Our lack of understanding nearly caused the extinction of the iconic bald eagle.

The questions for all of us are many. What can we do as a human species to make our planet healthier for all humans and all life who inhabit it?  How can we live more lightly on the planet?  How do we use less energy and reduce the need for extractive resources?  How do we keep the soil where it is born and the water where it lands?  How do we feed the people without destroying the land and the water?  How can we help those less fortunate?  How do we protect the last remaining wild places and the wild ones that live there?  As Henry David Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

First and foremost, we the people must have the absolute will and resolve to care and make a difference.

Second, the education of all people is imperative. I firmly believe that we need a Planet 101 course.  It would provide the framework and the foundation for all of us to understand our biological and earthly connections and how to live in a more sustainable manner.  I have heard this many times, “If we don’t know, we won’t care.”  We need to care by knowing.

Third, after gathering the facts, I would ask you to consider voting this Fall for those who share a compassion for all life, who believe that science is real, that climate change is real, and that kindness is everything.