Beginning whole then fragmenting, condensing, clotting, generation by generation, descends the family wisdom. But it passed over me. Or passed under me – I wouldn’t know. For on a recent day as my hiking path wore treewards, the trail seemed more personal than any ancestral message I could recall. No idiom nor motto nor slogan stuck as deeply as a winter burr, and that distinction, so I thought, is a deficit. And immediately, doubt rang the doorbell of my mind: it taunted my family’s way without words.

In those brief, wayward steps, my body moved me, my mind restrained me. Like Kafka’s imperial messenger, I couldn’t bring what was never said; and the desire for tidbits of human belonging strode into stronger bonds. Between the trail and myself was an affection that no bromides could ever affect. That is, I found myself hiking alone on a cold winter’s day, for reasons I created myself and not those of others. Why – and when I asked myself this, I paused to outwait a deer – why did I support the broader efforts of environmentalism when nobody had ever told me so?

• • •

Nuance is nature’s identity. The naturalist’s origin, therefore, is the decision of an interminable debate: a dynamic relationship is never resolved, it always grains a closer focus. Human understanding and relationship with nature has fundamentally shifted multiple times from Stonehenge to the present. From pagan deference to the wilderness; to feudal autonomy (predicated upon land division with commons usage); to market exploitation of land and animals; to late-19th-century supposed realism and idealism (robber barons and transcendalists, respectively); to the current-day united triumvirate of industrialists, treehuggers, and citizens of double standards.

Conflicts that divide ardent industrialists from equally passionate treehuggers are defined  inter alia by strident tones and fundamental misrecognition. This despite the fact that most all contemporary humans survive from miscengenated double standards: the plastic water bottle used, then recycled; unseen daily petroleum thirst; habitat alteration…

Yet, these bound oppositions can actually produce commonalities between extreme voices and viewpoints. It isn’t equal access to information that cleaves industrialists from treehuggers. To exist without received knowledge is less problematic when a mental framework can ably sift, sort, and signify appropriate action. Unfortunately, the tactical ability to navigate the complex human-nature relationship is seldom taught in our present society – hard lessons are assumed to be better teachers than primary instruction in decision-making. Choice capably made is the construction of ethics carefully weighed.

• • •

A naturalist’s origin unfounded by ethics becomes as dangerously religious as industrial enchantment. Moderation is more difficult than acquiescence to extremes, but eliminating logging to profess profound preservationism is as counterproductive to human survival as is asphyxiating the land in economic exploitation. Murkier compromises (logging selectively) tend to directly appease no extremist, although society’s majority does benefit. Examples of compromise are legion, as are demonstrations of pure partisanship.  (Although ‘politic’ definitionally relates to all public life, even environmental politics breach public consciousness only when invoking alarmism.)

Still, because both utilitarian and deontological viewpoints agree that environmentalism does not support extremisms, enduring natural stability will ultimately derive from ethical understanding. The entire subject eludes American schools (aside from anodyne statements repeated ad infinitum like the Golden Rule), which instead teach rote instructions that promote unbalanced analyses. Rather than learning about oil spills as the natural consequence of unhealthy petroleum diets (of which every citizen is culpable), such catastrophes are framed as the unfortunate mistakes of corporations. Instead of considering the immense water consequences of Sunbelt migration, students learn about the political consequences. In both instances (and countless others) the problem is not just misplaced pedagogical priorities, it is a fundamental assumption that human’s relationship with nature can always be reduced to a time and a place; if human-human relationships demand undergirding philosophies, so too do human-nature bonds.

• • •

Rebalancing the human-nature necessitates improved self-comprehension. For environmentalists interested in persuading others of the outdoor’s merits, this self-investigation must include ethical examination. To be most convincing, begin with hyperlocal issues and recognize that nobody should actively displace others; solidarity is the cardinal quality. Received wisdom, regardless its provenance, cannot substitute for analytical understanding of the environment.

[Photo: “Arches Natl Park”, Reeva Harrison, reevaharrison.com]