Is Nature No More Than a Museum Exhibit?

1st part of a series: Saving Our World.


I stand before a crowd of about a dozen guests, seated on hard plastic and metal chairs. The lights are dim. A wall of glass and stone behind me separates us from darkness. I explain to the guests, before we begin our tour, that there are a few things to go over. “Use the hand railings, feel free to take pictures, no food or drink allowed so could you please use the lockers, and last and most importantly don’t touch the walls or formations!”

“You could permanently damage them and we want to preserve them for future generations.”

It’s the thesis, the battle cry, of the preservation movement. Preserve and protect. We want denizens of the time after NOW to be able to see this too. Think of the children. And so on.

We head down into the cave, a small natural wonder developed for tourism. The guests exclaim and gasp over the depths, the stone, the darkness… Some still try to touch at first. I remind them, again, to enjoy with eyes only.

It isn’t until later that we see why: some of the formations are broken from past guests. Some parts of the walls have been discolored by their dermic oils. They didn’t care, at first, about preserving the cave. “Touch here! Look at this! Feel how these formations are solid rock, though they look like mucus!”

Our attitudes towards natural places have been improving, to be sure. At first, everyone who visited marveled at the spectacle and wanted to either take a piece home (break off a stalactite, hunt a trophy animal, collect interesting rocks or fossils) or tame what they saw. The natural world was too wild and dangerous for mankind. We would render it docile and pleasant—just another garden to stroll through on a Sunday afternoon, occasionally stocked with game animals for the noble sportsmen among us.

This changed when we realized how very dire the threat of extinction to those game animals. Of course it was the creatures we had an economic or recreational interest in that we chose to preserve first; their habitats followed in the list of things to be preserved and managed.

Our understanding of preservation has dramatically improved. We look at public parks and wildlife refuges with an ecological perspective. We must protect keystone species, umbrella species, maintain predator-prey interactions, remove invasives that are outcompeting natives, and so on.

But still, we have a damaged view.

These natural wonders, like the cave, are protected in bubbles. They are museum exhibits. We drift along, marvel at the spectacle once more, learn about how they work and why it’s so important to protect them—and we leave.

We leave.

We return to the comfort of our homes. The cities and suburbs are our habitats, stretching infinite and geometric and anything but green in every direction from us.

We visit the little parks and gardens for a bit of refreshing verdant life. We gawk at falcons and foxes and deer that pass like ghosts through our backyards, remnants of what was. We name our housing developments after the natural places that once existed there, that which we destroyed.

And on three-day weekends, we head off to Yellowstone, to the Grand Canyon, to Carlsbad Caverns, to the Great Lakes, to Niagara Falls. Occasionally we learn about these places (though mostly we just watch and play). But we just visit and leave again.

The challenge now is to transition our movement from preservation to conservation, to connectedness.

I do my best with this. When I talk about bats I emphasize that they are good for humans and the ecosystem (they keep those repellent insect populations in check!) and so we must monitor them for White Nose Syndrome (and please treat them nicely, implied in my words). That’s really the only time I can get people thinking about their connectedness to something as strange and self-contained as a cave. I wish I could do more on a larger scale. Occasionally I ask them about why they’re visiting. Most of the time it’s simply because they’re passing through or live nearby and were curious, wanting to see something new and interesting.

Often, though, it’s because they love visiting caves or other natural wonders. They love to explore and experience the natural world. This is the mindset that I hope spreads and clicks. We all love to go see cool new things when it’s convenient, but we should devote more of our attention to thinking about our connections to nature and the natural places we visit.

You can’t boat on that lake if it’s polluted by industrial or agricultural runoff from upstream.

You can’t go see wolves hunt elk (or hunt them yourself) if there is not enough space to support a population of wolves or elk.

You can’t go to the park today if the air pollution is so bad you shouldn’t go outside.

The only exception to these rules would be geologic marvels (like a cave, or cliffs, or the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone), immune to pollution and only vulnerable to direct physical destruction. And, of course, pockets of nature so strictly maintained that they aren’t really natural at all anymore. Places like zoos. We can go see animals from all over the world… but are they really from all over the world if there are none of them left in the wild—in those places they were once from?

Are tigers part of nature if they only exist in captivity?

These protected, controlled little pockets should not be all we have. If we want nature to remain, then we need to let it grow beyond our contained, protected bubbles.

We need to let those animals drift into our cities. We need to remove invasive species from our yards and help native plants grow. We need to encourage green spaces throughout our neighborhoods and discourage development of natural areas into commercial ones. We need to search for corridors between patches of wild land and let the wildlife roam where they will. We need to make sacrifices, sometimes, about how much space we are willing to give to the other life in our world. We need to become so familiar with “wild” that it is not wild anymore.

Most importantly, we need to be aware of how we are connected to our world. We affect it with everything we do. Building this awareness and letting nature retake land and reconnect itself will bring a positive feedback loop: with more nature comes more awareness and more awareness comes more value on and protection for nature and so on.

So, next time you visit a national park or a waterfall or a cave or just go hiking through the woods or watch songbirds at your park: think about what you’re seeing a little harder. What can you do to protect places like this? How are you affecting it? How is it affecting you? How can you ensure the less spectacular, less noticed examples of nature are still protected even though they aren’t as economically alluring as a natural wonder?

See yourself as connected to this world. That is the first step in saving it.

If we lose that connection, then nature might as well be relegated to the museums. Parts of it already are: just ask the passenger pigeon or the thylacine.

Shall that be the fate of it all?


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