Editor’s note: This posting was authored by Pat Ford. Many years ago, Pat served as the executive director of ICL. Most recently, he was the executive director for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. Pat lives in Boise, Idaho, and periodically contributes to the ICL blog.
Seven days before November 8, I don’t know why I am thinking about apocalypse.
Jackson Browne opened his October 13 concert in Boise with "Before the Deluge." It’s a nature apocalypse song he wrote 40 or so years ago. Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot come to mind for other such songs, with individual stamp, around that time.
Nature Apocalypse is a name for a category of songs (and books, films and so on) whose premise is global ecological collapse. For me, along and intermixing with the songs, are the apocalyptic threads in American conservation and its disciples. These range complexly from the hardest science to the sheerest fantasy.
Here, without the music and thus the power, is the second verse of Browne’s song:
Some of them were dreamers
Some of them were fools
And for some of them, it was only the moment that mattered
With the energy of the innocent
They were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature
Gathering the tools. Before the concert, I was reading Nancy Jack Todd’s chronicle of New Alchemy Institute. In the 1970s, when this song was new, New Alchemy inspired me, and many, with its visionary but also rigorous gathering of tools. Founded by Nancy and John Todd, and Bill McLarney, New Alchemy designed and tested ecological technologies for sustaining while inhabiting our places and planet. Wind power, energy self-sufficient building, small-scale aquaculture, food production, and clean water cycling were their work areas, which over time they integrated in extraordinary bio-shelters, boats, and stream and water-restoring systems of ascending scale, many in the Northeast. The fruits from their tree of vision and practice are everywhere today.
In the song, after the verse above, things go to hell fast, as a collapsing earth unleashes "the magnitude of her fury/in the final hour." As a young man finding my way into nature conservation, apocalyptic threads of this kind laced unexamined through my psyche. I came over time to examine them. The New Alchemists’ marriage of planet-scale vision with place- and case-driven scientific rigor helped teach me to do so.
In a rock song, you don’t want to look too closely for fealty to facts. In conservation, nature apocalypse mixes two natures that need steady attention: the actual natural world, and the images of that world we all construct and then drape on the actual. Evidence is strong that our species is an agent of apocalypse in the actual natural world. And strong too that disciples of conservation, like all disciples, see that evidence through pre-existing apocalyptic frames. In art the two can fruitfully tangle. In most conservation it is obligatory to try to untangle them. For me this plays out with salmon. No doubt that many salmon face extinction at human hands, yet no doubt also that the actual events and evidence strike a charged chord within that’s about me, not salmon.
Thus I think self-distance, some combination of humility, skepticism and scientific method, is a principle for conservation.
It was great to see Jackson Browne sing "Before the Deluge." Of that covey of songs from the 1970s, for me Gordon Lightfoot’s "Too Late for Praying" holds up best. It is quiet, not an anthem. It’s about the waters we are leaving our children. Its chorus’s last line does not assert, it asks: "Is it too late/for praying?" In the middle repeat he varies it: "Is it too late/for trying?" He leans on the last word, and in the short suspension that follows I think his heart says, as mine says, no. But he doesn’t say it; he asks the question, and leaves music and listeners to answer. Song-craft too has self-distance.
Julia and I will see old Mr. Lightfoot play in late November at Massey Hall in Toronto, where he has played fifty-one years. Nancy Jack Todd’s book about a lifetime inventing how to restore waters, making the path by walking it, is A Safe and Sustainable World: The Promise of Ecological Design.