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Wilson to Thoreau on environmental conservation

Eye on the Environment

By: Frances Lamberts

One of the world’s most prolific researcher-educators in biology, especially
on preservation of the species that keep the natural world functioning,
Harvard’s professor Edward O. Wilson died the day after Christmas.

A colorful floral-bouquet picture in the jacket of his 2002 book, the
“Future of Life,” shows some five dozen of our endangered and extinct species,
including two of Tennessee’s then federally listed wildflowers. Birds, beetles
and butterflies are visiting the depicted flowers, snails cling to the stalks
and grasses, toads rest on a gourd, a rodent, fish, snake, and turtle move at
the bottom. Not depicted are any invertebrates or the millions-rich fauna and
flora underfoot and underground – the “little things” which Wilson holds “make
the world go round.”

In the prologue to this book, he addresses- es “apostrophically across 150
years” another giant in study and love of the natural world and its
conservation, Henry David Thoreau, on occasion of a Biodiversity-Day visit to
Walden Pond. There, the latter had built a cabin in 1845 for two years of
Spartan-like living, nature observation and writing, interrupted midway by a
night in prison because, as an ardent abolitionist and opposing the
government’s then war against a neighboring country, Mexico, he had refused to
pay his poll tax.

Wilson relates to Thoreau many drastic changes since that time; the giant
trees which used to clothe the landscape having been harvested – for homes and
ship masts, railroad ties, fuel and many other uses – and the American
chestnut, then composing a quarter of the eastern forest, having been “done in
by an over- zealous European fungus.” Much of the landscape, he says, now hosts
“scraggly second-growth descendants” of the earlier, magnificent forest giants.

Although coal came to supplant wood for heating and industry’s energy needs,
it drove the industrial revolution’s landscape changes at an even more furious
pace.

Toward the end, Wilson finds he has to report quite bad news, in that the
natural world is “disappearing everywhere before our eyes” and that, for the
other life, the species with which we share the planet “an Armageddon is
approaching at the beginning of the third millennium.” But then, recalling how
Thoreau had sensed and sought to engage people’s capacity to love the natural
environs and its wildlife, he states hope and optimism that the destructive
“technoscientific forces can now be harnessed to save it.”

Henry D. Thoreau’s life ended prematurely at age 44. So did Edward O. Wilson’s
for our time, though he made it to 92.