My qualifications to speak
Before I venture too far into my topic, let me lay out my qualifications to speak with more than an “armchair theoretician’s” authority regarding man’s legitimate use of the world’s resources. Nothing is less valuable in this discussion than the pronouncements of mere theoreticians, who are smugly sure that their own views are precisely correct and the sure remedy to every environmental ill—and are ready to impose them on you—yet who have themselves little or no actual experience in dealing with environmental issues in the real world. My reading on this subject is extensive (everything from Rachel Carson’s alarmist book Silent Spring to Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac to Governor Dixy Lee Ray’s Trashing the Planet to Steve Milloy’s Green Hell and very much in between, besides whatever is in the news on the subject), as is my writing (numerous published articles—enough for a book or two). Yet I am persuaded that my experience is at least as extensive as either my reading or my writing, and quite likely more extensive.
A major portion of my library consists of shelf upon shelf of books about nature, agriculture, gardening, grasses, soils, composting, conservation, pomology, trees, forestry, flowers, fungi, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, fish, ecology and environmentalism. Most (excluding the reference works) have been read completely through, and in several cases re-read repeatedly. I have college credits in botany (and have taught the subject on a high school level), and when no course was available locally, bought and read through cover to cover a college text on forestry, and later another on the agricultural history of North America.
When my “zeal with very limited knowledge” in this area was first kindled around 1970, I was for a couple of years a fervent member of the Sierra Club (the only extremist organization I have ever belonged to). For a couple of decades, I also subscribed to Organic Gardening and Farming magazine, and a bit later was a member of the American Forestry Association for a similar period of time.
I have been active as a gardener for nearly fifty years. As teenagers, my older brother and I had a two-and-a-half acre market garden and sold vegetables. I have gardened in diverse climates in five different states (Kansas, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee), and have helped friends with gardens in Romania. Currently I have over 5,000 square feet of garden that I tend entirely by myself, with nothing more than hand tools. I garden chiefly for family consumption, but also to have enough to give away. I have acquired by much reading and even more experience a detailed understanding about how plants grow, and what conditions either help or hinder the process. I understand what is necessary to create conditions for continued food production in perpetuity, and I work to attain and maintain those conditions. I do, after all, plan to continue to eat regularly and well for years to come.
I have been active as a tree planter for almost 55 years. My first experience planting trees came when I was 6 years old, serving as assistant to my father as he transplanted ten or so seedling cedars from a shelter belt a few miles from our suburban Wichita house to the back property line of that residence (some of those trees are still alive). I began working full-time for a landscaper during the summer when I was fifteen, and liked the work to the degree that I worked for him again for four subsequent summers, and in later years secured employment from time to time with landscapers in Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee, and have had my own small-scale landscaping and tree trimming business for more than twenty-five years. I can say with certainty that I have planted not less than 10,000 trees in my lifetime, and even now regularly plant personally or give away 150 to 200 trees per year, virtually all of my own raising from seed (part of my garden is a tree nursery). In the past decade, I have grown more than a hundred oaks from the acorns of a tree I personally planted in 1969.
I have also been actively engaged for almost a decade in reclaiming some six acres of badly overgrazed formerly native tall-grass prairie. I have worked to suppress the coarse weeds, promote the growth and spread of the grasses, reduce and eventually eliminate the serious erosion problems along the creek that passes through the parcel of land (about 90% successful at present), manage the existing trees and plant many others to reduce the prairie winds, improve soil fertility, enhance wildlife habitat, provide future fuel wood, produce food for human consumption and improve the esthetics of the place. Most of the initial planting is complete after a decade’s labors, with the majority of the work now being routine maintenance.
In my horticultural pursuits, I am a self-described “wise use conservationist” (to adopt a term employed by Aldo Leopold, author of the justly famous and influential, particularly on me, A Sand County Almanac). I am a practitioner of the “land ethic,” claiming my God-given right to utilize earth’s resources for my own and other’s benefit, while at the same time accepting my serious and solemn obligation as a steward, a trustee, of the resources under my care, to pass them on in as good or better condition than I found them, with a view to perpetual availability of sufficient resources to support human and other life, not merely on a level of biological subsistence, but also with a view to our aesthetic needs as well.
If recycling and sustainable living merit acclaim (they might rather be characterized as merely acting with expected personal responsibility), I should get at least three, maybe four stars. Besides recycling the small stuff (which I do primarily to satisfy my inner urge to never waste anything useful)—burying in the garden all kitchen waste, recycling all newspapers, catalogs and corrugated boxes, taking to the recycler the five or so gallons of waste motor oil my vehicles generate each year, and selling the slowly accumulated metal scrap to a dealer—I annually “recycle” between 15 and 25 tons of “waste” organic material, including perhaps a ton of leaves each fall, 8 to 12 tons of woodchips, 8 to 12 tons of firewood, dozens of wooden shipping pallets (great for kindling), several hundred pounds of wood ashes, and the occasional pickup load of organic equine bio-solids. Every bit of this “waste” material—leaves, chips, ashes, wood, manure—is perfectly “natural” and 100% renewable, so if feeling good about oneself is what environmentalism is all about (and that seems to be the chief aim of many an environmental zealot), then I should rest at night with a serene self-satisfaction.
By wisely promoting the well-being of my fields and gardens, I benefit others around me directly by not wrecking the landscape, decimating the wildlife, polluting the water, creating an eye-sore, and thereby harming their property values or their enjoyment of “the great outdoors.” “Love does no harm to its neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law,” wrote Paul in Romans 13:10. And positively, I commonly have seedling trees to give away to neighbors and friends, and firewood or good quality fresh vegetables to sell (and sometimes give away) at prices equal to or even better than the local stores.
While there is an element of altruism in my efforts, there is also a great deal of “enlightened self-interest.” I will readily admit that I do these things for my own benefit and that of my family. By maintaining and improving this parcel of ground, to which I have secure title under the law, I do several things that directly benefit me—I get good regular exercise, sunshine and fresh air, without having to pay a dime to join some health club or the Y, and then after joining, drive 12 to 15 miles to use their facilities. I can get—and do get—all the exercise I need here. And not only do I get exercise, it is productive exercise. The only benefits from jogging, cycling or pumping iron are to the body—and there is no disputing their benefits. But working up 5,000 square feet of garden with nothing more than a shovel, a rake and a hoe, or splitting and stacking a rick of firewood, or loading, unloading and spreading a pickup full of wood chips or manure gives a comparable amount of exercise, and leaves a valuable by-product in its wake—a ready-to-plant garden, wood to warm the body and soul, or organic matter to enrich the soil and increase its productivity.
As you may have already deduced, I am not a panicked environmentalist who fears for the future of the planet, and who is therefore scrambling desperately to “do something” before it’s “too late.” Rather, I am a small-time capitalist who has his own self-interest (including financial self-interest) in view. Most of this waste material—which I secure entirely for free—is invested in my capital base, my land. The leaves, the chips, the manure and the ashes all go into the garden or in my landscaping beds, to improve the growth of plants and to enrich the soil so that my gardening efforts are more productive, as well as to increase the value of my land, bringing me a greater return on my investment, should I ever decide to sell the place.
I gladly work hard in the garden and among my trees and grasses, because I know that I will be directly rewarded for my efforts, and to the degree that I exert myself. Were I an unpaid or poorly paid forced laborer on someone else’s property (such as a collective farm in soviet Russia or communist Cuba), who was not rewarded proportionate to his efforts, I would have little incentive to do more than the absolute minimum required. But as a property-owning capitalist, albeit on a very small scale, my native self-interest is harnessed to highly productive ends.
A major motivation for me, then, is not that I fear for the soon-demise of planet earth (which I don’t), but that I see the personal obligation and opportunity to be both productive and to not waste or squander resources. That autumn leaves by the ton, an ideal soil conditioner and fertilizer, would be discarded in landfills when they could be easily and immediately put to very good use for agricultural and horticultural uses drives me to distraction. Why spend money for fertilizer when simply collecting leaves and working them into the soil will accomplish the same thing, and more? That literally hundreds of tons of “waste” wood are not utilized locally to heat houses (or generate electricity)—and are not even left to at least decay and return to the soil on which they grew also makes me shake my head in incredulity. That used motor oil is being dumped on the ground or into ditches (where it does adversely impact ground water) instead of re-refined into new oil, or burned for the production of heat or electrical generation is senseless waste in my thinking. “Waste not, want not” is a creed I had drilled into me growing up, and which I have long practiced.
And as I have improved the grassland, the stand of trees, the gardens, the creekside, and the landscaping around the house, I have added “sweat equity” to my property, some $10,000 to $20,000 worth, I would conservatively estimate. In the mean time, I have been able to provide a considerable fraction of the family’s food (which is also invariably fresher, cheaper, and more nutritious than comparable store-bought produce would be). I could with a bit more effort make that virtually 100%—and should I ever need to, there is plenty of already-improved land available to expand production. There is considerable satisfaction and assurance in knowing that you already are largely independent of the grocery stores, and could be, if necessary, essentially self-sufficient.
I have spent nine years and more thinning out and improving the trees on my 6+ acres of over-grazed former cow pasture, systematically removing the thorny honey locusts and replacing them with other more desirable species. The trees I have cut down, rather than being disposed of quickly and easily in a bonfire, have been converted with saw, axe and maul into firewood. At present cut and use rates, I will be another three to five years, at least, before I get through the first thinning, by which time many of the trees of my own planting will be ready for thinning or extensive pruning to supply my future firewood needs. By design, I will never run out, as each year’s growth equals or exceeds each year’s cut. I also get some firewood from the trees I professionally remove each year, as well as wood acquired for free from a couple of nearby city tree and brush dump piles (I could cut two, even three ricks of firewood—each about 52 cubic feet of wood—every single day from the wood people throw away, if I had the need—or customers). I commonly use seven to eight ricks of wood to heat my home in winter each year, and have four to six ricks to sell. I could spare myself the trouble and simply heat with electricity (which we sometimes do; our water-source heat pump is very efficient), but using wood is essentially heating the house for free. I could, if it were necessary, also cook with wood year round and never run short.
And I haven’t even mentioned my extensive experience raising small livestock.
I do have broad knowledge of nature, the environment, and man’s activities therein, as well as long and extensive experience in sustainable food and energy production. I am neither uninformed nor inexperienced regarding these things about which I dare to write, but very much to the contrary.
I am, to repeat, not driven in my actions by a gripping apprehension that “we’re all about to die” from famine, global warming, polluted air, acid rain, poisoned water, oil spills, or even Alar on apples and whatever the latest environmental extremist cause might be. I do like and want clean air, pure water, abundant wildlife, and lots of green things. But I also want fuel for vehicles, materials for home and industry, abundant and diverse food for the populace, green space for recreation, and more. We cannot have now an “all-wilderness” America, or world. “Disturbing” the natural world by farming, logging, building, paving, and a thousand other human activities is an unchangeable reality. The real issue is: how shall we manipulate and utilize the world and its resources, what are the legitimate limits, and what are our responsibilities to others, present and future?
So with extensive knowledge and even more extensive experience to guide me, we shall further address the topic of a biblical perspective on environmentalism.