Several years ago I attended a conference hosted by one of the country's progressive environmental and cultural institutions. Invited were writers and artists, environmental activists, conservation practitioners, and a host of others. The event was held on the beautiful campus of the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia, a venue which exists because a forward-thinking Republican from that state marshaled the resources necessary to bring it to reality.
I arrived on that first evening with a sense of excitement; we were in for a few days of intense dialogue, debate, and communion among the conservation concerned. After checking into my room and making a quick tour of the grounds, I walked up to the first evening's festivities, an invocation and series of readings by some of the nation's best and most influential "nature" writers. After the reading, we all ambled up to a high point on the property for what was described as a "Summer Solstice Celebration." A bonfire was lit, a circle of the tribe gathered, and there was song and words of inspiration shared by the mostly white, mostly male participants, decked out in what ranged from outdoors uniforms to neo-hippy chic. This was the Birkenstock and granola crowd.
As the celebration continued it spiraled into what I can only describe as pagan ritual, with a few diatribes against those who were not in attendance – the despoilers of the land. I had a sinking feeling that I didn't belong and started to move away from the crowd. This was despite the fact that I am both a writer who draws inspiration from the natural world and a professional conservation practitioner. Why did I feel like an alien in my own land, among what should have been my tribe? As I observed the group from down the hill, its music and dancing seemed to take on a decidedly Gaia-worshipping tone, as participants gyrated and "grocked" to their own brand of eco-spiritual convergence. I felt somewhat like I was at an old Grateful Dead concert, with a bit of Native American and World Music flourishes thrown in for good measure.
The discomfort I felt at that celebration was that of a stranger in a strange land. I felt like an outsider, an interloper, like I didn't belong there. I almost left that evening, but the promise of four days of learning and connecting kept me from the road. My feelings were compounded by questions that began to form in my head: What if I was an outsider, observing this ritual from another, differently held worldview? How would it appear to me?
"I see the pagans are at it again," said a voice off to my left. I was a good hundred yards or more from the site and hadn't noticed anyone else around me. I didn't catch this fellow's name, but there he stood shaking his head between drags on a cigarette. He looked like a federal employee; at least, he was dressed like a park ranger, although I didn't think to ask.
"Why does every one of these gatherings have to kick off with rituals like this?" I asked.
"Because we think prayer circles are for psycho-Christians," my neighbor quipped. "Imagine if we tried to start a conference like this with a prayer circle, we'd be ridiculed – or stoned."
And, yet, I thought, we're comfortable with these types of displays, as if they are desirable because they are so patently other than more traditional, western religious practices. In fact, anything but rituals adopted from Judeo-Christian traditions seemed to be completely acceptable, a matter of tribal integrity. What were the religious groups in attendance thinking? And where were they?
My companion for that brief, revelatory moment had disappeared, as if he were a visiting alien or a prophet in modern clothes. His words stuck with me; in fact, his words came back to me a few days later when I listened to William J. Wade, the former president of ARCO, address the group in a plenary session. He was talking about the impact of reading Barry Lopez’ Arctic Dreams as he prepared to take ARCO's top job in Alaska in the mid-eighties. Later, he got to meet Lopez and fly over the state's many natural wonders. He was a committed conservationist and was talking to us as one who had converted to the cause, like Saul on the road to Damascus, and was doing what he could to care for nature.
The audience reaction to having such an alien in our midst was tepid and suspicious. How could an industry representative – one of "them" – deign to speak to us about appreciation for the natural world? We were the keepers of nature not the despoilers. And yet, Mr. Wade's experience was among the most genuine and authentic of the entire conference.
The session was followed by the next speaker, Peter Matthiessen, who fired rude salvos at Mr. Wade, the oil industry, and all conservatives who wanted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. It was an embarrassing moment, but one cheered by the majority of the crowd.
I felt sick. Mr. Wade was a brave fellow who had wandered into "enemy territory" without even realizing it. How could we treat another human being this way? Where was our ethical integrity and respect for other human beings? Had we welcomed Mr. Wade to the conference only to belittle his worldview, attack his politics, and make him a whipping-boy for our gripes against industry? Where was fairness and liberal morals? Clearly these were checked at the door.
After the conference, I wrote Mr. Wade a letter of apology and sent it to him care of ARCO. I'm not sure he ever received it or that I ever heard from him. I was embarrassed by my own, some of whom I considered colleagues and even friends. If an environmentalist were to be invited to speak to a conservative group or association and was attacked like this, we would most assuredly cry "foul" and decry the manners of the group at large. And yet, we were not "doing unto others as you would have them do unto you." Maybe we should have started with a prayer circle instead of a pagan rite; maybe then we would have remembered the manners we learned in childhood.
I write this now because the environmental movement is confronted with a new "alien in our midst" - Evangelical Christians. Many environmentalists are suspicious and wary of this group's motivations and, indeed, some have questioned their sincerity in articles and the electronic print media. This is wrong. We need to apply the same sort of tolerance and respect for diversity that we espouse in our daily lives and work. We need to adapt our liberal moral tendencies to be accepting of this group as a partner. They may not join our organizations and certainly will not put aside their moral visions or worldviews to fit ours, but they have an important voice and perspective on the work ahead of us.
We could learn a lot from their way of knowing this earth, despite what knee-jerk environmentalists might assume. We have not cornered the market on stewardship and care of the earth, regardless of whether you believe the earth as we know it exists through divine creation or evolutionary adaptation.
The diversity of human experience of the earth can be as diverse as the fabric of life itself; we must take heed of this still, small voice in the wilderness and nurture it, welcome it into the good fight.