September and October have been two of the heaviest travel months of my career in conservation so far. I have seen the sun rise in Washington D.C. and set in Portland on the same day. I’ve traveled to the political heartland, and I’ve driven thousands of miles around Oregon.
With the demise of creative music and extremely limited options among the mainstays of the music industry, I have been listening to books on tape, or, more correctly, audiobooks.
In fact, audiobooks have been my one solace in a world where I spend as much as 15 hours a week on social media for work.
My reading life migrated to the digital world after 2007. Since then, there has been a serious decline in paperbacks or hardcovers decorating my nightstand.
I listened to podcasts for many years but found that unless they retained a show-like quality, they took on the characteristic of an old morning radio team trying too desperately to keep listeners.
And then I found Audible.com and realized that the hours spent driving through the mountains and deserts of my state could be, if not counted as spending time in the wilderness, which is good for the soul, recouped as educational hours or even much-needed escapism.
For many trips now I have listened through a huge list of books I have always wanted to read, like Neil Gaiman’s entire catalog and Yuval Noah Harari’s two-tome history on homo sapiens and their future here on earth.
Starting in October, I decided to re-visit three of the most influential books of my life, decades after first encountering them in high school and later in college.
They are Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac,” Rachel Carson’s “The Silent Spring,” and Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire.”
What surprised me as I listened through hours of someone else reading the books to me as I drove to Tri-Cities, Klamath Falls, Burns, Gold Beach, Roseburg, Bend, Tillamook, Philomath, Newport, Pacific City, Portland or Ashland was the accuracy of their predictions for our future in books that were published mostly near the middle of the last century.
Looking at the almost 30 hours of reading time to get through the three legendary environmental books, I figured the project might last me through the fall. Here we are in the middle of October, and I’m haunted a little by the impression their voices have left on me after thousands of miles and almost continuous listening over the last two weeks.
To sum it all up, we have failed to listen to the warnings for more than half a century now. We’re still no closer to a common understanding about how massive changes on the landscape have impacted wildlife. We didn’t listen to Carson’s narrative on the poisons we created to make it more comfortable to be outside, and our remaining wildernesses are being tossed up to the highest bigger for oil production.
Yes, there have been successes of a sort. Grizzlies are repopulating their old haunts in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Wolves have made a return to the Pacific Northwest. Cougars have been re-established in the mountains of the west and are starting to show up in the Midwest with some regularity.
But what really frightens me is that we have far more understanding today than we did when these pioneers wrote about the precipices they saw from afar.
We know better. And yet we have done very little to change our trajectory.
I see friends lamenting the untimely and unnecessary deaths of family members and close friends due to cancers and diseases which have direct correlations with toxins and poisons that we have introduced and largely forgotten about since Carson mentioned them before her untimely death from cancer in the 1960s.
And that’s just the human element, the most selfish reaction I can possibly have to these 30 hours of sounding alarms.
That is to say nothing about the impact on our wildlife, our bugs, our fish and now the oceans that are whipping up bigger and stronger storms and holding billions of gallons of warm water devoid of life and oxygen.
There will come a moment when it’s too late. Some debate that we’re already past that point. Others believe there is hope in more civil and insightful generations to follow.
But why didn’t we listen to the voices of Carson, Leopold and Abbey? Why didn’t we listen to the voices of countless other writes and philosophers who left us good, practical warnings at a time when we might have moved this giant ship of fools out of the path of the iceberg?