American Birding Podcast



“The Will to Conserve”


The opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is brilliant. It is diabolical and disagreeable. I can think of no other work of literature that starts off so magnificently. Let’s take a look:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I can’t stand it. It goes against my whole worldview. And it’s a stroke of genius.

It’s okay to admire and disagree with a writer. I’ll take it a step further: I most esteem the writers who get under my skin, who challenge my beliefs, who upset the applecart.

Which probably explains why I’ve long been drawn toward the genre of American nature writing.


Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)

American nature writers aren’t especially “nice.” The first and perhaps greatest of them all, Henry David Thoreau, was sarcastic and disillusioned about America and its institutions. Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac opens with a broadside on the American way of life (“Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land.”) and concludes with an eerie and despairing reflection on “the still unlovely human mind.” The contemporary American nature writer Terry Tempest Williams, in her unique and disquieting Refuge, recounts the satisfaction of making an obscene gesture at a trio of rednecks who had been harassing a Burrowing Owl colony.

I’ve said it already. I admire these writers. Their rhetoric isn’t affirming. They’re not saying, “I’m okay, You’re okay.” Instead, they get through to me with their hortatory rhetoric. They’re saying to me, in effect, “Don’t just stand there, Do something.”

Fine. Works for me. What about the rest of us? It’s a question I ponder all the time. It affects nearly every decision about what gets published in Birding magazine. It influences my conduct in practically all my birderly affairs: at ABA staff meetings, in conferences and conventions, and anytime I’m out birding with other people.

One might well argue that the hortatory, at times even hostile, rhetoric of American environmentalism is ineffective. Was it a self-fulfilling prophesy when Leopold wrote that conservation is getting nowhere in America? It didn’t help matters, one might argue, when Leopold famously proclaimed, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” Everywhere on the pages of A Sand County Almanac there is a clear division between “us” and “them.”

Leopold is undeniably brooding. Williams lashes out in anger. Thoreau’s disobedience is persistent, more than 150 years now since the publication of Resistance to Civil Government. Leopold, Williams, and Thoreau are indisputably great writers. You’re unlikely to persuade me to the contrary. But you might succeed in persuading me that their rhetoric is increasingly misaligned with the environmental movement in the 21st century.


The question of rhetoric was very much on my mind as I worked with author John Rakestraw on his commentary, “Most Birds, Least Harm: Ethical and Effective Birding in a Time of Peak Oil, Economic Collapse, and Mass Extinctions,” in the July/August 2013 Birding, pp. 56–60. Rakestraw and I have broadly convergent agendas and lifestyles. We aspire to be green. We aim to spread the gospel of green.

But how? What’s the best way? Let’s cut to the chase: Was John Rakestraw’s article effective?

imgresPart of the mission of the ABA, published in each and every issue of Birder’s Guide and Birding, is to promote “the will to conserve.” (See p. 2 of your most recent Birder’s Guide, or p. 4 of your most recent Birding.) That’s strong wording. We ABAers aren’t being directed merely to “talk about conservation” or “give some thought to conservation.” No, we’ve been charged to actually do conservation.

The question before us isn’t whether the ABA should have a conservation agenda. That matter seems settled. Instead, the question is one of outcome: How do we best promote “the will to conserve”? It’s a question facing both me and Birder’s Guide Editor Michael Retter. He’s got substantial conservation content planned for the 2014 volume of Birder’s Guide, and I’ve got a lot in the hopper, too, going forward with Birding.

What advice do you have for Michael Retter and me? What sort of green rhetoric is most likely to deliver results? How can the ABA’s publications most effectively promote the will to conserve?