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Can we accept a responsibility to protect this place, not just for us humans, but for our wild kin who were here first and whose habitat is increasingly diminished and threatened on all sides? Can our lives continue to be enriched by this close contact with nature if we unwittingly take part in its destruction — even if this destruction is ever so gradual?
It isn’t good enough to send a check to the World Wildlife Fund or Greenpeace, to indulge in cocktail conversation about the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest while doing nothing at all about the places where we actually live.
What makes Rappahannock so different from nearly all the counties around us?
I’ve lived in big American cities and European capitals. What none of those places enjoys is the constant interplay with the natural world. Human life in these places is restricted to a nearly total artificially manmade environment. Every step taken is on concrete. Sunrises and sunsets are walled out from daily experience. The natural horizons of nature are obstructed all the time in every direction. Quiet does not exist. The only variance is between the levels of noise pollution. It is so pervasive that people who grow up in these cities actually think it's normal to never experience silence or the simple sounds of nature. The only wild animals in cities are pigeons, rats and cockroaches. All other life has been driven out.
Humans have been on the planet for a million years. We are wired to live our lives among nature. No one has to teach us to recoil when we see a snake or a spider. Our genes have embedded these instincts over millennia. We don’t recoil when we see an automobile, even though the odds of being killed by a car are far greater than being killed by a snake. Why? Because the dangers of automobiles have not had millennia to sink into our genetic memory.
Humans thrive, indeed are most happy, when the integration of their lives with the natural world is not broken — when they are not separated from it. It’s so obvious that it hardly requires saying. Why else do weekenders and tourists flock to Rappahannock County? Because during the week, week after week, they are deprived of the simple joys of nature.
It is an unarguable fact that we are now living through the biggest extinction of life on earth since the Jurassic age. And it’s entirely due to human activity. The one process now going on that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.
Every time we pave over more open ground we are diminishing the natural world — encroaching on the habitat of our wild animal cousins. So called “undeveloped land” is home to a multitude of creatures, all part and parcel of the web of life of which we too are a part. We do not exist above nature. We are just part of it. Wetlands, marshlands, meadows, forests are the natural home to the flora and fauna of the Piedmont. This ever-threatened ecosystem will not survive unless we humans who hold the power of life and death over all other living species begin to change our ways and to adjust our priorities.
Plans for adding housing to Rappahannock County will have one sure result — the diminishment of the wild and the impoverishment of a natural life for the humans who live and work or who visit here now.
Edward O. Wilson wrote, “Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.”
If our only measure of decision making is driven by the bottom line the only sure place we’re headed is rock bottom. It might already be too late for homo sapiens globally. But we can make a start right here where we live. In our own backyards. Nature too has a value. Perhaps the most important value of all.
With this in mind I’m making a modest suggestion to the well heeled among us who want to develop the county. Consider putting your land in conservation easement. You’ll get the tax benefits and will be protecting the County well into the foreseeable future. You’ll also be saving the county from interminable rows and controversy. That alone would be an inestimable gift.
The writer lives in Flint Hill.