When we think about conservation, we often treat it as the equivalent of preservation. I don’t think they should be thought of as synonyms.
Life is change, and when we try to preserve something we’re usually destroying its essence. We take something and put it behind glass. It stops being a real part of the world. It’s preserved now. It’s protected. It’s safe. But like embalment, it’s a mask that tricks us into believing something that has been removed from our world can still really be a part of it.
Rod Dreher writes about conservation, and gets a bit at why I think it’s different than preservation:
The word “conservative” was always problematic. It seems to imply that conservatism is all about conserving something already achieved. But conservatism wants to conserve the best of the humane heritage because the latter is an indispensable guide to finding and promoting the good, the true, and the beautiful in the present. The spirit of civilization must forever adapt to new circumstances. …
If I were a social or religious conservative who had money to donate, I would not give it to political causes. I would use it for strengthening our institutions as places of effective cultural resistance to the times we’re in, and the times that we’re entering. Make them function like the Benedictine monasteries of Western Europe did during the Dark Ages: as institutions and communities that bear and pass on our moral and spiritual vision in a time and place that does not share it, so that one day, far into the future, it will be there for rediscovery, and the rebuilding of society out of the ruins.
While he’s writing about Christianity and its relationship with Western culture, I’ll stick here to talking about conservation purely as an act.
So what kind of act is it to conserve something? In Conserving Mount Nittany, I suggest that conservation is born out of love. We conserve something because we love it, and want others to have a shot at participating in that same love.
We can love things we preserve, that sit behind that glass, like a painting or museum-piece. But the things we conserve are the things of everyday life. The family heirlooms that include our great-grandparents Bible, maybe, or rocking chair, or wristwatch. Or farmland, or London Plane tree. These sorts of things we conserve, by which I mean we keep them alive. We keep them in our lives, but they change as we change.
The pages of scripture collect the fingerprints and dog ears of generations that lay their hands on them. It remains in the home, but it isn’t quite the same book that existed when your father was your age. The rocking chair earns a few nicks over time. It’s veneer thins and requires tending. The features of the family farm change with time even as its boundaries and essential character remain more or less constant.
What I’m getting at is that I think conservation is really the sustaining of the spirit of a thing, rather than the picture-perfect preservation of it as an artifact designed to be safe from an intimacy or experience that regenerates love and memory.