Conservation requires context

Kingsnorth himself arrived at this [of despair] point about six years ago, after nearly two decades of devoted activism. He had just completed his second book, “Real England,” a travelogue about the homogenizing effects of global capitalism on English culture and character. “Real England” was a great success — the first of his career. All the major newspapers reviewed the book; the archbishop of Canterbury and David Cameron (then the opposition leader) cited it in speeches; Mark Rylance, the venerated Shakespearean actor, adopted it as a kind of bible during rehearsals for his hit play “Jerusalem.” Yet Kingsnorth found himself strangely ambivalent about the praise. “Real England” was a painful book to write. For months he interviewed publicans, shopkeepers and farmers fighting to maintain small, traditional English institutions — fighting and losing. Everywhere Kingsnorth traveled, he saw the forces of development, conglomeration and privatization flattening the country. By the time he published his findings, he was in little mood to celebrate.

This is from this profile of Paul Kingsnorth. This excerpt peaked my interest because it informs my sense of “cultural conservation” as a concept. Specifically, the notion that cultural conservation precedes environmental conservation. This runs through Conserving Mount Nittany and undergirds my  thinking on dynamic environmentalism.

Environmentalism as a social/political organizing principle tends to be too weak a force. Seeking to conserve a park or a mountain or wilderness or to change economic behavior without first taking account of the cultural context of a place is more or less destined to end in ideological/utopian thinking wherein one can’t simply carve out a practical Yosemite, but instead aims for abstract change:

“Everything had gotten worse,” Kingsnorth said. “You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years, and every single thing had gotten worse. And I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here saying: ‘Yes, comrades, we must act! We only need one more push, and we’ll save the world!’ I don’t believe it.

I haven’t read Kingsnorth’s “Real England,” but I hope it speaks to whatever spirit of place exists among those publicans, shopkeepers, and farmers keeping them in their communities. With the resurgence of American cities, I’ve noticed more people referring to their neighborhoods. “Lower East Side, New York City,” “Brewerytown, Philadelphia,” “The Mission, San Francisco.” When you identify with a place, you create a cultural basis for conserving that place. You’re attracted to conserving something because you’ve become attracted to it. Or when you create something attractive out of whole cloth, you create something worth conserving.

And so within the cultural context (within the people of a place) lies the raw emotional material that can be directed toward specific acts of environmentalism. It probably sounds abstract at first, but I think it translates into practical action.

Instead of trying to “save the earth,” Kingsnorth says, people should start talking about what is actually possible.

Action on the neighborhood level is achievable, concrete, and visible. An example of urban environmentalism is New York’s Highline Park. An example in Philadelphia is the Spring Garden Street Greenway.

Societies that are extinct

John Carter responded to Rod Dreher’s post last week, and offers some great insight. He’s a 22-year old Christian in the Midwest:

I’ve noticed a lot of the guys I meet online (myself included) have a thing for historical male societies that are extinct. The Vikings, the Romans, the Greeks, the Spartans, and medieval Knights. Then roll in the anti-heroes —James Dean, ‘Fight Club’, etc. or the military. Of course , the people I bother with are probably an exception to the rule, but I can’t help wondering if in someways we are unconsciously trying to make a deeply flawed substitute for what are culture no longer has. I can’t think of anything in our society that offers male companionship besides the military and sports. And I doubt the Knights of Columbus (I think that’s the name) are as much a robust group of Christian men, as a social club for retired elders.

The cultures of the past contain greatness, and contain it in an active sense for those just discovering their stories. Sparta, for instance, maintained a continuous constitution for something like 800 years. This is a span of time matched only recently by the English constitution. It’s a span of time, in general, incomprehensible for us in other areas of life, especially in culture and politics. What’s here today might as well be gone tomorrow.

But it’s human nature to seek the permanent things. We’re hungry for them. Societies that are extinct can still teach us a lot about the good life, and how to recapture pieces of that life in the present.

Disaster preservation

In a city whose identity is so closely associated with its historic sites, the effects of climate change and storms like Katrina and Sandy pose nightmare scenarios. What would Philadelphia be if its landmark buildings and historic districts were washed away?

Since those hurricanes in 2005 and 2012 and because of the increasing severity and frequency of major storms, preservation planners and government agencies have been taking a proactive approach, particularly in Pennsylvania, one of the most flood-prone states in the nation.

Philadelphia is the first major urban area in the U.S. to begin developing a plan to protect its historic buildings from natural disasters, and three other counties in the commonwealth are the targets of pilot projects that integrate surveys of historic resources and protective measures into their hazard mitigation plans.

Partners in the “Disaster Planning for Historic Properties Initiative” are the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office (PA SHPO) and the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management (OEM), along with other governmental agencies.

It’s fitting that the work is coming together this year – the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, which created the National Register of Historic Places, the historic landmark list, and the state historic preservation offices. “So while we’re reflecting on our heritage, we’re also looking forward to the next 50 years with a strategy for climate change issues,” said Jeremy Young, project manager of the initiative…

Alan Jaffe reported this welcome news.

Conservation is like gardening

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.

Small v. narrow communities

G.K. Chesterton’s Brave New Family contrasts “small” versus “big” communities. It struck me as very applicable to my experience of places like Ave Maria and State College:

“It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the willfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men.

The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies, groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls by the divine luck of things there will always be more colors than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell.

A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literary sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.”