(This post also appeared on Hoosier Pamphleteer, an Indiana-run blog focusing on policy and politics.)
Up until the late 19th century, there was a vast wetland in my home state of Indiana that stretched across five or six counties, called the Limberlost. The Limberlost featured now-unimaginable heights of biological diversity; it was home to huge numbers of plants, birds, moths, and other creatures. Full of life, the beautiful, terrible Limberlost was also notorious for its quicksands and its questionable characters. It must have been an extraordinary place.
A woman named Gene Stratton-Porter, born in the middle of the Civil War, made a life and a career in writing and photography on the edges of the Limberlost. She turned out more than twenty books inspired by nature as it was found there, including A Girl of the Limberlost, The Keeper of the Bees, and Moths of the Limberlost. Stratton-Porter mastered photography when it was still relatively new, after her child had gone to school and she’d done the daily work that was required, back then, for a woman to take immaculate care of her home and family. In her free hours, she plied the wetlands of the Limberlost with the devotion of a monk, dutifully recording, photographing, and observing its inhabitants and features.
As her life and career progressed, she was forced to watch as the Limberlost was, in her words, “cleared, drained, and ploughed up,” having “fallen prey to commercialism through the devastation of lumbermen, oilmen, and farmers.” The Swamp Act of 1850 encouraged the wholesale draining of swamplands throughout the country, and by the early part of the twentieth century, most Indiana wetlands had been decimated, including the Limberlost. There is nothing left of the original Limberlost today, though a tiny portion of it has been carefully restored by a few heroic souls. The Loblolly Marsh Preserve, located in what was once the heart of the Limberlost, now spans about 440 acres. The original marsh was more than 13,000.
When I first began reading about Stratton-Porter’s life, I wondered what it had been like for her to watch the source of her life’s work drained to its inevitable death, stripped of its lumber and converted to farms, as the moths and other life Stratton-Porter wrote about and photographed died out slowly.
I wondered about that again this week, as the United States announced its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, a voluntary set of agreements designed to set the world on the path to ameliorating and slowing global climate change. I realized there is a good chance that will be the lot of my generation and those after me, all over again – to watch as the natural world I love is slowly baked into devastation or stripped and paved over. Already since my birth in 1970, a huge amount of wildlife – by some estimates, as much as half – has been decimated. As I write this, there is a massive crack forming in the Antarctic ice shelf – 11 miles of it in the last six days. Eight more miles, and an iceberg the size of Delaware will calve off, forever changing the Antarctic Peninsula. I wonder if the most fundamental lesson of our time will be that human beings were sufficiently sophisticated to create the technology sufficient for environmental destruction, but too tribal and cultish to find the will to avert it.
I hope that’s not the case. My usual tendency is to look for the hope in a given situation, but I’m not sure that’s justified or appropriate here. And anyway, hope isn’t entirely required or even relevant. We’ll do what we need to do, because it’s the right thing to do, and because there is no other choice. Governors and mayors will become more important in the absence of federal leadership on renewables. Business will continue to prepare for the inevitable policy changes that have been only delayed, not barred forever, because ignoring climate change has become bad for the bottom line. That’s why we saw the likes of Elon Musk, Tim Cook and other CEOs criticizing the Paris withdrawal. One reason for that is, simply, public opinion. That means the opinion of ordinary people, like me, who will continue to press for environmental responsibility, because I don’t want to watch the slow death of any more Limberlosts.
So progress will continue to be made. But we are in a bit of a race against time, and the certainty of the outcome can no longer be the most prominent factor in responsible environmentalism. We just have to do the right thing because it’s the right thing.
The Limberlost is gone. There will likely be a great deal of the natural world gone, too, by the end of my life. My state is just now beginning to ameliorate the environmental destruction that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as smaller restorations of prairies and wetlands, like the Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands and DNR’s Goose Pond, pop up all over the state. There has been destruction, and then recovery and restoration, albeit on a much smaller scale, and much later. This seems to be the human way – we are often unable to stop ourselves before we’ve trashed the place, and while we often have restorations, or truth and reconciliation commissions, or war crimes tribunals – essential to the human process of learning and accountability — there is no way to recover the lost life.
As the Limberlost shrank, Gene Stratton Porter had to pick up and move to the north end of the wetland which hadn’t yet been drained, enabled to do so by the financial rewards of her earlier writing. But eventually, she moved to California, where she died in 1924. Stratton-Porter was fortunate that the environmental destruction she lived through was localized, and she had places to move. Future generations won’t be so lucky.