By Paul Wright
Twenty years ago, I spent a rewarding few hours visiting Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, in Boston. It’s a place intriguingly described as a “museum of trees.” Rambling around the grounds was a treat. What made the visit especially memorable was the Arboretum’s collection of bonsai trees.
Spending some time alone with those magnificent specimens, I suddenly realized I owed that moment of wonder to generations of gardeners. All those gardeners who had inherited their leafy charges from possibly unknown hands and, then, their task completed, transferred custody to the next generation. Altogether, they represented an unbroken chain of stewardship.
Ours to Protect: Save the Bay
This year, we celebrate another example of stewardship – the 60th anniversary of Save the Bay. Save the Bay is dedicated to protecting and restoring San Francisco Bay. In 1961, San Fransico Bay faced, incredible to say, rapid extinction as a result of relentless landfill schemes.
Three women, Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin and Esther Gulick, joined together to say “no.” They understood the Bay represents a public inheritance no private interest may extinguish. In simpler terms, they realized something essential about their relationship with the world around them, and stepped up to act in accordance with that perception.
By saying “no” they succeeded in exercising their sense of stewardship. Thanks to their wise insight and caring, they persuaded others to do the same. They inspired collective action 60 years ago through their own belief in the public good. Thanks to their activism, the Bay still contributes to our shared ecosystem, and our lives, today.
Stewardship in Action
Stewardship, as both examples illustrate, is not just some latter-day hipster abstraction. With roots in human development, the word itself enshrines a fundamental concept: taking care of one’s house. Over time, that basic notion of caring has grown deeper. Just as stewards look after the affairs of an enterprise entrusted to their care, it would not be overstating the matter to suggest that, for the privilege of being alive, we are all stewards in a planetary enterprise.
In fact, we always have been. We can, if we choose, try to delegate the role to someone else, smother it in deceptive political rhetoric or ignore it altogether – as we see every day. But we can’t avoid the consequences.
As I commented last year in this space, the world is a complex business. Moreover, it contains a myriad interconnecting and interdependent life-support systems that enable us to go about our lives each day. While we humans may, understandably, perhaps, assume we’re the big kids on the playground of life, we’ve gradually slid into thinking that we’re all that counts on that playground.
In the Drama of Us, we’ve turned everything else into a bit player, available for our use and amusement. Now we’re in danger of becoming the kid who drilled holes in the bottom of his boat to see what was there.
Ours to Protect: Principles of Stewardship
Stewardship doesn’t require vast learning to understand. It never has. A few basic principles suffice for getting the hang of it.
First, the world, and its time scale, are a lot bigger than we are. Walk outside on a clear night, or just gaze deeply at the view outside your window. Whether you observe galactic structures or the miracle of the insect world, and you’ll see what I mean.
Second, it’s a world we share; we’re just part of it, intricately knit into a web that enfolds us.
And third, we have a role to play in caring for this world. Indeed, our role is commensurate with our power to change it. Consider it as a way for us to pull our weight; while dialing back on our own self-importance. We are the recipients of a trust that the future places on us.
Just inside the entrance to Rossmoor, there’s a sign attached to the chain-link fence over Tice Creek. The sign identifies the Tice Creek watershed. I’m heartened by its explicit reminder the watershed is “ours to protect.” It’s a call to stewardship that extends to each of us throughout this valley. Indeed, it extends beyond Rossmoor, to everywhere on the planet where we humans leave our imprint.
Our Earth is Ours to Protect
Taken to its logical conclusion, our addiction to the notion that Nature is something “out there,” ours to do with as we wish, leads where all addictions lead. Centuries ago, the Easter Islanders learned this lesson when total deforestation of their island led to the utter collapse of the ecosystem that supported them.
Perhaps this is what Wendell Berry had in mind when he observed that “in losing stewardship, we lose fellowship; we become outcasts in the great neighborhood of creation.”
Each morning, as I sit drinking my morning coffee, watching the light creep into the day as the world emerges into daylight, this true fact blazes out more and more clearly to me. In stewardship, we connect. As a part of this world, it’s ours to protect.
Courtesy of the Rossmoor News, January 20, 2021. Email Paul Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org