What is essential

Nancy Utesch has a quotation inscribed on a stone in her kitchen, right above the stove: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” This quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery is one of the most memorable lines from his iconic book, “The Little Prince.” Ostensibly a children’s book, it is a poetic commentary on life and human nature.

The “heart” with which you may learn to see rightly, is not responsible for your pulse. It refers to the sum total of who you are: what some might call the self, personality, soul, or spirit. What makes a person who she or he is has much to do with such mysterious attributes as: generosity or greed, empathy or indifference, hostility or sympathy… curiosity, intuition, honesty, etc.

You can know a lot about an individual’s biology, and yet know nothing about the person. One could dissect a corpse and accurately identify specific muscles, nerves, blood vessels, bones, organs, brain structures, etc. You could even explain biochemical pathways by which various parts of the body interact… and still not comprehend “what is essential.”

Likewise you could be an expert in forestry and quantify wood density, foliage type, growth rates, crown spread, species diversity, and board feet, and yet know nothing about the forest. Fact is, we haven’t been able to see the forest for the trees. Only recently has science begun to comprehend the vast complexity and mystery of old growth… to gaze into the “ecological abyss,” as it were.

Conservation guru, Aldo Leopold, put it well: “The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Walk in a February forest. Surround yourself with dozens of species of trees. Consider the life around you. What is essential is indeed invisible to the eye. There are tens of thousands of species. Countless plants and critters lie dormant beneath snow.

Numerous arthropods (or their eggs) are hidden in bark crevices. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s been estimated that in a single tablespoon of soil there are some 50 Billion tiny critters. Imagine quantifying the upper layer of soil in tablespoons… over hundreds of acres of forest nature preserve. Multiply 50 Billion microbes per spoon, times a bazillion tablespoons of soil, and you begin to glimpse the vastness of unseen life that exists in a healthy functioning ecosystem. And just remember, “out of sight, out of mind.” As long as we define highly complex ecosystems as “undeveloped,” we are more apt to treat them merely as commodity. What is not valued, after all, is expendable.

We get constant updates on the vagaries of the stock market, or the gross domestic product, or the yield of corn and soybeans, but our mass media conscientiously ignore such crucial information as increasing rates of extinctions or the number of tons of soil lost per acre per year.

It can take a thousand years to grow an inch of soil, this is our true wealth and represents the future of our species. Leopold, made an ominous statement that rings true, and serves as a dire warning: “The destruction of soil is the most fundamental kind of economic loss which the human race can suffer.” … “Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.”

Old growth forests, prairies, savannas, and aquatic ecosystems were essential to the evolution of life on Earth, including our species. What is less obvious is that they are also essential to our future. Now that there are so many of us on this increasingly small world, we have to make the transition from being consumers of our environment to being productive members of the natural community. But how? According to ‘The Little Prince,’ it is only with the heart that one can see rightly. One of the most important human ‘essentials,’ which is invisible to the eye, is ethics, which Webster defines as, “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation,” or as Aldo Leopold explains, “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching- even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” Perhaps this should be instilled in all of us, particularly certain politicians.

Leopold expands on this by putting forth what he called a land ethic. “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.” His land ethic can be summarized: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

The world of nature is one of those best things in life that are free. Take advantage. Explore local trails (with a child). Discover mysteries. Go on weekly hikes. See, hear, smell, and touch the seasons of 2014 as they unfold. The Little Prince said, “When you discover an island that belongs to nobody, it is yours.” This year make our best natural areas “yours.” This in turn can lead to seeing the world ‘rightly.’

Dale Goodner

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