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Remembering Roger Kennedy: The Accessible Wild In Science and Religion


In his 2008 book, Wildfire and Americans; How to Save Lives, Property, and Your Tax Dollars, the late Roger Kennedy measured the values of both science and faith in preserving wildness.

Editor's note: The impact the late-National Park Service Director Roger Kennedy had on the National Park Service won't be lost and can't be overestimated. In his 2008 book, Wildfire and Americans; How to Save Lives, Property, and Your Tax Dollars, Mr. Kennedy measured the values of both science and faith in protecting wildness. He presented the following talk, portions of which came from that book, in 2006 during an appearance at the University of New England.

When John Lemons first talked with me about this gathering, I began gathering instances of a disregard for science in particular, and professionalism in general, on the part of the present occupants of the White House and the office of the Secretary of the Interior. But when our entire garage was full of the results I concluded that it might be better if I were to try to curb my fury, and set my eyes upon the horizon, upon better possibilities beyond the squalid present.

So I thought we might consider together the happy prospect of better environmental policy arising from the reinforcement that evangelical, top-down conservationists descended from John Muir might provide to the descendents of instrumental, bottom-up technocrats such as Gifford Pinchot – reflecting upon how much good those two great men did each other when they were able to get past their reciprocal loathing.

As the weeks went on, however, it increasingly seemed to me that this was still too constrained a scope for a positive, forward-looking discussion. Beneath all current discourse upon professionalism there lies a respect for learning and knowing – for science – while all current discourse on environmental ethics is grounded, I believe, in religion. So I propose to widen our discourse to include the reinforcement offered by religion to science, and vice versa, despite the worst efforts of some pundits to pretend that science and religion were meant to inhabit the same space, wherein they would be natural enemies. Then it occurred to me that that might seem rather abstract unless we insisted at the outset that we start locally, in our own backyards.

Science and religion are important in the orchard and the garden and the feed lot and the lower forty – as they are in Yellowstone and atop Katahdin.

The accessible wild matters. Remote wilderness matters also. Yet the very terms of the Wilderness Act, by urging diffidence – restraint – in “managing” these intentionally remote areas, redirects our attention to the fragile and imperiled proximate wild in back yards, woodlots, and local open space. How might we best deploy that attention? I suggest as guides to our own back yards Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold. Then, lest we leap too quickly to the notion that these two were not religious teachers, I propose to call to our aid a good Yankee preacher -- Jonathan Edwards, who was also the first American environmental philosopher. Finally, to sum them up the classical learning that was common to them all in a characteristic epigram, Marcus Aurelius. The back yard is getting crowded – but there will be room for a few more.

Let us consider how religious systems and scientific systems may reinforce each other in guiding our behavior toward the nearby wild. What do they, along with both Muir and Pinchot, have to contribute to a respectful relationship to nature that begins with respect of both the very different ways of perceiving nature of primarily religious or scientific people.

Some of us think of ourselves as religious, by which we mean that come at life through systems of coordinated beliefs that presuppose actualities transcending the data imparted by the senses. When I describe a person as “religious” I suggest that he or she tends to come to experience through a systematic and coherent body of belief. When religious people are affronted by something, they are likely to say “that does not fit within my ideas about what is right!” Or “that does not square with what I believe!” In a like circumstance, people whose primary reliance is upon science are likely to say “that does not fit within my ideas about what is correct!” Or “that doesn’t accord with the data!”

Science begins with data presented by the senses, on the assumption that if those data deceive us once, they are unlikely to deceive us repeatedly in exactly the same way. So we test. Testing is not an activity encouraged by religion. Religion is about working downward toward data from systems of inter-related affirmations that are admittedly beyond testing. Science is about working upward from a myriad of data points toward assertions always subject to dispute and always requiring further tests.

In the proximate and accessible, Thoreau found the “wildness” in which, he wrote, “lies the preservation of the world.” His “wildness” lay between Concord and Walden Pond in that middle distance lately retitled as “the Wildland/Urban interface.” He walked the close-in green spaces where good stewardship makes manifest Wendell Berry’s precept, stated a century later, that “in human culture is the preservation of wildness.” Berry’s words explode outward from intense scrutiny of the ordinary, like a flame from tinder ignited by light focused by a prism. In ordinary glories human culture preserves wildness, in places in which we can do something useful. There is the workable wildness, at the park entry, on Emerson’s woodlot, on Aldo Leopold’s Sand County weekend farm, on George Perkins Marsh and Frederick Billings’s little Mt. Tom in Woodstock, Vermont, in landscapes craving restoration after being over-lumbered and over-grazed.

We have responsibility toward all these places, not just to spectacular national parks. Preservation is one thing, restoration another. Preservation is important, but beyond mere preservation – the prevention of harm -- lies restoration – the rectification of harm. Positive preservation is likely to be animated by a religious impulse toward reconciliation of one part of a system – me – or you – and all the rest of what Marcus Aurelius called “the whole” and many people call “Creation.”

Thoreau and Berry were issuing a call for action where action was both necessary and possible. Thoreau’s redemptive wildness in Concord was a wildness itself being redeemed. It had been cut over and over grazed. It was an exhausted ground that needed a rest – “a little respect.” Thoreau knew what wilderness was like; he experienced it on Mount Katahdin. “Walden” and "Walking” are instead about accessible wildness, reminding us of human culture and thus of human responsibilities.

Likewise, Aldo Leopold’s Wildland/Urban Interface lay in a lumbered-over farm in Sand County, Wisconsin. There is nothing sublime or terrible in the Baraboo Hills; when Leopold commenced his restoration they had been ravaged not by nature’s cataclysm’s but by syndicated lumbering interests. Close by, and seventy years earlier, Carl Schurz had tried to eke out a living before the great timber harvests of the later nineteenth century.

What Schurz saw happening in Wisconsin as early as the 1860s and 1870s led him, as the nation’s first great Secretary of the Interior, to apply its lessons of reservation, withdrawal, and restoration to prevent the further despoliation of the Yellowstone and the Sequoias, and to found the National Forest System on the Wisconsin state example. Like Marsh of Vermont, Thoreau, Leopold and Schurz learned about the accessible “wild” in America, in places where Americans can do something about it.

As early as that, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot had begun making their own voices heard, catching tunes from Thoreau and from Schurz as well, singing in different registers, of course, and reaffirming the truth -- in their distinct versions of conservationism -- that we need both the religious and the scientific psychologies and professions in a coalition of the responsible. If we are properly to tend our proximate wildness we will need them all. Some scientifically bent will be disposed to look first for data in images like those before us, and at the places they bring to our intensified scrutiny. Many such persons admire Aristotle, and follow his precepts as they work upward from a myriad of specifics toward the general. Some are so Aristotelian that they develop “the bends” or vertigo when the level of discourse becomes too elevated, dismissing it as “sentimental” if it is secular and “superstitious” if it is explicitly religious.

Working from the top down are the Muirite Platonists -- those who are quite comfortable with data-free discourse like that of Plato. For surcease from the ephemeral, from the ever-changing, unfixed, dizzying eventualities of life, and the rapidity of growth and decay, he offered a system of constants, eternal forms and archetypal. From this realm, he could then descend with greater confidence into the hurly-burly of every day life – and the buffeting of new data. He tested, but not by experiment. Only by logic, teaching without laboratory equipment. He was religious.

It would have been handy to have Plato available for a camp fire talk when a recent Secretary of the Interior, Manuel Lujan, was escorted to a cook-out on a sandspit at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. As evening came, the stars could be seen through a mile-high aperture above, and the sparks of the campfire flirted an invitation to those stars to join in the dancing. The Secretary gazed upward and downward and was heard to say: “I still don’t get it – what good is it?”

What was wrong with that question was -- that it wasn’t a question. It stated a conclusion. If the Secretary had turned to his companions and said: “What good is this to whom? Why have we gone to such trouble to save this place?” Then a conversation could ensue. There are more than a dozen Indian nations who assert that the Grand Canyon is “good” as it is, important to their cultural and spiritual life. Among them some who live there. There are the citizens of Los Angeles who consume water held from evaporation by that narrow gorge long enough to flow, as if in a pipe, closer to cross-desert pipes that in turn carry that water to their carafes, sinks, toilets, golf courses and swimming pools. There are people whose lives are altered by the sense of scale they gather on the edge of that canyon. There are students who learn about deep time from deep places.

The word “religious” does not suggest strip-mining scripture to justify predation. “Anything humankind wants humankind gets,” some people assert, under a grant of dominance they insist was granted Adam and Eve in Genesis. But taking that as a religious principle requires ceasing to read Genesis right there, and tiptoeing around the next verses. Those verses make it clear that in Genesis dominance is lost to the Founding Couple after they broke the Covenant. As they left Eden, they became subject not to it but to the Law.

There is a lot more in the Old Testament that confirms the loss of any claim to dominance, as there is in the Greco-Roman line of thought of which Marcus Aurelius was an example. We will come to that in a moment. First, let’s pursue a little farther the consequences of looking through too narrow a frame – too small a lens, in photographic terms – at what is “good” in nature. Some people cannot perceive any intrinsic value in nature beyond its uses to humans. Instead of justifying selfishness by scriptural system, they justify it by denying utility to any system, or frame for action, larger than utility. Sometimes they talk as if that last clause ought to be amended even farther to read “any system that cannot immediately be plugged into the power-grid of a public utility.”

Crabbed utilitarians exclude all such matters from their discourse – leaving all but the numbers outside the “frame.” I was once asked in a budget hearing by a member of Congress from Idaho to get a real estate appraisal for Independence Hall. That demand seemed at the time so absurd as to be easily dismissed, but now I am not so sure.

In February, 2006, two fellows of the Cato Institute, Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doran, had this to say in the Houston Chronicle: “Earlier this month, the Bush administration proposed to sell 200,000 acres of federal land in order to raise money for rural schools in 41 states. If there is more money to be made by turning the Grand Canyon over to the Walt Disney Co. rather than to an eco-sensitive tourism cooperative, it simply means that the public demand for Disney's services at the Grand Canyon is greater than the public's demand for…Trail Services Inc.”

Market information is useful, indeed essential, to any reasoned discussion, but it is not sufficient. Statements of faith are useful, too, but neither are they sufficient. It is well to recall that a few decades before Lujan’s visit, the Corps of Engineers proposed to put a dam in the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon prevailed – as the Hetch Hetchy valley had not a generation earlier, when John Muir lost his fight to keep a dam from flooding it. He did not have available to him the data gathered by later economists internalizing the costs of dam removal and desilting after they have been built.

The Hetch Hetchy no longer supplies much power, and only for some decades ahead it will provide a lot of water to supply Silicone Valley and San Francisco, Stanford and Berkeley. It destroyed beauty as grand as Yosemite, a point made by Muir, but who did not deign to accompany it with much utilitarian data. Therefore Gifford Pinchot, the organizer of the U.S. Forest Service, consummate utilitarian and supporter of the dam, was able to respond: “sentimental nonsense.”

The Chairman of the House Public Lands Committee concluded before the vote that “there is nothing that will appeal to a thoughtful brain of a commonsense, practical man…when it comes to weighing the …conservation…of water for domestic use against the preservation of a rocky, craggy canyon.” How could anyone want a canyon if it meant “allowing 200,000 gallons of water daily to run idly to the sea, doing no one any good…”

That was two years after another set of watersheds were preserved because the evangelists for wildness and the data-crunching utilitarians acted in concert. Speaker Joe Cannon had told John Weeks of Massachusetts that he could pass a bill to take the watersheds of the Connecticut and Merrimac Rivers out of settlement, including all that wildness now within the Green and White Mountain National Forests, if he could prove that doing so would diminish the flow of silt that was fouling the looms of the woolen mills downstream, but “not one cent for scenery.” The Weeks Act passed – Weeks was like Stephen Mather, founder of the National Park Service, a businessman and master of economic data. The Old Man of the Mountain at Franconia Notch smiled upon him -- reconciled.

It is entirely legitimate to ask that advocates for wildness do their addition and subtraction, fully accounting for benefits and costs. We are all for science – aren’t we? Well, as the daily newspapers inform us, not all of us. The current attack upon professionalism in public agencies managing common lands, such as parks and forests, is one front in a general assault upon science, seeking to subvert the capacity of those professionals to marshal data to support trusteeship. Knowing what you are doing to -- and for -- assets owned by all citizens is difficult, delicate work. Those who wish to turn off the lights in those operating rooms are putting us at risk along with all other species with which we co-inhabit this earth. They could do well to consider what both Aristotle and Plato would say of them.

The Platonists and Aristotelians had been offering their competing ventures into understanding the natural world for five hundred years before Marcus Aurelius sought to achieve some reconciliation between them. He left us cryptic epigrams, requiring us to do a little work to understand what he had in mind. One of the most famous of these is his juxtaposition of the Platonic and Aristotelian views of nature – which he encapsulated as beginning either with “system” or with “atom” – as those words have been translated, and going past them to an assertion wholly compatible with the teachings of Thoreau and Leopold: “Whether the universe is atoms or a system, I am a part of the whole which is governed by nature.”

“I am part of the whole which is governed by nature.”

He did not say: “in which I govern nature.”

If we assume ourselves to be governed by nature, we look up to the heavens through the canyon walls of our narrow perspective and ask not just “what good is” nature? We also inquire: “what do we believe, and what do we know, about how it wishes to govern us? Both science and faith bring answers to that question – both belong in the subsequent conversation. So let us imagine just that -- a conversation between St. Francis of Assisi and Thomas Jefferson moderated by Marcus Aurelius, with Jonathan Edwards as a commentator.

First, let us hear from Francis, the man of faith, asserting his place as “a part of the whole which is governed by nature,” giving thanks to the Lord and all creatures, “especially Sir Brother Sun…Sister Moon and the stars… Brothers Wind and Air,… Sister Water, … Brother Fire, … Sister, Mother Earth who sustains and governs us.”

“And governs us.”

More recently, Jefferson also placed our species among those governed by nature, and for the Enlightenment writer with a famous pair of scissors; Jefferson made remarkable use of Biblical sources in doing so. As the greatest of modern conservative historians, Daniel Boorstin, was wont to remind his readers, Jefferson anticipated the Endangered Species Act: “in his [Jefferson’s] writings, we frequently come upon the appropriate verses of the Psalmist, 'O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.” And Jefferson himself wrote that "if one link in nature's chain might be lost, another and another might be lost, till this whole system of things should vanish by piece-meal."

Be careful, Jefferson admonished-- there is no waste in nature, no extraneous species. He knew that famous passage in a sermon of John Donne: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” And Jefferson also acknowledged that the tolling of the bell is for the death of any living thing, in a system in which all species and all things, from stars to starfish, have a place.

"...if one link in nature's chain might be lost, another and another might be lost, till this whole system of things should vanish by piece-meal."

And so they might, and so they might, one species after another. The bell is tolling constantly now, tolling all day and all night without surcease, as species after species die, creation after creation, friend in the earth after friend in the earth. What good are they? Some “goods” we know from science and practice. Thanks to science we know many “goods” that religion might miss, and, thanks to science, we also know how little we know. So we must not to be too hasty in making irreversible decisions that affect others – including other species. Indeed, it is unnecessary to ask what good they are for us – because they are good on their own.

That assertion shines forth from the writings of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) whose lifetime extended into Jefferson’s. Edwards wrote about God’s Creation with exultation and also with curiosity, marveling at color and wondering about the frequencies of light rays. All his wondering and marveling, measuring and systematizing was done in a framework of redemptive and cooperative action. He was a theologian, a scientist, and a citizen. For him as for Saint Augustine, humans must beware of a “proud lust of domination…[that] sets itself up as a rival to God.”

Edwards had the right antipathies, and the right loyalties, including a loyalty to a beneficent and kind Creator. As an environmental philosopher-scientist, he anticipated both the angry Edward Abbey and the calm, scientific Aldo Leopold, linking them and the Old Testament chroniclers and prophets. And he stood proudly in the lineage of the Ecclesiastes who wrote: “that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast.”

Edwards also followed Ezekiel in calling down the wrath of God upon those who “have eaten up the good pasture,” and who have “tread down with your feet the residue…” who having taken their full of precious waters “must foul the residue with your feet…” leaving to the flocks of others “that which ye have trodden with your feet; and they drink that which ye have fouled with your feet."

We expect this from Edwards the theologian and scriptural scholar, but we do not always attend to the other Edwards – Edwards the scientist, who sought to train our eyes not only to look more intensely at the nature of which we are part, but to seek to understand how we look. The joyous observer, wrote Edwards, should delight and attend to nature’s “sounds, colors, and smells… the colors of the woods and flowers, and the smell, and the singing of birds-- which 'tis probable consist in a certain proportion of the vibrations that are made in the different organs.”

Sounds and colors born by vibrations? Wave theory? Yes indeed. Colors arranged along frequencies of light: “Tis very probable,” he wrote, “that that wonderful suitableness of green for the grass and plants, the blue of the sky, the white of the clouds, the colors of flowers, consists in a complicated proportion that these colors make one with another, either in the magnitude of the rays, the number of vibrations that are caused in the optic nerve, or some other way.”

Edwards celebrated “innumerable other agreeablenesses” in nature, exulting in the riotous Fall colors of the Berkshires: “The fields and woods seem to rejoice, and how joyful do the birds seem to be in it. How much a resemblance is there of every grace in the fields covered with plants and flowers…And each sort of rays play a distinct tune to the soul, besides those lovely mixtures that are found in nature -- those beauties, how lovely, in the green of the face of the earth, in all manner of colors in flowers, the color of the skies, and lovely tinctures of the morning and evening...The beams of glory come from God, and are of God, and are, in his term, refunded back again to their original. Thus the whole is of God, and in God, and to God, and God is the beginning, middle and end in this affair.” This was transcendentalism a century ahead of itself, anticipating environmentalism by more than another century.

The clunk of the axe and the snarl of the bulldozer are absent from this scene. Nowhere in Edwards’s works is there a syllable compatible with the speculators’ version of the “American dream” or their transgressions of natural limits. Edwards turned the full fire-hose force of his contempt upon them, as he would today upon the profiteers from an asphalting of America, desecrating God’s “beautiful and lovely world.”

“I am a part of the whole which is governed by nature.”

We are all governed by nature. We live within Wallace Stegner’s “available” wild, whether it be Thoreau’s accessible Concord, or Aldo Leopold’s Sand County commuter-farm, or our own back yards where we can do some good. We may strive to keep them beautiful if they are so. And when their “agreeableness” has been trodden under “our feet,” so that some must “drink that which [we]…have fouled” we have an obligation to restore them.

Yet before we can effectively reconcile ourselves to nature, “the whole” of which “is of God, and in God, and to God,” we must first reconcile ourselves to each other. Then, acting together in ways appropriate to each of us, Aristotelians, Platonists, Aurelians, Muirites, Pinchotians, evangelicals, animists, and scientists, we may join in a grand coalition, responding to the wildness outside the door by doing our best to be reconciled to it, and informed by science and by faith.

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I had the pleasure of being there at the University of New England on April 10, 2006 and listening to Roger Kennedy deliver this speech. 

His speech, as well as his casual conversations with us, impressed me deeply.  "What is your field of interest?" he would curiously inquire.  Upon receiving an answer, he would quickly follow-up with, "And, who do you believe is the best in your field?"  Roger Kennedy fit my stereotype of the true intellectual, a person who was the product of  a rigorous classical education. 

The following information is from his website:

Kennedy’s books include:

Minnesota Houses
Men on a Moving Frontier
American Churches
Greek Revival America
Architecture, Men, Women and Money
Orders from France
Rediscovering America
Hidden Cities
Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character
Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause
Wildfire and Americans
Living on the Edge (co-edited with Austin Troy)
Great Minnesota Houses
When Art Worked: Art, the New Deal, and Democracy (Rizzoli Publishers)
1934: (Smithsonian American Art Museum)
John F. Kennedy: The Making of His Inaugural Address (Levenger Press)

Kennedy was General Editor and Prefaces for each of the twelve volumes of The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America (12 vols.)

Kennedy has written prefaces and forwards for the following books: the WPA Guide to Washington, Treasures of the National Museum of American History; The Law and Lore of Portfolio Management, The Art of Clay, Public Uses of Archaeology, The French in America, Philip Hooker, Architect, and Progressive Design in the Midwest.

Articles by Kennedy have appeared in Harpers, the Atlantic, Smithsonian, New York Times, Readers Digest, Architectural Digest, House and Garden, Winterthur Quarterly, Law and Contemporary Problems, Harvard Business Review, House Beautiful, American Heritage, Prairie School Review, NY Times, LA Times.

At NBC Kennedy covered the White House and the Supreme Court, and was a correspondent for “Monitor,” “The Today Show” and other news programs. In the 1970s he wrote and presented half-hour documentaries for regional PBS, and in the 1980s was presenter and writer of two series for Discovery Channel: “Roger Kennedy’s Rediscovering America” and “The Smithsonian Presents Invention.”

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