Springsteen & the Conservation Ethic: ‘You Can’t Save Everybody, But You Gotta Try’

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Published on November 13th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

This river was born to run.

This river was born to run.

I just started writing this blog on freshwater conservation, so I should be talking about river flows and floodplain fisheries and such. But last night I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform in Cleveland and I can’t get it out of my head.

In his words, Springsteen was continuing the “lifelong conversation” he began with his fans more than 30 years ago.  And it was the kind of conversation you’d have at a joyous family reunion in which the patriarch embraces 20,000 sons and daughters and cousins in an ecstatic bear hug. Then the reunion got a little out of hand as Dad climbed on the piano and started belting out Jackie Wilson and Elvis songs (really, it happened, but I digress).

So what does this have to do with river conservation?  Beyond the fact that The River is one of his seminal songs and albums, this is about the power and the joy and the dignity of trying.

I’ve been a fan of Springsteen since about the 7th grade, and back then (mid-80s) I came across a decade-old interview with Bruce. In it, he was talking about what drives him to give marathon shows in which he pours out everything in an attempt to raise up, even for a moment, each person in the audience. “You can’t save everybody,” he said, “but you gotta try.”

That quote has always stuck with me for some reason, mostly as a summation of why I’m drawn to him. He has never stopped trying: trying to make a difference, trying to say something meaningful about people’s lives. At the height of his career he eschewed easy commercial records to put out collections of spare songs that force listeners to contemplate the lives of those left behind by America’s economy, or giving names and dreams to otherwise faceless immigrants slipping through the shadows of our country trying to help their families. He dedicates a portion of each show to organizations that fight hunger, like last night’s tribute to the Cleveland Food Bank. And if you’ve ever seen him perform live, the man tries like no one else.

And last night, that quote came back to me.  Thinking about those words while watching his incredible effort—exuberant and raucous, yes, but a massive effort nonetheless—I realized how Springsteen’s approach to work can guide our own efforts.

Working in conservation, it often seems we face long odds, and we must accept the reality that we can’t save everything.  And I know that we can’t–even shouldn’t–attempt to save everything. There must be sober analyses, prioritization and quantifiable measures of success. That is a necessity for the responsible use of limited resources and the best way to advance our objectives.

But while all that is essential—akin to the long hours that Springsteen or any performer puts in behind the scenes, making choices, scrapping things that don’t work, endless repetition—it is not what drives the work.

What must drive the work is the burning conviction that we must try. We’re not gonna save everything, but we’ll try to save as much as we can. And in that trying, there is pride and strength and joy.

(Image courtesy Jeff Opperman/TNC.)

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Comments: Springsteen & the Conservation Ethic: ‘You Can’t Save Everybody, But You Gotta Try’

  •  Comment from Susan

    Hi Jeff,

    I love the way you incorporated Bruce into your message of conservation.

    I’ve seen the Boss numerous times in concert, and it never fails to amaze me the energy he puts out and the emotional response he gets in return from the audience. He speaks to the notion of hope and never giving up which is timeless, and touches everyone at their core.
    Here’s to “the promised land.”
    Susan

  •  Comment from John Kinch

    Jeff, I liked the connection you were making to Bruce and (freshwater) conservation. It made me think of the considerable hay that has been made of Springsteen’s working-class heroes as literary descendents of fellow New Jerseyan Walt Whitman’s “roughs.” Guthrie, Dylan, as well, fall into that lineage. Of a “river” as the stuff of poetry (spoken or sung), I have long found Whitman’s reverie in the last few stanzas of “Song of Myself” to be about the best: “I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.” John

  •  Comment from bob

    Well said, sir. Usually I only skim over these blogs, but this time I was really impressed. Keep fighting the good fight! The Boss would be proud. Makes me think of his rendition of “This Land is Your Land.”

  •  Comment from Peggy

    Anyone whose ever been to a Springsteen concert knows what you are talking about. Great analogy!

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