Lou Reed Made Me a Conservationist

Image: Lou Reed: "Prince de la nuit et des angoisses." Image credit: thierry Ehrmann/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Image: Lou Reed: “Prince de la nuit et des angoisses.” Image credit: thierry Ehrmann/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Rob McDonald is senior scientist for sustainable land-use for The Nature Conservancy.

Maybe I wouldn’t be a conservationist if it wasn’t for Lou Reed. Or at least I wouldn’t have fallen as much in love with wilderness and the outdoors.

It was the 1990s, I was in high school, and I was a typical indie rock kid bumming around Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It’s hard, in this post-Internet era, to remember how pleasantly small the world used to be. There were two good record stores in town, a half-dozen rock clubs, and hundreds of under-employed musicians making a living as waiters and bartenders. Everyone in the indie rock scene knew everyone else by their first name. I couldn’t have cared less about nature.

And then a friend of mine lured me on a road trip, out to Hanging Rock State Park in North Carolina. By the standards of the grand parks of the U.S. West, it might not be much — but it is still a hell of a sight, tall monadnocks of metamorphic rock standing 1,000 feet above the surrounding piedmont.

And somehow my friend decided to play “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground as his beat-up old car climbed slowly up the mountain. It was a mystical entrance into another world, starting quietly and then pulsing louder and faster as we pushed higher into the park.

And then, just as the song reached its almost unbearably chaotic ending, we hit the parking lot, stopped the car engine…and there would be silence.

And then we left for the woods and a few days of quiet. In that pre-cell phone era, it felt like cutting ourselves off from all civilization.

Somehow the song came to symbolize for us destroying some city part of ourselves, all tied in to hipster culture, and rediscovering some older deeper part of ourselves. Ironic, in a way, for a song so much about drugs and death and destruction.

In the next decade I had a couple of friends get hurt by the real heroin, and even an extended family member die from the drug. The song no longer seems beautiful to me. But for my last few years in high school, my friends and I played that song on many more backpacking trips around North Carolina, always when the car was climbing up to the Blue Ridge or the Black Range or the Smokies. And then always, leaving the parking lot, our ears still hurting from playing the music far too loud, we would suddenly, startlingly, be into the silence of the forest.

It was on those trips that I fell in love with the natural world. So thank you, Lou Reed. I will never drive a car into the mountains without thinking of you.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Posted In: Conservation Essay

Dr. Robert McDonald is a Senior Scientist for The Nature Conservancy. Dr. McDonald researches the impact and dependences of cities on the natural world, and helps lead the science supporting the Conservancy’s global urban sustainability program. He has written more than 50 scientific articles, and is the author of the book Conservation for Cities: How to Plan & Build Natural Infrastructure.

Comments: Lou Reed Made Me a Conservationist

  •  Comment from Randy Bunney

    We lost a good one in Lou Reed. So interesting, Rob, to read your essay, particularly your experience of the juxtaposition of Lou Reed’s music and nature’s silence. The East Hampston Star published an obit written by Reed’s wife, Laurie Anderson. She noted that she promised to get Reed out of the hospital and out to their country place.

    She went on to write: “Lou was a tai chi master and spent his last days here being happy and dazzled by the beauty and power and softness of nature. He died on Sunday morning looking at the trees and doing the famous 21 form of tai chi with just his musician hands moving through the air.”

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