I attended the Nature Conservancy’s 60th Anniversary Dinner last week at a graceful old building here in Washington originally constructed to house the pension administration for Civil War veterans. The center of this structure, and the location of the Conservancy event, is a five-story tall atrium held up by huge stone columns. I sat at a table off to the side of the podium listening to the famous biologist, EO Wilson, speaking about the diversity of life on Earth and about the growing threat of species extinction. At a pause in the talk, I looked upward and was surprised to see the almost-full moon shining through a clerestory window. The moon was invisible to most of the audience, but the moonlight seemed to me a kind of benediction on Dr. Wilson’s remarks.
I turned my attention back to the next slide in the lecture– a map of the Gulf of Mexico coast of Florida and Alabama. Wilson talked about the exceptional variety of plants and animals found in the Gulf Coastal Plain. I know these places from my years of working for the Conservancy in the south–cypress-lined creeks, longleaf pine forests, unspoiled beaches and the wild delta of the Mobile and Tensaw Rivers close to the City of Mobile. Wilson, who grew up on the Gulf coast, advocated creating a connected corridor of protected forests, wildlife refuges, buffer zones around the military bases across the western panhandle and a new National Park in the Mobile Delta. It was interesting that after his many expeditions to the most exotic and biologically rich places on Earth, E.O. Wilson was advocating conservation of a natural area beside his own boyhood home.
With dinner over, I went with some Conservancy friends to a downtown bar where there is a small alcove in the back with paintings of marshes and ducks flying overhead. We sat and drank and watched out the window as a brief but powerful storm blew waves of rain down the street. As I was talking to Alabama State Director, Chris Oberholster, I recalled another celebration years ago for the creation of a new National Wildlife Refuge on the Cahaba River in central Alabama. It was a conservation achievement that, as in so many other places, would never have happened but for The Nature Conservancy. That afternoon, thunder rolled in the distance, an old time string band played, and Chris waded in the shallows and netted tiny, colorful darters, showed them to a circle of children and returned them to the river where the fish and their progeny would, then, be safe in the years to come.
Still later, I stopped at the office in Ballston to pick up some papers. The sidewalk was deserted except for a young woman sound asleep beneath a thin blanket beside the Conservancy’s front door. I tried not to awaken her in my coming and going—sleep seeming preferable to huddling wide-eyed on the pavement at midnight with no place else to go.
I thought about that young person, perhaps the same age as my own children, and the sense of regret and sadness that I would feel were she one of my daughters. It would not be dissimilar to the regret all of us would feel were we to leave our children an irrevocably ruined earth.
As I walked home, the moon re-appeared among passing clouds. I stopped to listen to a cricket in someone’s yard and felt not so far away from the pull of the tides in the marshes, the dark rivers winding their ways to the Gulf, and the night wind in the southern pines. The struggle for such places in the U.S. and around the world is far from over, but for the last 60 years, The Nature Conservancy, through its staff and volunteers, has provided tangible and lasting conservation accomplishment and a sense of hope for the future of the natural systems that support and enrich our lives. This is, in fact, cause for celebration.