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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Department of Natural Resources (p. 106)

From chapter "Seeking a Third Way"

Last fall I attended a debate, of sorts, between two people running to be Manager of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Although one was female and the other male, they were, as is so often true of political opponents, for all practical purposes indistinguishable. Talking of the public forests, the first spoke not of salmon, lynx, or grizzly, but of “managing an asset portfolio.” The second never mentioned the words “forest” or “wildlife,” and in fact mentioned no creatures save cows. Because so much money is involved in the “managing of this public resource,” he said, these forests should be considered “a big business to be run by a CEO.”

That evening—as the moderator, a representative of the region’s corporate newspaper, asked his final question, “Do environmental regulations work, or do they go too far?”—I thought of the words of Meir Berliner, who died fighting the SS at Treblinka, “When the oppressors give me two choices, I always take the third.” I thought also—as I reflected on meaningless talk of shuffling numbers on abstract ledgers—of the real-world effects of these people’s decisions. I wondered, if wolves, elk, owls, or salamanders could right now take on human form and speak through me or anyone else here, what would they say? If the children who will inherit the consequences of our actions were here tonight, those of the seventh generation, as the Indians say, or even of the second or third or fourth, how would they respond?

When the moderator opened the evening to the public, I raised my hand. I said, “A comment, and then a question. The comment: I have to say that if bobcats, wolves, trees, and salmon could vote, they wouldn’t vote for either one of you.” Everyone gasped, as though I had pulled a gun. “Now a question: Pretend we’re children two generations hence, and defend your actions to us. Tell us why we shouldn’t hate you for destroying our world.” Another gasp, as though I had fired it through their hearts. A friend of mine, sitting next to me, who is a longtime environmentalist, slid slightly away from me on the metal chair beneath him.

Notwithstanding the knowledge that every creature—except for the more wounded among us—tries to move in the direction of life; and not withstanding the white-haired and wizened woman who approached me—after the politicians addressed neither comment nor question— to thank me and say she wished she would have said the same; and notwithstanding the knowledge that there can be no more important comment to make nor question to ask, I felt intensely alone. I had broken the most basic commandment our culture: Thou shalt pretend there is nothing wrong. I had rolled a grenade across the dance floor.