I’ve worked at two different kinds of jobs in my brief 20 years—one that stimulates my mind and soul and satisfies the curious outdoorsman in me, and retail. And I haven’t worked retail much—just long enough to learn to despise it and that the biosphere is headed for the gutter. Let me explain.
One particular day, during the few months I was employed by The Orvis Company in Charlottesville prior to college, a woman entered the store with her black lab. As she perused a shelf of gloves, I approached her and asked if I could do anything for her. She asked a series of piercing questions, to which I confidently provided answers I’d previously prepared by reading the garment’s packaging. She became incredulous and irate at my ineptitude after asking whether or not the gloves would conform to her hand over time and, having never worn that particular pair of women’s gloves for multiple seasons, I had to admit I didn’t know. She left the store silently, leaving behind a fresh pile of scat on the pebbly floor that I confidently identified as a black lab’s.
After sifting through some strong adjectives, I got to thinking about the implications of her actions. Had she returned during my employment, I likely wouldn’t have greeted her so cheerfully. But what if she treated others the same way? I for one would think twice before allowing my dog to defecate on my barber’s floor, before insulting a potentially vengeful chef. But in an era when goods and services are acquired easily and impersonally, the motivation to respect the origins of such things is voluntary at best. The social ethic is weak.
In a simpler time, when small businesses ruled and globalization hadn’t yet broken communal webs to bits, a respectful relationship with a farmer would ensure that you and your family had quality food when he had his. Loyalty to a mechanic or horseshoer would mean continued transportation and help in a fix.
Small towns and the writing trade mimic this. Respect intel entrusted to you by a fly shop owner in humble Roscoe, New York, and you’ll get more. Betray that trust, and you’ll be the most hated individual in the Catskills. Consistently meet deadlines and turn in quality, well-researched writing, and editors will come to rely on your name. Fail to meet deadlines or make a habit of using copyrighted materials or faulty facts, and you’ll be blacklisted and your career will end before it began. These people talk.
Rewind to a time even longer ago, when asphalt paved no inch of this continent, when people wore skins after eating what was inside. Hunting enabled eating, and was directly tied to forest health. The Shawnees of the Shenandoah Valley knew their fishing success depended on their relationship with the river, and that the vitality of their agricultural crop was a factor of soil health, which could be bolstered by applying fish for fertilizer.
I hadn’t quite been born to experience those times, but I have a sneaking suspicion that any individual so blind to even think about clear-cutting a mountain, or dumping human waste into the Shenandoah River—or, God forbid, Naked Creek—would have been dutifully shunned. It’s most likely, however, that such transgressions were committed only by angry, rogue individuals. It’s downright dumb to think it inconsequential to torch your food supply.
Despite it being lawfully looked down upon, a modern person of even base intelligence would comprehend the negative social impacts of burning down the local grocery store or poisoning the water supply. But the reality is that, though we’ve grown perceptually further apart from nature over the course of industrial human history, our dependence on the greater world ecosystem has remained static.
Maybe it’s not everyday news for someone to burn the grocery store or poison the well, but acts like littering, spraying volumes of pesticides and fertilizers, and even the occasional (and totally preventable) oil spill achieve the same ends. Declining water quality due to contamination breeds declining soil quality, which requires farmers to pump more chemicals into their fields, lowering the nutritional value of our food, and killing the soil, requiring increasingly larger volumes of chemical correction. These acts often go unpunished, fly completely under the radar of the general public, or are hardly thought of as harmful. Or, the effects raise a temporary eyebrow, soon lowered with the idea that humans, in their fallacious, God-like reign over planet Earth, can engineer their way to a happy ending.
Such thinking is fallacious and short-sighted. Our social contract with Mother Nature is weak, and until we recognize this, and learn that we can’t poop on her floor without consequence, we will destroy ourselves as a species, and the earth on which we live.□
*Originally published in the Rural Virginian