Seeking the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in a Time of Masquerade

October 25, 2003

Keynote Address
Santa Fe Conservation Trust Stewart Udall Award Dinner
Craig S. Barnes

As we approach Halloween this year it is as if all the world were in costume, as if some game, some charade of looks and appearances were now the norm of global civilization. Consumers and their governments pretend to have money we do not have, we pretend to know what we do not know, we pretend to be immune to the laws of truth and decency. We might, therefore, we few, we happy few here tonight, be asking how the land, how conservation, how attention to the grass and the leaves, the seasons and the disappearance of vistas and small fish, can bring us through the debacle of this great masquerade.

Three things to notice and which are axiomatic: First, the land is neutral and objective and does not lie. It is more neutral than CNN or Dan Rather, and we are all embedded reporters, so we can check for ourselves. Second, without the land we have no constant recourse, no priceless and free, available-to-all knowledge of a beauty greater, grander and more magnificent than ourselves. Beauty is a necessity of the human experience as much as food and water and the land provides that—to the great consternation of our commercialized world—for free. Third, without the land we have no test of what is ultimately good. What nourishes the land nourishes the long-term survival of life and what diminishes or poisons the land diminishes or poisons the lives of our future generations.

The land is therefore ultimately the test of what Socrates called the true, the good and the beautiful.

At this time in our history, either because of, or in spite of, the foreign wars which mask the home front, we have less time and energy to think about the land, the water, and the sun. Because of a fear which grips us of impending attack from somewhere, anywhere, we stand in hours-long lines at airports, rock back and forth between yellow and orange alerts, between relaxation and tension, caring for and mass producing weapons and x-ray machines which do not in any way harness the sun, or plow, or irrigate or enrich the soil but rather more likely poison the body and the soil and even the soul.

The land does not live or flourish under attack, and yet we are a nation which lives by the attack; we are can-do solvers, people who intend to overcome and take dominion of the problem, of the market, of the football game, of the ratings. In a global market with connections between all kinds of climates and overnight transportation, it is as if we could conquer the seasons, could undo the cycles, could outsmart the gods. We are alike to King Canute of 11th century England, commanding the waves to stop. And for the moment, it seems to be working. But the land does not lie. Behind the mask of the annual returns, the land tells it like it is.

As a civilization we are attending to the need for security against shadowy enemies on the one hand and seldom attending to the need for protection against improvidence and dissolute self-indulgence on the other. Our great charade is to use our foreign enemies to mask our indulgence. In the White House we use a war to mask a domestic agenda which does not sing of, to or for the land. In the Congress we use the war to embed religious doctrine in the Constitution of Iraq, unwary of the fact that scripture tells us to take dominion over the land, as if that were somehow possible. In the courts we hide battles over survival of species behind slogans of individual rights, as if the individual could somehow outlive the species.

At the same time, therefore, as we are making decisions and spending billions to make ourselves secure in one sense, behind the masks of the 21st century we are becoming less secure in another sense. The Buckman well which provides water for Santa Fe has dropped at least 500 feet in than 10 years; beetles announce the drought and chew up the piñons of New Mexico, the aquifers of eastern Colorado are being mined, and the frogs come no more to the little arroyo in front of my house.

Commercial civilization at the turn of the 21st century is therefore in a great struggle for self definition and just as the clash with fundamentalist Islam has threatened a collision with commercialism overseas, at home the clash of the culture of short-term satisfaction is head on in a collision with the culture of long-term species survival. We are participants tonight in that clash.

We meet in the season of dying leaves and tonight the cold winds of winter push in over the Jemez. It is the time for marking a natural cycle of perfectly-acceptable seasonal death which must come as a prelude to life in the spring. The traditional celebration of the hallowed dead, All Souls remembrance, will be masked, however, in our culture by costumes and caricatures of horror without substance, death without meaning or loss. The unmasked eternal truth of death and the ultimate cycles of rising and falling, of success and failure which the land knows, will be hidden by our new religion of unceasing progress.

When I was a school boy I lived in the midst of wheat fields outside Littleton, Colorado a land which is now covered by houses and shopping centers. Later I lived in Athens, Greece, a land which is today paved with new freeways and stadia for the upcoming Olympics—a celebration in itself of the attack and victory—and the open country along Greece’s shores where I used to swim in the blue Aegean is now paved like Littleton with houses and factories. There is a progress in all of this. More people are gaining more access to material goods. And there is a poverty in all this, of the spirit, of the sense of well being. A taxi driver who drove me to the airport in Athens three weeks ago was far better off than his family of the early 1950s, materially, and yet, said the young man, something is missing, some part of this life in the fast lane is completely insecure.

Two thousand five hundred years ago, only a half mile from where that taxi driver picked me up three weeks ago, Socrates taught. His search for the true, the good and the beautiful, has been at the core of civic action ever since, for those like Erasmus and Galileo and Jefferson and Lincoln, and, here about us, in those like Stewart Udall whom we honor tonight. There is a place still for that search, and people we see about us here tonight are engaged in it.

Being an activist for conservation is not therefore apart from the great cultural task of America’s re-definition; it is at the heart of it. The land straightens activists out. The land gives us perspective. The land gives us inspiration. The land re-births us. The land does not lie. The trees of ancient Greece were cut down nearly three thousand years ago and have not re-grown. Neither Pericles nor George Bush nor Howard Dean can pretend that those trees are still there.

The grass on my hill was mowed down by sheep 150 years ago and the soil is gone and the grass has no loam today. Not all my wishing can make it be there today. The land does not pretend to grow grass. It grows grass or does not. The land does not pretend to erode. It erodes. The land does not claim that next year will be abundant and everything will be fine. The land is neutral. The land does not pretend to be beautiful. It is what it is. The land does not lie.

Knowing that, members of our board are taking responsibility for themselves, building contours on their land to hold water and seeding, planting trees and doing permaculture and working on this board and with the City and County and with others to acquire more land to hold water and seeds and trees for the future.

And they do this to reserve and remember truths older than our own civilization, truths built into the system, inexorable, immutable, forever. The land is our teacher. It teaches us what is true. It teaches us what is beautiful. It teaches us what is good. We preserve it because it is the measure of our progress and our failure. We honor it because we come from it, because it is the source of life and measure of our security, our inspiration and our solace.