Sunday, July 24, 2011

On Being a Hypocrite

This past week I had an essay published in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette on a new book by David Gessner entitled My Green Manifesto. You can see the essay in the newspaper by clicking the title of this post. I have pasted it in below, though, because I want to add a thought or two to the essay in order to link it to the subject matter of this blog.

---------------------------

Protect Your Urban Wilderness

This morning I took a walk up Newton Hill, a wooded isle in the urban sea of Worcester's West Side. As I crossed the perimeter of the hill's base, and made my way up the first path, my feet crunched over broken glass. Just off the trail, a few feet into the woods, I spotted a pile of garbage, replete with beer bottles and fast-food containers and, oddly, a diaper.

I kept moving. As I came to a spot where two paths crossed, I ran into a young man and woman wearing athletic clothes, and holding discs. They were playing the disc golf course that has been set up on the hill with the help of a local advocacy organization, the Friends of Newton Hill. We exchanged a friendly greeting, and I moved my feet further up the hill as they stepped onto the next tee.

Finally I got to the top, a cleanly mowed meadow. At the hill's summit I could see a slab of concrete, and a large metal pole, decorated with graffiti. I made my way over and sat down on the slab, carefully watching my seat and feet to avoid another rash of broken glass.

I pulled out my binoculars, and found what I was looking for: blue jays. I'm not much of a bird watcher, but I've come to enjoy sitting up here and watching these beautifully colored birds. I can identify at least three separate jays on the hill, and like to watch them flit from tree to field, sometimes hanging around their home base and sometimes circling around in the sky above me.

I see other birds, too, but I'm too new at bird-watching to be able to know what they are. As usual, I've forgotten my bird identification book, so I'm content to sit here in solitude and enjoy the peace and quiet, watching the jays. The trees and wildflowers wave in the wind, and clouds are scooting by overhead. An elderly couple comes into view off the path, walking their two dogs and giving me a friendly wave.

This little glimpse of nature in my day, watching birds I know little about amidst the broken glass and sounds of the city below me, probably won't sound very enticing to your typical nature lover, or environmental activist. But it's precisely the kind of natural experience that we need more of, according to Worcester native David Gessner, author of a new book titled "My Green Manifesto."

Mr. Gessner's book describes a canoe trip he took down the Charles River - with its famously elegized "Dirty Water" - with Dan Driscoll, a state Department of Conservation and Recreation employee who has made environmental planning along the Charles his life's work.

The pair encounter nature on the Charles just as I do on Newton Hill, as they wind their way between banks dotted by trophy homes and parking lots. Amid the occasional swirl of garbage, they catch sight of turtles and hawks, herons and ospreys, and more trees and plant life than I can remember.

Mr. Gessner comes away from the trip with two arguments, both made in his book, and both of which I think are worth the consideration of those of us living in Worcester's urban habitat.

First, he challenges us to be hypocrites.

Don't throw up your hands in despair at the prospect of global warming, he says; don't worry about it if you've switched all your light bulbs to fluorescents, but you still like a long hot shower. In the face of dire predictions about the environment, we may be tempted to shut down and give up. Do what you can, Gessner says; better make some commitment than none at all.

His second argument offers a more substantial challenge to us. He offers it, once again, in the face of our potential despair at the magnitude of the problems around us: rising sea levels, polluted skies and water, a doomed Earth.

His prescription is simple: Find a natural place in your own backyard (or neighborhood, or city); fall in love with it; be willing to fight for it.

Following that prescription made Dan Driscoll's fight for the Charles River a successful one. It has also helped animate the Friends of Newton Hill, who have done much good work in cleaning up this space where I felt myself a little closer to nature this morning.

And if enough of us learn to put aside our despair, and instead take up the fight for some local space that we learn to love, it may just help us - in spite of everything - save the world.

----------------------------

So that's the essay as it appeared. Just a few final words on hypocrisy, which may be one of the worst things you can call someone in Christian circles.

But I think Gessner's point may be applicable here as well, especially with reference to so many people I know who have fallen away from religious practice, or from the religion of their childhood. They felt like they could no longer embrace that religion wholeheartedly, or accept all of its tenets, or live up to its principles. So out goes the baby and the bathwater.

It might not be the worst thing, though, to allow ourselves a little hypocrisy here as well. Even if you find yourself troubled by one thing or another, or don't feel connected to certain aspects of a religion, you may still find others which enrich your life, and which you feel comfortable practicing.

If that's the case for you, perhaps being a hypocrite may not be such a bad idea after all.