Gene Stratton-Porter was an amazing woman. I recently read about her in a Smithsonian magazine article. She lived in northeast Indiana from her birth in 1863 until she moved to California in 1919.
Stratton-Porter was what we now call a naturalist. She spent time outside, observing and developing a understanding of the ways physical geography, plants, and animals interact. The Limberlost swamp was she where spent her days, and she was dismayed to see it drained for agriculture and oil production. Long after her death, Stratton-Porter’s writings about this place inspired future generations to restore and preserve the ecosystem at Limberlost Swamp Wetland Preserve and Loblolly Marsh Nature Preserve.
In hindsight, people understood her wisdom, but this was not the case in her day. At that time, the academic science of biology was based in obtaining field species, which for living animals meant killing them; and then, examining the species as an object in a laboratory. Spending days studying nature in the field was not considered valid science.
Stratton-Porter did not finish high school and was a woman. People of her day did not recognize what she knew. And yet, with an understanding and foresight lacking in academia at the time, she wrote of our ability to alter natural systems (as quoted in the Smithsonian article):
“It was Thoreau who in writing of the destruction of the forests exclaimed, ‘Thank heaven they cannot cut down the clouds.’ Aye, but they can! . . . If men in their greed cut forests that preserve and distill moisture, clear fields, take the shelter of trees from creeks and rivers until they evaporate, and drain the water from swamps so that they can be cleared and cultivated, they prevent vapor from rising. And if it does not rise, it cannot fall. Man can change and is changing the forces of nature. Man can cut down the clouds.”
Today we are confronted by climate change and other environmental crises. I’m concerned that many people think technology alone will solve our problems. As an engineer geek, I love learning and want to increase my knowledge. However, working on flood control projects taught me that knowledge by itself is not enough. I’ve seen knowledge mean nothing, when a flood control structure is hit by a larger than designed or unexpected storm event. These structures also fail due to lack of maintenance, as the river erodes the structure and tries to reclaim its natural system. Reliance on our knowledge to control river systems has placed people at unexpected risk and resulted in unforeseen consequences, such as the loss of ground water recharge of drinking water sources, deltas that buffer hurricanes, and vital habitats for wildlife.
Knowledge-based technology may solve the symptoms of a problem, like preventing a community from flooding during certain types of storm events. It doesn’t solve the underlying problem. In this example, the underlying problem is that the community is within a floodplain, and people don’t want, or don’t have the resources, to change where they’re living. I’m concerned that the technology-based solutions I hear for today’s environmental crises are similarly not addressing the underlying problem: a desire to form the world to what we want it to be, instead of living within the world we have. A reliance solely on technology to solve symptoms, such as climate change, may only kick the real problem further down the road. It may cause unforeseen consequences and put others at greater risk in the future.
What we really need is wisdom. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, wisdom goes beyond the information, understanding, and skill that comes with knowledge. Wisdom adds the “ability to discern inner qualities and relationships.” It implements “good sense” in applying “accumulated philosophical or scientific learning.” From a theological perspective, Divine Wisdom, known as the feminine Sophia, was present at and is still active in creation. Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, in a lectionary commentary she wrote for the annual Season of Creation, discusses Wisdom’s role in creation and the energy Wisdom brings to us for solving today’s threats to creation.
Gene Stratton-Porter had wisdom. If she had been heard in her day, we may not have needed to restore the Limberlost swamp in our day. The environmental crises of today require wisdom to be humble in our knowledge and to recognize its limits. We also need to ask, who are the Stratton-Porters of our day? Who are the people who have wisdom we need, but we don’t recognize it, because their wisdom is not consistent with our society’s established criteria for knowledge?
I’m finding wisdom among the people who have suffered alongside and with the planet, as systems of power have tried to conform both to do their bidding. I’m learning from indigenous people, who have stood and continue to stand “in the way,” as some would say, of resources being extracted from the land. Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley’s work offers an indigenous perspective for solving the underlying problem of today’s environmental crises. I recommend his book, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision.
I’m also learning from descendants of African people who were brought to the U.S. and bound to the land as slaves. Dr. Melanie Harris’ work brings a womanist perspective to environmental issues and exposes their links to economic, racial, and gender issues. All must be addressed, if we are to solve the underlying problem of today’s environmental crises. I recommend her book, Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths.
These are just a couple of examples of voices of wisdom. I’m continuously working to hear and learn from others. Please comment and let me know where you’re finding the wisdom needed to transform the way we’re living on this planet.