Although I am an agnostic in fine standing today, I am certainly betraying my childhood as a Protestant and a man bound to the U.S. South when I use the word redemption — one of the signal ideas in the European Protestant tradition. This is the prodigal son, the slaver who was once lost but has now been found, the sheep who has returned to the flock and her relieved shepherd. It’s the second chance, with hope rekindled and fanned into open flame. The language of redemption drives many of us in conservation. Most of us seem daily aware that this point in history is special, pregnant with special losses and opportunities. Some of us in more extreme forms see the outlines of Armageddon and apocalpyse — an end of what we have known and the press of imminent and ultimate battle — but that’s not my personal sense of time. I am more keen to see struggle, even if manichean in form. That struggle has largely seen defeats for “our” side. But the victories are notable too.
Perhaps the first time I can remember feeling redeemed was when the North American ivory-billed woodpecker was said to have found in the lowlands of eastern Arkansas. In 2004, after a terrible election year, Cornell’s famous ornithology lab announced the ivory-billed was back. This was a bird that had disappeared early in my father’s lifetime in officially documented sightings, though in family tradition (and many anecdotal accounts) the ivory-billed seemed to continue on for some time. It was a magnificent, huge woodpecker — a king of the old-growth bald cypress bottomlands I had grown to love as a boy. It should tell you a lot that all of the major North American bird field guides kept the ivory-billed woodpecker in their pages, usually described as presumed extinct. None of us could let such a big bird completely go. I heard the news on the radio and immediately called friends and family, crying for joy. For redemption.
Unfortunately (in a way that I suspect would make Max Weber smile as he reflected on the lingering burden of the Protestant ethic), redemption does not seem to be a status that — once achieved — is kept and maintained. Conservation redemption is a process or a hunger. It must be fed.
I can’t speak for other people, but I feel like we’ve already lost so much. The great chestnut forests of eastern North America, the Great Auk, even the moribund Dodo. And so many cultures too — symbolized for e with great finality by Ishi, the “last wild Indian” of North America captured in California early in the 20th century. I’m sure if Freud laid me down on a couch and asked me to free associate around concepts of Nature, you’d hear early memories of a huge magnolia tree next door that was cut down by two well-meaning older women, an even larger old-growth cypress in southwest Louisiana I visited when I was six that shortly after became part of a housing development, having my father point to pond in Galveston where the last Eskimo curlew was seen, watching the slow progress of fire ants across eastern Texas and corresponding loss of horned (“horny” ) toads from our yard and farm.
You don’t have to be paying close attention to feel like we’re losing so much now, with terrible quickness.
Yet there are good stories, ones that are better than the ivory-billed, which despite Cornell’s assertions is almost certainly dead and gone and has been for several decades at least. The New York Times granted us a rare reprieve recently with big vertebrates with a wonderful story about lowland gorillas in war-ravaged eastern Congo. These are the signs I think many of us seek in the gloom, hoping that the path will not always be dark. We don’t need a lot, but a little redemption now and again would help with the work.