Good Dirt: Confessions of a Conservationist by David E. Morine
You could call David Morine's Good Dirt sexist, arrogant, and rooted in privilege -- and, truth to tell, it is all of these things. But it is also a book worth reading, if only because it reminds us of how complex and diverse the environmental movement is. Politics makes strange bedfellows, environmental politics perhaps more so than others because our environment is the fundamental root of our existence. Whether we are hostile or aggressive, welcoming, enraptured, or frightened of our world, we cannot live without it; beyond any choice, we are a part of nature. From this reality has sprung a myriad of earth oriented organizations: we have activist groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, conservancies like Rails to Trails and The Nature Conservancy, single issue organizations like The Humane Society and Native Plant Societies, and hunting, hiking, and other use-based agencies.
If you tend to fall into thinking that environmentalists are only tree huggers or demonstrators, or avid biologists, you may find Good Dirt a surprising reflection by a less frequently stereotyped member of the species. Morine is a business schooled developer-come-conservationist whose personal level of comfort with nature is with Central Park or a populated summer retreat. (Julia Butterfly Hill he most certainly is not; rather, Morine expresses some contempt for dug-in-the-dirt environmentalists.)
In the twenty essays of Good Dirt, Morine relates some of his adventures and misadventures while working in land acquisition for The Nature Conservancy. Although the Conservancy now identifies itself as a science-based biodiversity protection group, its roots are in traditional land acquisition, and it is interesting to hear Morine discuss their initially random approach to land deals. "When I started with the Conservancy, saving land was a relatively simple business. We'd look around, find some land that we liked, and buy it... We didn't deal in doom and gloom. We bought land." Morine brackets his recollections of Conservancy times with two passages from his childhood where he attempted to get the right/biggest fish; the same attitude permeates the book, as he tries to get the biggest (and therefore the best) land parcels. On the way, he wines and dines trustees and widows, heiresses and professors, offering them many a pretense about his own outdoors experience.
Some environmentalists may be unsettled by Morine's narrative, which seems to lack in passion for the earth. It is also somewhat shocking that a man whose chosen profession was land protection can casually refer to mother earth as a "bitch," showing her little or no respect. But is this really a rare occurrence? I'm not convinced that it is so rare, and I think that it is worth reading Good Dirt for a reality check on the environmentalist image. Whether you consider environmentalists to be "us" or "them," it is important to realize that the environmental movement doesn't even begin to approach uniformity, that the aims and means of its constituencies and agencies are all over the map. Morine's Good Dirt is a reminder that environmentalists are as diverse as the lands that they seek to preserve.
So while I can't say that Good Dirt is a good book, I do think it is an educational one. Written with the supposed intent to inject some levity into the environmental movement, what it does offer is fertile ground for discussion about what defines an environmentalist. Is a love of and respect for the wildness of the earth a required characteristic? Do we define ourselves by our behavior, our beliefs, or our passions? Where does "us" end and "them" begin, if anywhere?
Note: Although Good Dirt is about Morine's time at The Nature Conservancy, it is not an accurate reflection of who and what the Conservancy is today. If you are looking for a study of the Conservancy's approach to land protection and management in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, this isn't it. Still, some of what Morine says about earlier attitudes in conservation is true; while the Conservancy now focuses on biodiversity, its earlier land acquisitions were not based in an attempt to preserve biodiversity, but simply to protect land. Other conservancies continue to fill this basic protection role, while The Nature Conservancy's focus has shifted towards scientific cataloguing, bioregion management, and protecting rare species and habitats.
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