The following essay first appeared in the Winter 2022 Friends of the Mad River Newsletter.
Friends often uses the word stewardship to describe our work planting trees, helping landowners and property managers ‘spongify’ the Valley with resilient Storm Smart practices, and collaborating with partners to build an ethic of care for and connection with the natural ecosystems in which we exist. But the idea of stewardship has a deeper history than our work alone. We understand that how people think about stewardship is informed by an environmental movement that is all-too-often grounded in the limited perspective of a small group of people. Recognizing this complicated history offers us an opportunity to redefine stewardship in more equitable ways.
The environmentalist and author, Wendell Berry, wrote about the “good work” of environmental stewardship as something rooted in, “the real names of the environment…the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes, roads, creatures, and people.” He wrote those words in response to what he called the “juiceless, abstract intellectuality of the universities.” As an environmental organization, Friends of the Mad River is more inclined to see the concepts of ecology as full of life. But the point is well taken, that it is our connection to the place as we know it and as we live within it that drives us to do the “good work” of caring for it. Another famed environmentalist of the 20th century, Aldo Leopold, wrote that, “we can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, understand, feel, love, or otherwise have faith in.” These close connections work as regular reminders that nature is not something ‘out there’ as much as it is something found and cared for within and between all of us.
While the insights of Berry and Leopold are valuable, it is important to recognize that the environmental movement in this country has often fallen short of these ideals. Too often the conservation community has kept a narrow view of just which connections are worthwhile. If the personal names we use each day are where we find the meaning that lets us do good work, then the role conservationists have played in silencing indigenous voices who called these rivers and mountains by other names for thousands of years is all the more tragic.
Stewardship, unfortunately, can have the ring of arrogance about it; that what is before us is an estate to be managed or an account to be balanced, that it is a supervisory arrangement, and that the steward is master of their domain. Stewardship risks becoming the work of a few experts who know ‘what is best.’
There is danger here – that the environmental movement overlooks the knowledge of those outside the expert inner circle, and that the experts become so alienated from the world as it is lived day to day that the public doesn’t give them credence where it is due.
We can be more forgiving of our definition of stewardship if we move away from dominion and turn towards the personal connections, the pride in place, our responsibility for ourselves, and reciprocity with others and the planet. If we lean into exploring our connections with each other and place, and how we are not separate from our wild neighbors but part of an unfolding story of curiosity, discovery, and care for the world around us, stewardship can be a more honest reflection of each person’s limitations around knowing what is best and more accurate in describing the deeply personal and contextual way that stewardship is actually done.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book Braiding Sweetgrass; Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, writes that, “We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world. We need to restore honor to the way we live, so that when we walk through the world we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame, so that we can hold our heads up high and receive the respectful acknowledgment of the rest of the earth’s beings.”
Here, Kimmerer offers us an avenue forward that ties environmental and social justice together, that recognizes that the historical harms that degrade our environment also degrade our ability to respect one another and, crucially, that our mistreatment of other beings sends us down a dangerous route in which it is all too easy to forget the costs of our way of life. Kimmerer writes that, “Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them. If an animal gives its life to feed me, I am in turn bound to support its life. If I receive a stream’s gift of pure water, then I am responsible for returning a gift in kind. An integral part of a human’s education is to know those duties and how to perform them.” As Friends seeks to stay rooted in our special relationship with the Mad River, the many tributaries that feed it, and the valley that it has formed, we find meaning in this alternate definition of stewardship. It is the same meaning we find in the joy and curiosity of our Mad River Watch volunteers as they visit their field sites, in the imagining of the future floodplain forest at the Austin parcel in Waitsfield, or in the conversations with property owners aimed at a ‘spongier,’ more resilient Valley. Our role as stewards is defined, not by some master plan of environmental conservation, but by the relationships we have with partners like the Mad River libraries, Mad River Path, Sugarbush Resort, and the towns, to name just a few. And yes, we do keep one foot in the world of environmental science, of data, and academics. But not because it is some “juiceless, abstract intellectuality,” but because these concepts are part of a vital connection to the world beyond our valley walls. By supporting this bridge between the close connections we foster in the Mad River Valley and the wisdom and expertise of those beyond, we are able to find opportunities to act, to do good work, and meet our duty to live in reciprocity head on.
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