Sustaining Nature

By Andre Clewell

Originally printed in the Spring 2009 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Clewell, Andre. "Sustaining Nature." Quest  97. 2 (Spring 2009): 60- 63.

Andre ClewaellWhen Nelson Mandela assumed leadership of South Africa's post-apartheid government in 1994, he was faced with two seemingly intractable problems. One was pervasive poverty among the nation's black population. The other was the rapid spread of trees from Australia—eucalyptus among them—that were planted in plantations a century earlier to augment scarce supplies of lumber. These alien trees were now reseeding everywhere and replacing native ecosystems.  Their deep roots removed soil moisture. Water tables were lowered, and farmers could scarcely grow crops as entire landscapes dried out.

Mandela's government seized an opportunity to resolve both issues simultaneously. The nation's poor were hired in a massive public works program called Working for Water. A civilian army spread out across the countryside, cutting down every invasive tree in sight. More than a million acres have been cleared. In 2005 alone, 32,000 people participated. Enough water has been saved to fill a reservoir on a medium-sized river each year.

Positive environmental stories like Working for Water are sparingly reported by our news media, which thrives on disaster stories like global warming and sea level rise. But there are other big success stories waiting to be reported.

One is occurring not far to the west of the Theosophical Society Headquarters at Adyar, India, where depleted forests have been overtaken by brush. People in many tribal villages of this region became impoverished, because their former forests could no longer sustain them economically with wood, thatching material, foods, and medicinal plants. These forests once served as natural "sponges" that absorbed rainfall that was later tapped by people for their potable water supply. Now rainfall runs off the brushland and is lost as flow during flash floods, leaving little to drink in the prolonged annual dry season. Personnel from the Forest Department of the State of Tamil Nadu stepped in with a program for people to restore their former forests, their water supply, and thus their economies.

The foresters presented workshops in every town, where citizens learned about forest degradation, the importance of healthy forests to their well-being, and how they could restore forests as community projects. People gathered seeds of native trees and grew them in village nurseries that the Forest Department established. Then teams of citizens spread across the countryside to plant these young tree sprouts. They constructed small reservoirs to retain water until the forest recovered.

The Forest Department encouraged the formation of women's groups and made small loans to them to establish local businesses. Some women's groups are collecting palm fronds from the forest from which they make handicrafts for export. This local, forest-based industry has generated much-needed income for their villages.

There is another success story from the center of one of the world's hotspots.  As rivers go, the Alexander River does not match up to the grandeur of the Nile. In fact, it would not take an Olympian to broad-jump across it in places. It begins in Palestinian hills near Nablus in the West Bank and flows eastward into Israel and the Mediterranean Sea at Tel Aviv. In 1995, it was a dirty, polluted mess, from raw sewage and residues from olive presses and stone-cutting plants.

Palestinian and Israeli citizens got together to do something about it, including some environmental professionals who volunteered their expertise. It began as a low-key affair, with civic leaders from towns all along the river meeting quietly to make plans in a back room of the German embassy, away from the hysteria of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then citizens from these towns volunteered their free time in a massive cleanup effort. In a spontaneous display of international unity, they made the water sparkle and turned the river's weedy flood plain into attractive public parks. The rare and spectacularly large Nile soft-shelled turtle returned to the river to the delight of everyone and as an apparent symbol of their success.

These three environmental vignettes from South Africa, India, and the Middle East share a common thread. They are bottom-up, community-based endeavors conducted by the people themselves. They were assisted by the government as they took charge of their own natural environments. In this manner local people participated in the natural processes of their own ecosystems and essentially became inseparable from nature. Such participation develops an appreciation and respect for nature. In turn, nature sustains people with clean water and other natural bounties. This union with nature can lead to nation-building, as it did in South Africa, and towards world peace, as in the miracle that happened along the Alexander River.

Ordinarily, we don't consider nature and economics in the same breath. Instead, we think of economic development and the environmental destruction it brings in its wake as the very antithesis of nature. But these three vignettes are telling us something else—that nature and economics are tightly intertwined. The byword is "sustainable development" whereby we take care of nature and nature takes care of us, indefinitely into the future. We need to treat nature as if people mattered, and treat economics as if nature mattered.

"Very good!" you may say, "But what do those vignettes from halfway around the world have to do with me here in the American heartland?"  The answer is, "Plenty!" In recent years, it seems like each spring brings headlines about floods along the Mississippi River and its far-reaching tributaries. A principal reason for these floods has been well known ever since the floods of 1993 that crept into suburbs of St. Louis and onto our television screens as we watched for weeks as people clung to rooftops of flooded homes. So what was the problem?

Thousands of farmers throughout the upper Midwest had converted small headwater marshes into croplands. Previously, the marshes served to retain snowmelt and spring rainfall, releasing it in increments throughout the rest of the year in to streams that eventually joined the Mississippi. Before those conversions to cropland began, the Mississippi River swelled each spring onto its natural flood plain, but not to the point that it threatened St. Louis and gave television crews sensational footage.

What was the remedy? We built more levees and attempted other expensive engineering solutions, but the floods keep returning. The permanent solution would be to restore those thousands of small marshes throughout the upper Midwest. Land that was taken out of production in a government subsidy program can be substituted without decreases in food production and farm income. But do we know how to restore these marshes? You bet we do! The cost would be high but no greater than the property losses that were suffered in the 1993 flood.

So where's the proof that we can restore Midwestern marshes? Next time you are at the TS's national headquarters, look out the back door of the Olcott Building. Just to the right of the labyrinth you will see a patch of restored prairie that staff member Jeff Gresko installed several years ago. Its perky display of bright yellow compass-plants, which rise above the tall Indian grasses, adds a vibrant splash of color to the grounds. In terms of plant species, this is a drier version of the same kind of prairie that was removed from those thousands of acres of marshlands in the upper Midwest. If Jeff Gresko can exercise his tall, lithe, compass-plant-like frame to restore prairie at Olcott, then it can be done elsewhere. It's not hard to do. It just takes gumption.

Precedents for native prairie restoration exist all over the greater Chicago region. A restored prairie occupies much of the campus of the College of DuPage near Olcott. Two dozen large prairies grace public parks that encircle suburban Chicago. All were restored by thousands of local volunteers who began their work about thirty-five years ago. Another restored prairie sits on top of the underground accelerator at the Fermi Lab—site of last year's excursion during Summer National Gathering.

Nature sustains us, as long as we sustain nature. From a Theosophical point of view, that's another expression of the principle of oneness. When we restore nature, in a real sense we become one with nature, and we also become one with those who have joined in common effort at a restoration project site. In this way (and with apologies to Annie Besant), I suggest that all who feel themselves as one with nature restored, know they are therefore one with every other.

Andre Clewell is a Theosophist from Ellenton, Florida. His latest book, Ecological Restoration: Principles, Values, and Structure of an Emerging Profession, was published in 2007 by Island Press. Contact him at


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