When I walk down Mesa Road towards town these days, I pass the new wetlands where the dairy farm used to be. One morning not long ago, the scene morphed in my mind into another that is far away – the rice fields in my wife’s village in the Philippines.
There are differences of course: no wiry men in NBA shirts and flip-flop sandals, no bamboo houses and carabao, no debilitating heat. But if you squint you almost – almost- could be in Iloilo province, where the bottomland is flat and green, and fringed by gentle hills where people build their houses in the shade.
There’s another difference. The rice fields in my wife’s village have footpaths along the dikes that transect the fields. Footpaths are everywhere; the village is built along a path and not a street. Some lead across the fields to a narrow wooded strip, after which there are more rice fields and then another village. The trees grow beside a stream; and to get across it in the rainy season, people built a bridge.
There, I said it. That word “bridge” has become loaded and contentious in Point Reyes Station and Inverness these days. The proposal for a bridge across Lagunitas Creek to connect the paths on the two sides, and thus Point Reyes Station with Inverness Park, has sent us into one of our regular convulsions. The debate turns on the concept of nature. Is it natural to want to walk between the two towns? Or is nature – as embodied in the new wetlands – something that we can’t touch, even at the edge, so that people must burn fossil fuels to drive around it?
It is a thorny issue. Most of us out here are passionate about the natural beauty and function of this place. But just how we humans fit into the natural scheme is a source of endless drama. Some years ago I might have come out against a bridge. My mind tends towards absolutes; and the pristine nature of the environmental imagination has for me a strong appeal.
But then I began to visit my wife’s village. People there live closer to nature than most of us in West Marin ever will. When Mary Jean was a girl most her food came from within sight of her house. Her father built the house with bamboo from the land. He plowed the fields with a carabao, and moved heavy objects from the road – which then was about half a mile away – on a bamboo sled pulled by one. I’m not saying they have no environmental problems, especially since Western technologies and corporations came in.
But even with the Green Revolution, and the electricity that came a few years ago, the ecological footprint there must be miniscule compared to the prevailing one out here. Such people do not talk about nature the way we do. They do not compose rhapsodies to its intricate webs. They live in it, and with it. For them – which is to say, for people who walk constantly, rather than burn fossil fuels to move about—a bridge across a creek is as natural as life itself.
Is our own tendency to idealize nature, partly a sign of our lack of such rapport? Is it partly because we live in cocoons of industrial consumption, that we create a compensating opposite, which then gives us license to continue to consume? We say we want to produce our food locally, become more self-reliant, reduce our use of fossil fuels, on and on.
In practice this means that we want – or think we want—to become more like the people in Iloilo province, though with more cars and computers and airline trips. Yet a proposal to build a bridge across a creek, prompts charges of marauding nature, even though it is what people who live close to nature, naturally do. How do we make sense of this?