There are no mangroves in Massachusetts. What brought me to New England was a mangrove expert at Harvard, a photographer in Lexington and a pond in Concord.
Harvard ecologist Aaron Ellison edited a major review of mangrove knowledge in 2008 and has as good a grasp of the big mangrove picture as anyone I’ve met. (He also bakes mean ginger cookies.) One of the subjects we discussed was the growth of ecological economics, a discipline which attempts to assign a monetary value to the ecological “goods and services” provided by organisms and habitats. Mangroves, for example, might be valued at so many dollars per hectare for their contribution to erosion control, so many dollars for fish nursery services, carbon storage, wave mitigation, crab food, migratory bird roosts, and so on.
Aaron is wary of taking this utilitarian approach to conservation. He argues that treating nature as a resource—an apparently inexhaustible resource—is what has got us into the mess we’re in, so how can assigning a dollar value to nature’s various components get us out of it? He showed me an editorial from a recent issue of the journal Conservation Biology, in which Matthew Child contends that the conservation movement is becoming bogged down in “soulless financial rhetoric.”
“Conservation was never meant to become another latch in the ratchet of progress,” writes Child. “Its primary purpose has always been to transcend the notion of economic progress.”
Thoreau, says Child, “would have balked at the tragic incongruence of conservationists using an economic framework to justify the existence of the movement. He was an unapologetic and nonviolent freedom fighter for nature who decried the societal dictum that ‘fruits are not ripe until they are turned to dollars.’”
The gist of his argument is that if conservationists want to sup with the devil of capitalist economics they’d better use a pretty long spoon.
Thoreau’s literal stamping ground was Walden Pond, and that very morning I had made a dawn visit to the pond with photographer Tim Laman. Tim was my collaborator on the National Geographic mangrove story that launched me on this journey. Catching up with him in Lexington was the first chance I’d had to see the hundreds of outtakes that weren’t published in the magazine: tigers in the Sundarbans, trees packed with scarlet ibis in Trinidad, mud crabs in Indonesia that are so large they have to be speared rather than captured by hand—they would take your fingers off.
We spent the evening savouring pictures and dreaming of publishing a coffee-table book of mangrove photography and got up early to visit Walden, just a few miles from Tim’s house.
I peeked in the windows of the replica cabin-in-the-woods with its three chairs—“one for solitude, two for friendship, three for company”—and added a stone to one of the memorial cairns near the site of the original hut, where an inscription over the old fireplace says, in typical Thoreauvian prose, “Go thou my incense upward from this hearth.”
Walden is still a place of solitude, despite the hum of commuter traffic through the trees. The only people besides us were swimmers, wetsuited against the cold, and a lone sculler taking the morning freshness. We looked for pink ladyslipper orchids, which flower at this time of year, and Tim was pleased to find a photogenic pair of blooms not far from the walking path.
Thoreau’s contribution to the environmental movement is beyond measuring. It was he who wrote the call to arms for nature’s defenders, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” I am glad for the chance to visit the site that spawned such thoughts, before heading to Cuba to see the state of wildness and preservation in the mangroves there.