This text was originally a speech delivered at the Guardians Gala on September 21, 2018

October 5, 2018

Thank you, Jim.  Thank you for 16 years of devotion and service – to the land and to Guardians.

I imagine that you all were as moved by the film as I was. I cried the first time I saw it. Since then I’ve wondered why. Was it gratitude? Gratitude for all the transformative work. Or was it sadness? Sadness to see all the damage that’s been done to the land. Or maybe I cried because I felt uplifted to see the good that we can do, that we can do something to heal those wounds. But I think what really gets me is that this isn’t being done on a much larger scale. What we’ve done is important, but it’s not nearly enough.

We need bold, new ideas. We need to do this on a bigger scale. We need more allies. No, not allies – friends. I have an idea that I believe can do both – both heal the land and create new friends.

At WildEarth Guardians, we pride ourselves for advocating policies that fit the facts, for relying on the most recent research, for grounding our work in the best science. But tonight, I want to set science aside and appeal to you on an emotional, perhaps even spiritual, level.

Aboriginal cultures take this for granted – the idea that we are all deeply, profoundly connected. To the land – and to each other. I want to do this speech without having to ground it any kind of western ontology or epistemology – or any other ology that gives my words an air of conventional thinking or intellectual rigor – I just want to speak from my heart. Albert Einstein once said, “The fairest thing we can experience is the mystery. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

I can’t prove that we are all connected to the land, and to each other, in some wonderful and amorphous way – I just know it’s true. It’s a mystery, a beautiful mystery.

We cannot begin to understand, in any conventional sense, how much good and positive energy we draw from the land. Also, we cannot begin to understand what kind of psychic damage we do to ourselves and our communities when the land is wounded. When the land suffers, we do too.

When I first came to New Mexico 24 years ago, I didn’t seek out the most beautiful landscapes I could find – I sought out the most distressed, the most wounded. I did it intuitively, instinctively. I somehow understood that by working to heal the land, I would be working to heal myself.

It took me a while to understand the subtle connections, the tiny syllogisms that explain why that was true. If you can bear with me, I would like to share them with you now.

I come from a high functioning, high achieving family. A family oriented around actions, not words.  I felt from an early age that I would be judged by my effectiveness. That worthiness was intrinsically connected to effectiveness. Effectiveness is a virtue. Certainly, at WildEarth Guardians, we want to be effective. That’s a given. But, like many of you perhaps, I have my struggles with being effective. Part of the problem is that, sometimes, I can easily be distracted.

It’s not that I don’t want to solve the problem right in front of me – it’s that I want to solve all the problems. And it seems there are just too many problems out there. I’ll be working on a wildlife issue, then I’ll see an article on sexual harassment, and I’ll want to write something about the connection between gender equality and trophy hunting. Then I’ll see something about drilling in Chaco Canyon, and I’ll want to do something about indigenous rights. I believe all these issues are connected, because everything is connected.

That feeling of connection will necessarily slow you down. When you truly feel connected to something or someone, you are more likely to be curious and careful with them – to consider their agendas and their needs, not just your own. But being effective requires a singularity of purpose, a laser focus on the task at hand.

In short, my struggles with effectiveness have led to my struggles with worthiness. And that’s where a wounded landscape provides me with a strange and unique opportunity.

When I see land that’s been wounded by overgrazing or development, I feel it…. physically. So, I need to do something about it, for what may be selfish reasons. But, beyond my own wishy washy feelings, there is that family legacy of needing to be effective. Maybe, if I can help heal the land, I can be effective enough to demonstrate my worthiness.

But tonight is not about healing my wounds – it’s about healing the land. Now this is important—when I say the “land”, understand that I mean it in the most expansive way – not just the physical land, but the country – the social and political community we call America.

Of course, effectiveness isn’t just a Horning family value, it has been a core driver of the American Experiment. America loves winners. America loves people who get things done. In short, America loves effectiveness. But effectiveness has a downside. Effectiveness alone can be a dangerous thing. Effectiveness needs always to be balanced – balanced by connectedness.

It is only through a sense of connection that we can see the land and the people we share it with as something sacred; to be preserved and nurtured – not exploited. The land cannot be perceived as an endless supply of resources meant to serve our needs. And our fellow Americans cannot be perceived as merely allies or antagonists who aid or block our endeavors.

If we look at the land or each other as a means to an end, instead of an end unto themselves, we can’t help but do some harm. In our efforts to restore the land, both physically and spiritually, we need to engage as many of our fellow citizens as possible. And in order to engage them, we must connect with them.

Two weeks ago, President Obama said,

To make democracy work we have to be able to get inside the reality of people who are different and have different experiences, who come from different backgrounds. We have to engage them even when it’s frustrating. We have to listen to them even when we don’t like what they have to say. We have to hope that we can change their minds and we have to remain open to them changing ours.

 

Healing begins on a small level… a cellular level. It begins with planting a tree. It begins with getting people to see the world through the eyes of another person – not the people we’re already close to, but the people farthest away – the people we’d be least likely to agree with.

A wound can be defined as a cut or breach in the skin, in the connective tissue. Few would disagree that the connective tissue that unites us as a country is wounded and in need of healing. That healing requires re-connecting the tissue that’s been severed. The best way to re-connect Americans is by sharing common experiences and a common purpose.

In 1933, FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps. The main purpose of the CCC was to create jobs during the Great Depression. And it did create jobs – planting trees, constructing trails and building facilities at over 800 parks nationwide. Ultimately the CCC planted over three billion trees across the country. During the nine years of its existence, it was the most popular of all the New Deal programs – popular among Republicans and Democrats alike.

As good as it was, there were problems with the CCC. Like I said, it was about creating jobs and not about a long-term commitment to the environment. An even more glaring problem was this – due to pressure from white Democrats in Congress – the program was segregated. Blacks, whites and Native Americans lived and worked separately rarely, if ever, interacting with one another.

Also, some of the abandoned CCC camps became internment camps for Japanese, German and Italian Americans during World War II. I don’t share this fact to suggest that the CCC was somehow responsible, I bring it up to remind us how distrust of our neighbors can turn into something horrible. I bring it up because building trust between Americans is necessary to healing our national wound.

Imagine a new Civilian Conservation Corps – designed not just to heal wounded lands, but to heal a wounded nation. Americans need to rediscover what has been lost. The core values that once united and should unite us again. The idea that we are all created equal. The idea that rights are meant to expand and not contract. People just need to be reminded of the best things that connect us. Like the enlightenment ideas that informed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Like the art and literature the feeds our collective spirit. Like the idea, shared by both liberals and conservative, that service to your country is a good thing.

Unlike the old CCC, the new Civilian Conservation Corps would have at its heart a commitment to diversity – instead of segregation, integration. We bring together young Americans from around the country, black and white, rich and poor, urban and rural – to live and work together in camps nestled in the great outdoors. The goal, the hope, would be that by working and learning together, they will form connections—connections that cross ideological lines and begin to restore the bonds that hold us together.

Unity requires more than common experiences, it requires a common vocabulary. The CCC is an old and imperfect idea – but it is an idea that should be used again, and improved. The new CCC should have an educational component. There should be seminars where young people discuss important ideas. I don’t know what they should read, I don’t know if it’s poetry or prose. Maybe they should watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Wizard of Oz. The important thing is that they do it together, so they can develop a shared vocabulary, which is essential to a more enlightened and civil discourse.

We live in challenging times, when grief and despair can overwhelm hope and possibility. And while I don’t want to stop grieving and I don’t want to question anyone’s despair – I do know this. When you put a cutting from a cottonwood tree into the cold sand of a New Mexico riverbank, it’s hard not to feel hopeful.

I feel profoundly hopeful about the idea of a new Civilian Conservation Corps. I’m hopeful because it’s eminently doable. You’ve seen the proof, tonight, on film. It’s doable because it’s affordable, it’s doable because its practical and it’s doable because I refuse to accept the alternative.

I know it will happen because when I close my eyes I can see it. I can see young men and women from across our country finding their own worthiness in work, together. I can see them in the sunlight, planting cottonwoods and willows. I see them at night, sitting around campfires, having robust conversations – and I want to sit down and join them. I see them building a stronger future for themselves while they build a better future for our nation. And I know, they won’t just be planting trees, they’ll be planting the seeds for a better and brighter world.

Thank you all.

John Horning

About the Author

John Horning | Executive Director, WildEarth Guardians

Read more from