by Howard Kohn
Paul Wapner solved his midlife crisis by writing a book that he titled Living through the End of Nature. It is the owning-up declaration of a professional environmentalist who slowly came to realize that his goal in life – to keep people from contaminating what is left of the wild parts of nature – was no longer possible.
For most of his life Paul has been a communicant of the outdoors. Carrying the minimum in essentials, as an indigenous person might have, he has hiked the Grand Canyon and other terrains of brutal beauty. Early on in his paid work, on the staff of all-action Greenpeace, he was dedicated to a creed that nature be trespassed on lightly, if at all.
In 1994 he and his wife Diane arrived in town and moved into a house on Sycamore Avenue, a habitat that held a bit of natural charm in the form of a green backyard and a ribald rooster next door. Then, over time, in a new and prestigious position as director of global environmental politics for the school of international science at American University, a realization dawned.
“It wasn’t like a bright light came on, but I began to confront the obvious,” Paul, now 51, said at a literary salon on October 24 in the arena-style basement of Marika Partridge, a friend on Tulip Avenue. “People would ask me, ‘Where is nature?’ The truth is, as humans, we have extended ourselves so far there is no place left that is pure nature.”
He cited the color of the sky
as an example: “The natural hues that once existed don’t exist anymore.
The color is now an inflection of human behavior.” On the earth itself
— who could argue? — there was no place that had not been trod.
Recalling how he felt, with the hard
facts of modernity closing in, he said, “I was overcome by a deep
sadness. I thought, this is unique in history. I felt that the ground
had been pulled from under my feet.”
In the throes of his personal
dilemma, he found that peers in the environmental movement were not
necessarily sympathetic. “They told me, Don’t go there. We have a lot
of work to do, and we can’t afford to drop out and study our own navel.”
By now, though, he had developed a
bit of a philosopher’s edge. The young solicitors who come routinely to
his door, from Greenpeace and similar groups, received the usual
donation, but not before Paul feistily challenged them. “I would say,
I’ll give you forty dollars, but first I want you to answer some
At the heart of these interrogations was the one buzzing in his own head: “What do we do now?”
Without a short and easy answer, he
decided to write a book. At times, cogitating, he stared out a window
into his backyard and contemplated a grand magnolia tree. Any tree is a
tenet of nature, or is it? In his navel-gazing mood he began to
wonder. This magnolia bore the stamp of geneticists and may not have
flourished without someone’s fertilizing and watering. It had not even
sprouted on its own. A person had planted it.
The magnolia was the perfect
metaphor, representing our compromised natural state – “As a species
we’ve left our signatures everywhere” – and yet who doesn’t appreciate a
big, leafy, oasis a few steps from one’s back door? “I really like the
tree,” he said. “But it’s a reminder of how pristine nature has been
Ultimately, Paul arrived at a type of
self-reconciliation. “We have to accept that we live in a hybrid
world,” he told his audience of neighbors and friends at the salon
(where he was paired with another author, Kurt Hoelting, visiting from
Seattle, whose book is about a year he spent without benefit of a car).
“In fact, we have to embrace our hybrid world. We have to create as
positive a trajectory as we can.”
That was good news for the magnolia,
which presumably will not be cut down for purist’s sake, and it also
provides the conclusion of Paul’s book. On the book cover is a
provocative photograph, taken by his teenage son Zeke, of an empty red
chair placed in the midst of rampant greenery. “To me there is no longer
a clear boundary between the human and nonhuman worlds,” he explained.
“Nor do I believe this kind of boundary should be the focus of
At the end of the speaking phase of
the salon Ben Miller, a classmate of Zeke, sang a rock-and-roll ballad
he had written. Zeke played backup guitar. The title of the song is
“Damn Fool that I Am,” and it would have to be called a battle hymn for
“I’m still a staunch
environmentalist,” Paul added afterward. “But writing the book enabled
me to grow up. I don’t see it as a battle anymore. I see nature and
humans as forever intertwined, and we have to make the best of it.”