As yet another hurricane brings torrents of rain and flooding to another part of the
United States—this time the Carolinas—I can’t help but think how the attitudes of many Americans toward nature have changed over the years. Many of our leaders now seem to see nature as a foe to be defeated and conquered instead of as a priceless resource to be studied and understood.
During the early post-Revolutionary years, most of the leaders who shaped the country were awestruck by the riches of their new land. I have been reading a book about one of these Americans, David Hosack. He is hardly a familiar name, although his achievements during the early post Revolutionary period are still important. The book is called American Eden: David Hosack, Botany and Medicine in the Gardens of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson.
David Hosack was a doctor, who is perhaps most often remembered for the role he played in attending Alexander Hamilton after the fatal duel between Aaron Burr and Hamilton. He was unable to save Hamilton’s life after that duel, but he was responsible for saving many other lives both through his own treatments and through the medical students he trained and the cures he discovered. Unlike many of our current leaders, Hosack had great respect for the value of science and of studying how medical treatment could be improved through learning more about the characteristics of plants.
One of Hosack’s most important legacies was the establishment of a famous botanical garden, called Elgin Garden located on the current site of Rockefeller Center. At the time the garden was established, it was far uptown from the small city of New York in lower Manhattan. For years Hosack taught at Columbia College and took his students through the gardens to learn about the medicinal qualities of plants. He established ties with fellow scientists in Europe, especially England and Scotland, and exchanged both information and plants with them. American leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, honored Hosack’s work and sometimes exchanged plants with him. Like most leaders of his generation, Hosack understood the value of working internationally to improve the lives of Americans and others.
Generation after generation as the United States grew and expanded from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts of North America, much of its growth and prosperity was fueled by scientific advances. Land grant universities trained young people to understand science and improve agriculture. As the country grew more populated, farsighted leaders like Theodore Roosevelt understood the necessity of preserving the natural landscapes and resources of the continent and established National Parks.
Until recently government, scientists and community leaders worked together to preserve the natural riches and to enable people to lead better lives. Now suddenly, even as more and more scientists and ordinary citizens recognize the threat of climate change brought on by human activities, many of our leaders have lost their way. Instead of working to mitigate the dangers of greenhouse gases, we are encouraging corporations to spew more noxious fumes in the air and make the world less safe for children as well as the rest of us. Instead of working with other countries to improve the world, our leaders want to tear up treaties in the hope of immediate profits for a few wealthy corporations. Instead of encouraging scientists to study our changing world, many leaders are cutting funding for education and restricting scientific research. What has happened?
Do we really want our shorelines to erode? Do we want to increase the number of children and adults who suffer from asthma? Is it more important for a corporate executive to buy another jet plane than to preserve the fish, birds, and other disappearing wildlife? That is something that everyone who votes in November should consider. And everyone who could vote but doesn’t should feel a personal responsibility for failing to protect the country so many of us celebrate.