The Intangibles

By July 22, 2020 No Comments

I recently read the book Reflections From The North Country by Sigurd Olson. A noted conservationist and author, Olson served a term as president of The Wilderness Society and was instrumental in protection of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Voyageurs National park, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Reflections was one of nine books that he completed during his lifetime.

This book, published in 1976, is a collection of essays on various topics related to conservation and the environment. It might be best to describe this volume as the philosophy of Sigurd Olson. One essay in particular stuck with me as I read through the collection. This essay titled “The Intangibles” begins with the following paragraph.

“There are intangible values in works of art that have always been taken for granted. Not long ago in one of our museums, I saw a woman standing engrossed before a great painting, her head bowed in reverence, and in her eyes a strange and happy light. What she saw in that painting certainly was not the canvas, its beautiful frame, or the amount of oil and pigment the artist had used, but something intangible which inspired her as it had thousands of others. If asked, she would find it difficult to explain, but one could see it affected her deeply.”

I thought about this essay yesterday while visiting several easement properties in Mecosta County. This in itself was not unusual; I think often about the intangible values of land conservation. Why do we dothe things we do in the name of conservation? How do we explain the reasons why, beyond the facts of acres and miles of shoreline protected? Reflections was published when Olson was in his mid-seventies and he had spent his entire lifetime pondering these very thoughts

“Intangible values are hard to define, explain, or measure. You can measure soil, water, and trees, but intangibles never. Even so let us try, if we can, to gain some idea of what they are and how they fit into the environmental picture. We do know they stir the emotions, influence happiness, and thereby make life worth living. They are involved with the good life, but sometimes I wonder if we know what the good life really is. They are so important that without them it loses its meaning.”

As I walked through these properties, my mind wandered both from Olson and from the task at hand (as it often does). When the body wanders it is easy to allow the mind to wander – this is why so many of history’s great thinkers were also dedicated walkers. As I looked out over one vista, I remembered a quote from Early Twentieth Century theologian Friedrich von Hugel. Von Hugel wrote in a letter to his niece, “Be silent about great things; let them grow inside you. Never discuss them: discussion is so limiting and distracting. It makes things grow smaller. You think you swallow things when they ought to swallow you. Before all greatness be silent — in art, in music, in religion: silence.”

Like the woman at the opening of “The Intangibles” I have been struck silent while standing before a great painting. I have felt the same type of awe while watching a virtuoso musician perform. And I have experienced the same awestruck feeling many times in the natural world. I have experienced it while gazing across the wave-tossed surf of the Atlantic Ocean, standing on a rocky beach along the north shoreline of Isle Royale, looking out from atop The Wall of South Dakota’s Badlands, and while staring up at the wonder that is Devil’s Tower.

But I also feel awe when watching dozens of bumblebees feasting on goldenrod pollen and nectar in my garden each September. I feel it when flights of Monarchs drift southward across Central Michigan on their way to their ancestral homeland and overwintering grounds in Mexico. I also experience it when I come across an unexpected flower in a swamp or when an animal darts across my path through the woods.

I can no more explain why these moments strike me than I can explain why a great sculpture, painting, or musical composition strikes me. But these moments of awe and joy are integral to “the why” behind our actions of conservation and environmentalism. As usual, Olson explained it much better than I can so I leave you with a final paragraph from “The Intangibles”.

“We talk about the intangible values of environmental protection and know we cannot embark on any effort or program of conservation without them. Back of all concrete problems, the intangibles are the ultimate key. They give substance to the practical, provide reasons for everything we do, and are so involved and integrated with conservation efforts it is impossible to separate them.”