I don’t remember who saw the giant spike of asparagus first, but Zach and I both made a beeline through the Stanford cactus garden for it.
Of course, it wasn’t actually an enormous asparagus, but rather the emerging flowering stalk of a century plant, an agave said to live 100 years before blooming. Though “century” is an exaggeration, it takes decades of slow growth before the plant produces a central stalk several meters high, explodes in a burst of floral scents, sets seed and dies. The agave has learned to save its pennies in an uncertain desert environment, because some things are worth the wait.
Such long-term planning has little place in our own lives, which sometimes seem ruled by the instant feedback of Facebook, iPhones and YouTube. Even our nation’s policies are tightly coupled to election cycles, every move carefully timed for political impact. No doubt we’ll see plenty of verbal scrambling in the next few weeks, as the presidential candidates vie for votes. And with economic and social welfare concerns dominating the agenda, we’re more likely to hear plans for natural resource exploitation than conservation.
We rarely pause to ask ourselves what we are willing to invest for the long haul. Yet in this time of resource exhaustion, species extinction and climate change, those investments are critical. They protect our future, as individuals and as a species. And when we put something aside indefinitely – not to harvest at the end of our lives, or even at the end of our children’s lives – we also protect our humanity. There’s something empowering about simply letting things be, about protecting things because we can, because we choose to.
In this country, we have a long history of doing just that: It’s been almost 100 years since the National Park Service was founded, decades after the establishment of Yellowstone, the first national park. Admittedly, many of our protected areas are located on mountaintops or amid deserts – hard-to-reach areas that seemed economically useless at the time of their establishment.
With present-day technology, we’re now able to mine places we’ve never mined, to drill places we’ve never drilled – and some loosely protected areas are coming under threat. Yet at the same time, many of us have deeply internalized the long-term protection commitment inherent in the conservation concept.
Each of us has our own reasons: natural beauty, moral obligation, childhood memories. For me, the most important factor runs deep within my soul, something primal I didn’t recognize until I was 20 years old, standing on a glacier, distracted from my work measuring the effects of climate change by the breathtaking scenery surrounding me. I couldn’t even articulate it until one day, three months after moving to Boston and fully immersing myself in city life, I burst into the graduate student lounge, looked my friend Jen in the eye, and gasped, “I need to go far away and just be outside.” That was when I realized: I simply need wilderness to survive.
Much has been said and written about humanity’s need for nature. We’ve even come up with a catchphrase – “nature deficit disorder” – for an array of behavioral problems linked to a lack of contact with the outdoors. Unfortunately, the less contact we have, and the more we raise our children in hermetically sealed, electronically equipped rooms instead of nature’s classroom, the less we’ll recognize exactly what it is that we’re missing.
Of course, who can really pinpoint what exactly wild places do for our souls? Is it that they provide fresh, clean, breathable air? Or adorable baby animal videos that we can watch on TV or, especially, YouTube? For me, it’s the gift of being someplace totally overwhelming, of recognizing forces beyond myself in motion, of knowing that outside of me and my inner turmoil or inner joy, the world goes on. And while I can temporarily recover that feeling by taking a day trip to the coast or watching kites hunting on the Dish, I’m especially grateful for permanent reservoirs of true wilderness. May they exist a hundred, a thousand, years into our future.
Meanwhile, the flowering agave continues to bolt for reproductive freedom. “It’s one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet at this stage,” said Zach as we measured its stalk against our own height. We returned on several subsequent days, always marking four inches of growth overnight, until the stalk rose far above our heads and eyeball estimates. Its presence had become, simply, overwhelming.
Holly welcomes reader comments, feedback, ladders and tape measures, or just reports on the century plant’s current height via email at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.