The Wealth of Nature

by Joe Jacob

“Do you feel poor, Joe?” That was a question asked of me recently by someone putting a new tin roof on our back porch. You probably do not know many roofers who are also philosophers, but I bet if you put your prejudices aside, you will find that there are many folks out there in the real world who have a great deal of wisdom to share with you. The more he and I talked, the more we came to the conclusion that both of us are very wealthy. Maybe we are not rich in terms of money, but we are in terms of what is important in life. It all boils down to loving and being loved by the people you care about, being satisfied with what you do have, and a passion for how you make a living. You know the old saying, “if you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.”

Ever since our talk, I have been thinking a lot about how I came to see the world the way I do. My family was never rich, but we never really wanted for anything. Most of what we had was not new, but it met our needs. When I turned fourteen, I got a beginner driver’s license. My dad loved cars, and for seventy-five dollars, was able to buy a toilet, bathroom sink, kitchen sink, and for me, an old Henry J made by Kaiser Aluminum. The Henry J was a funny looking car with a four cylinder, jeep engine. The first time I drove it, the right front tire blew out. That was an easy fix. We did not have to buy a new tire, just patch the inner tube inside the tire. When more than two people rode inside the car, the floor scraped along the drive shaft. For a few more dollars, shock absorbers solved that problem. We hand-painted the outside with a spray gun. It didn’t look great, but it did cover up all the rust spots.

I guess you could say that the Henry J was designed to be a poor person’s car. It had absolutely no frills including no side mirrors and no options for a radio or heater, but it was great on gas mileage. It did have one unique feature that set me toward a life of seeking adventure. To get into the trunk, you had to fold down the back seat because the Henry J did not come with an outside entrance into the trunk. Who needs a tent when you and your friends could sleep in the back of the car? Cheap gas, great mileage, and a place to stay for the night meant many weekends of exploring the swamps and marshes of south Louisiana.

I suppose those weekend trips were the beginning of my awakening into a young adult concerned about what we were doing to the earth. Those wonderful, “nature-filled” places we explored began to be transformed into human-dominated landscapes. I began to feel like a roach in a pesticide commercial. There was no place for me to hide. I felt powerless to do anything about it, so off to college I went. The more I learned about biology, ecology, ecosystem health, species extinction, and the loss of wilderness, the more I drifted into a future of trying to take what I learned to change things. For twenty years, I worked in land conservation where the organization I worked for directly purchased or aided in the protection of millions of acres of special places. Eventually, I came to realize that no matter how much land and water are protected by whatever means, unless society came to terms with what it was doing to destroy the very life support system it needs to survive, I was wasting my time.

My passion for doing something to protect Nature—our life support system—changed over time from direct action protecting places to getting people into Nature so that they feel that kinship, that connection with all of life. I have come to realize that unless we love something deeply, we are not likely to rise to the occasion when that something needs us. I have also come to realize that unless we truly understand something, it is hard for us to feel that love, that deep connection.

“Do what you love, love what you do, and deliver more than you promise” was what my dad advised me to do. Over the years, I have turned my passion for protecting Nature into a passion for enjoying Nature, for myself and for others. To be honest, I still try to protect Nature. Obviously, that is my intention for writing this article. I cannot do it by myself. I have tried. Nature needs all of us to do our part to protect her, but really, we need Nature to keep us healthy and alive.

Joe Jacob, a Chatham resident for more than 30 years and a marine biologist by training, is president of www.HawRiverCanoe.com. He worked for The Nature Conservancy for 20 years and served as Director of Science for TNC’s Southeast Region.