We Are Now the Flood

September 19, 1994|By ANDREW BARD SCHMOOKLER

BROADWAY, VIRGINIA — Broadway, Virginia. -- As human numbers and human activities erupt toward a collision with biospheric limits, our ancient spiritual traditions appear to offer us uncertain guidance. The U.N. Conference on Population and Development in Cairo offered us an alarming spectacle: representatives of two of the ,, world's largest religious groups -- Islam and Roman Catholicism -- fighting in God's name to block the work of the conference.

While scriptures and dogmas are used to hold our understanding in place, history can bring radically new challenges. Can our traditions adapt? Are we open to hearing new messages about what God's work requires? The question is a matter of life and death.

So it struck me as I watched a program on TV. A map of Europe showed a vast deciduous forest that once stretched from the Urals to the Pyrenees. Then, 5,000 years ago, the clearing of the trees began. The verdant area on the map shrank bit by bit. Until but the tiniest patch remained. Bialowieza, on the Polish-Russian border. A mere remnant of an ancient kingdom of nature.

Then they showed us the kingdom, the fragment of it that remains. The bison standing beneath the towering trees, blowing steam above the drifted snow; the hoofs of wild horses pounding through the lighted clearing; acorns blossoming into oaks. It was a vision of Eden, a world ancient and primeval yet as fresh as the day of creation. Everlasting, were it not for us. Now an island in danger of being swallowed by the waves of humankind.

The Garden of Eden wasn't a place we were kicked out of. We cut it down around us. We weren't sentenced to death. We invited death in. Having escaped the regime of nature, we engineered a coup d'etat. But no creature can win against its environment for long.

If you throw a frog into hot water, it will know to jump out. But if you put it into water and only slowly raise the temperature, you can boil a frog to death. It stays put, like a pouch of Green Giant vegetables.

We're boiling ourselves slowly in our environment. Long ago, the green mantle that adorned the birthplace of civilization became a rough and rocky desert. But it took so long in human terms, no one noticed. We prosper like profligate heirs, spending the capital of soils and forests and creatures it took countless generations to accumulate. But will our kind be thriving still after another 5,000 years? The huge reserve of life is evaporating, but we need a time-elapsed mentality to see the bubbles rising around us.

Our tradition provides another possible image for our kind: Noah, the steward of life's replenishment. His ark was like a seed, encapsulating the bursting energies of life. Rid of its toxins, the Thames again dances with salmon. That dot on the map at Bialowieza may not be an island about to be engulfed, but a seed from which the whole can regrow.

Freeman Dyson envisions us sending out seeds of life into the vast sea of the lifeless universe. We, creatures with the freedom to invent, may yet prove a boon to the struggle of life against death.

But for now, we are not filling the ark. It is we who are the flood. Spilling out of our channels, sweeping tropical forests away, extinguishing the precious flame of countless species, washing off the topsoil of the abundant American prairies.

And if we choose to play the flood, who is there to play Noah?

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of ''The Parable of the Tribes.'' The second edition will be published next year by the State University of New York Press.

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