An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of August 1, 2004
written in the woods not far from Natchez, Mississippi, USA

CONSERVATISM &
LIBERALISM IN NATURE

This week's thinking about the conflict between trees who use chemical warfare to protect their leaves, and the bugs and fungi who attack those leaves, got me thinking about conservatism and liberalism in nature. Here's how that thinking went:

All of nature flows in a great river of ever-evolving, profoundly experimental and somewhat romantic liberalism, yet within this river of liberalism occur innumerable eddies in which the local status quo is more or less conserved, and, when people are involved, mythologized.

For example, the flow of evolution of life on Earth toward ever greater complexity and interconnectedness is quintessentially liberal, but the species themselves represent conservative, fairly static expressions of local ecological niches (Species evolution appears to proceed in "jerks," not gradually, as Darwin originally supposed). Similarly, the lifespan of an individual human can be seen as a liberalistic gushing forward, beginning in a self- absorbed, ignorant state and maturing into ever more broad-mindedness, and concern for the larger community. However, the society-imposed routines, prejudices, and unquestioning allegiances to established power structures, which basically define a person's identity and facilitate the accumulation of material wealth, are fundamentally conservative in nature.

You can see that I'm thinking in terms of classical conservatism (the idea of conserving the status quo, of being traditional) and of classical liberalism (embracing change, diversity and experimentation). Politicians often depart from these ideals for their own short-term gain, and this is never pretty. For instance, there's nothing conservative about Bush's deficit spending, and there's nothing liberal about Kerry's voting to make war in Iraq.

I am convinced that in the broad scheme of things conservatism and liberalism are of equal importance. In the absence of liberality anything becomes like a crystal: Comfortable and beautiful, maybe, but forever stuck being the way it is right now. There are no currents of creativity, no blossomings, no births and rebirths, no magic anywhere. Yet, without conservatism, chaos reins. There's such roiling, undisciplined confusion that nothing can take hold, nothing substantial can ever be produced, and there's no stable perch from which to admire the rest of Creation.

Therefore, as always, the trick is to follow The Middle Path. Do as Nature does, and artfully and lovingly mingle the two opposing inclinations. The forest follows the Middle Path when its liberal impulses send forth a great diversity of highly mobile, fast-reproducing and thus fast evolving bugs and fungi to consume the leaves of firmly rooted, slow-changing, trees. But nature protects its conservative components by granting them powerful defenses of their own. Because of this Middle-Path approach, the forest survives and itself continues to evolve and grow.

Battle-worn, fungus-splotched, tattered leaves are expressions of an ongoing, very messy but very beautiful working-out of the Creator's ever-contending conservative and liberal impulses. Facebook Icon