All Commentary
Wednesday, November 1, 1978

Those Mayflower Ecologists

Mr. Bradford, of Ocala, Florida, is well known as a writer, poet, speaker, and business organization consultant.

The soul of America was stirred to its depths in recent months by the awful implications of the world shaking Snail Darter Case. Perhaps no event of recent times has provided at once such a severe testing of our composite character, and such a clear indication of our national destiny.

Recall the situation: A big dam, designed to impound certain waters for the dual purpose of flood control and water conservation, was stopped in its tracks, so to speak, when somebody discovered that, if completed, the dam’s rising waters would seriously discommode a small colony of fishlets called Snail Darters.

Nobody had ever heard of them except a handful of ichthyologists concerned with marine esoterica, but no matter. The reaction was prompt and fearless. No more convincing example could be found, I suppose, of our concern for the welfare and safety of minorities. It should make us take heart. Our concern is not alone for the whales, sharks and tuna, but for the smallest of nature’s children!

The Snail Darters are about two inches long, and they exist in several types, or families. Those living in the area of the dam in question number, I believe it is estimated, at perhaps ten or fifteen thousand. The immediate problem was that these little creatures like shallow, active water; and the pressure and relative immobility of the impounded water might well be their undoing. Clearly, it was a tragic situation, a dramatic confrontation.

On the one hand, here were several thousand minnow sized fish, about to have their native habitat radically changed and their lives imperiled, if not terminated. On the other hand, below the dam and for miles around there were a large number of human beings who had been led to believe that the dam would protect them from floods and furnish them with plenty of water for irrigation. Clearly there was a conflict of interest. Clearly also, no person of conscience and compassion would let the rights and needs and conveniences of men and women take precedence over the comfort and safety of a colony of fish, be they big or little. After all, the fish were here first!

Certain relevant observations may be made here. First, the Snail Darters are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of piscatorial happiness. What right has Man, in his quest for safety, and in his relentless chase after things material, to interfere with the schedule of life which the Snail Darters have established as their own? Clearly, these little fish have a prior claim on the sympathies of all reasonable and compassionate creatures.

However, one’s indignation begins to lose pressure at this point, when one reflects that the same observation might be made with respect to another species. This one, indeed, is much better known than the Snail Darter was until recently. I mean those fascinating little invertebrates called Lumbricus Terrestris —namely, the Earth Worms. They too have been cruelly and shamefully treated. What right has a member of the human species to dig them up from their cozy moist burrows, impale them upon cruelly barbed hooks, and utilize their squirming death agonies for another ignoble and barbarous purpose—namely, to lure innocent fish to the fatal indignity of the torturing hook, and the slow suffocation of the waterless creel?

Questions of Propriety

It might also be noted that the Earthworms have another timely claim just now on our sympathy and understanding. You see, being hermaphrodites, they do not follow the normal patterns of sexuality—a life conditioning that should win them great sympathy among those people who are now so militant about the “rights” of sex deviates. But that, after all, is an aside.

Apart from questions of moral and social propriety, there is also the question of what business the federal government has meddling in such matters in the first place—whether in the life pattern of worms and snail darters, or in the damming and artificial distribution of water. But I suppose only a human troglodyte, attached mentally to the Dark Ages, would raise such a point.

However, a nice incidental question might be injected, namely, what of the waters themselves? They are things of nature, wild and free, cascading from mountain heights to lower levels, and finding haven at last in the mothering bosoms of the Oceans. In the matter of freedom, let’s be logical. What right does a government have to say to one sparkling stream, Go yonder in freedom, and to another, Stay here in sluggish damnation?

Fortunately, such questions occur less frequently these days than they might otherwise have done except for what was surely an act of preventive Providence. And that brings us to those Mayflower Ecologists, a small group of heroic souls that have been, alas, unknown and neglected.

Much has been made, of course, of the freedom loving independence of the Mayflower passengers as a whole—how brave they were, and adventurous; how willing they were to work and starve and sacrifice in the name and for the sake of freedom. And this is altogether fitting and proper. It is especially gratifying, I may add, to those who can discover a patronym and possibly an ancestor among them. All glory to their memory!

But among them was the small group of seers that has been denied the credit and recognition it deserves. Indeed, their names are not even mentioned in the history books, which goes to show the ingratitude we often display toward our true benefactors, and our callous insensitivity to what they have done for us.

What Might Have Been

But the Snail Darter Case has helped correct this longstanding injustice. Sensitive souls realize at last how fortunate it is for us that among those Mayflower adventurers there was a small but militant and fearless group of ecologists and environmentalists. Their names will never be known, but without their influence, and that of their spiritual descendants, dire things might have happened to our country.

Take that headstrong Governor Clinton, for example, who proposed to dig a canal across New York State, from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. He had visions of long strings of barges, bearing freight and even passengers, and encouraging commerce and industry, not only in the Mohawk Valley but along the Lake shores. He had the quaint notion that it would, as the booster’s phrase went, “open up the West.” What nonsense! It would only have frightened the deer and disturbed wild life generally. Fortunately the project was killed in time, thanks to a devoted and fearless band of environmentalists who saw through the crass commercialism of the whole plan.

Then there was the crazy Welland scheme for a canal around, of all things, Niagara Falls. The theory was that freight could be carried by low cost water transport, through locks around the Falls, without disturbing their beauty, and to the great benefit of economic and social development. There was more promotional nonsense of similar kind. Fortunately it was killed in time and the Falls were saved.

But of course society still had to deal with those silly people up at what was known as the Soo, with their zany idea of connecting Lakes Huron and Superior for ship travel, with alleged economic benefits to the Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin northwest areas, and indirectly to the whole national economy. That scheme, too, got nipped in the bud—an environmental and ecological triumph that was no doubt greeted with enthusiasm by the otters, and which probably prevented great bypass inconvenience to the migratory Canadian geese.

Worst of all, perhaps, there was that fantastic scheme to connect the two great oceans by means of a canal across the Panamanian isthmus. How fortunate that the farsighted ecologists were able to stop that one! Otherwise, there’s no telling what might have happened. Such a vast ditch might have lowered the water tables of both continents, with disastrous effects upon the health and happiness of both muskrats and frogs. The toads might not have minded, being amphibians; but sheer disaster might have struck at sea, where the outflow of Pacific water might have altered the mating habits of the giant Galapagos turtles. This would have been tragic indeed.

So thank heaven for the Snail Darter Case, which served to bring these and some other matters into better perspective.

And thank heaven also for those unknown Mayflower ecologists and their sociological heirs!



Full Use of Potentialities

If the goal of mankind is to realize the potentialities of the species to the fullest, it becomes necessary to insure to all men the fullest possible personal freedom. Confining freedom of action to a few, in the totalitarian way, is simply unintelligent—not to mention its immorality; for such a limitation arbitrarily confines the quantity and quality of service to society which might otherwise be forthcoming.

John Stuart Mill put the case for personal freedom—and for the free enterprise system—in its ultimate form when he said: “The only constant and unfailing source of progress is liberty, for by it there are as many centers of improvement as there are individuals.” Compulsion may force men to produce as much as their masters insist upon. I say “may,” for it is doubtful that unfree men or slaves ever produce as much as their masters wish, even under the lash. But what is not doubtful at all is this: compulsion will not make men produce more and better things than the master themselves wish.

The theoretical maximum of production in an unfree society, therefore, is limited by the imagination of the few who are in control.

SYLVESTER PETRO, “Freedom and the Nature of Man”

  • Mr. Bradford was a noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant.