I had the honor of moderating, for the Citizens League and Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, the first of many meetings to discuss how money from the so-called “Legacy Amendment” should be spent on parks and trails. Voters approved a 3/8 cent sales tax in 2008 to be allocated among parks and trails, water quality, arts and culture and wildlife habitat. The tax will be in place for twenty-five years.
I have been candid that I voted gainst the amendment. As a former budget director of both San Francisco and Saint Paul, I have a principle against using constitutional amendments to make, and bind, budgetary decisions. I see now that I voted with my head instead of my heart. Shame on me.
Call me a slow learner, but I finally understand what the Legacy Amendment is about—taught to me by all the wonderful participants at the meeting. The Southeast Asians kept talking about the importance of family, and the group as a whole said that the most important goal was to create a new generation of stewards. My synapses were activated, but were still not connecting until Don Shelby spoke.
I’ve heard Don Shelby speak before, and I’ve interviewed with him on his radio show. He has always impressed me. But today, as my friend Claire likes to say, was transcendent. Shelby described nature as a fundamantal part of our humanness. His exclamation point on this theme was his comparison of the molecule for chlorophyll (which makes plants green) with the molecule for hemoglobin. What separates the life force of plants from the life force of humans is a single atom at the center of a complex molecule. In chlorophyll it is magnesium, in humans iron. Otherwise they are the same.
I looked this up to share it with you, and you can see the molecular diagrams below. Let’s just say that they are close enough (you can indeed see the single magnesium/iron atoms, surrounded by niacin, and then to a complex of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen) that there is widespread belief that they are the same but for the single atom. And for our purposes it is so. The similarities are so undeniable that one cannot help but wonder--What is the relationship between humans and nature? Human culture and nature?
Forgive me if I’m about to be overly romantic or grandiose, but I am currently reading a provocative book that conveys the sweep of civilization in relation to mythology, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, by William Irwin Thompson. Thompson looks at the great arc of human development from those first days when primates were forced from the forest to the savannah, and the use of tools, possibly early language, and new cultures were born. He argues that large cultural transformations were compelled by climatic changes, and are captured through mythology. For Thompson, mythology is the expression of the intuitive, unconscious knowledge of humans, rooted in nature. Mythology is the stuff that science comes along later to prove (e.g., the myth of our origins in nature and the science of the similarties of the two molecules). But the more advanced our scientific knowledge, the more mythology is pushed to the side.
If you think about it, much of mythology speaks of the relationship of nature to man, just as it provides context for our deepest mysteries. Many cultures share have a story of “The Fall,” for example. Adam and Eve are pushed from the garden; it is the onset of human separation from nature. Today, tens of thousands of years later, we live in an intensely scientific and technological age. Maybe the voters understood that the Legacy is a last chance to reconnect to our natural roots before all is subsumed into digitized bits of information that can be accessed by the nearest electrical outlet. We're hanging on to our humanness.
So maybe we can permit ourselves a bit of hubris by defining Legacy not as our moment in time but as a pivot point in civilization. The question we'll want to answer after twenty-five years is not, “what have we completed" but “what have we begun?”