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A Mythical Restored Chesapeake Bay?

Months ago, after leaving a government job to work nearly full time for Conserv, my wife and I scrutinized our financial spreadsheet and reduced expenses. One of things that had to go was T.V., a difficult choice, sports fan that I am. In its place, I’ve rediscovered radio, albeit 21st century style, through the magic of the internet. Before Christmas, I listened to a 2005 National Public Radio interview by Renee Monagne with Jeremy Seal, author of Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus (Jeremy Seal Interview).  I was particularly intrigued with the following portion of the conversation:

Mr. SEAL: Well, in my view, he was already halfway to being Santa Claus by the time he reached Holland, say from the 14th century. The popular short-form Dutch for St. Nicholas is Sinter Klaus. He was exported to America as a kind of dormant folk memory in the early decades of the settling of Manhattan. But I think what actually drove St. Nicholas to a revival was that from the 1780s, say, the revolution and the creation of commercial products meant that gift-giving as a custom began to acquire fresh momentum. Prior to that, it seems to me, it had been the local exchange of handmade gifts. And suddenly objects were flooding in from Europe, particularly toys, and this meant that commercial, canny interests in Manhattan began to realize that St. Nicholas was a figure which could lead this transformation in the significance and importance of gift-giving.

MONTAGNE: That is definitely, though, the beginning of his slide towards advertising Coca-Cola.

Mr. SEAL: Slide. I mean, yes, I think it is a slide. There is a wonderful 1840s woodcut which shows him holding a bag over his shoulder and he’s going down a chimney, and on the bag a local shop in Albany, New York, has actually written on the bag, `All those toys are from Pieces at number 50 Broadway.’ So that’s the first kind of endorsement that he carries, even in the 1840s. Having said that, he hangs on. He still means something very, very important. And it seems to me actually that all he needs to do is he needs to remember what St. Nicholas is and was known for, i.e., this defining act of charity.

So the mythical Santa keeps calling us back to charity and generosity. Even with the yearly stories about shoving matches for the next Beanie Baby, the guy in the red suit won’t let us forget that undergirding the holiday economy is love and connection through giving. Somehow, this mythical figure compels us in ways more powerful than any social force I am aware of. Can you imagine the federal government somehow trying to use a command and control system to make the Yuletide work? Of course, that’s ridiculous for all kinds of reasons. So, why is it any different when the context changes to ecosystem restoration?

Some of my colleagues and friends remain skeptical about the wisdom of trying to use markets to restore the quality of environmental assets. I tend not to share their concerns in so far as they relate to economic theory. However, I know that some feel that the privatization of nature is, well, sort of crass, because for many, nature has a deep personal, and for some, spiritual meaning. On this point, I get it, and to some degree, concur.

This is why I have begun to ponder the possibility that it will not be enough to just focus on the mechanical aspects of the construction of bioregional markets to restore keystone environmental assets. Just as Santa Claus guides the Christmas economy, so might the watershed marketplaces of the future need to consider the creation of the mythical river, or bay, or mountain range. Creation of a mythical Chesapeake Bay, for instance, may make some folks nervous, as a mythical forest or mountain could mean worship of nature, perhaps a slippery slope to pantheism. If Santa can avoid this pitfall in the most holy of times in the Christian calendar, surely we humans can devise a way to do the same for our most treasured natural communities.

I have to admit,  however, I don’t know how to do this, or if it is even possible. I do know that our most treasured natural assets are infinitely more than their component plants, animals, soil, and bedrock.

In this spirit-filled time of the year, the Board of Conserv and I wish all of our friends, colleagues, supporters, and sponsors the joys of fellowship. We are very, very excited about the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead in this new decade.

Thanks to the St. Nicholas Center for the use of these images.

Happy Holidays!

- Michael Collins


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