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When Little Gnomes Have Big Ideas

I like gnomes. The legendary, subterranean dwarfs are fine, but I mean the other sense of “gnome”—a pithy statement of general truth (gnō-, being the root of knowledge). The more common terms include aphorisms, maxims and apothegms, with all of their subtle and imprecise distinctions.

Sages have long distilled essential teachings into proverbial expressions. Jesus admonished: “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:52). And Henry David Thoreau, wrote, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” Such gnomic expressions make us chuckle, wince—and think. These pearls of wisdom evoke contemplation.

And so, with the unjustified boldness of an ecologist who fancies himself a philosopher-writer, I offer the following (with luck one of these could someday become an adage—an aphorism that has gained credit through long use):

We used to think there was a balance of nature. Now we think humanity is approaching an ecological tipping point. Maybe the Earth is a high-wire act featuring a drunken performer.

We imagine that someday we’ll terraform Mars. How about if we just try to keep from Martianizing Earth?

In the long haul, setting most things on fire—coal, oil, methane, forests, heretics, witches, jellied gasoline, books, crosses, and what have you—is a bad idea. Draft cards and bras might have been exceptions.

Burning natural gas is the vaping of an adolescent species.

Breakthrough legislation in American history has recognized the value of clean air, clean water, and living species. Political brilliance has a very low bar.

Here’s a reason to like nuclear energy. The greatest risks accrue to long-lived animals with lots of dividing cells and kitchen appliances.

We see a flower as uniformly white. A bee sees the flower as strikingly patterned. Is ultraviolet a color? Are we right or is the bee? The worm asks, “What’s a flower?”

After a rain, I step over worms on the sidewalk. The world has plenty of worms but seems short on compassion.

Mutha Nature knows where you live.

Finally, with all due respect to Matthew 26:52, I offer a gnome from an imaginary subterranean dwarf named Matt who adapted the wisdom of a radical teacher. Keep again thy carbon into its place: for all they that burn the coal shall perish from its heat.

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