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David Lewis: Climbing Outside the Box to See the Beauty in Nature and People

by David Lewis on April 06, 2017

Photo by Khalil Anvar
Photo by Khalil Anvar

This is a transcript of the address given by David Lewis at the Bay Nature Local Hero Awards Dinner on March 26, 2017.

Thank you very much, Bay Nature for this great honor. Thank you to Ralph [Benson] and David Loeb, and congratulations to all of tonight’s honorees.

Nothing Save The Bay has accomplished has been my work alone. I’ve had many mentors and comrades, including many in this room. Tens of thousands of supporters, activists, effective public officials, brave journalists and talented photographers.

And together we stand on the backs of giants – Save The Bay’s founders and their friends – the Bay’s original heroes, who are still inspiring us and future generations. It feels strange to be honored for doing something that has given me so much joy and satisfaction. Working for a cause with results we can see is a privilege, not an obligation.

Of course, right now, the world seems impossibly complex and chaotic, it’s hard for me to ‘keep it simple’, but I’m trying to do that with two simple things: First: I try to remind myself to appreciate the beauty around us. There’s a lot of ugliness in the world right now – dire, challenging threats to nature and the future of the planet. People who have it much, much tougher than any of us here. It’s enough to make you cry.

And … we are blessed to live in a place that is filled with such incredible beauty. Most of us take it for granted, most of the time. It’s enough to make you cry.

Malcolm Margolin tells a wonderful story of a day he spent leading the Russian poet Yevtushenko. his translator and the translator’s Russian wife around the Bay, from Mt. Tam to North Beach, ocean to redwoods to Bay, with great food and wine and glorious weather. Finally the wife says something in Russian; Malcolm asks for the translation: “She wanted me to thank you from the bottom of her heart, and to say it’s as if all of her life she’s been in a box and today somebody let her out.”

How many of you have had that experience? You’re showing the Bay Area to visitors from out of town, and you’re reminded – by them – that this place is amazingly beautiful. Or you come back to town from a trip, look out the plane window and remember: “I love this place because it’s beautiful.”

Too often, we put ourselves in that box. It’s a shame.

But we’re blessed. No matter how busy or blind we let ourselves become … we can see the beauty again, be reminded of what we have, let ourselves out of the box. That’s what Bay Nature has done for 16 years: Get us out of the box to see and appreciate nature’s beauty; be motivated to share it and protect it. The very first issue of the magazine featured a special section on “Understanding San Francisco Bay.” Every issue screams: Open your eyes! See the beauty here! Understand and appreciate it; cherish and protect it!’

Sylvia McLaughlin and the other founders of Save The Bay were motivated by beauty. They weren’t biologists or birders or chemists – they just thought the Bay was beautiful and they couldn’t allow it to be destroyed.

So many Bay Area environmental heroes I’ve met, many of whom have now passed on, had the same motivation. They came here from New York City or Cleveland or Pittsburg or elsewhere, were stunned by the great natural beauty, and stayed. That beauty moved them to prevent the Bay’s pollution, protect the redwoods, save the coast from overdevelopment, create amazing parks and open space … all right here in a bustling metropolis.

Which underscores my second thing simple thing: Sylvia and these other heroes were trying to save nature from destruction by people, and save nature for people. They didn’t just ban filling the Bay. They mandated creating public access, so we have the Bay Trail and a necklace of shoreline parks.

This is nature in the city … it’s not inaccessible wilderness; we’re not returning the Bay to its primordial state or even its pre-Gold Rush state. We can’t recreate The Ohlone Way – not with millions of people living here whose actions and decisions determine whether the Bay and Bay Area nature survive and thrive. We are part of nature, “not man apart from that”.

People – the greatest threat to nature … and its only hope. Damn! That’s inconvenient! And challenging! Because in life, in politics, there are selfish people. There is evil and hate. There are idiots and enemies.

But thinking that way is also a box. I sometimes put myself in that box, surrounded by my self-assured resentment of those ugly, hateful people. And I’m trying to let myself out of that box. Because there are also beautiful people all around us, who show beautiful bravery and creativity and persistence; energy and cleverness. Beautiful generosity and kindness; elegance and grace, diversity and uniqueness and resilience.

These people are inspirational and inspired. Their qualities are essential for our cause. They are allies who can build our power and combat our loneliness. To save nature from people and for people, we have to see the beauty in people.

Sylvia loved to say, “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” and “you can disagree without being disagreeable.” How old-fashioned! How quaint! How naïve! … and how essential – that’s why it’s called the Golden Rule; it’s that valuable.

We can be tenacious against destructive environmental policies and dangerous people. Maybe we can even be heroic at saving nature for our kids and their kids. And we can be humane and kind to people at the same time. In fact, surrounded by nearly 8 million people, we must be.

So it turns out that my two things are really the same thing: Letting myself out of the box, to be inspired by beauty in nature … and in people. Thank you, Bay Nature!

David Lewis is the executive director of Save the Bay and the recipient of Bay Nature’s 2017 Local Hero Award for Conservation Action.

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