Great adventures make for great books; and if you browse the “adventure” shelves of any bookstore, you’re likely to find tales of mountain climbing feats, polar expeditions, diving derring-do or deep wilderness hiking.
Rarely, though, when we want a tome of adventure do we think of perusing the children’s books section. Yet it is there, I think, that the greatest adventure and conservation book ever written resides. In a little less than 100 pages—including illustrations—aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery penned what I think is the best adventure story of all time: The Little Prince.
One of the top best-selling books ever, The Little Prince has been translated into more than 190 languages and has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. Most of us know the story: the narrator, who is an airplane pilot, crashes in the Sahara Desert. He has very little food or water, and his plane is badly damaged. He is suddenly approached by a very serious little boy with blond hair who asks him to draw a picture of a sheep. We come to learn that this regal lad lives on a small planet that people on Earth know as Asteroid B-612.
The Little Prince typically spends his days at home pulling out the baobab trees that constantly try to split his world into pieces with their roots. He works diligently to save his tiny globe for his one rose, whom he loves very much. After catching his prideful flower in a lie, however, he grows lonely and sets out to explore other worlds.
The Little Prince travels to six other asteroids, each of which is inhabited by a foolish adult. While on the sixth one, the Little Prince is asked by a geographer to describe his home. When the prince mentions his rose, the geographer explains that he does not record roses, terming them “ephemeral.” The prince is shocked and hurt by this revelation. The geographer recommends that the next stop in the Little Prince’s journeys be Earth.
A tale of two plants
But it is not only the stories of imaginative explorations that make The Little Prince a great adventure book. It’s his reflections on his travels and what he learns along the way. And the biggest illumination, I think, comes to the Little Prince and the book’s readers from the mouth of a fox, who says, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
That alone could be the greatest conservation sentence ever uttered. We humans have domesticated the wild world, putting it to work for us by cutting down forests, draining wetlands and taking off the tops of mountains. Since 1600, in the lower 48 states alone, 90 percent of the virgin forests that once covered America have been cleared away, mostly for timber. It is estimated that 50 percent of the world’s original wetlands have been lost, largely for agriculture; and in the Appalachians, almost 500 mountains and more than 2,000 miles of streams have been decimated, due to a mining practice called “mountaintop removal.” We have tried to tame almost every inch of space we can get into. So, we must ask ourselves, are we acting responsibly for what we have tamed?
This week, America remembered the tenth anniversary of 9/11. I read somewhere that despite being located in the largest city (by population) in the country and in clear defiance of the devastation that split through the buildings around it, a pear tree growing near the Twin Towers somehow survived the attack of 10 years ago. The tree was eight feet tall when discovered among the rubble in 2001; today it towers 30-plus feet in its small “world”—an eight-acre plaza that is now the 9/11 Memorial. It reminded me of a certain rose, which also had a will to survive in its tiny universe.
Sometimes, the best adventure stories may not be the ones we read, but the ones we can read things into.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,