Sunday, May 29, 2011

Exploring New Habitats by Danielle Brigida

“The tribal bonds of naturalists, you should know, are woven out of war stories from past field trips” - E.O. Wilson in Anthill

Raff's desire to work outside and use the knowledge he gains from his exploration at Nokobee and through his Eagle Scout experience sounds familiar to me. While I was never an Eagle Scout, I did spend countless hours at the nearby creek which led me to realize my passion was to work for the environment.

This leads me to the question, do you see yourself in Raff?

The Launch portion of the book introduces us to how Raff was propelled into a new landscape after receiving acceptance to Florida State University. While his knowledge of Nokobee continues to feed his education, these chapters do give you a look at how Raff's sense of wonder for the natural world continues.

I think it points to a very important piece of being a naturalist: having an endless curiosity of where ever you are and the places you’re visiting. Few of us take the time to learn of the many species or even the threatened or endangered habitats and wildlife that are closest to us.

I especially like how E.O. Wilson does not miss an opportunity to reference native species or unique habitats. Every time one of the characters mentions a species or habitat, I jot it down and revisit it later.

Since Raff begins to experience his new landscape, we hear about a few animals, native plants and unique habitats that Raff can now study. Here are just a few that were mentioned in passing that I thought I'd highlight:

  • Torreya taxifolia (pictured above) is also known as Florida Torreya. Raff wanted to explore and find this rare pine that suffers from fungus attacks from up to 11 species and is critically endangered.
  • Adjacent to the FSU campus is the Apalachicola National Forest, the largest forest in the state of Florida.
  • Florida's Pitcher Plants - Florida has six species of pitcher plants (very unique and colorful) and the bogs where they grow proved to be on Raff's checklist.
  • Mesic Pine Flatwoods (PDF) - This habitat is said to be home to the Florida panther and the Key deer.

Did anyone notice brief mentions of places they've been to or would like to learn more about? I'd love to hear them.

Thank you Bill Finch! On to our next moderator...

We have spent a week considering the landscapes, species, and people who inhabit our book, Anthill.  Thanks to Bill Finch for his first hand insights to the mysteries of Alabama.

Remember, Wild Readers, you can always go back to a previous post and add your comment.  

Introducing our next moderator:

Danielle Brigida is the Digital Marketing Manager for the National Wildlife Federation. She actively engages a wide range of constituents using a mixture of online tools and social networking sites. An early adopter of social media with creative, engaging campaigns, Danielle has been recognized as: 10 Green Women We Love by Greenopia; one of the 75 Environmentalists to follow by Mashable; Top 50 green people to follow on Twitter by Greenopolis. Danielle is a sought after speaker with more than 20 appearances over the past year. She's spoken at conferences such as PR News Digital Media Summit, Blog World, Nonprofit Technology Conference, and Netroots Nation. By tracking emerging trends and measuring impact, she consistently finds the most effective ways to drive traffic and engagement for NWF's campaigns.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Is Nokobee really worth saving? by Bill Finch

Nokobee, it seems, is meant to be a portrait of the natural world of south Alabama and adjacent areas of northwest Florida. That’s not a part of the country people visit often, and except for some moderate-sized cities, much of it is rather thinly populated.

But when someone says “Alabama” to you, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Come on, give me your first impression. Even your second one will do.

Maybe you remember hearing about Alabama from the recent news accounts of tornadoes. If you follow football, you may recognize the name of the college team. Many people’s first lessons about Alabama, I expect, involved stories about racial conflict or stories about Alabama’s importance to the civil rights movement. These are important stories to tell, but if it’s not a disaster or a conflict or a national championship football team, you don’t seem to hear much from this part of the world.

If I asked most people to name a plant most associated with Alabama, I suspect their first inclination would be to name an agricultural crop like cotton, since farming cotton was once so important to the history and the legends of Alabama and the Deep South. Some might think of kudzu, that legendary vine introduced from Asia that supposedly grows a mile a minute.

But racial conflict, cotton, kudzu — these are all things we humans have recently introduced to Alabama. They are some of the more conspicuous things we've done TO Alabama.

Anthill, in its description of Nokobee, begins to reveal a part of Alabama we’re not used to thinking about, the Alabama that existed before humans started scribbling their stories across it.

If you peel away our initial impressions of Alabama, we can discover some surprising facts:
— Alabama, according to a seminal report by NatureServe, is rated as having the greatest biological diversity — the greatest diversity of native plant and animal species — of any Eastern state. That means Alabama has more species of plants and animals than places like Florida, which has a long leg dipping down into the tropics, and North Carolina and Virginia, which are famous for their central Appalachian forests. Only two or three states nationally have significantly more diversity than Alabama. One of those is California, which is more than three times larger than Alabama. The other is Texas, which is about 6 times larger. (No, neither Hawaii nor Alaska come close to Alabama in total biological diversity.)
— If you’ve always suspected there must be something in the water that causes Alabama to be like Alabama, you know, you’re right. A significant portion of Alabama’s exceptional biological diversity is the result of the richness of its stream systems and wetlands. Alabama has more species of fish than any other state, and a single small river in Alabama can have more than twice the number of fish species as the entire state of California.
— Scientists have recently calculated that the greatest concentration of turtle species in the world is centered on southwest Alabama, the area celebrated in this novel. (A river drainage basin below the Himalayas in northern India has a comparable number of species, but spread out over a much larger area.)
— The diversity of oaks, hickories, magnolias and other broadleaf trees is much higher in Alabama and immediately surrounding states than it is in the central Appalachians. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, often considered one of the country’s most diverse national parks, has 12 species of oaks on some 500,000 acres. A 100-acre patch of the Red Hills of southern Alabama may have 15 to 20 species! And yet, Alabama’s most diverse forest is the longleaf pine forest, a forest dominated by only one species of tree, but with a forest floor that can support one of the richest assortments of wildflowers anywhere in the temperate world. Some people have counted 60 or more plant species in a single square meter (about one square yard) of Alabama longleaf forest.
— Amazingly, Alabama’s diversity is hanging on even though it has one of the lowest percentages of conservation land of any large eastern state, and only a tiny fraction of the publicly held lands that exist in places like the central Appalachians, California or Montana.

Does any of this surprise you? Why would Alabama be so much more biologically diverse than many other states? Why do you think people aren’t aware of this part of Alabama? As you read the rest of the book, consider how preconceptions about Alabama will present challenges to Raff as he goes away to school, and then returns to protect the place he loves.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Nokobee: The Character and Characters of a Landscape (Chapters 2-14) by Bill Finch

We are introduced to many new characters in Section II of Anthill. But two of the most important aren’t formally introduced until the last half of this section. The first of those “characters” is the landscape of Nokobee, along with the plants and animals it supports. That swirl of wild creatures, that neighborhood of trees and meadows and lakes, seems at times to be an odd mirror of the communities of people Raff grew up with.

The second important character we’re introduced to here is “ a kind of ant” whose anthill colonies are “special to the history” being related in this novel.

Raff, at a young age, begins learning from his encounters with these characters. His attempt to shake hands with a cottonmouth leaves a deep impression on him, and the description of that meeting with the cottonmouth recalls his search for the Chicobee Serpent and his run-in with the Frogman. As Raff explores this world of Nokobee and its many characters, in particular the creatures of the anthill, it seems they’re already influencing how he sees the world of people he grew up with.

But at this point in the book, it might be just as interesting to ask whether Raff’s circle of human acquaintances, his experiences with people, may have influenced how he sees the wild world of Nokobee. How much of what he sees in ants is colored by the people and social circumstances he grew up with? How much of what you see of nature is affected by your dealings with people?

Is it useful to see the people and the wild species of Nokobee as similar, so that the actions of one can illuminate the actions of the other? Are there limits and cautions if we try to make these comparisons?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Life in a Strange Place (Chapters 2 - 14) by Bill Finch

The title of Section II, The Citizen of Nokobee, is a little odd.

Raff, after all, is a citizen of the cities of Clayville and later, Mobile. Much of this section revolves around his relationships with the people of those communities — his family, their rituals, and the peculiar rules, customs and beliefs of the people there.

And yet, the title celebrates Raff as the citizen of a very different kind of community, the community of the wild land known as Nokobee. Nokobee is a fictional place, but it appears to be a condensed portrait of a real place, southwest Alabama, in the area of the country known by that half spooky name, the Deep South.

Think back on all the things you’ve heard before about Alabama, its people and its places. Jot those thoughts down, in the order you think of them. We’ll come back to them.

When we think about places we don’t know a lot about, we often nurture overly simplistic impressions of those places. So if you say "Florida" to people who only visit there, they might think of beaches and orange juice. But folks who live in Florida know it is far more complex and interesting than white sand and orange groves.

We may also harbor the suspicion that people in other places aren’t quite like us, that they may experience life in a way we don’t.

"Tell me about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all?" a character asks in Faulkner’s novel, Absalom, Absalom, another famous story about the Deep South. The character who asks those questions sounds like he has just discovered a strange new species of insect running across his floor, and is amused and perhaps a little annoyed by the creature’s mysterious rituals and behavior. I imagine Raff engaged in a very similar discussion when he went to Harvard.

Did these chapters of the book confirm your impressions of Alabama? How would you have felt or reacted, growing up in those communities where Raff was raised? Would it have changed the way you see things? How do the people and customs and beliefs of Clayville and Mobile resemble the people, customs and beliefs of your own community? How do their prejudices and assumptions and beliefs differ from your own?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Junior Cody: Why Catalysts Matter (Chapter One of Anthill) by Sarah Gannon-Nagle with the National Conservation Training Center

Raff’s cousin Junior is in many ways a catalyst for the beginning of Raff’s own lifelong connection to nature. By daring Raff into “borrowing” a skiff for a trip down the Chicobee River, Junior gets Raff to accompany him on a grand adventure that ultimately leads the boys to a new level of independence. They are completely on their own as they head out in search of serpents and frogmen.

Although Junior was not a mentor the way Frederick Norville is (we will meet Dr. Norville in the next chapter), in many ways, Junior was equally important. He provides the activation energy necessary to get Raff out into the great outdoors, resulting in Raff’s discovery that he has within himself the courage to explore on his own.

As you reflect on the early stages of your connection to nature, was there a Junior-like catalyst who encouraged YOU to strike out on your own in the outdoors? In what ways is your personal “Junior” similar to – or different from – Junior’s character in the book?

The next section of Anthill will be moderated by Bill Finch, the Director of Conservation for the Nature Conservancy in Alabama. Bill is a nature writer whose works have largely focused on Alabama's rich natural heritage.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Making a Mountain Out of an Anthill - E.O. Wilson's Anthill Discussion - Chapter One: "Frogman" led by Anne Post, Chief Librarian, NCTC

"What to make of Anthill? Part epic-inspired adventure story, part philosophy-of-life, part many-layered mid-century Alabama viewed in finely observed detail, part ant life up close, part lyrical hymn to the wonders of earth, part contribution to the growing genre of eco-lit..." (Margaret Atwood's review - "Homer of the Ants" in the NY Review of Books)

Why spend eight weeks discussing E.O. Wilson's Anthill (see schedule)? We knew the book would appeal to young adults. We knew the story would resonate with both the Aldo Leopold essay and the Curt Meine essay and further enrich the WILD READ discussions so nobly led by Curt Meine and Will Stolzenburg here these last two weeks. We knew Anthill had the potential to shed light on the visioning process to discover bold ideas and ask deep questions about the future of conservation and with a focus on our beloved wildlife refuges. However, Anthill was chosen first and foremost because it is a story and as Jimmy Fox with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fairbanks, Alaska, so eloquently commented via this discussion blog, "Humans are deeply influenced by stories...If we conservationists want a land ethic to flourish, we must tell stories that convey what we know and feel in our hearts - a noble, unselfish concern for others and this planet we call home. If we can't tell these stories, then we must find those who will tell them for us." The power of the story can really stir our imaginations even as we look hard science in the eye and envision our conservation future.

Anthill is about the life and times of Raff Cody growing up in the last of the longleaf pine-filled Alabama wildlands, his education, the mentors who inspire him, the ant colonies that connect him to a better understanding of the natural world and the magnifying glass view of human nature too. We are along for the ride through his many rites of passage and epic encounters - from his exquisite connection to the Noxubee Tract (see Noxubee NWR), his career choice and a climactic ending with the Frogman, the Cyclopean character who vigorously defends his property, a dark and iconic creature from the woods, of the woods. There is even Frogman’s Chickopee Serpent that asserts its epic head into the story (“gnashing his terrible teeth” – remember that childhood quote?) Raff is a young Ed Wilson in a way and clearly has caught the "bug" literally and figuratively. The nature "bug" meant Raff left no anthill unturned in his exploration of the natural world which lead to his scientific focus on ants and ultimately the interesting career choice made to effect the change and exert the most power to protect the places he loved.

This week we focus on Chapter One “Frogman.” We are introduced to 15-year old Raff and cousin Junior. They are rough and tumble young people who know the Alabaman "back forty" like the back of their hand and Wilson in his own autobiographical way sets the stage for the young men’s clear and deep connection to the land. The plot immediately thickens however as Frogman is introduced into the landscape and his presence carries that seminal moment in the wild outdoors that carves a deep niche in our life – that fear-ridden, but enchanting archetypal figure that emerges from the swamp of our greatest fears. Many of us experienced that vicariously through fairy tales when fear wore wolf clothes, or the trickster fox, or many ogre-like, extinct perhaps creatures of the wild. That archetypal figure is wildness gone wild, fear incarnate, primordial and always nagging and sometimes dangerous.

Our WILD READ questions for you:

What happens when we look our fear of the unknown, the wild in ourselves, directly in the eye?

Is there any relationship between that “Green Fire” referenced in “Thinking Like a Mountain” and the predatory nature of the “Frogman” character in Anthill? Does overcoming fear have a place in establishing our sense of connection and purpose or does it inspire supremacy?

How critical is the connection between a child and a natural place to ultimately incite action to protect that land and build a strong environmental ethic?

Note: I will respond through our comments but our WILD READ team members will continue to post here this week to tease out more questions. Check out our Schedule including the grand finale week July 3-9 when Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist, poet and essayist, will join our discussions. These discussions all lead up to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wildlife refuge visioning conference July 10-14 in Madison, WI.

*Photo image used by permission of Associated Press

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Acting Like a Mountain by Will Stolzenburg

I add my apologies for the electronic gremlins who made off with several rich and thoughtful comments from yesterday’s discussion. And my thanks to the intrepid WildRead team who so gallantly rescued them from the ether.

I also want to introduce next week’s moderator, Anne Post, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Conservation Librarian. Anne and the WILD READ team will be your guide as we take what may seem an epic leap of subject—on levels of taxonomy, geomorphology, and philosophy—as we go from the wolf of Aldo Leopold’s Thinking Like a Mountain, to the Anthill of E.O. Wilson. But of course there’s a common heart to these stories, as Anne and the rest of you will no doubt discuss.

But for the last post on Thinking Like a Mountain, I’d like to raise a prickly issue that comes from that cynical and skeptical chamber of my journalist heart. We’ve talked about philosophy and ethics and thinking like a mountain. But how many of us really live like a mountain? Do we gravitate to Leopold’s poetic vision of compassion and community as a nice, soothing ideal, but as an impractical way of life in the crowded, dog-eat-dog world we’ve inherited? And what about the convictions of Leopold himself?

I’m speaking here of a point Curt Meine brought up a week ago in his opening post on this blog, about discovering the date that Leopold actually shot the now legendary heroine of Thinking Like a Mountain. It’s an important question, because until recently, none of us—not even Curt, who wrote the book on Leopold—could be sure the shooting actually happened. I first spoke with Curt about that incident when I was writing my book, which examined the consequences for life on earth from losing our great predators. An essay written in 2005 by a biologist from Berkeley named Dale McCullough—which unfortunately may never have been published—raised the question of whether Leopold did indeed shoot the iconic wolf in that canyon on that fateful day. The records were missing. Leopold, the consummate journaler, apparently hadn’t recorded it anywhere that scholars like Curt Meine could detect—until recently. Curt emailed shortly after my book came out—my published position on the matter sitting squarely and cowardly on the fence–that he had found Leopold’s smoking gun. Just recently some new Leopold family letters surfaced,” wrote Curt. “One of them contains the first extant documentary evidence of the wolf-killing incident.”

So it turns out Leopold did shoot the wolf, in 1909. As a journalist and admirer of Leopold’s thinking and writing, I’ll admit I was relieved to hear that one of the conservation movement’s most iconic martyrs had not been manufactured for the sake of good story. But there remains that unfortunate gap, those years between the shooting and Leopold’s actual change of heart. As McCullough so baldly stated: “Leopold's conversion about the inherent value of predators didn't come until the middle of the 1930s, some 20 years later.” And as we all know, Thinking Like a Mountain was written in 1944. Leopold’s legendary line, as he peers into the fading green fire of the wolf’s dying eyes—“I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain"—is, to be charitable, a bit of a stretch.

So I wonder, do we grant Leopold his poetic license, ignore the messier details, and accept the larger lesson of Thinking Like a Mountain as a sincere and achievable goal in our ethical evolution? Or do we chalk it up as one more piece of hypocrisy that helps explain why we’re losing the campaign for wildness in this world?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

No Lions in My Back Yard by Will Stolzenburg

For the record, I’m stealing this title from an essay written a few years back by ecologists Josh Donlan and Harry Greene, who were prompted to respond to the blizzard of hate mail they received after spearheading a proposal to bring some of America’s missing beasts back to the country’s wildest, unpeopled spaces. Donlan and Greene were widely excoriated for their “rewilding” proposal, which many wrongly interpreted as a capricious plot to dump truckloads of lions and elephants in the suburbs of Topeka. In the spirit of that rousing episode of conservation history, I’d like to continue in the vein of my first post, wondering what constitutes nature in 21st century America. And what Leopold might have thought about modern society’s faltering attempts to accept some of our most controversial creatures, more than a half century after he first suggested the idea.

Leopold in his day certainly suffered for his vocal views on trimming the deer herd and extending an olive branch to their predators. His sense of balance was derided by many of those charged with managing America’s wildlife. And even though the commenters on this blog would seem to back Leopold’s plea for a fuller, richer rendition of nature where the opportunities still exist, I wonder how widely or deeply that sentiment really runs. Karen posted a comment about her appreciations of the wolves now roaming her home state of Montana. Yet even as she writes, the recent stripping of federal protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho reminds us that those who fear and hate the big predators still wield the political clout.

And Harper raises a great point about making the best of those little strands of nature that will probably never again be fit for big beasts. But what about those places whose options have yet to be foreclosed?

Case in point: North America’s last remaining lion, the cougar, has lately been venturing eastward, apparently reclaiming the lost half of the continent that used to be its home. Lone males, seeking new territories and mates, have been showing up from Wisconsin to Louisiana—places people have forgotten they ever existed. And for their efforts, most of these pioneers are getting shot. Many are being killed on trumped up charges of public endangerment and livestock attacks. The bottom line: Those in charge—and a certain vocal segment of the citizens they represent—simply don’t want the big cats anywhere near where they live.

I wonder if we do too little thinking like a mountain, and too much acting like a gated community, no trespassers allowed. Nobody is seriously suggesting we foster cougars or wolves in Central Park. But contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, there remains a surprising number of places where with a little foresight and tolerance—of the kind Leopold so eloquently proposed—we could begin to restore the full sweep of nature’s diversity, lions included. I wonder what Leopold would think to see how far we’ve come since he dared to share such a vision.

Here's a thought: If it were deemed ecologically plausible to harbor mountain lions in your particular neck of the woods (assuming they're not already there), would you support a measure to reintroduce them? And why?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Dangerous Safety by Will Stolzenburg

Hello All!
With Curt signing off yesterday, I’m honored to be continuing the discussion on Aldo Leopold’s seminal essay, Thinking Like a Mountain. I’m here at the request of your hosts for this discussion, Anne Post and Karene Motivans and Friends of the National Conservation Training Center, because I’ve done some writing about the two central characters in Leopold’s Thinking—wolves and deer. More to the point, I’ve explored the ecological phenomenon that Leopold so presciently and eloquently summarized when he wrote the piece in 1944: the predator-prey relationship, and the unheralded contributions of our biggest meat-eating beasts to the beauty of nature and the quality of life.
There is far deeper meaning to be found in Thinking Like a Mountain than just the ecological worth of wolves and the devastations of too many deer. But I’d like to start there anyway, with what for me is the elemental irony so brilliantly portrayed by Leopold—that of the decay and dullness that stems from too little danger.

Leopold wrote of our eradication of wolves, and the ensuing irruption of deer:
I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise.

In the sixty-plus years since Leopold penned that famous passage, science has since backed his anecdote with hard evidence of exploding deer populations, missing wildflowers, and failing generations of trees where the wolves and cougars no longer hunt. They’ve charted the fall of songbirds, whose habitat is not only being parceled and paved over, but being eaten by the hungry herds.

It’s Sunday and I’m heading out for my weekly walk to catch the flow of spring as it rushes by. Today I’ll be listening to the trees, for singing from the warblers and thrushes and orioles returning from southern winter homes. I’ll be looking for the latest flowerings on the trail. But inevitably I’ll be suffering the bad moments, remembering that the flocks and the flowers are mere remnants of times past. And that a critical part of that demise we can trace via intricate pathways to missing wolves and cougars—the topmost carnivores whose absence has been filled by hordes of smaller predators (raccoons, possums, and housecats by the many millions, eating their way through the birdlife), and too many deer, turning vibrant forests into feedlots.

The question that concerns me now, is So what? Of the few who still walk the woods and fields these days, most seem to have no idea what’s missing. They see tall green trees and flowering weeds, they hear a few birds singing, and believe that all is well. And maybe it is. There are some who would argue that we can’t and shouldn’t go back—that this is the price of progress, the new balance, and we should satisfy ourselves with what is.

I have my opinions, but I wonder what you think.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Introducing Will Stolzenburg


Connecting Our Works and Words by Curt Meine

Thank you, friends, for all your interest in the Wild Read project, and for inviting me to participate. It's a fine spring evening now in Wisconsin, with big batches of warblers moving through on migration amid the late-leafing woods.

These days my colleagues and I are traveling a lot with the Green Fire film. I hope that our trails may cross when it comes to be shown near you.

One of the things we've talked about a lot as the film rolls out is how important it is to reach the next generation with the story of our conservation legacy and the message that they too can and must continue to create the land ethic in their own lives. The film really seeks to connect those who already know Leopold, his writing, and his philosophy, with young people who might never have heard of Leopold. More broadly, I'd say, it seeks to provide connection between the past, present, and future of our conservation community. I've always believed that the more deeply we understand the history of our conservation ethic, the better prepared we will be to meet the challenges of the future. And that holds especially for the next generation of citizens and leaders.

We've been surveying those who have viewed the film. When we ask what steps they might take to further the land ethic in their own lives, the most common response we have had is that they intend to go home and read (or re-read) Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. For a writer, there can be no more rewarding words than that! All of us who love books, and the vital ideas and vibrant worlds they reveal to us, belong to what Wallace Stegner called "the great community of recorded human experience," what Leopold called "the thinking community." That community now has a great responsibility: to connect the words and the works, so that our human and natural communities may endure the many gathering crises before us, create a new vision of renewal, and thrive together. Let's keep reading, and let's get to work!
Meanwhile, I'll be checking in as a Wild Reader, and am really looking forward to seeing what Will Stoltzenburg has to share with us.

Beginning May 8th, our discussions on Thinking Like A Mountain and Once and Future Land Ethic will be moderated by author Will Stolzenburg who writes about the science and spirit of saving wild creatures. As a former staff writer for Nature Conservancy magazine, Will has ventured to the far corners of the world to capture stories of the rarest, oddest, most spectacular creations of nature and the people who would save them. Having written hundreds of magazine articles, Will is most recently the author of the book Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue, which will be released later this month. His previous book, Where the Wild Things Were, was selected for Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series. He is also the screenwriter for the nationally acclaimed documentary Lords of Nature: Living in a Land of Great Predators.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Thinking About Thinking Like A Mountain by Curt Meine

I’m in my office today at the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center, just a mile or so from Aldo Leopold’s iconic “shack” in Wisconsin. We have just concluded our staff meeting, a good portion of which was spent swapping stories about screening our new documentary film Green Fire. Various representatives of the Leopold Foundation have been fanning out to participate in screenings that are occurring across the country (and even overseas). Every place, and every audience, is different. But it is also fascinating to discover the common threads in our conversations.

The title of the film, of course, comes from “Thinking Like A Mountain” and Leopold’s youthful experience in seeing “a fierce green fire” in the eyes of the dying mother wolf that he had shot. In examining Leopold’s life and the continuing evolution of the land ethic, the film explores the history of that particular experience, and of the multiple potential meanings of the phrase. Along the way, we interviewed two special colleagues who remarked upon the phrase “green fire.” Peter Forbes (whom I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog) comments in the film: “In that one essay, that one moment when he saw the green fire, that was a transformational moment in his individual life. And it also suggests the transformational moment in our movement if we are willing to change ourselves.” And N. Scott Momaday, the eminent Kiowa writer and poet, remarks: “We all have the essence of the fierce green fire, that’s again our hope.”

My colleague Dr. Stan Temple mentioned in our meeting that, at a recent screening of the film in Idaho, staunch opponents and proponents of wolves were both present in the audience (as, no doubt, were many who are somewhere in the middle). In at least some of the conversations Stan had, the film seemed to provide a bit of a buffer zone in the pitched debate over wolf conservation and management. By illustrating Leopold’s experience with the green fire, we hoped that we could show that these are not simple or purely partisan political issues, but complicated matters of evolving conservation science, ethics, policies, and practice. So my questions for the day: What is the “transformation” and “change” we need to make in the conservation movement? What is the “essence of the green fire”? What meaning do you find in Leopold’s phrase? Is it possible in today's harsh political landscape to find common ground? What will it take?

[Editor's Note: See also the Forest Service's podcasts about the film Green Fire. Steve Dunsky speaks about how Leopold’s vision ties in with the evolving perspective of the Forest Service]

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On Dullness and Dynamism by Curt Meine

Karene offered this comment on the previous post:
I have been thinking about this line in Leopold's essay..."We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness." Can you help me understand what he meant by dullness? Also - what should we strive for in our lives/careers to be able to think more like a "mountain"?
That sentence is Leopold at his most drily ironic. He sets us, the readers, up. These things – safety, prosperity, etc. – are, of course, wonderful goals and solid criteria of personal success… until he hits you with that “dullness.” For me, dullness here is a synonym for complacency. The sentence has to be read in connection to the phrase later in the paragraph: that “too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.” It does so, Leopold implies, in the affairs of both people and ecosystems.

An ever-expanding set of studies (most famously in Yellowstone) have documented the phenomenon that Leopold so lyrically described: prey populations and species, in the absence of their predators, can degrade ecosystem function. They do so not only through the raw increase in their numbers, but through changes in their movement and behavior. One of the lessons from Yellowstone and elsewhere is that ungulate populations, in the absence of predators, become more complacent; they become dull. Instead of moving about the landscape, vigilant in the presence of predators, they remain more stationary. The effects reverberate across the ecological community through a series of “trophic cascades.” Bill Ripple and Tom Beschta at Oregon State have studied these phenomena extensively, and coined the phrase “the ecology of fear” to describe these effects. (You might check out the recent documentary Lords of Nature: Life in a Land of Great Predators, which explores these themes. Will Stoltzenburg, who will take over this blog next week, served as the writer for that film.)
So Leopold distilled a lot in his phrase, alluding to the shortcomings of any simplistic measure of success (in conservation and in life); to the need to stay alert, attentive, and alive in the world; and to the utility of fear as a part of our set of inherited evolutionary responses to the world around us.

What should we strive for to be able to think more like a "mountain"? So many answers to that question! We should strive to think large-scale and long-term. We should consider the well-being of the entire system or community, and not just maximizing our short-term, particular interest within it. We should appreciate the limits of simple, linear, cause-and-effect thinking. We should seek to comprehend the dynamic, cascading effects of our choices and decisions on the broader human and natural communities that we exist within.
But above all, there is the point that Leopold was making in the very act of writing the essay: that we should not be afraid to challenge our own premises and evolve in our thinking as we grow though our lives. Leopold did not always strive to think like a mountain. But he challenged his own safe assumptions, warded off potential dullness, and helped to advance conservation in the process!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Green Fire and the Land Ethic by Curt Meine

Hi friends! My thanks to Anne Post at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center for inviting me to participate in America's WILD READ, and to all of you WILD READERs out there for joining in the conversation! It’s a cool, clear, blustery spring day in south-central Wisconsin, a good day for fresh thoughts.
I’ll start with just a few words of introduction to the two essays. If you are already familiar with Aldo Leopold’s writing, then you have likely read “Thinking Like A Mountain” [from A Sand County Almanac] many times. It’s among his most beloved, haunting, and quoted essays. The wolf-shooting incident he describes took place, we now know, in September 1909, on the Apache National Forest in eastern Arizona (still the Arizona Territory then). He had begun working with the U.S. Forest Service only a few weeks earlier. His first assignment brought him to the Apache, where he was put in charge of a forest reconnaissance crew. It was while working with the crew that the fateful incident occurred. It left little outward mark on Leopold at the time, but plainly the "green fire" in the wolf's eyes had left an enduring impression. Leopold wrote the essay in April 1944. In it he distilled lessons from thirty-five years of experience as a working forester, wildlife ecologist, educator, land manager, hunter, and writer. As an essay it works on many levels, but above all it exemplifies Leopold’s ability to examine critically his own ideas and values, and to grow continually in his capacity as a conservationist.
There is much more to the story that perhaps we can explore through the week. Some of you may have had a chance to see our new documentary film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time. The essay, and the incident, plays a key role in the film. But more on that later!

The second essay, “The Once and Future Land Ethic" [from Correction Lines: Essays on Land, Leopold, and Conservation] is self-explanatory. I put it together about ten years ago, after a series of events surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. As the essay explains, I tried to ask myself (and others) the hard question:

What will it take to keep the land ethic alive, vital, and growing through the 21st century?

I haven’t read the essay myself for a while, so perhaps this week will be a good chance to see how on target I was then, and how we may (or may not) have advanced in the decade since. I’ll be very interested in how others view our progress in meeting the challenges it highlights.
I look forward to our exchange, and will try to reply as promptly as a busy spring week in Wisconsin permits!