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?

7 comments:

Genesis said...

(A continuation of the comment above) -
Leopold had his reasons for writing this. Perhaps he felt the larger lesson was far more important than painfully detailing what he might have felt (in hindsight) were his shortcomings in conservation. Perhaps that startling glimpse into Truth really happened, if only for a moment. But as a young man brand new to his career, perhaps it was too powerful and he was not yet ready to embrace it. It was an experience perhaps shelved for later, and only embraced when he was ready for it.

Regardless, A Sand County Almanac has inspired and awoken generations of readers to conservation(myself included). We don't have to pretend certain true accounts of events didn't happen. As we learn of them from historic records, etc., we can accept and try to understand them in context. Keep an open mind and compassionate heart, and I don't think anything is undermined or ruined.

Genesis said...

Hi there - this was an interesting read on a subject I was not previously aware of: Aldo Leopold the legend may not be the same entity as Aldo Leopold the man. It led me to searching for more info on my own to help me develop an informed opinion on this issue and your question. And well, there is not a lot of info out there on this. So, I'm winging it, and here we go...

It's not clear to me on what evidence Dale McCullough based his allegation that Leopold did not embrace his own conservation ethic until 30 years after the wolf indicent. Dr. McCullough taught my Wildlife Ecology class at Berkeley, and just an an interesting aside, he spent quite a bit of time discussing the need (yes, the need) for predator control to protect livestock, and then the subsequent need to cull resulting over-populated deer herds. So, given that as a backdrop, I cannot accept his allegations without further information and evidence.

But, for sake of argument, let's just say that it is factual and proven: Leopold did not make his jump to conservation on that day, but rather some 30 years later. I caution against allowng yourself to sink into a jaded, cynical view on the state of conservation over one sentence that may not have been exactly true: "I realized then, and have known ever since...."

Leopold had his reasons for writing this. Perhaps he felt the larger lesson was far more important than painfully detailing what he might have felt (in hindsight) were his shortcomings in conservation. Perhaps that startling glimpse into Truth really happened, if only for a moment.

But as a young man brand new to his career, perhaps it was too powerful and he was not yet ready to embrace it. It was an experience perhaps shelved for later, and only embraced when he was ready for it.

Regardless, A Sand County Almanac has inspired and awoken generations of readers to conservation(myself included). We don't have to pretend certain true accounts of events didn't happen. As we learn of them from historic records, etc., we can accept and try to understand them in context. Keep an open mind and compassionate heart, and I don't think anything is undermined or ruined.

Genesis said...

Hi there - this was an interesting read on a subject I was not previously aware of: Aldo Leopold the legend may not be the same entity as Aldo Leopold the man. It led me to searching for more info on my own to help me develop an informed opinion on this issue and your question. And well, there is not a lot of info out there on this. So, I'm winging it, and here we go...

It's not clear to me on what evidence Dale McCullough based his allegation that Leopold did not embrace his own conservation ethic until 30 years after the wolf incident. Dr. McCullough taught my Wildlife Ecology class at Berkeley, and just an an interesting aside, he spent quite a bit of time discussing the need (yes, the need) for predator control to protect livestock, and then the subsequent need to cull resulting over-populated deer herds. So, given that as a backdrop, I cannot accept his allegations without further information and evidence.

Genesis said...

(Continued from the comment above)...
But, for sake of argument, let's just say that it is factual and proven: Leopold did not make his jump to conservation on that day, but rather some 30 years later. I caution against allowing yourself to sink into a jaded, cynical view on the state of conservation over one sentence that may not have been exactly true: "I realized then, and have known ever since...."

Leopold had his reasons for writing this. Perhaps he felt the larger lesson was far more important than painfully detailing what he might have felt (in hindsight) were his shortcomings in conservation. Perhaps that startling glimpse into Truth really happened, if only for a moment.

But as a young man brand new to his career, perhaps it was too powerful and he was not yet ready to embrace it. It was an experience perhaps shelved for later, and only embraced when he was ready for it.

Regardless, A Sand County Almanac has inspired and awoken generations of readers to conservation(myself included). We don't have to pretend certain true accounts of events didn't happen. As we learn of them from historic records, etc., we can accept and try to understand them in context. Keep an open mind and compassionate heart, and I don't think anything is undermined or ruined.

Anne said...

One of the most promising things about the so-called “conservation” movement is that it requires us to go to and linger upon many of the boundaries that have kept us from dwelling in the possibilities of the natural world. I have to look at “art” and “science” and question the boundary between them. Sometimes I feel that their distinction from one another keeps me from the openness to life that is nature, that being in that open movement I must be more whole than is possible without being both artistic and scientific.

Scientific method and artistic play both try to show what nature is, to reveal it forces and systems and meanings, but eons of thinking have found the objective methodical act of presentation, science, and the subjective, imaginative and playful one to be at odds. Now, with millions of artists and scientists, I ask “What has taken us away from the land?” Urgently, the human gaze must look at our species’ accelerating destruction of the nature that defines us, and ask, “How can we be so far from what we are?” We must observe ourselves as a moment in nature, but we must imagine ourselves as belonging there, living with the laws and systems that govern survival. Where does objective presentation of observed fact enter into our imaginative task? Where does the mystery and pleasure of representation guide the scientific method?

I would say that in the nature lover, and Aldo Leopold is an example, is the undoing of this philosophical quandary. He has found an opening onto survival in both the systematic laws of nature and its unaccountable beauty. He has found these in the green fire in the eye of wolf, a poetic image or an observed play of light on a certain date, reflecting in an ocular organ of a near-dead mammal. He saw it outwardly and inwardly and it dwelt in his memory. We cannot know exactly what it did in his memory. Perhaps it was entirely created there and never happened in the indifferent realm of the natural universe beyond Aldo Leopold’s imagination .

Nonetheless, I do not mean to say that there is no interest in what “really happened,” because, after all, part of our task in the quest for or questioning of nature is story telling and story reading. We want to know who the narrator is, and why it takes him a certain amount of time to reach the climax of his story and the peace with a mountain. This is the good stuff, the heart of the artichoke that we have pruned and boiled and separated leaf by leaf as we read Sand County Almanac through decades of despair about the environment. Aldo, what were you when you chose to kill the wolf that lingers in you now when you realize its magnitude? And what happened to the fire she gave you as you lived in the modern human world so alien to mountains?

Heather said...

I know I'm a few days late, but I thought I would post anyway. I think this is an interesting topic to bring up, but I would argue that we need to take a step back. At least from what I'm reading, I don't see Leopold saying that he immediately changed his ways and saw the world around him at a completely different angle. I think instead he is saying that he saw something that gave him pause. He saw something he did not expect to see, and it began like a small seed in him, quietly whispering that there was something beyond his current understanding. I don't think that because his view of predators did not change completely at that moment discredits his statement. There are events in our lives that change us immediately and irreparably. But there are also moments that change us through slow consideration, through viewing our world through a slightly different lens thereafter, and ultimately through a long, deliberate study. Leopold does not state that he knew the meaning of the wolf's eyes, but instead states that he realized that the wolf and the mountain did not agree with his view of the world. That it took him some decades to come to terms with the implications and then to agree with them, does not take away from the fact that he first realized there was another view the moment he watched the wolf die. Now that the tree had grown by the time he wrote A Sand County Almanac, he could look back through the rings and see that the seed was planted as he watched the "fierce green fire dying in her eyes."

Anne said...

You said that so clearly, Heather: Thanks. There's a lot to say about time, moving slowly, learning slowly, and thinking like a mountain.